Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

The Lucky Seven Interview, with Austin Clarke

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Austin Clarke

There is only one Austin Clarke — a writer who, at this stage in his career, has gone beyond mere awards and honours (of which he holds many) to become part of the very fabric of Canadian culture.

So it makes sense how excited CanLit fans are for 'Membering (Dundurn Press), Clarke's deeply moving and illuminating memoir. In it he recounts his youth in Barbados and move to Canada, his time in 1960s Harlem — meeting figures like Malcolm X and Chinua Achebe — and his creation of pioneering courses in Afro-American Literature at Yale University.

Today we are thrilled to welcome Dr. Clarke to Open Book to speak with us as part of our Lucky Seven interview series. He tells us about what he wanted to accomplish in writing 'Membering, the importance of writing with music and a good drink, and the many new writing projects he's working on now.

OB:

Tell us about your new book, 'Membering.

Austin Clarke:

With ‘Membering I wanted to write an autobiography without painting myself as an example of righteousness, but more as an objective observer of my own life — and in so doing investigate and avoid the serious problems that typically inhere in life writing. In that pursuit, I tried to select the most important and dramatic aspects of my life to serve as my focus — my experiences as an immigrant, a CBC employee, a politician, a visiting professor at Yale, a writer etc.

OB:

Is there a question that is central to your book, thematically? And if so, did you know the question when you started writing or did it emerge from the writing process?

AC:

As its title suggests, this is a book of reminiscences, and as such concerns itself largely with the subject’s ability to remember his life and to interpret those memories fairly and honestly, with humour, and as much as possible, without egoism and arrogance. Other themes, including perseverance and determination, were developed as I wrote.

OB:

Did the book change significantly from when you first starting working on it to the final version? How long did the project take from start to finish?

AC:

No significant changes to speak of. It took about one year to complete.

OB:

What do you need in order to write — in terms of space, food, rituals, writing instruments?

AC:

I write in my study on my typewriter, and I generally work from nine to five every day. I enjoy writing with music in the background (jazz, Beethoven), with a gin and tonic close at hand.

OB:

What do you do if you're feeling discouraged during the writing process? Do you have a method of coping with the difficult points in your projects?

AC:

Usually listening to music and having a drink helps me cope.

OB:

What defines a great book, in your opinion? Tell us about one or two books you consider to be truly great books.

AC:

A book that describes the physical and psychological environment of the country in which the work is set, a reasonable amount of autobiography, a good amount of humour. A work that considers race and the contribution of immigrant society, and one that reflects on the author’s place within those considerations. Frantz Fanon’s masterpiece The Wretched of the Earth is an example that comes to mind.

OB:

What are you working on now?

AC:

A long poem, and a collection of short stories, a novel called So What after the song by Miles Davis.


Austin Clarke is one of Canada’s foremost authors, whose work includes ten novels, six short-story collections, three memoirs and two collections of poetry. His novel The Polished Hoe won the 2002 Giller Prize. Clarke is a member of the Order of Canada, holds four honorary doctorates, and has been awarded the Commonwealth Writers' Prize, the W.O. Mitchell Prize, and the Casa de las Américas Prize, among others. In his fifty-year career, he has worked as a journalist, a professor, and a cultural attaché in Washington D.C., while publishing acclaimed fiction, non-fiction, and poetry. He lives in Toronto.

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