Alan Robert Clark is the author of the historical novel The Prince of Mirrors. An author and ghost-writer from Scotland, this is his second novel to date. We have chatted to Alan about his writing career, the process and inspiration behind The Prince of Mirrors, and much more.
How did you start writing?
It depends what you mean by ‘writing’. Writing essays, or ‘compositions’ as they were called back then, was the thing I most loved at school. At around the age of twelve, I wrote a couple of full-length children’s books, Famous Five type adventure stories – smugglers in Cornwall, buried treasure, haunted castles, that sort of stuff. I’ve still got them in a suitcase somewhere. Pretty awful of course, but there’s still a whiff of potential! But after that, I didn’t get round to writing fiction again till about thirty years later, when I went on a creative writing course in Greece led by Sue Townsend, the author of the Adrian Mole books. She told me quite forcibly that I was wasting my life and that I should be writing novels. Back in the UK, she took me under her wing and mentored me till, eventually, I started doing just that.
Did you always want to be a writer?
Not consciously. It had never occurred to me that writing might be a ‘job’. I actually started a law degree which was a ridiculous mistake, then was forced by protracted illness to drop out of university. Looking for a new direction, I somehow discovered that in the advertising industry, of which I knew nothing, there was a job called a ‘copywriter’ and I sort of fell into that.
Your background is in journalism and advertising. Do you think your experience in these fields help you in your fiction writing?
Yes, definitely. In two ways. The first is that you are forced to learn concision. If you’re writing a thirty seconds long TV commercial or a piece of copy with a sixty-word limit, you’re compelled to pare down to the bare bones, which is a brilliant lesson for writers in every field. The second is that the old cliché of waiting for inspiration is, in my view, a load of old rubbish. In an ad agency, I had to sit down on a wet Monday morning and be ‘creative’ or else I’d be fired. It taught me that something will always come to you if you apply yourself. It may not be brilliant but it will at least get the juices flowing. That discipline is invaluable in writing a novel. You decide in advance exactly what time you will sit down to write that particular day, and how much time you can give it, then you must do just that. If you repeatedly fail to do that, I can’t imagine how your book will ever be written.
You have ghost-written a number of titles. How is ghost-writing non-fiction different from working on your own fictional writing?
The prime one is, obviously, that you are dealing with the facts of somebody’s life and therefore your imagination cannot run totally free. But, within that straight-jacket, you must still use your creative skills to tell that truth as compellingly as possible. Actually, writing a biography has many similarities with writing a novel – you need a strong central protagonist, interesting minor characters and a good enough ‘plot’ to engage the reader. The most important thing when ghosting is to try and capture the ‘voice’ of the subject, so that their nearest and dearest really feel it is them speaking. Therefore, you really have to ‘become’ that person, just as you must do when creating the central characters in fiction.
If you could describe The Prince of Mirrors in one word what would it be?
Sorry, I need two…. Finding Yourself.
How were you introduced to the story of Prince Eddy and what inspired you to write a historical novel about him?
I had read a great deal of historical biography, particularly of the 19th century, and so I’d always been aware of the scandalous Prince Eddy. I became fascinated by the sad story of this young guy who, though loved by his family, was nevertheless regarded as something of a ‘waste of space’ and totally unfitted to one day become a king and an emperor. Poor Eddy had no idea ‘who’ he was – and I related to that dilemma on a personal level and I thought it would be interesting to explore it. I really wanted to know how Eddy felt inside himself and, since nothing existed that could tell me that, I decided to write down a plausible version myself.
What’s the most surprising thing you’ve learned through you writing The Prince of Mirrors?
Possibly the degree of satisfaction to be derived from bringing people long dead back to a form of life. I’ve recently done the same in one of my ghost-writing projects about two young men who escaped from one of Hitler’s prison camps in WW2. It was quite moving to feel the pleasure the book gave to the descendants of these men who are now, as it were, ‘living and breathing’ again on the shelves of bookshops. I wonder if the same thing will happen with the descendants of Prince Eddy – probably not as his great-niece is Her Majesty The Queen!
What has been the hardest part of The Prince of Mirrors to write?
Probably trying to telescope a whole life down into scenes, either fictional of factual, which can best reveal to the reader, the inner life of the hero. And it was pretty hard to write the sad ending too.
Your novel is part fiction and part true story. How do you manage to balance the two while still trying to remain as close as possible to the real events?
Tough question. I wanted as much of the novel as possible to be based on known historical facts, therefore many of even the smallest details are accurate, e.g. Eddy’s father, the Prince of Wales, did let his kids race slices of buttered toast down his trouser-legs, his brother George did have a pet kangaroo in the navy which was lost overboard and the brothers did ‘share’ a girl in St. John’s Wood. My aim was to use these true scenes as far as possible, but add an imaginative dimension to them which would reveal what Eddy was thinking and feeling. It’s all about somehow weaving the two aspects together and trying to make it read as seamlessly as possible. I guess that’s the central challenge of historical fiction.
There are many different stories regarding Prince Eddy out there – some more believable, others less. Why did you choose to write about this particular one? Do you think it’s the one that’s most likely to his true story?
If anyone recognises the name of Prince Eddy these days it is likely to be in relation to two matters. Firstly, that he was a possible candidate for being Jack the Ripper; a bonkers theory which historians now totally reject, but which lingers on in the public mind… The second is that he was involved in the Cleveland Street Scandal, in which various aristocrats were accused of frequenting a male brothel. The jury of historians is still ‘out’ on this one. As a novelist, neither of these ‘sensational’ aspects much interested me. My objective was to write imaginatively about Eddy’s inner life and, in some small way, to rehabilitate him from his two-dimensional reputation.
What do you hope people take away from reading The Prince of Mirrors?
That no matter how much of a ‘waste of space’ you think yourself to be, every single one of us has real value. And, if you’re lucky, you will realise that sooner or later – or somebody else will point it out to you (which is what happens to Eddy in my novel).
What do you think makes a good historical novel?
Maybe when the reader scarcely notices it’s a ‘historical novel’ because what is inside the covers are issues as relevant today as they ever were.
What does writing mean to you?
My own or other people’s? Above all, telling a great tale that entertains and engages people. But also, if you’re lucky, illuminates something in their own life that resonates with them and maybe helps them empathise better, with other people or with themselves.
What inspires your writing?
Primarily, it’s just the desire to write down that ‘great tale’ and to share it. But also, a sense of wanting to use whatever talent I’ve got and so to justify the faith that others, like Sue Townsend, have shown in me.
Do you have a writing schedule?
If I’m in the middle of doing a book, very much so. I’d be lost otherwise. I’m crap in the mornings, but I will try to sit down at my desk by 9.30 and do three hours before lunch, have a couple of hours off to go to the gym or have coffee with friends, then back to the desk in the late afternoon and do another three hours or more till supper time. That seems to work for me, but everybody’s different. Sue Townsend used to start writing late at night and into the early hours. Amazing. I never understood how she could do that.
Where do you tend to write?
When I’m doing the first draft of a book, I absolutely have to be at my glass-topped desk with all my familiar objects around me: the pc, the printer, the reference material, the mat for the coffee-cup and the sign above me which reads ‘It won’t write itself, will it Alan?’ etc. It’s all a bit OCD. Later though, when I’m revising or re-drafting, I can more or less do it anywhere, because that first big mountain has been climbed and I’m less neurotic. Luckily, I’m not one of those writers who needs monastic silence.
What’s your favourite book/author?
Impossible question, but I am a huge admirer of the Anglo-Irish writer William Trevor, arguably the greatest short-story writer of recent times and a fine novelist, too. He’s a genius. And I was certainly inspired to attempt a historical novel by books such as Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, Deborah Moggach’s Tulip Fever and Andrew Miller’s Pure.
Do you have a pet peeve when it comes to writing? Something you notice yourself doing or something you pick up in other’s writing?
Nothing very serious, though I do dislike writers who I feel are trying to impress me by using really obscure words. One very famous author (who shall remain nameless) uses words which I’ve often never even seen before, let alone know the meaning of. I was always taught that writing should be about clarification, not obfuscation. If the long obscure word really is the only one which precisely expresses what you want to convey, then fine; otherwise keep it as simple as you can.
And the day I find myself inserting the word ‘like’ into my writing when it doesn’t need to be there, is the day I throw in the towel – unless, I suppose, if I create a character who would use it. But it drives me mad when people do it when speaking, so I really don’t want to read it in books as well.
Do you have writer’s habit that helps you ‘get in the zone’?
I often wake up and lie in bed half asleep for quarter of an hour with my story floating around in my mind. I find this druggy state can suddenly resolve a difficulty that has seemed intractable. It must be something to do with the subconscious being still partly in control.
Other writerly ‘habits’ include chain-drinking decaffeinated coffee and eating endless apples, throwing the cores out of the window into my neighbour’s garden.
Do you feel like your writing style has changed over the years?
Because I have worked as a copywriter in advertising, I have always needed to be a complete chameleon – able to change my style and tone to fit the brief. I’ve had to write copy on everything from fork-lift trucks and hair-colourants to frozen peas and sanitary protection. My first novel Rory’s Boys, a contemporary dark comedy, is totally different in style from this latest one. But in writing The Prince Of Mirrors I simply wanted to try a different type of novel and see how far I could push myself.
What’s a piece of advice you can give to aspiring authors?
The clichéd advice to aspiring writers is ‘if you want to write, read’. That’s undeniably true, but I’d also say ‘if you want to write, write.’ If you have some talent, the more you write the better you’re likely to get. But it definitely needs a certain discipline. Ernest Hemingway said of the writing process ‘there are no failures of talent, only failures of character.’ I tell myself that on the days when I know I should be writing, but really can’t be arsed. It makes me sit down and do it. And hey ho, some days, it’s not complete crap after all. Thanks Ernest.
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