We spoke to Xan Brooks about his debut novel, The Clocks in this House all Tell Different Times, and what it’s like to be longlisted for the Desmond Elliott Prize.
‘Summer 1923: the modern world. Orphaned Lucy Marsh climbs into the back of an old army truck and is whisked off to the woods north of London – a land haunted by the past, where lost souls and monsters conceal themselves in the trees. Here are the loved and the damaged, dark forests and darker histories, and the ever-present risk of discovery and violent retribution.’
Praise from the Desmond Elliott Prize: “A title which hints at airy discombobulation conceals a novel of visceral design: red in tooth and claw, silk-velvet in heart and head. This demonic fairy tale, is it The Wizard of Oz exhumed to horrific purpose? A prequel to Decline and Fall? Or simply a great-aunt’s legend revisited? All these, and something supremely itself: a novel spun from a moment of family history which connects us to all times.”
My great-aunt once said that, as a child, she used to be taken to Epping Forest to meet (in her words) “the funny men from the war”. She told this to my dad shortly before she died and he then told me. I remember at the time thinking that it sounded like a pitch-black fairytale – the little girl on a journey, the monsters in the woods – but that this, crucially, was a fairytale with a horrible true-life angle and a proper historic underpinning; the aftermath of the First World War. That was the starting point of the book – a five-minute conversation about a five-minute conversation. The rest of it is all made up.
How does it feel to be longlisted for the Desmond Elliott Prize?
I think any aspiring novelist who claims they never fantasise about being nominated for a major literary prize is basically flat-out lying. What’s weird, though, is that on those once-in-a-million occasions when the fantasy comes true, you don’t feel vindicated or triumphant or any of the things you thought you would. The truth is you feel deeply touched – as if a group of total strangers have suddenly done you an enormous kindness. Which of course is exactly what has happened here.
What was the most challenging thing about your journey to becoming a published author?
The most obvious challenge is simply writing the book. Fortunately it also happens to be the most thrilling, galvanising and intoxicating thing, too. On the one hand you can never get the story precisely as you intended it to be. But on the other its capacity to surprise you is endlessly fascinating and those bizarre twists and turns can lead to interesting places.
What one piece of advice would you give to an aspiring novelist?
Maybe don’t think of yourself as an aspiring novelist. The label carries too much baggage and baggage is bound to slow your progress. Instead, carve out some time and start writing. Try to be led by the story as much as possible. Of course it is you that is telling this story. But every good narrative has its own natural bend and direction. Hold it lightly and be receptive to what it says and does.
What is your favourite debut novel of all time?
Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison. It’s not the best debut in terms of literary quality. But it’s probably my favourite insofar as it feels like the ultimate debut novel: unrefined and overwhelming, a great outpouring of everything that had been bottled up inside; everything he’d thought and felt as an African-American living in the 40’s and 50’s. And sure enough, once he’d got it out of his system, he barely wrote another thing.