Passion and Precision: An Interview with Clare Dudman

by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer

Clare Dudman is a remarkable writer of mostly historical fictions who has garnered praise from The New Yorker and Entertainment Weekly, among others. Her background as a scientist informs her work, but in unexpected ways. In her novel Wegener’s Jigsaw (published in the United States as One Day the Ice Will Reveal All of Its Dead), for example, explorations of science take on a rare poetic grace and cadence. With her unique ability to explore science through fully realized, personal portrayals of real people from the past, she may be one of the most criminally underrated novelists working today.

Dudman was born in North Wales and has worked as an academic and industrial research scientist as well as a teacher of chemistry and a lecturer in creative writing. In 1995 her children’s novel Edge of Danger won the Kathleen Fidler award and in 2001 an excerpt from Wegener’s Jigsaw (Sceptre, UK, and Viking, US) won an Arts Council of England Writers award. This enabled her to travel to northwest Greenland, Denmark, and Germany to research the novel, which is based on the life of Alfred Wegener—the man who developed the idea of continental drift. Her second novel for adults, 98 Reasons for Being (also published by Sceptre and Viking), is also based on the life of a scientific revolutionary; it involves the fictional encounter of an early psychiatrist with a depressed young patient. She has recently completed a novel about the Welsh in Argentina.

We interviewed Dudman via email during the spring and fall of 2006.

One Day the Ice Will Reveal All Its Dead

Rain Taxi: What past experiences have most shaped you as a writer?

Clare Dudman: I went to night class once a week for several years which was led by a poet. I think that has influenced my writing a great deal, especially the descriptive sections.

Also various novels I've read—the sparseness of Coetzee, the easy inclusion of the fabulous by Salman Rushdie, the way Margaret Atwood suddenly startles and yet completely convinces me on almost every page, the apparent ease with which Toni Morrison incorporates her lyricism, and her liberty of expression, Angela Carter's fearlessness, George Orwell's clarity of expression, the way Graham Swift grabs you so firmly by the hand and takes you with him so assuredly, Vladimir Nabokov's metaphors which somehow seem to claw their way into my soul, and Kazuo Ishiguro's way of seeming to tell nothing and yet saying everything, I especially love that, and, a recent discovery, which I know will influence me in the future, is the work of W. G. Sebald—he intermixes fact and fiction in an exhilaratingly different way. I suppose reading has been my biggest influence. Since I have had little formal teaching in this business of being a writer, I feel that most of the time it is a sort of bungling—there is not much of a plan, and when I try to make one, the book takes another direction entirely.

RT: Your books are literary historical fiction, so many of your characters are real people. How do you approach writing about real people differently than creating your own characters?

CD: For the real people I try to find as much as I can about them and look at their written work and see if I can find a voice. That is the main thing. With Wegener, that was easy—he wrote diaries that were obviously romantic, and in some way, I felt, poetic—so I used that voice throughout the novel. For instance, when he described first seeing the ice, he wasn't at all the clinical scientist; he talked about the amazing colors he could see, the way the setting sun made more colors appear.

RT: And for Hoffman?

CD: For Hoffmann it was more difficult. He wrote memoirs but the only voice that came over from these was, I thought, not terribly interesting. When he visits different asylums in Europe, for instance, he lists what he was given to eat and drink—not very illuminating. I felt the man himself was much more interesting than this—he was rebellious and a revolutionary in his youth and had obviously been a very determined person to revolutionize the care of the mentally ill in Frankfurt—so I searched around for clues elsewhere. I interviewed experts, looked at a biography, read very widely the ideas that were prevalent at the time, to try and get into the mind of a 19th-century alienist. It was incredibly complicated. I also looked at his casebook and examined the symptoms and treatments he recorded.

The other main character in the book, Hannah Meyer, is based on a few lines in Hoffmann's casebook, but apart from that she is fictional. But again I based the character on my reading—there are some wonderful firsthand accounts of life in mental asylums and also of life in the Jewish ghettos in Germany in the 19th-century.

I also explored Frankfurt itself. Although much of the city was flattened during the Second World War, some of the original buildings have been reconstructed and the layout of the streets is the same, so I found the place where the mental asylum used to be and went there. It was strange—it was suddenly quiet after the bustling main street and quite haunting. It made a strong impact on me. I also found the plans and drawings of the exterior of the asylum so I could see exactly how it was, and why Hoffmann felt it needed to be changed. All of this provided me with a strong impression of the setting—so all I had to do was to put my invented characters in there.

RT: Did you find it difficult to write about a real person? Were you concerned that you might not get it right?

CD: Yes, writing about a real person was constricting—especially writing about Alfred Wegener, who has a number of fairly close relatives, including one daughter, who is still alive. I didn't want to hurt them, but I didn't want to make the book too bland either. It was a bit worrying to meet one of Alfred Wegener's grandchildren and for him and his mother to read the book. But to my great relief they liked it—in fact the daughter said that she was glad that a different side of her father's life—the human one—had been investigated. She then went on to say that she felt she had been given both of her parents as a present, because she had only been 11 when he died, which I thought was very touching. I have been contacted by other people who knew the family and have been able to put them back in touch, which seems to have pleased everyone. I was even contacted by the daughter of another character in the book who seemed to be happy with my account—another relief. I have not yet been told about anything that I got wrong, although I am sure that is because everyone is being kind—I expect there are mistakes, although I did try to find out all I could.

RT: And how about with 98 Reasons for Being?

CD: For Hoffmann, it was not such a problem because he lived a couple more generations ago. Also the work was more fictional: his patient Hannah never existed, although there was a girl admitted to his asylum who was treated very much like Hannah was, and he did try out this sort of moral therapy once. I did research the setting, psychiatric ideas of the time, and Hoffmann's history and character very thoroughly. A couple of Hoffmann experts have given their approval—though they thought Hoffmann was more of an optimist than the way I portrayed him. But of course Hoffmann died over a hundred years ago now, so no one really knows.

RT: Much of your work seems to be organic, tied strongly to the physical world. In what ways does your scientific background add or detract from your fiction?

CD: In my scientific work I tend to see things visually—I always like to find a model I can see—and I think I use this way of imagining things in my fiction. So I think, in general, my scientific background adds rather than detracts. As a chemist I guess I am used to thinking of things on a molecular scale; I like to think of what the molecules are doing, where they are going and my characters tend to do this as well. They think about the air they are breathing in—rather too much, sometimes. Perhaps that is how my scientific background detracts—sometimes I get too involved in explaining things that fascinate me, and that might interrupt the flow a little, which slows things down—so a lot tends to go out when I redraft.

RT: Does it get in the way when you are reading someone else’s science-based fiction if they get the science wrong? How important is it in fiction to get the factual details right?

CD: Yes, I have to confess that incorrect detail can get in the way a little. I read a Booker-winning or Booker short-listed book a few years ago which was about a scientist, and that author had got a few details wrong, but since the rest of the writing was wonderful (as usual) I found it more reassuring than anything that even a person like this makes mistakes; I think it allowed me to forgive myself more. A novel is such a complicated thing—the continuity, the plot, the detail, the characters—you have to keep everything in your head at once, and sometimes I think it is impossible to get everything exactly right. I think what irritates me more than incorrect facts is bad grammar—novels that are full of sentences you have to read several times, not because they are overly complicated, but because they are badly written. This irritates me in newspapers too.

RT: In addition to writing, you also teach. What are some of your more memorable moments in teaching creative writing? How is it different from teaching the hard sciences?

CD: I used to teach creative writing to adults in a village hall which we used to share with other groups—there were plenty of comical episodes associated with that!

One thing I found was that I had to be careful. Creative writing affects people very strongly. I have had lots of people moved to tears as I have encouraged them to use memories in their work. It is impossible to know when this will happen—even using the most innocent thing, like using objects from a hand bag or imagining going into a house can cause all sorts of things to be revealed. I used to find that the group tended to become quite close as a result. Sometimes it is therapeutic and cathartic—but I have to admit that it sometimes worried me.

When I taught undergraduates they were quite revealing in a different sort of way—I remember one girl gave a pretty explicit account of the previous night's sexual gymnastics, which was interesting at nine o'clock on a Monday morning.

That sort of thing never happened in chemistry lessons. Chemistry is perceived as a difficult subject and there is a lot of learning and understanding involved, so everything has to be much more disciplined and formal. I did try to liven things up, though, by using drama and writing in my teaching even then—we used to pretend to be molecules interacting, and I used to tell the lower sets stories about Mrs. Proton living with Mr. Neutron and having an affair with Mr. Electron to try and introduce the idea of charges. However when they started writing about the adventures of “Mr. Neutron” in their exam answers I had to stop that.

RT: With the advent of the Internet and the proliferation of blogs, it seems that everyone is a writer these days. How is a face-to-face workshop/class different/better than the instant virtual feedback that writers seek online?

CD: This is such an interesting question—and not something I have thought about much before. I suppose for one thing the feedback online—which I value enormously—is from anyone that happens to come across it, whereas in a class you are usually tutored by someone who either spends a lot of time writing and has some credibility in the field because they have been published themselves, or has an interest and some qualifications in English and therefore has studied enough to be able to give pertinent and useful criticism. Of course some of the people that comment on blogs are in the same category—but they don't have to be. Also I think that some people who write blogs (and I suppose I am one of those people) write them just as a satisfying and public way of recording their lives and practicing their art. I don't think they necessarily want criticism—they just want contact. Whereas in a class people have come in order to improve their craft. Also the class critique is more instantaneous and interactive. Even when I have an email conversation, it is sometimes frustratingly slow and, perhaps more importantly, the various nuances of speech and expressions of voice and face are lost.

RT: Do the benefits of distractions like the Internet outweigh the negatives?

CD: To be honest, I sometimes feel I have a problem with the Internet, and I have noticed I am not alone in this. I am constantly checking my mail—if I am out of contact with it for a few hours I feel a little edgy as if I am missing something, which is totally ridiculous. I also spend far too long writing in emails, and twice have sent off emails by mistake—nothing too serious, just bared my tortured soul rather more than I intended. Once I immediately followed a mistakenly sent email with another email to the bemused recipient ( my editor) saying “Don't read that!”—which of course ensured that it was read even more assiduously than it would have been otherwise.

I also find that I discover too much online. In fact, my agent has advised me not to look—bad reviews can be so destructive if you let them—and I am afraid that I have. Of course I have only discovered these reviews by looking on the Internet—because publishers never send you anything except good reviews. I have found it very hard to give a talk about your book or even teach creative writing with a bad review ringing in my ears. But then what is one man's poison often turns out to be another man's meat—there are few books that have been written that everyone has liked. I have to make more effort to remember that, and people in general do tend to be kind, so I think there are more good things written than bad.

And of course the Internet is an invaluable research tool. It never ceases to amaze me that any detail I require seems to be there, and without it I would not be able to keep in contact with so many people across the planet as I do now. I value that enormously.

On balance, I would find it difficult to live without the Internet now, particularly as a writer—I think it might be a little like losing one of the senses.

RT: You do a lot of traveling in pursuit of your fiction. Do you pick a place specifically to visit in order to address a certain work, or do you get inspired through your travels in general?

CD: For Wegener I sent in my work for an award saying that if I got it I would follow in Wegener's footsteps to a remote part of northwest Greenland—never dreaming that I would get it—so when I did, I had to go. To be honest, I was terrified. Chris, my spouse, doesn't like traveling, so we had never been anywhere much together since we'd been married (about 20 years). But when I went I really loved it. In order to get to the Kamarujuk glacier where Alfred Wegener last went onto the ice, I had to go on two small planes (which had luggage strapped down in the middle of the passenger cabin), and then go on a helicopter to one of the islands off the Greenlandic coast, then find someone to take me in a small boat past icebergs and calving glaciers for 12 hours. It was an amazing trip—with incredibly beautiful scenery—and having seen it and been there I think it really helped my writing.

I wrote all the time—on small airplanes, on helicopters, at terminals, everywhere I could, soaking it in, trying to take it all down, imagining what it would have been like to be Wegener. It was much better than being a tourist. It has been the same when I have gone to more temperate places. I've felt like I'm on a trail, finding the house where Wegener once lived, for instance, and asking people if they knew anything in the street nearby, and finding out where he was born and where he studied.

Since then I've traveled across Patagonia on my own for the book I am writing now which was also exciting—it’s such an incredibly flat place—quite surreal.

I do find seeing places I have never been to before exciting, even if they are places which are quite close to where I live. Anything new makes me want to write. Over the last couple of years I have traveled up and down the U.K. giving talks on my books and my research. I've enjoyed this very much. It's incredibly tiring but exhilarating in a way too. I think travel is essential for some writers, certainly this one—it makes me look outside myself for new stimulation.

RT: Where else would you like to travel to and why?

CD: Tibet, Bhutan, and Lake Baikal (that's your fault, Jeff—I read one of your short stories set there). I love the idea of being somewhere very alien and unusual. I've also read some interesting books set in this part of the world and would like to investigate their philosophies to life.

RT: What is the bravest thing you have ever done?

CD: That's quite a difficult question—things like crossing a desert in a bus full of strangers and only being able to communicate with anyone around me by signs and drawings could be thought of as brave by some, but it isn't really. I didn't think about it much, I just did it without considering at all what might go wrong. I think being brave is doing something that you really are afraid of doing and yet do it anyway—it can be small and totally unspectacular and yet you need to drive yourself forward with gritted teeth. I used to be shy; standing in front of over a hundred people used to bother me so much I had to take beta blockers to stop myself shaking. But I suppose the thing I am most proud of doing is visiting the dying—it is something that most people have to do, but I feel such dread that all I want to do is run the other way; it takes all my determination to keep walking forward.

RT: Who are your heroes and why?

CD: Alfred Wegener because he stood up for what he believed despite derision; all the writers mentioned above, I guess; one of my editors who I actually rarely speak to but who always manages to say exactly the right thing when we do. Actually that is the thing about heroes—it is important not to know them too well, that way you can admire their heroic acts without them being besmirched by human ordinariness. Then there are a couple of my teachers from school with whom I am still in contact, who inspired me enormously to write and keep on writing; and also my aerobics teacher who is always so dependably cheerful and enthusiastic.

Apart from that people who stood up for civil rights—Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, and Martin Luther King, Mrs. Pankhurst and her fellow fighters for female emancipation.

I find heroes everyday writing their blogs on the Internet—people fighting dreadful odds with such great cheer that I feel ashamed at my own pathetic grumbles and vow never to take things for granted again—which lasts for five minutes, usually.

RT: What do you think are important qualities and skills for a writer to have?

CD: Dedication, to love the feeling of getting the right word on the page, a compulsion to write and keep going, the deranged idea that someday you will get it right if you just keep going, the ability to shut off the world, a great deal of selfishness and self-belief, a single-minded destructiveness, the ability to see things in a different way and communicate this new way of seeing on the page, sensitivity to the world around you, someone to support you and who thinks everything you do is fabulous, to be thick-skinned and not care what the critics say, dogged determination, the ability to see the good in the most psychopathic megalomaniac, and see the bad in the most saintly priest . . . I realize that a lot of these qualities are contradictory; so maybe you have to be more than a touch schizophrenic too.

RT: Do these qualities conflict with living in the real world?

CD: Yes. All professional writers that I know are dedicated to such an extreme that they will do anything to write and cannot understand that this is not the only thing that is important in the world. They begin to live in the impossible world they have invented; they are sensitive to an extraordinary and destructive degree. When they are not writing they say they feel not quite right, as if they can't get their breath. Of course this is just all other writers—and not me!

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Winter 2006-2007 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2006-2007