The new book from best-selling author Stephen Clarke hits bookshelves on May 5!
What is your new book, Merde in Europe, about?
It’s a Brexit or not novel. The hero, Paul West, goes to Brussels to work for a French member of the European Parliament. She says she wants Britain to stay in the EU, and says that’s what she’s campaigning for, but he has his suspicions about Britain’s historic enemy. He sees Brussels and the EU from the inside, witnesses all the craziness that goes on there, and has to decide if he wants to be part of it or not. I work-shadowed friends of mine who live in Brussels and work for different parts of the EU. They showed me some amazing goings-on that I have worked into the novel – while trying to protect their identities.
Why did you decide to write it?
I’ve long been fascinated by the stories I’ve heard about what really happens in the EU. There are so many insane articles in the British press – the EU wants to ban bagpipes, wants to force lorry drivers to eat muesli, stuff like that – that are either false or incredibly perverse interpretations of EU law, and I wanted to find out the truth. I had also heard lots about the cushy lifestyle and frenetic socializing amongst the Brussels in-crowd, and I wanted to throw Paul West into their giant networking jacuzzi. Then when the referendum was announced, I saw that the timing would be perfect, so last year I sat down and wrote it.
What recent book you read inspired you, and why?
Depends what you call inspired. In writing terms, it was Martin Amis’s Zone of Interest. He delves deep into the dark side of humanity. Not my style of writing, and I don’t know how he retains editorial sympathy with such hateful characters, but it is inspiring to see someone who has mastered their craft and sticks to their vision of life. In non-writing terms, I got Wild Swimming in France, and will be doing so as soon as the water warms up a bit.
How does your style as an English writer differ from fellow writers who are French?
I don’t smoke, I think humor can be used seriously, I mix fiction and non-fiction, and I don’t write about my mother.
Besides book writing, is there another medium of writing that appeals to you or that you’d want to conquer one day? (i.e. script writing, play writing, poetry)
I co-wrote a sitcom for French radio last year – in French, of course (I can write French pretty fluently after 20 years here). It’s called “L’Anglais Débarque” (a French pun that i won’t go into, but that I thought up), about an English teacher who goes into a French company as it’s about to be bought out by Americans. A bit Paul West-like. That was fun, and I’d love to do the same in English. I also write songs, and enjoy writing rhyming couplets (or triplets, but more than three rhymes in a row is too much). I’m also planning a sort of words-and-music show based on my book 1000 Years of Annoying the French. So yes, I love all sorts of words.
The 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death was on April 23. Why do you think his writing remains so relevant, even after hundreds of years? And as a fellow writer, what do you admire most about him?
Relevant? Not all of it is, especially because a lot of it was outright political propaganda. But as we all know, he had an incredible ear for language, and a talent for metaphors that are so universal they live on. He also dealt with universal themes – impossible love, family tragedy, crazed political ambition (of which there’s a lot going on in the Brexit campaign so it’s very relevant).
You and Shakespeare are both English; England (and the rest of the UK) are voting on June 23 about whether or not to remain in the EU. What are your thoughts on this?
I’m English and yet I’m not. I have been outside the UK for 15 years so I don’t have the vote. This is why I felt the need to get a novel out there, as my way of contributing to the debate. If you read the novel, you’ll see where my sympathies lie.
Do you listen to music when you write? And if yes, what bands/artists do you listen to?
No, I need silence when I’m writing. I’m a musician, so I start humming bass lines. When I’m not writing I listen to (for example) The Beatles’ Revolver album, Bach’s cello suites, Elvis Costello’s bass player, Ziggy Stardust, Mozart’s “Requiem”, Anarchy in the UK, and recently, Prince’s Around the World in a Day album. “She walked in through the out door” – great line.
What will your next big project be?
Making lunch. No, seriously, I’m working on the show mentioned in question 5, and my next history book. I like to alternate novels and history. Oh, and I’ll be trying to sell Merde in Europe, of course.
You’ve written 11 books in 12 years. How do you manage to write so prolifically?
By not drinking too much alcohol.
Lastly, this is a question I’ve asked you several times before, but it’s one that bears re-asking: What advice would you give to aspiring writers?
Write. That’s not a joke. Write, think about your writing, edit yourself. It’s like surfing, playing bass or painting portraits – it’s a craft that you have to perfect. And just as a simple but effective bass riff is often better than fast, frantic noodling, less is often more. I don’t mean 100 pages is enough for a novel, I mean choosing the right word or phrase or thought and not swamping it in unnecessary adornments. Think to yourself: would this sentence/chapter/book be stronger without this? I write a lot, rewrite, and then edit. Which maybe I should have done to this answer.