A Q & A with Polly Clark, author of Tiger

5 Jul

Polly Clark

Every now and then I find myself reeling in the wake of a book. A certain mannerism I see in the street, or a turn of phrase or an accent overheard echoes a character, or in the midst of some daydream a scene returns to play out in the mind, and then all the attendant emotion experienced in the reading comes and clings to the moment. A string of little explosions ensues, other characters, other moments, other scenes then coming to mind and then the questions begin to chatter. What if… Why that… How on earth…

When that happens you know you’ve read something quite glorious, and it happened to me recently in the shape of Polly Clark’s Tiger. If you’ve read it you’ll know what I mean, and if you haven’t do yourself a favour and go get it now. It will be one of the best books you read this year, I’m sure. I absolutely loved it, as you can tell from my review.

I’m delighted to say that Polly kindly agreed to answer a handful of questions relating to Tiger. I hope you enjoy her responses.

 

I’m interested to ask how the story evolved during the writing. What was the seed that first inspired the story? Did you have the characters and trajectories early on, or did they develop along the way?

I was always interested in tigers, since my zookeeping days, and had written about them in poems. I had Frieda in mind and the zoo early on and then I became interested in the Siberian Tiger, because of its specific grudge-holding characteristic. Going on the trip to Siberia transformed the novel by bringing in the other human characters, the men in the camp and Edit the Udeghe huntress and her daughter, and also the Russian forest as a character in a way.

Of your main characters who was the most fun to write? Who was the hardest to get right?

I felt very close to Frieda, and very sorry for her. And I found her way of looking at the world and arguing with Gabriel very spirited and funny. But as I was writing each character I was absolutely immersed. I cried a lot over Edit and Valery.

I believe your research for the book was quite immersive. What was the most fascinating thing you learned that didn’t make it into the book? What real events or experiences did?

I love to read novels that have real information in them, and my trip to Siberia enabled me to have a lot of authentic detail. One wonderful experience I had – that of shooting a Kalashnikov rifle and brushing the bullseye at 30m – makes it in. I gave it to Frieda. I can’t think of anything I didn’t transmute into the book in some way. I gave it everything!

There is some lovely imagery in your writing, vivid and lyrical. Does your approach to poetry and prose differ, or are they the same?

Louis de Bernieres says that the novel is such a capacious form that it can contain all your poetry, all your thoughts, feelings, dreams. I agree with this. I bring my ‘poet’s eye’ to my novels because I have no other way of seeing, but novels are about narrative and stories and are a completely different form of labour.

I love the fact that survival and independence are so interwoven for your female characters (including the tiger). This feels especially true of Frieda, who really gets put through the ringer. It feels like a subtle current of feminism rather than an overt show and I wonder how much Frieda’s story being the beginning of things shaped that in later chapters.

I am very interested in female experience and I wanted to take to the limit and beyond every way of being female (whether human or tiger): girl, mother, childless, motherless, menopause, and the relationship between female and male. Frieda has many problems being a female and I loved watching her find a way to be happy in her way of being a woman.

With Frieda, Edit and Tomas we have characters who have to some extent chosen isolation. I wonder how big an effect the sense of the tigers’ way of life had on you when considering each of your protagonists?

Yes, the tiger, throughout is an echo of their struggle, an example of a way of life. The novel is about trying to connect beyond one’s isolation and the different ways this is possible, and also how the characters can learn from the tiger, the supreme master of independence.

What’s the best piece of editorial advice you received when writing tiger?

The prologue was suggested at the very last, and I think makes such a difference to the experience of the book.

Did you always want to be a writer? Who were the writers who shaped or influenced the way you write?

I have always been a writer, as in always writing. My influences are from all over the place as I haven’t come to writing through a traditional route. The first novel to blow me away was Clarissa by Samuel Richardson, an absolutely enormous epistolary novel and the first novel written in English. It wasn’t on the reading list for my degree course but I was completely hooked, spent six months reading it to exclusion of everything else and scored very badly in my exams. Don’t regret it at all. The poet who has had the greatest impact on me is Ted Hughes.

Reading a great book often leaves an impact with the reader. Did you find yourself changed in any way through writing the book?

Absolutely. I have much more of a sense of my place in a bigger natural world, and of myself as an animal. I think I am also more hopeful about the possibilities for the relationship between men and women and between people and endangered animals.

What’s next for you? Do you have a project waiting in the wings?

Novel three. Early days, but it features the ocean and I will have to make a transatlantic sailing voyage…

 

I hope you enjoyed these questions and answers, and I hope particularly they’ll make you want to go and read Tiger. It’s definitely worth it!

My especial thanks to Polly for taking the time to answer my questions (and for writing Tiger in the first place), and to Ana McLaughlin at Quercus for making it possible.

Author photo by Murdo McLeod

35,35,317,335.132568

 

 

 

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