Tonight we put the spotlight on Julia Clayton, whose stories ‘Dacre Must Fall’ and ‘Café Herakles’ are published in issue 10 of Lucent Dreaming. You can watch and listen to the author read an extract from ‘Café Herakles’ on YouTube.
So, what inspired your stories ‘Café Herakles’ and ‘Dacre Must Fall’ (published in issue 10)? Can you tell us a little more about what they’re about?
The idea for ‘Café Herakles’ came about when I was planning a trip to Vienna and reading a lot of guidebooks. I began to wonder just how much legwork went into researching these books, and whether guidebook writers were ever tempted to plagiarise each other’s work. I deliberately set the story in the recent past, before the invention of the internet, as I thought that nowadays it would probably be impossible to get away with inventing a fake café. However, shortly after I finished the story I read a news item about a man in London who had managed to get his garden shed to the top of the London restaurant recommendations on Tripadvisor, complete with photographs of household objects (and even his own leg) masquerading as artily-presented plates of food – so I guess that shows I was being over-cautious in setting my story in a time before the internet.
‘Dacre Must Fall’ – as I’m sure most readers will have twigged – was inspired by the toppling of the Edward Colston statue in Bristol in June 2020. I found this event really interesting in terms of the conversation it opened up, about the functions of public sculpture and the values we’re implicitly endorsing when we put up (or fail to take down) statues of particular individuals. As someone who has spent years teaching the history of sculpture (I still regularly blog about sculpture), I loved the fact that people had stopped seeing statues as street furniture and instead started asking questions about exactly who we were commemorating, and beyond that, whether these figures were worthy of commemoration.
The plot twist in ‘Dacre Must Fall’, where the narrator discovers that the mine-owner Thaddeus Dacres took credit for one of his employee’s inventions, was inspired by some documents I read back in 1990 when I was doing some research on Charles Scarisbrick, a wealthy nineteenth-century landowner in the area of Lancashire where I live. That material surfaced in my mind thirty years later, when I was writing the story; it just goes to show that you never know when a particular observation or snippet of information might come in useful when you’re doing something creative.
What are some of your favourite books and art, of all time or more recently? Why are they your favourites?
During my career as a Classics teacher I had to teach Homer’s Odyssey every year for twenty-five years – but I never became bored with it, because you find something new every time you read it. One of its strengths is the way that the minor characters, even if they only appear on a few pages, are so well-drawn that you feel as if you know them – whereas in Virgil’s Aeneid, for example, the minor characters are just cardboard cut-outs with no personality.
My four favourite novels are probably Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, Graham Greene’s The Comedians, Alan Hollinghurst’s The Swimming-Pool Library and Donna Tartt’s The Secret History. I’ve read all of them several times over. The Secret History, in particular, is a fantastic portrait of how a small group of people (in this case, a group of Classics students at a liberal arts college in Vermont) can become so insular and self-contained that they end up committing two ‘perfect’ murders. The narrator, an outsider who has tried so hard to be accepted by the group, finds himself implicated in their behaviour. The Secret History also explores the question, which goes right back to Socrates’s trial in 399 BCE, of how far teachers can be held responsible for the actions of their students.
I also like reading novel-cycles which follow the same characters over several decades. Proust’s In Search of Lost Time has become a byword for a long-winded, complex book, but it’s surprisingly readable (at least in Penguin English translation) and it drops a real bombshell in the final volume. Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time, which consists of twelve novels, is probably the closest thing to Proust by an English writer. My most recent discovery though, is Simon Raven’s Alms for Oblivion cycle, which is like ready Anthony Powell with more plot (and more amoral characters) – I binge-read all ten novels in the series in about three weeks.
What, if anything, are you looking forward to right now and are there any writing projects you’re currently working on?
I’m currently doing a PhD in Creative Writing at Edge Hill University in Lancashire. My thesis explores fictional art (that is, artworks which don’t exist outside the mind of the author – the classic example would be Dorian Gray’s portrait) through the form of a catalogue for an imagined ‘exhibition’ of invented artworks.
The great thing about doing doctoral research in Creative Writing is that you get to write a novel as well as an academic thesis. The invented artwork in my novel is a Roman statue of Hadrian’s teenage lover Antinous, which is rediscovered in the late 1970s. The art historian who finds the statue traces its history back, and in doing so solves a (genuine) historical mystery: why was the German art historian Johann Winckelmann murdered in a Trieste hotel room in 1768? Writing a novel also gives me the opportunity to keep exploring the theme which runs through my short fiction, which is about the connection between artistic and personal authenticity.
Can you tell us about how you got into writing and art? Is there anyone whose support or encouragement really inspired or motivated you?
I’ve been writing fiction – and the occasional travel article – since I was at school, but I only started writing on a more consistent basis in 2017, when I decided to do an MA in Creative Writing. The combination of deadlines and regular feedback really boosted my productivity and confidence, to the extent that in 2019 I decided to give up teaching and become a full-time writer.
I’ve been fortunate to encounter several people over the years who’ve supported and encouraged me, including my A-level History teacher, Veronica Morrell, who made every lesson so interesting and vivid that it was like being in a historical novel. I was also lucky to have a fantastic supervisor for my MA Creative Writing course, Ailsa Cox, the world’s first professor of short fiction; she knows a staggering amount about the art of short-story writing and she’s incredibly well-read.
Architecture and art history have also been very important both in my career as a Classics teacher and in my writing. Growing on Merseyside I was surrounded by fantastic Neo-classical buildings such as St George’s Hall in Liverpool and the Monument (a very grand war memorial) in Southport. Liverpool has lots of great art galleries and museums which are completely free to visit: I used to spend hours wandering round the Walker Art Gallery, as well as the Lady Lever Art Gallery in Port Sunlight. The Atkinson in Southport also has some amazing pieces of art, especially John Collier’s painting Lilith, which is based on a poem by Dante Gabriel Rossetti.
Where can people see more of you and your work?
Apart from my work in Lucent Dreaming, some of my other short stories are available for free online.
‘The British Usurper’ (about a museum curator who forges a rare Roman coin, inventing a new Roman emperor in the process) is available in the Fairlight Shorts series at https://www.fairlightbooks.com.uk/short_stories/the-british-usurper.
‘Viking’, a story about an autistic schoolboy who gets some an unusual work experience placement, is in Issue 19 of Writers’ Café Magazine, an issue devoted to stories and poems about archaeology:
‘Tinted Venus’, a story inspired by a sculpture in the Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool, is one of the posts on my Classical Reception blog: http://classicalclayton.blogspot.com/tinted-venus
Lucent Dreaming is an independent creative writing magazine of surreal writing and art, and publisher of emerging authors and artists worldwide. Subscribe to Lucent Dreaming now, support us on Patreon and follow us on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.