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Interview: Melissa Harrison, author of Clay

Image: Clay, by Melissa Harrison, UK cover photo via Bloomsbury (source)

One reason I enjoy my subscription to "Harper's Magazine" is the New Books review section. This month, Jane Smiley reviewed three books which she described as extending the tradition of Don Quixote by writing about "geography: what is out there, who lives there, how they are different from characters who live in other landscapes." One of the books is Clay, by Melissa Harrison.

Clay is about the intersections and differences of the lives of a boy, a girl (and her mother) and her grandmother, and an immigrant man. Nature also plays a significant role in this novel -- it provides identity, solace, wonder, and home. The book is published by Bloomsbury and has its own website.

Instead of writing a traditional book review, I decided to ask Melissa Harrison to participate in an interview. She agreed to answer my questions via a questionnaire which I have included below.

The Interview

I read in Jane Smiley's review that the book's chapters are structured according to "the traditional English calendar." My web search revealed that the chapter titles are based on British holidays. Can you talk about your reason for organizing the book in this way?

The chapter titles were a way of connecting a modern, urban narrative to an ancient, rural calendar. They all would have been familiar to anyone living in the English countryside between the medieval and Victorian periods; I wanted to hark back to the rhythms and patterns that governed our lives for so long – and suggest, perhaps, that they have not been entirely lost.

I noticed that different types of landscapes/natures represent different characters (ex: Jozef/farm, TC/wildlands). Was this characterization intentional or did it emerge as you wrote the book?

That’s not something I’m aware of having done – but every reader brings different things to a text and it’s often a mark of a good book that it can be read in several ways. So thank you, that’s an interesting new angle!

At the end of the book, the main characters become untethered from the land/nature. Is there a lesson here?

Not so much a lesson, but I wanted readers to experience a sense of loss – because it’s often through loss that we realise the value of what came before. One of the things that drove me to write Clay was a belief that fostering a connection to nature is deeply important, not just for the future of our environment but for ourselves. I wanted readers to come away from the book noticing more of the natural world around them, and hopefully valuing it more. To make that emotional connection come to life meant showing what could be lost for the characters when it was taken away.

Did you write Linda to lose, recover, and lose her direct connection to nature?

Linda is someone who had a chance of living a more meaningful life – of reaching beyond material things, of defining herself differently – but didn’t quite have the courage to take it. I have every sympathy with her, especially as she knows that something is missing from her life, and really does try to recapture the connection she had as a child; but ultimately consumerism, class and the pressure to fit in are too much for her. It would also have required her to heal her relationship with her mother and align herself, imaginatively, with her – and that’s not something she’s able to do.

Image: Clay, by Melissa Harrison, US cover photo via Bloomsbury Publishing (Thanks, Carrie Majer)

The nature experiences available to TC are striking given his residence in an urbanized area. Can you talk about green space access and conservation in urbanized England?

The locations in Clay are all places I can reach on foot within about 15 minutes of my South London apartment. British cities are full of parks, some endowed by royalty in days gone by, some created by Victorian industrialists and philanthropists and many – particularly in London – carved from World War Two bomb sites. My neighbourhood is very urbanised, but in Britain even the most built-up areas usually have street trees (often huge and ancient), grass verges beside the roads and small recreational parks that are protected from development. Having said that, the very ubiquity of our urban green spaces means that many people just stop noticing them. I wanted to remind people to look again – and realise how lucky we are.

It seems that Daisy and TC experience the outdoors differently because of factors like housing type and location, parental oversight, sex perhaps. Do you think this is an accurate reading of the book? Also, can you talk about your perspective on the importance of children's experience of the outdoors/nature?

Daisy and TC represent the two extremes of parental oversight, I suppose: TC, utterly neglected, does what he pleases, whereas all of Daisy’s time is managed. Both are impoverished in different ways; Daisy comes from a wealthy home and has many advantages, but she is not allowed to make her own decisions or develop a clear sense of risk, and her parents seem to value activities most highly if they can see that they are directly educational in some way. Yet I believe that unstructured outdoor play is absolutely vital to childhood development, and that we do children a terrible disservice when we fail to give them opportunities to enjoy it.

It's clear that you are knowledgeable about plants and animals. How did you gain this expertise? What are your favorite plants and animals?

I grew up in a semi-rural English county in the late 1970s and early 1980s, when it was still possible to leave kids to play outdoors all day. Learning the names of trees and plants seemed natural to me, but, like Linda, I forgot much of it when I became a teenager. After I had lived in London for a while I realised that I had lost something important to me, and when I was able to rent an apartment with a small garden I began to plant and care for things again, and to connect with a patch of ground for the first time since I had been a child. I began looking things up and reminding myself of the richness of the world beyond my job, socialising and my daily commute.

Will we see TC again?

The honest answer is I don’t know! I worry about him still, which sounds odd – but he became very real to me in the course of writing Clay. At some point I may need to find out if he is OK. But not just yet.

Will nature figure prominently in your next book?

Yes – but in a slightly different way. I don’t want to say too much, but I will reveal that it’s not set in a city, and features a journey through a landscape. Watch this (open) space!