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Clare O'Brien | Smorgasbord 2022

Originally a Londoner, Clare has worked as a schoolteacher, a journalist, PR to a politician and PA to a rock star. She now lives and writes beside a sea-loch in Scotland with her husband, her cat and her wolfhound, which suits her much better. Her work is most often described as speculative, neo-noir or modern gothic. Her credits include Popshot, Mslexia, Northwords Now, The London Reader, Lunate, The Mechanics’ Institute Review and several British and American poetry anthologies. Her first poetry pamphlet Who Am I Supposed To Be Driving?, a collection of ekphrastic poems in response to the music of David Bowie, is due out in August 2022 with Hedgehog Poetry Press.

LGT: Hi Clare, welcome to the Smorgasbord. What were you like at school?

CO: Shy, introverted but rebellious. One of the weird kids. My school was fairly academic and also very hot on sports – I could manage the first OK but definitely not the second. This was before the age of the goth, but the crowd I was in as a kid was a bit alternative.

LGT: I loved your recent poetry collection, Who Am I Supposed to be Driving? Can you tell me something about the process of writing it?

CO: I love ekphrastic poetry and I think I’m good at it, but I wanted to apply the approach to music for this collection instead of working to a visual stimulus. I first encountered David Bowie at age 14 and like many of my generation, I was changed by him. I also grew up near where he did in south London, so I understand something of where he came from. In the year in which he would have been 75, I thought about writing some poems in response to his incredible body of work. The call for a “baker’s dozen” of poems on a single theme from Hedgehog Poetry gave me the perfect nudge to get on with it! I wrote the poems quite quickly; soaking myself in the songs’ imagery and sonics. I tried not to overthink it, though, and some of what I wrote surprised me.

LGT: How would you describe your writing style?

CO: As far as poetry goes, succinct – I don’t tend to write long poems. And people have called my writing dark, but I think it’s more that it likes to burrow deep under the surface of things. The dark can be friendly sometimes, and the light can be pitiless.

LGT: Tell me about one of your best writing moments.

CO: Walking on the beach a couple of years back and seeing a huge barrel jellyfish washed up on the sand. I didn’t have my phone or a camera, and I’m glad I didn’t, because the urge to fix every image digitally rather than trust myself to remember is one of the biggest enemies of writing for me. But because I didn’t have an image to refer to, I went straight home and wrote a poem about the creature’s death before I forgot what it was like. Called Lost In Translation, I still think it’s one of my best.

LGT: What are you working on now?

CO: I’m working to improve and extend my first full-length poetry collection Huginn & Muninn (named after Odin’s ravens), versions of which have been shortlisted several times but haven’t yet found a home. I’m also about half way through the first draft of something called Light Switch. It’s a sort of dystopian novel, but there’s humour in it as well. Broadly speaking it’s about alienation and atomisation.

LGT: What does literary success look like to you?

CO: Freedom.

LGT: What advice would you give your younger self?

CO: Don’t spend so much time engrossed in the work of others, particularly interesting men, and have more confidence in yourself as a woman and a creative. However, I’m aware that this collection has been inspired by the work of a particularly interesting man, so there’s an inherent conflict there. On the other hand, David Bowie made me feel a lot better about myself over the years, so perhaps it was time to give some of that energy back somehow.

LGT: If there was one person (contemporary or historical) you could spend a day with, who would you choose and why? How would you spend the day?

CO: It would have to be David Jones – “the man behind the wheel” of all the characters driven across the artistic landscape under the brand name David Bowie. Although it’s probably wiser to be satisfied with the work and all the open-ended questions it poses, I am deeply curious about who he was under the personae, what he felt, what he wanted to achieve, where he felt he’d most succeeded. I’d spend the day wandering around London, where he came from, or New York, where he made his final home.

LGT: Now for the name game. Name three authors who inspire you:

CO: Hilary Mantel, Alan Garner, David Mitchell.

LGT: Three books that stunned you when you first read them (hallelujah moments):

CO: The Owl Service – Alan Garner, Hawksmoor – Peter Ackroyd, Boy in Darkness – Mervyn Peake.

LGT: Three favourite books not included above:

CO: The Hawk In The Rain – Ted Hughes; Wolf Hall trilogy – Hilary Mantel. Is that cheating? If it has to be just one, then The Mirror And The Light. The Lord Of The Rings – J R R Tolkien

LGT: Three favourite films:

CO: Mulholland Drive (David Lynch), Inception (Christopher Nolan), Last Year At Marienbad (Alain Resnais).

LGT: Three recurring songs on your playlist:

CO: This changes quite fast. But right now…. Skinty Fia – Fontaines DC, Sugar – Editors, Pana-Vision – The Smile.

LGT: Any final words of wisdom?

CO: Don’t be afraid of the dark.

LGT: Thanks Clare.

Find out more about Clare on her website, on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook.

LG Thomson is the author of seven novels, including Boyle’s Law, a noir thriller set in the Highlands. Her writing has appeared in a wide range of anthologies and literary publications including Wyldblood Magazine, Epoch Press, and Art North. Her latest book, Modernist Dreams Brutalist Nightmares, is a narrative memoir about being part of the first generation to grow up in Scotland’s most ambitious New Town. It will be published by Outcast Press in October 2022. Find out more here.

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