Clare Pooley is the author of The Sober Diaries, a memoir based on her experience of getting sober and overcoming breast cancer. She took a three-month Writing Your Novel course in London with us earlier this year, taught by Charlotte Mendelson, in order to turn her talent for writing towards fiction. Now her debut novel The Authenticity Project has been auctioned to publishers around the world – including exciting deals with Transworld in the UK and Penguin in the US. This makes Clare the 52nd student to get a commercial book deal! We caught up with Clare to find out more about her experience on the CBC course and these exciting deals.
It’s been a bit of a whirlwind for you these past few months: since finishing the 3-month novel-writing course with us this July you’ve found an agent (Hayley Steed at the Madeleine Milburn Agency), and had your debut novel The Authenticity Project auctioned to publishers around the world – including exciting deals with Transworld in the UK and Penguin in the US – plus a rapidly increasingly list of translation deals for your debut novel. What’s been the most exciting part of this journey for you so far?
It hasn’t really sunk in yet, to be honest. I feel like I’m living in a parallel universe, and somewhere there’s an alternate version of me who’s received a whole bunch of rejection letters. I have enough rejections from the last five years or so of writing and submitting to wallpaper my downstairs loo. Perhaps I should do that!
The thing I’ve found the most exciting is hearing the characters who, until recently, only lived in my own head being talked about by people in so many different countries. It feels like they’ve come alive, walked off the page and out into the world, which is an extraordinary feeling.
Your non-fiction book The Sober Diaries, published by Hodder and Stoughton in 2017, developed out of your blog ‘Mummy was a secret drinker’ which documented your experience of getting sober and overcoming breast cancer. What are the main differences between writing non-fiction and writing fiction? And do you find one comes more easily to you than the other?
I find writing fiction harder, in that it relies so totally on your own imagination, but easier in that the possibilities are limitless. I think my fiction was much improved by writing non-fiction first. When you trawl the depths of your own experiences and feelings it helps you to write convincingly about the experiences and feelings of your characters.
Some days I find non-fiction easier to write, because I feel drawn to exploring my own head, whereas other days I find fiction easier because I’m desperate to get out of my own head and live in the minds of others.
Many authors draw on their own life to write compelling and authentic fiction, how much of The Authenticity Project is inspired by real experiences?
So much of it! For a start, it’s all set in my ‘hood’. As I walk my local streets I can see where my characters live and hang out. Also, each of my characters has a fatal flaw – for example, one is an addict, another is slightly OCD, one is obsessed by portraying a perfect life on Instagram – and all of those flaws are also mine.
The Authenticity Project, focuses on the difference between the lives we portray and the reality, on the importance of forming human connections in a seemingly cold, technologically advanced world – and in particular on a notebook that is passed from one person to another across the novel. Could you tell us more about the idea, and how you came up with it?
Four years ago, my world, as portrayed on social media, was seemingly perfect. The reality was very different. I was falling apart. I decided to tell the truth about what was going on, first in my blog, and then in my memoir, and doing that transformed not just my life, but the lives of thousands of others. That got me thinking: everybody lies about their lives. What would happen if they told the truth instead? That thought led to the idea of a notebook, labelled ‘The Authenticity Project’ in which six people would tell their truths and, ultimately, change each other’s lives.
– And why was important to you to explore this subject in your novel?
I think my story touches on issues that we are all grappling with – the difference between perception and reality, the way the constant portrayal of perfect lives makes us all feel inadequate, and the fact that we all have thousands of connections with people and yet so many of us are lonely, as those connections are invariably shallow. I think we are all yearning for local community, deep friendship and honesty, and that’s what I created in my novel.
When I started writing my blog, it was a form of therapy, and in a way, writing this novel has been too. It’s allowed me to take the things that bother me about the world we live in and make them right.
The novel follows a variety of characters – was it a challenge to write from multiple points of view?
It was hard in the early days, but as I lived with the characters over time, I was able to make their voices much more distinct. I would constantly ask myself what each of them would do in certain situations. For example, if I was in a café, I’d wonder what each of them would order off the menu and why. When lying in bed, I’d picture each of their bedrooms. What did they see when they woke up in the morning? Gradually, I used those little details to layer on colour and depth, a process which is still ongoing!
The Authenticity Project is the book that you were working on during your time with us – how did the Curtis Brown Creative course impact your novel-writing?
When I started the course, despite having already published non-fiction, I had very little confidence. I thought the other students were all much better writers than me. When it was my turn to have my writing workshopped, I was terrified. The support and enthusiasm of my wonderful writing group and my tutors – Charlotte Mendelson and Norah Perkins – made me believe, for the first time, that I really could do it. Without that support, I doubt I would ever have finished the first draft.
If you had one piece of advice or wisdom for aspiring novelists, what would it be?
Don’t worry about what people might want to read, think about what you feel COMPELLED to write. If you’re compelled to write it, others will be compelled to read it. Write a diary, or a blog. Exploring your own world will make you better at exploring others.
Blogger, memoirist and now novelist; what’s next for you and your writing?
I still blog, and I may go back to publishing non-fiction again one day, but as all my publishing deals are based on two books, I’ve got to get on with writing the next novel. Maybe I should sign up for another one of your courses…