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Kate Clanchy
We interviewed Kate originally in December 2009 to coincide with ANTIGONA AND ME being our Book of the Month. We have now asked her to tell us a bit about her first novel, MEETING THE ENGLISH, which is our Book of the Month for June 2013. Her answer is at the bottom of the page.

What made you want to write ANTIGONA AND ME?
I started to write ANTIGONA AND ME without meaning to. Antigona was constantly in my house, telling me her life story, and I did that thing writers do : I started to write it down. That in itself wouldn't be a reason for writing the whole book though. Once I realised what I was doing, I had to think carefully about telling someone else's story - the rights and wrongs of it.
It was published in hardback as WHAT IS SHE DOING HERE? A REFUGEE'S STORY. Whose idea was it to change the title and why?
What is She Doing Here? was my first title. I still rather like it: the book is about 'doing' , work, and it is an enquiry which starts superficially and ends up with some suprising answers. But I never wanted the subtitle: I think it sounds worthy and patronising, and besides, the story is about Antigona and me: I never attempt to tell her story for her, I only try to show the impact of her and her story on me. Antigona was even more against the subtitle: she said, simply, that no one would buy a book which said 'refugee'. And, though the book got loads of wonderful reviews, the sales rather proved her right. So my publishers, Picador, decided to repackage the book as a paperback and try to show that, though it is a non-fiction book, and has dark moments, it's also funny and easy to read and very much about a friendship. And, as I kept saying it was about Antigona and Me, my publisher suggested I should just call it that. So we did. Antigona likes the new cover very much, and so do I: the image catches her energy and exuberance, instead of making her look like a victim.
Yes, I think one of the strengths of the book is that it is as much about you as Antigona. It raises another question though: I saw that somewhere you refer to the book as biography, yet Antigona and her family are given different names. Why was it so important to disguise their identity? And were you concerned that it undermined the integrity of the book, to some extent, putting it in a grey area between fiction and non-fiction?
I wanted this book to tell the truth about Antigona and her life, and the lives of other women like her. Truthfulness is very important to me, as a person and a writer: but not more important than Antigona's safety or the privacy of her daughters as they grow up. Antigona comes from a culture where a womans' reputation can cost her her life, and that is still true and true for her daughters. That is why they are disguised, and I am extremely pleased, 18 months on from the publication of the book, to know that she all the family are safe and that no harm, and only good, has come to them from it . That to me is worth trespassing on the border between fiction and non-fiction, if indeed I do so. I have 'made up' only three or four sentences in this book: what I have done is alter names and ages and omitted a few people and events, always with Antigona's input and agreement. The family's agreement to the version of events, and record of changes made is fully legally documented in records at my publishers. When the book came out, several papers wanted serial rights, but they all wanted me to supply photos. But photos on the internet could identify Antigona in a matter of days: I refused, there was no serial.. One journalist told me that witholding the photos showed I lacked 'integrity': I think the opposite is true.
Did Antigona read the book? And, if so, what did she think of it?
Of course, Antigona has read the book. She is very proud of it and very happy with it. She takes her role as a heroine, an example to other refugee or oppressed women. Her daughters also like it, particularly Flora, who has had long talks with her mother about it. But Flora and Mihane are still young, and Antigona is still not safe or settled in her life: things may change for all of them. I want them always to be able to claim the book as theirs if they want to, the way they do at the moment. I don't want it ever to be used against them, or even ,for the girls, to become something which over-defines them or embarasses them. Again, that is why they are all disguised.
There is a sense in the book that during your friendship with Antigona, you both learned from each other. It seems that Antigona became, with notable exceptions, more liberal in her outlook and, maybe, that there were aspects of her culture that became increasingly appealing to you. Do you think that’s true?
I certainly learned a lot from Antigona, and she made me think about so many things: about the way we divide labour, the way we mother, the way we treat other cultures. And Antigona also changed hugely here - she is so very clever - and enjoyed and thought about her freedoms in this country. But one of the themes of the book, and something I didn't want to disguise or diminish, were our very real and enduring differences which came from our very different cultures. Our friendship and feeling of kinship to each other was there from the start, and has grown over the years, but we've also been through great turmoil and frustrations with each other which come from our starkly different upbringings.
You've made your name as a poet, journalist, playwright and now short story writer. (Kate’s story ‘The Not Dead and the Saved’ has been shortlisted for the BBC short story competition.) You have an obvious gift for narrative and we wondered whether you have any plans for a longer piece of fiction - a novel, maybe?
I'm a really, really slow writer. Antigona and Me is sort of cobbled together from lots of short pieces, each of which I laboured over for weeks. Though I did work very hard on the cobbling, and on making the story work: I dreaded the idea of writing a soggy 'poets book'. And the short story that's up for the prize took me four months to write. It's 5000 words long! So a novel might take me a decade. That said, I am writing a something which doesn't seem to be a short story, so maybe, it will be a novel. I certainly don't want to write anything unless I really feel I want to and need to. Antigona and Me wasn’t a 'let's move on' project, it was a book I wrote from the heart.
When we interviewed you for ANTIGONA AND ME in 2009 you said that "a novel might take me a decade to write". Well four years on and MEETING THE ENGLISH has been published. Can you tell us how this moving and funny novel came about and was it something you had up your sleeve for a while?
I never have anything up my sleeve! I think that quote shows just how bad I am at long-term planning, especially my writing – I didn’t plan to write ANTIGONA AND ME either.

What happened was: writing ANTIGONA AND ME taught me (very painfully) a lot about writing prose, and when the book was finished, I decided to try writing some short stories, which is a form I’ve always loved. One of my experimental pieces, THE NOT DEAD AND THE SAVED, (you can read it on the Prospect website) did very well and won the BBC National Short Story Prize, and that gave me suddenly a lot of confidence. I started writing much more, and soon found myself working on a story which wouldn’t fit into story shape. It wasn’t that it wouldn’t end – the problem was, I had the ending, but the back stories to my characters were growing and growing, and the start of the story seemed to be thousands of words back. Eventually, I realised that this story was in fact the very thing I always said I wouldn’t, couldn’t, write – a novel.

But once I got started, I had a lot of fun. Anyone who has read ANTIGONA AND ME will understand what a gruelling book that was to write – I felt weighed down with guilt and fear throughout the process. MEETING THE ENGLISH does touch on some of the same themes of nationality, identity, and growing up – but in a lighter, freer, way. It was wonderful to just make something up, after so much time spent grapping with the right way to tell the truth. I actually like almost all my characters, even the monstrous Myfanwy, who is attempting throughout the novel to recapture the family home in order to cover it with Laura Ashley wallpaper, and enjoyed spending time with them. I loved the chance to be funny, at length; to create a hero, Struan, exactly to my tastes; and a villain, Jake, to embody all I ever disliked in over-entitled young men. I loved putting a fat girl who can’t stop talking in the centre of a novel, and her thin, humourless friend to the side. I wrote this book through two exceptionally wet cold years, but it felt as if my little writing shed was lit up with some of the sunshine of the long hot summer of 1989. I hope the readers feel some of that, too.

Kate Clanchy

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