Sean Lusk took our London-based Writing Your Novel course in 2015. He has gone on to become an award-winning short story writer, winner of the Manchester Fiction Prize, the Fish Short Story Prize and runner-up in the Bridport and Tom-Gallon Trust prizes. He has lived in Greece, Pakistan and Egypt, working variously as a gardener, speechwriter and diplomatic official. He now lives near Forres on the Moray Firth. His debut novel The Second Sight of Zachary Cloudesley is out now from Transworld (Doubleday).
We caught up with Sean to find out more about his tightknit group of CBC friends and the inspiration behindThe Second Sight of Zachary Cloudesley.
You studied on our three-month Writing Your Novel course in 2015. How did your time on the course impact your approach to writing?
One of the most enjoyable aspects of the course was the range of my fellow students’ writing. Everyone was producing high-quality work across different genres and as a result there was a sense of adventure and learning in reviewing each other’s chapters each week. The other significant difference from courses I’d done before was the focus on pitching and publishing. We were encouraged to think about what the market might be for what we were writing, and therefore how to pitch to agents and how agents, in turn, could pitch to publishers. This didn’t for a moment mean that we were pushed into writing only commercial fiction, but it did mean that we were writing with a much clearer idea of what our eventual readership would be.
Many of our students find their writing community on our courses – are you still in touch with any of your course mates?
Yes! We were 15 and one way or another we have all kept in touch. After the course finished, we all knew that we wanted to keep working together, and we met regularly in London in the pre-Covid days, and subsequently on Zoom (helpful for one course member who now lives in Melbourne – and for me, when I lived in Greece for a couple of years). We’ve been on a couple of residential retreats together, cheered each other on through publishing deals and consoled through rejections.
Sean Lusk with some of his CBC course mates at the launch of The Second Sight of Zachary Cloudesley.
Your debut novel The Second Sight of Zachary Cloudesley follows an extraordinary son of a clockmaker. Can you tell us a bit more about the novel and the inspiration behind it?
I was inspired to write the novel after seeing a clock in a shop in a back alley which bore on its face the words ‘George Clarke, Leadenhall, 1752’. It made me wonder how a clock made in London in the middle of the eighteenth century had found its way to what was then known as Constantinople. That led me into learning about trade and war with the Ottoman Empire, about clockmaking and plague and the Sultan’s court. But I knew the story didn’t lie in that history. Eventually I found the voice of Zachary, born in that clockmaker’s shop in Leadenhall, raised by a troubled father who is inveigled into spying on the Ottoman court, and then by his eccentric Great Aunt Frances, keeper of the largest owl collection in England and radical thinker. The novel is filled with automata, talented crows, tragic bears, determinedly independent women, and love in all its forms – and ultimately a son’s quest to be reunited with his beloved father.
The novel is set in eighteenth-century London and Constantinople. How did you approach your research for the story?
I take research in phases. First, I like to read everything I can about the subject, including consulting original sources held in the British Museum (many of these are now online) and elsewhere. Then I like to go to wherever the novel is set and wander about, take in the atmosphere, and imagine how it might have been in the period when the characters lived. Then I like to put all that research aside and just focus on the story – voices and characters and plot. I think it’s important for any writer of fiction to make sure that the research is in the background, making sure there are no mistakes or anachronisms, but never poking itself through onto the page.
When did you know you want to be a writer?
I think I’ve wanted to be a writer since childhood. The science fiction writer John Christopher was a family friend, and I thought I’d like to be able to do what he did. But unfortunately it took my until I was about forty to figure out that if I wanted to be a writer, I had better write something!
Can you talk us through your writing routine?
My perfect writing day is to go for a long run in the Culbin forest near where I live in the Scottish Highlands. That usually helps me to solve any plot problems while I’m jogging along, and then I like to come home and write until mid-afternoon. I’m not a night owl and will only work late if I’m up against a deadline. I also love writing on train journeys and in the corner of a busy café. I think a lot of writers like to do that – there’s something cocoon-like about being surrounded by other people who are completely ignoring you!
What’s been your favourite book of 2022 so far?
I’ve read some great books this year, and it’s always difficult to single out just one. But my fellow Doubleday author Bonnie Garmus’s Lessons in Chemistry takes some beating. And as it happens, Bonnie is also a CBC alumna!
If you could only pass on one piece of advice to aspiring authors, what would you say?
Persist. You really do have to love the act of writing and be willing to continually hone your craft, try things out and face up to a LOT of rejection if you want eventually to have the dream come true.
Finally, what’s next for your writing journey?
My next novel tells the story of the extraordinary life of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, who was an early feminist, major literary figure, radical thinker, traveller, and the woman who brought inoculation against smallpox to England. Her relationships with everyone from King George the Second to her own son were complicated and at times disastrous. Mary was famous in her lifetime but like so many women has been largely written out of history. I hope my novel will restore her to her rightful place in our imaginations.
Get your hands on a copy of The Second Sight of Zachary Cloudesley.