“I think I find words hardest of all”: new author Grace McCleen speaks to World of Books about her debut novel, her little people, and her inspirations
Grace McCleen was born in 1981 in Wales. Speaking of her childhood Grace says, “I grew up in a fundamentalist religion and didn’t have much contact with non-believers. My parents weren’t typical converts so we didn’t have much contact with other believers either. When I was ten I was taken out of school and we moved to the country [Ireland]. I spent all the time in the fields with two sheepdogs, or making things in my room”. When Grace and her family moved back to Britain she went back to school and her English teacher suggested she apply to Oxford, which Grace got into with only two A-Levels; it was here that Grace studied English Literature, and she later completed an MA at The University of York. During a period of ill-health Grace often made things, some of the things she made were little model people (you can look at these on Grace’s site), much like the little people the character of Judith makes in Grace’s debut novel The Land of Decoration. After this time, Grace decided to become a full-time writer and musician. As we’ve mentioned above, Grace’s first novel, The Land of Decoration was published 1st March 2012, and has seen her shoot into Waterstones’ list of most promising writers of 2012. Described as a “tremendously affecting novel”, Grace’s debut has been widely acclaimed across the literary world.
Thank you for agreeing to talk to us today! We’re really excited to talk to an author who has just started out as a published writer, especially someone who has sparked so much excitement!
Q: One of the main things that struck us about your website is the artwork on display, not just from the paintings and sketches you worked on at A-Level, but the navigation around the site itself. Art is obviously something that stimulates you Grace, and allows you to express yourself; do you find it easier to explain how you’re feeling through the medium of art or through words?
– I think I find words hardest of all. I think the most enjoyable thing for me is to express myself through music, so art is in the middle. They’re both still quite difficult, but not as hard as words.
Q: We’ve got to admit, we here at World of Books love your figures of little people (these can all be seen on Grace’s site). When you were younger you created dozens of these models (including recognisable characters such as Rumplestiltskin, Sherlock Holmes and even the tooth fairy) which, in their medieval clothes all seem as though they could have stepped right out of a fairytale. Our favourite is Mother Gentle, as she seems to exude a warmth that matches her name. How long did each figure take you to make? And what do they mean to you?
– I can’t really answer that as I made them all together, so I made all the heads together, then all the arms and legs together, then the bodies. So I had heaps of heads, arms and legs lying around. Overall it took about 7 or 8 months to do all of them. I wasn’t very well at the time so I was doing them mainly at night-time when I felt better. It was about 4-6 years ago now, and I suppose it was like a period of madness. Being ill, I couldn’t really do anything or see anybody so I completely entered into this little world. I wanted to make houses as well, I could have done lots more, to be honest, it could have taken the rest of my life!
Q: Where did the idea for ‘The Land of Decoration‘ come from?
– I didn’t really get the idea from making these models because I was interested in making things even as a child, so the book has sort of gone back to then. The idea came from a book I was writing to begin with, a very long book which didn’t work very well, but in the first page of The Land of Decoration I just took the ideas completely from the long book, despite it not having anything to do with Judith.
Q: When speaking about your songs you say “most of the songs came one afternoon when I was playing into a dictaphone”. Do new ideas for songs come to you whilst you go about everyday life, or do they naturally flow when you sit down to the task?
– No not really, they seem to have stopped now. That was about 2 years ago when I wrote most of those songs, but I’m not writing anything at the moment. Maybe I won’t ever again, I don’t know.
Q: So for any aspiring authors who are aiming to get where you are now, what advice could you give?
– Don’t go to any creative writing classes or schools because they’ll turn you into a clone and you’ll just end up writing the same as everyone else. To be honest, if you’re meant to write, you’ll write. Don’t force yourself to, don’t try to tick any boxes or jump through any hoops. Don’t try to fill any criteria that is supposedly to do with good writing, because all the most amazing books have broken all the rules and often weren’t understood at the time and were criticised and ridiculed. Work in a vacuum if you can. Read, read other really good books. Stick to your guns and go with your instincts.
Q: As we’ve already mentioned, your debut novel, The Land of Decoration, was released March 1st. The novel tells the story of ten-year-old Judith, who is part of a small religious sect along with her Father. Although she is bullied at school, Judith finds peace in her model of the Promised Land which she calls The Land of Decoration – a little world full of little people, roads and seas. When Judith is fearful of going to school one day, she believes she performs a miracle through her model world, but from then on her life is turned upside down. When asked about this work, you said “in the novel I tried to dramatise what belief can feel like. The whole story is a metaphor for that”. Do you think it has become harder in our modern society for people to hold onto as pure a faith as Judith does in your novel? As religion is often a subject a lot of people avoid, have you been surprised at the rapid success of your work?
– Yes I do, I think it has become harder. I think even people who have a faith and believe in God and Christianity, often waver a bit sometimes. Judith’s faith is quite unusual, partly because she is a child and partly because she is so isolated so she doesn’t have much to challenge this faith. To be honest, I wasn’t surprised at the success of the novel. I have had people who have gotten the wrong end of the stick and who have thought I wrote it to have a go about God and Christians, but on the whole people have been fascinated because it’s like a window into another world, and I always thought it would be like that, I didn’t think the subject matter would alienate most people. I think this is mostly due to the way I deal with it; you could write a very boring and offensive novel about religion, but I think because it’s through a child’s eyes, it’s humourous, touching and quite innocent.
Q: “If fiction is life in microcosm, then the most intricate examples of the art are those in which protagonists create their own miniature worlds. It is in this tradition of microcosmic fiction that one might tentatively place Grace McCleen’s loveable, unique and thrillingly uncategorisable debut novel…This is an extraordinary and peculiarly haunting novel” (review from The Financial Times). To what extent would you agree that this novel is “uncategorisable”?
– Yes, I suppose I would agree with this. Obviously it is a novel and most people see it as that, but I liked this review very much.
Q: So we know that you’ve finished writing your next book (pause whilst we have a quick cheer here!), which is due out in 2013, and will be called ‘The Professor of Poetry’. This second novel is “about time, stillness and music”. For those of us who are already fans of yours based on ‘The Land of Decoration’, what can we expect from this book?
– There isn’t much storyline, it’s kind of a very still novel, and I expect it will be challenging and potentially boring for a lot of readers. In contrast to The Land of Decoration it’s very slow-paced, and it deals with very tiny things. No-one is getting beaten up, there’s no strike, there’s no heads down the toilet, it’s very much about details and internal monologues; the style is incredibly different. I think some people really will like it and some people really won’t.
Q: Who inspires you?
– Marilynne Robinson, Cormac McCarthy, W.G Sebald, those are just contemporary writers. I could go on forever! There’s lots of other writers like Kafka, the Brontes, Thomas Mann, and that’s just prose writers. It depends how long you want the list to be!
Q: What is your favourite book?
Q: And lastly, World of Books is dedicated to providing good-quality second-hand books to the public. In a world with an ever-growing digital media base, and increasing environmental concerns, do you believe in the importance of giving each physical book the chance of a new home?
– I don’t believe in wasting books. It is important to give books a new home. I particularly like old, or second-hand books rather than new books, because they have a history. There are little stains on the pages and scribbles that you can share. I think it’s a crime if a book is thrown out.
Thank you for a great interview Grace! Make sure you grab a copy of The Land of Decoration if you haven’t already, it’s well worth a read as an introduction to an exciting new author! And if you fancy a good read, make sure you visit the World of Books site today!