Today I am interviewing Claire North, author of the new novel, The End of the Day.
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DJ: Hey Claire! Thanks for agreeing to do this interview!
For readers who aren’t familiar with you, could you tell us a little about yourself?
Claire North: I’m not real.
Well, no, I am real, I mean, this is definitely me answering. But Claire North – she ain’t real. She’s one of three names that I’ve been known to scribble under, including my own – Catherine Webb – and my urban fantasy face, Kate Griffin.
Of those three, I suspect Claire North is the most exasperating. She’s probably charming, intelligent and sexy in way I’m not quite so much. She definitely likes mushrooms (uch) and can speak French, or maybe Italian. She’s almost certainly good at doing maths in her head – no! Crosswords. I bet she’s bloody brilliant at crosswords.
Sometimes I really resent her achievements, in fact….
The only thing I’ve really got in common with her, in fact, is that I’m 30 years old, a Londoner, a lighting designer, and this writing malarcky has been my job for a bit over 15 years now. Oh – and all my personas love Thai food. Because who doesn’t?
DJ: What is The End of the Day about?
Claire: So there’s a guy called Charlie, who works for Death as his/her Harbinger – sorta PA/assistant/fixer/messenger, depending on how you look at it. Death’s main office is in Milton Keynes, which is a town in the Midlands renowned almost entirely for having roundabouts, and nothing else. From this office, Charlie is dispatched to visit places where either people are about to die, or ideas are about to die, and to bring them gifts. This might be the peanut butter you loved as a child; it might be a book you thought was lost. It might be copious quantities of alcohol. Either way, wherever Death is about to arrive, be it for tsunami or to pay respects to an individual, first there goes the Harbinger, to honour the lives that were lived before.
DJ: What were some of your influences for The End of the Day?
Claire: Um. Not sure. Which sounds very lame, I know, but uh… yes. It would be lovely at this juncture to say I’m honouring the later works of Kafka, and have a fine appreciation of late 20th century modernist irony. It’d also be bullshit. I mean, don’t get me wrong – all writers are leeching off their environments all the time, and I have no doubt that I have leeched both from literature and the world. This is what living is – we are changed by what we see and do in ways we don’t necessarily notice, and I’m sure I’m no exception. Unfortunately the ‘in ways we don’t necessarily notice’ part is the hiccup, and it makes it hard for me to answer this well.
On the plus side, the world right now is very interesting. Not necessarily in a good way – a spiral of chaos and mayhem seems to be on the cards. But that’s very much gone into the End of the Day, even if I struggle to spot just how it happened. The nature of the story required having eyes open to the world; the nature of living tends to be that life is better if you look with curiosity and embrace the awesomeness of existence, as well as engage honestly with its pitfalls and yourself. But this is not a superpower reserved for scribblers!
And some ideas have been around for centuries. There’s always been a notion of the Harbinger of Death. In the good old days people would see a raven or a sparrow, or thunder and portents in the sky, and say ‘Death is coming’. This phrase, this idea of something that comes to warn you before, is ancient. It’s not a huge logical leap to update it to something modern and fun, albeit one that pays income tax and doesn’t understand why hotels have to make duvets on beds so hard to get under.
DJ: Could you briefly tell us a little about your main characters? Do they have any cool quirks or habits, or any reason why readers with sympathize with them? (aka What makes them compelling?)
Claire: Well, Charlie is the Harbinger of Death. As jobs go it’s… distinctly unusual, and requires a temperament that is in an odd way, extraordinarily humane. He’s sent to not merely see people who are about to die, in full knowledge of their fate – he’s also sent to witness ideas wither away, to see glaciers melt, walls come tumbling down – and to meet some people and bear witness to ideas that he might find personally repugnant. But his job is to honour the life that was lived, no matter what, and to respect that what matters is life – all life – and be there to hear the words of the dying when they realize that Death is on its way, and to be kind. Mostly to be kind. Kindness sounds simple and isn’t. To be kind in the face of death, of the end of a world… is a big ask for anyone, but it is the thing that Charlie’s job requires more than anything, and which he sometimes struggles with.
There are also other Harbingers – War, Famine, Pestilence – who we encounter as we move round the world. And their bosses – the actual bringers of Armageddon, who manifest their own behaviors and attitudes towards the changing world they find themselves in.
And of course there are the ones Charlie visits – the ones who know they are dying, can’t believe they’re dying, won’t accept that they’re dying – or who are bringing about the death of others, or of ideas, and for whom Death is not the end, but the beginning of a new life. A lot of books you meet characters who are scared of death; but very rarely to you meet people who are not merely certain of it, they’ve got the postcard and the bottle of whiskey from Death itself to prove the point.
DJ: What is the world [What is the name of the universe] and setting of The End of the Day like? (the environment, weather, people, religion, technology, architecture, government, etc; is it violent, peaceful, patriarch/matriarch, etc.)
Claire: This world. This universe. Now. In every possible way. Apart from the minor blip that you might meet Death changing planes at JFK. But that’s cool; that’s just life. In a way you’d almost rather meet Death in business class, than Pestilence in economy….
DJ: What was your favorite part about writing The End of the Day?
Claire: I suspect it was the Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Taking this ancient idea, these classic figures of dread, and plonking them into the 21st century… sometimes they are voices of damnation and fear, but occasionally it’s just delightful. Pestilence’s reaction to colonic irrigation… Famine to ancestor diets… War’s reply to flags in general… and Death him/herself! Death comes as a force both of terror and regret, but also a voice that honours the life that is ending above all things, and writing that was hours of fun.
DJ: What do you think readers will be talking about most once they finish it?
Claire: Hopefully everyone will have something different to say. The joy of books is that what you are reading is as much in the eye of the reader as it is the pen of the writer. So I have had people come to me down the years and remark ‘what an interesting theme of kittens in your latest work!’ to which I’ve been nothing but baffled: what kittens? But in these encounters, the reader isn’t wrong – they saw a thing that mattered to them, and that became alive and whole, an emotional truth – even if I was angling for something different. Nuance in language, subjectivity in words – these things aren’t crutches. Fiction isn’t documentary, and metaphor isn’t a clearer way of drawing an accurate picture. These are tools to imagination, and everyone’s imagination is unique. Hopefully, then, everyone’s experience as they read the book will be unique too. And there can be flaming arguments about the meaning after; that would be groovy too.
DJ: What was your goal when you began writing The End of the Day? Is there a particular message or meaning you are hoping to get across when readers finish it? Or is there perhaps a certain theme to the story?
Claire: Hum. Technically the first rule of writing is ‘put the story first’. Going into a thing determined to write an epic eulogy about the demise of a political or social idea is… problematic, unless you’ve got a story. That said, the very nature of the book meant it was gonna have to deal with death. Not necessarily death-as-grief, however. Death as change, as the ending of ideas, as the beginning of something new and the passing away of an old world. Once you get that, then themes and yes, probably messages – though I try to keep that beneath the story – are gonna emerge. Change and what change means… death as the end of one world, one way of living, one way of seeing… as well as death as the end of a life, whole and true, and what the meaning was of the life that went before, and the way we chose to live it.
DJ: When I read, I love to collect quotes – whether it be because they’re funny, foodie, or have a personal meaning to me. Do you have any favorite quotes from The End of the Day that you can share with us?
Claire: ‘I always felt veganism is cover for a lack of moral nerve.’
I think I’m quoting that right. I can’t really remember. I hasten to add – I’ve got nothing against veganism, it’s just a quote which, in context, made me laugh….
… but that’s just me.
The book has a theme of stand-alone dialogue which was eavesdro… I mean, ahem, carefully curated, from daily life. A significant percentage is verbatim. I find that easier to remember than anything I wrote in the main body of the text. I don’t really go back and read my stuff after edits, as I suspect it wouldn’t make me happy and probably would lead to becoming a wanker. (Sorry – can’t think of a better word to express that concisely.) When scribbling I don’t really set out to do anything which might lend itself to quotability. Maybe that happens (fingers crossed!) but to aim for that rather than the telling of a good story seems like a path to getting nothing done while being massively self-important. As a consequence, I’m afraid what I can mostly remember is the verbatim dialogue stuff, of which my personal favourite is ‘red lorry yellow lorry red lorry yellow lorry’ – a tongue-twister which I put in purely and entirely to screw over the audiobook reader, Peter Kenny, with love. The quest is now on to see if I can get something equally annoying into everything I write. While maintaining my suave literary integrity, of course….
DJ: Now that The End of the Day is released, what is next for you?
Claire: MOOOORRREEE BOOOOKKKSSS!
Say it loud with joy – more books! I really like writing books. It’s basically the best job. I mean, it’s ridiculous that firefighters and nurses aren’t paid more, and we go out of our way to honour reality TV stars and showbiz celebrities when we could be paying tribute to environmentalists, scientists, teachers and carers… but given that I don’t do any of those jobs I’m gonna be perfectly happy right now – giddy in fact – that someone’s paying me money to tell stories. MORE BOOKS!
The next one is currently being edited… and I probably can’t say much more about it until that’s happened… and the one after that is being scribbled.
Meanwhile to keep myself occupied, I’m still lighting a lot of music gigs, learning a violent martial art, trying to learn Chinese, failing to learn breaststroke (how do people cope?) and getting more involved in political and environmental activism, ‘cos of how the Arctic has perhaps 13 years left before it’s all gone, and that’s a thing that’s gonna screw the world. And how the act of surviving all of that is – as well as petrifying – an opportunity for humanity to get off its backside and re-define who as a species we think we want to be. So yeah. That stuff. But mostly books.
DJ: Where can readers find out more about you?
Twitter: @clairenorth42, where I do interact a fair old bit!
Amazon Author Page: https://www.amazon.com/Claire-North/e/B00QU8OLDI
DJ: Before we go, what is that one thing you’d like readers to know about The End of the Day that we haven’t talked about yet?
Claire: A huge percentage of the words I heard, and put into the book, are real and true. I very rarely do this – I’m a big fan of just making stuff up – but for a year I looked and scribbled and listened. Words, taken out of context, can be de-humanising. My conversation, pulled out of the context of who I’m speaking to, and what we’re saying underneath, the actual truth behind the superficial meaning, is deeply trivial and crappy. Because, especially in Britain, we rarely say ‘I am grieving; I am in pain’. Instead we say ‘there’s no ketchup in this chip shop. I really want ketchup. I can’t believe there’s no ketchup I really wanted ketchup now I’m not hungry any more.’ And so on and so forth. Because to say ‘I am in pain’ is to make it real. And to invite judgment from our peers, who we always want to validate and uphold us, all the time. Even though they know the truth – that it’s not about the ketchup, it is about the grief, and that is fine. It’s fine.
All of us, constantly, are expressing something true about who we are in the words we speak, and so rarely are actually using words to express the fundamental truth.
Taking words out of context, therefore, can remove the truth of what these words are. Not just ‘veganism is a cover for a lack of moral nerve’ but ‘I really hate cruelty to animals and actually think that we should do more research into nutrition rather than follow fads… and veganism is a cover for a lack of moral nerve in this regard….’
Equally, taking the words out of context can reveal a truth. It reveals the judgments that are inherent in everything we say and do. The judgments on others, and the judgments on ourselves, which are so often caught up in the tangle of what we say, at high speed, as so many words pass our lips. We all of us, tend to condemn ourselves and others with our language. Sometimes pulling out words, splitting them away from the justifications and the shrugs and the laughing-off-of-cruelties, also shows us a hard truth about who we are, and what we do.
That’s a thing. It is a thing that is, like most things most of the time, both true, and wrong, and helpful, and a total pisser in terms of getting on and living our lives.
DJ: Is there anything else you would like add? (Or add your own question).
Claire: I’m on a quest to find a new ice-breaker question for parties and awkward meetings. My current ice-breaker is “what sexually transmitted disease would you be?” I would be grateful for any further offers or advances to this theme.
DJ: Thank you so much for taking time out of your day to answer my questions!
Claire: Thanks for asking!
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*** The End of the Day is published by Orbit and is available TODAY!!! ***
Buy the Book:
Amazon | Barnes & Nobel | Goodreads | Kobo
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At the end of the day, Death visits everyone. Right before that, Charlie does.
Claire North is a pseudonym for Catherine Webb, a Carnegie Medal-nominated author whose first book was written when she was just fourteen years old. She went on to write several other novels in various genres, before publishing her first major work as Claire North, The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August, in 2014. It was a critically acclaimed success, receiving rave reviews and an Audie nomination, and was included in the Washington Post’s Best Books of the Year list. Her most recent novel, Touch, was also in the Washington Post’s Best Books of the Year, in 2015.