There's been a lot of speculation about the identity of Claire North, the pseudonymous author of The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August Some thought she might be Clive Barker. But now, her true identity is revealed, and Catherine Webb tells us why she needed more than one life.
Claire North is actually Catherine Webb, a Carnegie Medal-nominated author whose first book, Mirror Dreams, was written when she was just 14 years old. She went on to write seven more successful young-adult novels, and also wrote a series of successful fantasy novels for adults under the pseudonym Kate Griffin, the Matthew Swift and Magicals Anonymous novels.
We talked to Webb about why she needed to hide her identity this time, and the process of creating a novel about a man who relives the twentieth century over and over.
What made you decide to write this under a pseudonym in the first place?
It was a decision made between me and my publisher. As Kate Griffin I've written a lot of books within a specific fantasy series. Since Harry August is so different from that series, we wanted to give people a chance to read it without seeing me and my previous works there. There's a danger that when you've been writing for a while, the books become coloured by who you are and what you're done, and being able therefore to let people read it regardless of the writer is something of a privilege.
And what made you decide to reveal your real identity now?
Turns out that pseudonyms are also a double-edged sword! It allows a book to be read free from the shadow of the writer, right up to the point where the question is asked, 'so who is the writer, really?' At that point, there's a danger that the book won't only be read with this question in mind, but it'll be read with every other writer ever hanging over it as people try to work the answer out!
Why give this book a male protagonist? What makes Harry August such a compelling character to you?
The biggest reason for writing a male protagonist was the history of the 20th century itself. When Harry August is born, women still don't have the vote; by the time he dies, the women's rights movement is a loud voice fighting battles across the world. The change in society in that century is massive, but women were – and are still – discriminated against. Knowing what I do of my own politics, it seemed unlikely that I'd get through the book without being drawn massively into the world of gender politics and the changing battle for women's rights throughout the century, and while this is vitally important and a story that must be told, the story of the kalachakra didn't feel like the right way in which to tell it. Writing a male protagonist, therefore, allowed me to focus on the story of the Cronus Club that seemed most appropriate to the narrative.
Harry's at his most interesting, I think, when he's at his most reflective. He endures some horrendous things, but from the luxury of retrospect looks back on it with a historian's cold dispassion that borders on the inhuman. However this dispassion, in my mind, is nothing more and nothing less than a wall he's built for himself, to protect himself from the things he has seen, and every now and then it cracks. It's then – when the emotion he has spent so much time blocking himself away from, and the history he's spent so much time cataloguing as if it belonged to someone else – comes tumbling out, that Harry's at his most compelling. The fact that the entire story is told, by him, to force himself into doing something he doesn't want to do, is fairly indicative I think of the ongoing battle between what he dispassionately knows needs to be done, and what he emotionally wants to do instead.
Part of what's fascinating about Harry is that he relives his childhood over and over, and gets new insights each time. What's so irresistible about the idea of getting to revisit your childhood, and how is that different from, say, going back to visit your family as an adult and see them anew through grown-up eyes?
I think we all look back on our childhood with the occasional regret. Regret is a potentially unhealthy sentiment to have, but there it is, hard-wired into our memories. It might be the smallest thing – we regret saying something nasty when we were 10 at school, or regret not trying harder in our exams, or regret believing someone when they told us we were not good, regret those childhood beliefs that have taken us decades to shake off – whatever. The list is many and varied. The desire to go back and 'fix' ourselves and our pasts – itself a not hugely helpful instinct – is fairly sternly ingrained, I suspect.
As for seeing our families anew… certainly as I've grown up, I've begun to see my family in a different way, but my memories of my parents when I was a child were made when I was a child, if that makes any sense. As a seven year old, I perceived as a seven year old, and made memories as a seven year old, and any reinterpretations I have now are massively subject to my own partialities and the childish context in which those memories were formed. How much I missed, and how much I misunderstood as a child, I can only really guess at, and that badly. My memories would look very different indeed, I suspect, if I went back and made them again with an adult's mind.
A lot of authors would have made this book all about romance, but instead the central relationship appears to be Harry and Vincent. What makes that relationship so compelling to you? Is it meant to be romantic, or just a twisted friendship, in your mind?
There was a temptation to push romance, particularly between Harry and Jenny, but thinking it through I couldn't see any way in which it made sense. Would Harry spend every life trying to tell Jenny what he was, and would it end in disaster every single time? Hardly a thrilling read. Surely he'd give up and try instead to live a normal life with her, but how normal could that really be? Or perhaps he'd tell her the truth, and make it work, and she would die and every life he'd repeat the same formula? What about the eighteen or nineteen years he'd live without her as a child, remembering her every time he died, before they could even dream of meeting? Would that time really not alter his affections? However you looked at it, Harry's behaviour would verge towards the unhealthy, and the actual story would verge towards the infuriating.
More to the point, there are other, fascinating stories to be told in this world, apart from romantic ones! Bogging down too heavily in romance, while interesting, potentially limited all the other things that could be done in the book.
As for the relationship with Vincent… rather unhelpfully I'd say that it'd be more interesting for the reader to interpret that one than me! There is that within it which could be argued as a romance far more lasting and powerful than anything else in Harry's life… equally, given the circumstances they find themselves in, even 'friendship' totters and the things they do to each other are fairly unforgivable. I'd say perhaps that the most I would commit to is to say that they need each other. The pair find in each other a mutual intelligence, curiosity and force of will that out-lasts death, and whether that equates to 'friendship' or 'love' or 'nemesis'… I'll let others decide!
How did you research the history in this book? Given that so many small changes in history make a huge impact, how did you figure out which changes to focus on?
I'm sat on a rather rusty History degree from LSE, which helped a lot. A great deal of the history wasn't about big events – Harry August spends a lot of time dodging World War Two, for example – but about zooming in on little things that made the time come alive. Thus, 1936 would not be described by someone living in it as 'a year when war became inevitable' since in 1936, war wasn't inevitable and no one without the burden of retrospect would think of it in terms of war, whatever history has to say on the subject now. Rather, it is a year of jazz, economic recovery and the rise of 'talkie' movies. A generic knowledge might point to Charlie Chaplin as being active in this era; a quick internet search reveals the movies he made; a look at the movie of the year (Modern Times) shows that by then talkies were well underway; another click through gives the names of rival 'talkie' movies and fairly quickly, from just a general sense of what was happening in a decade, you have the kind of details of leading actors and popular musicians that can bring a year to life. One of the big lessons of LSE was to always cross-reference, which is particularly true when using the internet; god, it turns out, it in the footnotes.
So I guess my generic knowledge of Big Things Happening was useful, not so much in writing the book, but in knowing on what bit of information to zoom in and learn more.
As for the changes to history that seemed of most importance, I tried to think about the age in which I live now, and the things that makes it tick. Mobile phones, for example, are a technology dependent on microwaves and satellites. That makes the space race important. The space race requires developments in material and fuel sciences. Material sciences allow the development of airplane travel; airplane travel allows the spread of disease; the spread of disease encourages the development of medicine etc. etc. etc.. Thankfully, changing only a small bit of one thing has massive knock-ons for everything. E=mc2 took us in 1905 from a Newtonian universe of mass and force, to the atomic bomb in only 40 years. No Einstein – no nuclear reactors. No nuclear reactors – no bomb. No bomb – no Cold War. Three letters and a number changed the world.