Postcards from the edge
California, Prague, Berlin . . . life's cosmopolitan for literary wunderkind Clare Wigfall.
California, Prague, Berlin . . . life's cosmopolitan for literary wunderkind Clare Wigfall. Now she's renewing acquaintances with East Anglia. Why, Steven Russell asks, are her stories so dark?
CLARE Wigfall has an easy laugh and one of those sunshiny smiles - which makes it all the more surprising that her short stories are . . . well . . . so unsettling. Not tales you'd want to read before turning in for the night. In Safe, for instance, Britain is gripped by panic. A mother glances in a shop window and her baby vanishes from its pram. Children disappear from cots, and even apparently-secured houses and moving vehicles. New mum Lella straps her child to her body - and her state of mind isn't improved by the discovery of baby rats in the kitchen cupboard. In When the Wasps Drowned, a children's game, digging to Australia, turns up a teenage girl's body. So where is the seat of all this darkness? It doesn't seem to fit with the image of a writer with claims to have been Prague's first face-painter - honestly - and who once ran a clown company to put food on the table.
“I know!” she giggles. “It was so funny because, as I was so private about my writing, most of my friends and family hadn't read anything I'd written before the book came out; and, when it did, a lot of them were like 'Oh my gosh, Clare!' As you say, I'm not a dark person at all. I always wonder if people who read the book and then meet me are really surprised. Do they think I'm going to be moody and Goth? I'm not like that at all!
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“My stories have sometimes been compared to Ian McEwan (The Cement Garden, Atonement, Saturday, On Chesil Beach et al). There was an interesting interview I read about him. He was asked the same thing, because he likewise focuses on these dark subjects, and he felt that for a lot of writers it was a way of exorcising any fears they might have, so you can live your life without having to worry about these things. I suppose it's something to do with that.”
Not that she needs to worry too much about the source of her creative powers - as long as they keep flowing. One of Clare's tales won the 2008 BBC National Short Story Prize. The Numbers is about a young woman on a small island in the Outer Hebrides who is obsessed with figures.
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Organisers of the Ip-art festival are thus overjoyed to be welcoming Clare to Suffolk this summer to talk about her debut collection of short stories - The Loudest Sound and Nothing was published as a Faber Original paperback in 2007 - and judge the event's short-story competition.
Rather bizarrely, and 100% coincidentally, the competition theme of “Safe” shares the same title as her “disappearing babies” tale.
Clare's written a fresh story for Ipswich - “Safe Mark II!” - and laughs that, true to form, “It didn't end up being a very cheerful story . . .”
She sympathises with entrants who have had to encapsulate everything in the regulation 500 words. “That's really tough. I know what they've gone through! I cut mine down and cut it down and still had 600 words. I sat there with Troy (her husband) and said 'We've really just got to slash and get rid of all the adjectives . . .' It's amazing how much you can cut and still have it making sense!”
Clare's been writing virtually since she was able to hold a pencil. She was born in Greenwich, London, in 1976, but her family moved to Berkeley, California, when she was about two and a half. “My father's an architect and he got a fellowship from the British Council to go for six months, originally, but they loved it so much they kept extending it for another year and another year. We stayed five years in total.
“My sister was nine months when we went over, and my brother was born out there. When we all started getting American accents, and turning into American children, my parents said 'OK, get them back to England!' I was eight when we came back.”
She looks back fondly on those years in the States. “I think it was quite important for my childhood, having the experience of growing up there. Berkley is very liberal and hippy. I did yoga in school every day, and it was very relaxed living - a great place to grow up as a child.”
Back in London “an American accent was really cool. Children would say 'Let's hear your accent' and 'Have you been to Disneyland?' But within just a few weeks of being in a British school I'd picked up an English accent and I was nothing special after that!”
As a teenager she was good at art, and folk expected her to pursue it. “People 'saw' my art much more, but I was also writing, and I was very private about my writing. So I got a deferred place at Manchester University and then went to Camberwell College of Arts to do a foundation course. The idea was I'd have that year and decide whether I wanted to do art or take up the literature place. It was a fantastic year but it convinced me I didn't really want to be an artist: I wanted to study literature and write.”
At Manchester Clare majored in English and American literature, enjoying U.S. writers such as JD Salinger and Philip Roth, whose work influences hers, she says. “They have a different style, looser than most English writers, and I think it was good being immersed in that type of fiction.”
It was during this time that she got a massive break - one she admits she was too young to fully comprehend in terms of its uniqueness.
“When I was 21, an editor from Faber and Faber visited my university. On the train back to London he read a short story I'd written. The next day he called up, wanting to read more. I'd written only two other stories, so I sent him those. A week later Faber asked me to write them a book! It could be on any subject, could take any form, and I could take as long as I needed to write it.”
Upon graduation in 1998, Clare didn't think she'd lived enough to write anything anyone would want to read. She had a place lined up on the University of East Anglia's acclaimed creative writing course, for a master's degree, but opted to defer and move to Prague for inspiration. Like you do.
“In my gap year I'd gone to art school, while lots of my friends had gone off to really exotic locations. I'd gone to Peckham!” she quips. “People are often very shocked that I went off at a young age to Prague on my own - I didn't know anyone, and I didn't know what I was going to do when I got there, and I didn't speak Czech - but for me personally it didn't seem that big a leap!
“I think in some ways that's partly down to having lived abroad as a child; I think I never felt that England was home in the way other people do. They've got their roots there and the thought of breaking off from them is a bit daunting. I guess I'm a born traveller! It wasn't that scary; I thought something would work out, and it did. I was quite lucky.”
Not that Clare threw herself at her writing commission. Instead, she got job in an art gallery and stayed in the Czech Republic twice as long as the six months she'd initially envisaged.
“It was really important to me that I had to take my time with it, and it was wonderful how understanding of that Faber were, though I don't think they realised it would take quite as long as it did! The book definitely benefited from my being able to grow up as I was writing it.”
Then came the academic year in Norwich - in reality a fast and enjoyable six or seven months, despite much buffeting by the east winds.
“The room I had was right up in the attic. It was huge, with a wood-beamed ceiling and wooden floor, but it was absolutely freezing in the winter. There was no insulation in the ceiling - hence you could see the wooden beams. It was really beautiful, but cold, so I'd sit there at my desk wrapped up in blankets, trying to keep my fingers warm. It was the epitome of a garret.”
Afterwards, back to Prague. The city had established a hold, “and I'd fallen in love there, so I wanted to go back to my boyfriend”. She married Troy, who's from Massachusetts, last November.
Clare returned to the art gallery and then had a change. She started face-painting - “it really took off, because I don't think there was anyone else face-painting in Prague at the time!” - taught creative writing to both children and adults, staged community figure-drawing workshops, and ran a clown company. They weren't the painted-faces variety, “more clowning in the dramatic sense”.
“I can remember one time when I was needing a new clown and I had to interview them, which was quite a strange experience. I ended up working mostly with this Australian clown, who was really interesting. He was also teaching English and would go into Czech schools with silly, humorous shows that were teaching children English at the same time.”
After almost nine years, that short-story debut collection finally came together. What's the attraction of the form?
“I think it's actually more by chance that I ended up writing short stories. Because I'd already been writing short stories when Faber made that fantastic offer, it was easier to carry on, rather than tackling a novel from scratch. I thought 'I've done a few of those; people seem to like them; I'll keep going!'”
She's since read quite a few short stories by other writers and is a confirmed fan of the genre.
“There was a time when I was getting really disgruntled with novels because, when you're reading short stories that are so dense and compact, you read a novel and think 'Come on! Get on with it! You could say this in 10 pages!' There's something very satisfying about a short story.”
Inspiration can strike anywhere and everywhere - “too many ideas, really!” - and Clare is talking to her publisher about what might come next. It could be more short stories, or it might be a fictionalised novel based on her grandmother and great-grandmother.
Whatever creative flame flutters inside, is there a slim chance it might flare into something a bit more cheerful than disappearing tots? “Probably not, actually!” she laughs.
“I do try to write some happy stories, sometimes. Especially now that I'm doing [book] readings, the ideal is either to have something funny - and I don't usually write very funny stories! - or something that touches on people's fears, because you can capture people's attention when they're sitting listening to you.”
The Loudest Sound and Nothing is published by Faber and Faber at �8.99
Details of the Ipswich Arts Festival: www.ip-art.com
Clare Wigfall appears at 6pm on Monday, July 6, at University Campus Suffolk's Waterfront Building. Tickets are free. Information and booking: 01473 433100
AFTER her nine years in Prague, Berlin is now home to Clare and husband Troy. “We were getting quite tired with Prague and wanted to move on. There's so much going on in Berlin, and it's quite cheap. We were originally planning on Paris, but that was a bit too expensive!”
They live in the sparky neighbourhood of Prenzlauer Berg, once part of the German Democratic Republic. The apartment has high ceilings and attractive cornicing - “the kind of place we could never have if we were living in London”.
She was pleasantly shocked to receive the BBC accolade last year - the �15,000 prize the largest award in the world for a single short story. Did she blow it on something fun and frivolous?
“No. I'm living on it now, still! A bit sensible, I'm afraid. But I did buy a bike. Everyone in Berlin rides a bike and I'd really been wanting one, though I couldn't afford it. Then when I won the prize I bought one. It was a 60-euro secondhand bike, but still . . . it gets me around.”