Book Festival preview: Tim Clare – The Honours
The performance poet-turned author talks about fantasy fiction and the 'dark period' of the 1930s
This article is from 2015.
'My first time coming up to the Fringe, I had just been dumped,’ performance poet-turned author Tim Clare says. 'I had just left a relationship, I was miserable and I came up to the festival just to have something to do. I had never felt more lost.'
This was ten years ago, back in 2005, when he was a member of poetry boy band Aisle16 (think Westlife, with fewer key changes and more on-point poetic verse). 'I had never done performance poetry up to that date and I had no particular interest in it,’ he says, but that soon changed when he joined his fellow boy band members. 'That was actually the start of it, at the Fringe. It kind of changed my life really.'
Considering Clare's enormous success as a performance poet since, this feels like an understatement. He has made a name for himself performing all over the country, most recently with stints at Glastonbury, Latitude and other big festivals. This year, however, his way with words reached another level, with the release of his debut novel, The Honours. It's that which is bringing Clare back to Edinburgh, only this time it's not the Fringe he's conquering – it's the International Book Festival.
The novel itself is an impressive work of fantasy, released to great critical acclaim in April. It is set in the 1930s, and follows 13-year-old Delphine to a countryside estate in Norfolk, as she battles monsters (both literally and figuratively). Speaking to Clare, it is clear that both the genre and the culture of the period interest him greatly, for as he rightly says, the interwar years are not commonly explored in literature, since 'no one really heard about the 1930s except that it’s a dark period before the Second World War.’
That, however, didn't stop him writing about it. 'On the back of my books, the blurb begins "1935, Norfolk", which is a terribly unpromising setting for an adventure,’ he laughs, although of course, he manages to make it so. In fact, it is clear speaking to him that he doesn't agree at all with the misconception that the period was uneventful.
'I think it’s a really interesting, rich, fascinating and a funny period to talk about … there was a sense of great paranoia, and the fear of war breaking out all over the world in different Commonwealth areas. There was terror in Britain of the crumbling empire,’ he says, and when it came to writing about the period, 'it was actually just squeezing my book around it … I could go on about it for ages'.
And so he did. Over the phone, Clare tells me in detail how the Lord of the Rings trilogy, one of the most important fantasy series of the 20th century, was written in the 1930s, how comics bloomed in the period, and about the confusion and fear in the country with regards to fascists and bolshevik revolutions. All this he learned while researching the novel: beforehand, he insists, he knew 'precisely shit' about the period.
The more fantastical elements of the story, however, perhaps came a little more organically. 'I’m so interested in fantasy,' he says, 'in the genre, in people’s reaction to it – this kind of slightly pure-panic fear of things being unreal'.
When Clare appears at the book festival, alongside fellow writer Colin Macintyre, he plans to discuss all these things in just as much depth, and if he sounds enthusiastic now, just wait until he's plunged back into the festival atmosphere. 'I want to be in it,' he says, 'it’s like a story, it’s interesting.' If there's one thing Tim Clare knows, it's an interesting story.