Stephen Clarke is the world-renowned author of A Year in the Merde, Merde Actually, Merde Happens, Dial M for Merde and Talk to the Snail.
He narrowly missed out on this year’s Nobel Prize for Literature but is a sure bet for next year’s award.
He has been romantically linked to Vanessa Paradis, Emmanuelle Béart, Ludivine Sagnier and (rather generously, in my mind), Charlotte Rampling.
And, he has very kindly agreed to put down his pen and answer a few simple questions (another world exclusive for A Taste of Garlic – another one in the eye for you, Hello magazine!)
As it was raining and I didn’t feel like driving all the way to Paris, Mr Clarke very kindly allowed me to interview him via email.
I’m not sure what persuaded him to allow himself to be interviewed by A Taste of Garlic.
It might have been because I told a slight porky pie and informed him that all George East’s books have gone to reprint since I interviewed him.
And that, Leonardo de Cappucino, after reading that interview, had commissioned a film of George’s life in which Brad Pitt is slated to play the lead role.
That was, of course, a slight exaggeration. Actually, to be absolutely honest about it, Brad Pitt is wavering about starring as George East because he’s not sure he can handle growing the beard or wearing the vests!
Anyway, onwards and upwards (as they say – not sure what it means though!)
I was trembling as I pondered what sort of questions I should pose to this literary icon so I decided to empty my bowels whilst I was working it out.
Staggering from my recent failure with George East, I was determined to ask at least some questions about incest and morris-dancing.
Once again, I’d have to be careful not to upset any of Mr Clarke’s millions of devoted readers who, if they don’t actually admit to idolising Stephen Clarke, certainly believe that James Joyce, Ernest Hemingway and Henry Miller were lucky not to have had him around in their day – ‘cos he would have trounced them all in the writing stakes!
And that’s not to mention the hordes of day-trippers who jump on the Eurostar just to spend a day wandering the streets of Paris hoping to be able to eat at a restaurant where Stephen Clarke once ate, drink at a bar where Stephen Clarke once drank and have a wee at the urinal that Stephen Clarke once slightly missed. They were all bound to be fans of his as well!
In the end I like to think I got the mix right. I handled the whole incest/morris-dancing thing with surprising flair, considering the subject matter, and if I have missed anything out, I’m sure it can be found on the author’s own website at http://www.stephenclarkewriter.com
Before I got started, Stephen gave me a few tips (from one writer to another) – now that was nice, wasn’t it?
And it wasn’t the Nobel prize for literature I missed out on – I have no chance of getting that because I don’t have a beard – it was the peace prize. That damn newcomer Obama got it. What’s he done for international peace? Not as much as Paul West.
1). There seems to be a lot of Merde in your writing (in fact, all of your fiction titles contain the word.) Is this a Freudian slip or more of an existentialist statement on the anomie of modern intellectual poverty? (Editor’s note: It’s alright, I can ask these sorts of questions because he’s been to Oxford university and it wasn’t just for a day trip!)
Stephen Clarke – Sorry I can’t answer that question because I don’t know what “anomie” means. But the merde originally entered my writing for two reasons – first, on my way to my first job in Paris, I stepped in a load and dragged it half way round the office before I noticed. Great start. And secondly because when I was writing A Year in the Merde, I was kind of trying to spoof A Year in Provence, which is all olive oil and quaint peasants as opposed to my story of real life in urban Paris. I wanted a word that would be the opposite of Provence, and it was merde.
2). Your books have got loads of wonderful reviews on Amazon. Did you write them all yourself?
Stephen Clarke - Of course, and I write the bad ones to add a bit of balance.
3). Do you have any advice for would be writers who are planning to run away to Paris to live in squalor, in a leaky garret, in an attempt to emulate literary giants such as Hemingway, Fitzgerald and yourself.
Stephen Clarke – I don’t think any of these people actually planned to live in squalor, except George Orwell who was doing his “I went to Eton but I know how to be poor” thing. And often when Hemingway came to Paris, he stayed at the Ritz. Seriously, though, if you want to emulate a literary giant, the best thing is to write a book, and not worry about squalor or anything else. Just write your book. Someone once flatteringly asked me “what’s the difference between a bestselling author and everyone else?” and I said of course there’s no real difference except that the bestselling author finished their book.
4). Where do you get the ideas for your writing?
Stephen Clarke - From ideasforbooks.com – a great website. And I have the Wii game WriteStar – you can write along with the stars. No, I travel around France a lot, read the papers, listen and observe. And I also get a huge kick out of bullshitting. Fiction is a polite word for bullshit. I’ve just finished a history book about all the conflicts between France and us English-speakers since the Norman Conquest – it’s called 1000 Years of Annoying the French. And I got the idea for that from people asking me “why is there such a love-hate relationship between France and the Brits?” (or Americans, or almost anyone else who speaks English). And I started looking into it, and we have been really awful to the French over the years. There are so many stories of mischief and nastiness, from burning Joan of Arc to “accidentally” killing off the French royal and imperial families while they were refugees in the south of England. It was fascinating.
5). What do you do when you are not writing?
Stephen Clarke – Interviews. No, that’s writing too, except when it’s for the radio or TV. I play the bass guitar and work for world peace by deliberately not invading other countries.
6). If you had a daughter and she brought home a Frenchman, what would you say?
Stephen Clarke – “Thanks, but I don’t need one. I prefer women.”
7). If you had a son and he brought home a Frenchman, what would you say?
Stephen Clarke – See above.
8). Ricard or Pernod?
Stephen Clarke – Leffe.
9). What do you say to the people who believe that Elvis isn’t dead but lives in a leaky bedsit in Montparnasse?
Stephen Clarke – He hasn’t paid the rent for three months so there’s no way I’m fixing that leak.
10). You grew up in Bournemouth. Has that damaged you in any way?
Stephen Clarke – Yes, I still support the football team, which is a source of endless stress and disappointment.
11). If you could be reincarnated as another (male), writer’s underpants – whose would you be?
Stephen Clarke – I don’t believe that humans can be reincarnated as lycra, nylon or any other fabric. We only come back as living entities, so I’d have to be his bedbugs. In that case, I’d come back as Jean-Paul Sartre’s, and make his nights an endless hell. Not only would it confirm his view of the absurdity of human existence, it would also get him back for all those years he spent cosily chatting in cafés while everyone else was fighting World War Two. For my history book, I looked into his war record, and it was dubious to say the least.
12). In this recent interview….
(to promote Talk to the Snail and Merde Happens), you were spotted slipping your hand inside your shirt and fondling your own breast. Do you think that this has damaged your career in any way?
Stephen Clarke – No, I now get loads of invitations to do the same thing live on stage. It’s much more lucrative than writing books.
13). Are you working on a new novel and, if so, what’s it all about?
Stephen Clarke – I’ve just finished the history book, so at the moment I’m wondering what to do next. I have two or three ideas and I’ll be choosing from them. And I also have to answer my editor’s questions about the new book. Things like, did Louis XIV really do that? I have lots of reassuring to do that everything in there is true, because some of the stories are unbelievable. (Please note subtle plug for new book.)
14). You are known as one of the “Paris School” of writers. Another of that celebrated group, F. Scott Fitzgerald, started to write what many consider to be his greatest novel, Tender is the Night, in Paris in 1923. In that novel (which I’ve read, by the way – no cheating by looking it all up on Google! That’s not how we do things at A Taste of Garlic!), a damaging incestuous relationship between Nicole Diver and her father provides the fulcrum about which Nicole’s mental illness rotates. Do you feel that the lack of morris-dancing in the novel contributed to the slow acceptance of the book, and associated negative reviews, which may have led, indirectly, to the alcoholism and depression that were partially responsible for Fitzgerald’s early death in 1940?
Stephen Clarke – Sorry, can you repeat the question?
15). On your website (http://www.stephenclarkewriter.com) you mention that you played bass in some of the worst rock bands in musical history before leaving town to study French and German at Oxford. Wouldn’t it have been better to have gone to France and Germany to study French and German or was Oxford nearer?
Stephen Clarke – Yes, that was the biggest mistake of my life. Only too late did I discover that the wine was better in France and the beer better in Germany.
16). Do you want to answer any more questions or shall I just make up the rest of the answers?
Stephen Clarke – Don’t worry – I can make up my own questions. For example: apparently, Stephen, you have a new book coming out on March 18 called 1000 Years of Annoying the French. It seems you have been busy unearthing, for example, the true story behind the storming of the Bastille (not the great freeing of political prisoners that we’re led to believe), describing how it was a Brit who really invented Champagne as we know it, debunking some myths about Saint Joan of Arc (her sanctification was initially refused because too many men had seen her breasts), and finding out that America and Canada could both be French colonies to this day if France hadn’t made such a monumental cock-up of their attempts to boot the Brits out. Yes, every school in North America would have a framed photo of Nicolas Sarkozy on the wall. And there is a story involving an English cow, a French aristocrat and George Washington that really needed telling again. Is all this true, Stephen? Answer: Yes it is.
So, there you have it. The only person living in France who supports a worse football team than Spurs (if that’s possible!).
I’m sure that we’ve all learnt a bit about Stephen and are now going to rush out and buy all his books.
My only disappointment is that he managed to evade my Incest and Morris-Dancing question. I’ll have to try and sneak that one in for Joanne Harris (who’s kindly agreed to be interrogated by A Taste of Garlic) and who, by the way, has written more books than Stephen Clarke, one of which was made into a film!
All the best