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How To Bring Him Back blog tour: Interview with the wonderful Claire HM

Kayla: Hello Claire! Welcome to the last stop of the blog tour…let’s go out with a bang, shall we?

Starting off, then, How To Bring Him Back has been out for a little while now. What have you enjoyed most about seeing people talk about it online and in person?

Claire: It’s been great to hear people talk about reading How to Bring Him Back as a sensory experience, because I really wanted to convey how the lead character Cait experiences the world.

It’s a tricky balance writing an anti-hero(ine). Cait is a working-class character who’s poor, without a support network, in precarious living conditions, coping with a toxic self-image and a lack of clarity about her place in the world. With the lies she tells, and her impulsive way of navigating her relationships, I knew that as a character she was in danger of turning off the reader.

I wanted the writing to really convey how it felt to be Cait, to live in her body, so that there would be an identification with her as a person having a hard time, rather than a judgement of her. So when I’ve read reviews saying how it is intimate and powerful the way Cait describes her interactions with her body and her surroundings, and also the compassion readers have shown for Cait’s youthful mistakes I’ve been pleased that Cait’s story has been received as intended.

The question is though, as readers can we extend that compassion to the mistakes we made ourselves in the past when it was just enough to keep going day to day? Could we extend it too to others?

Kayla: Is there anything that hasn’t been mentioned which has surprised you?

Claire: Ronnie! No one has mentioned Cait’s relationship with her bar manager, an older gay character who’s involved in a volatile relationship of his own, but who tries to take her under his care and become part of a support network she is missing. I’d love to know what readers thinks Ronnie brings to the story.

Kayla: That's a very good point actually! Maybe readers will look into Ronnie more after they read this. Confronting the past is a large part of what drives the 2018 narrative forward – in your mind, what is the purpose of Cait’s choosing to write this now? Is it a sense of nostalgia, of reclaiming the past? Or is it more to do with reclaiming the guilt she’s felt and finally moving on?

Claire: Something has stirred in Cait’s subconscious about Stadd. As an older character, she tells us right at the beginning that she has had this dream of him kissing her that awakened a sense memory of how rooted he made her feel.

The dream startles Cait. The last time she thought of Stadd was ten years before, when she’d had a Facebook catch up with him then enough to know that he’d migrated to the other side of the world. I think this move says something about Stadd as a thoughtful character with aspirations beyond his original circumstance, but it also shows he would have had the means to migrate. There’s a big difference between being working class with a skilled profession, like Stadd’s factory job, and taking odd jobs to make ends meet like Cait was.

After Cait’s unexpected dream of Stadd, more than twenty years after their relationship, I think she is filled with the idea that something more happened between them than she’d ever considered before. Now that she’s a writer, she has tools of reflection and time that she didn’t have when she was younger and living day to day.

Her yearly writing retreat is coming up, so she uses her time to see what she had missed about what happened between her and Stadd. Cait knows she’ll get a story out of her reflections. She also knows that she always experiences a layer of healing when she alchemises her personal experience into a narrative. But I don’t think on starting out, with all her swagger about spells and big barrelled pens she realises just how transformative the process will be. And that’s the emotional journey that the reader takes with the older Cait.

Kayla: Throughout the novella, we learn more about what Cait got up to between 1994 and 2018, and we get hints as to what Stadd did with his life laced throughout too. Have you given much thought to what Rik’s life trajectory was like following his time with Cait, or does it remain a mystery?

Claire: There’s a part in the 2018 narrative, where Cait says she doesn’t need to apologise to Rik because she still sees him around when she occasionally goes on a night out into Birmingham, and that they acknowledge each other but nothing more. I imagine that Rik in his forties is not that different to Rik in his twenties. I imagine he’s single, maybe tried a marriage or a long-term relationship or two that didn’t stick. That essentially his life is working and living in a way that gives him the cash to afford his weekend hangovers. And if he’s still a brickie then he’ll be killing it with his daily rates in this post-lockdown building boom.

I assume that Rik hasn’t had to change that much because, as Cait says later, he never cared about being seen as a dirtbag. When he got drunk and had casual sex, no matter who with, it just showed how blokey he was. To carry on as he was, would’ve been an acceptable trajectory to his life.

Kayla: You really capture the grunge of Cait’s life in 90s Birmingham in a way that not many others have done. What were some things that it was important for you to portray about this location and time, and why?

Claire: It was important for me to root the 90s action of the novella in real places in Birmingham. I don’t think that Birmingham exists enough in the world of literature! Certainly not a version of working-class Birmingham written from the perspective of a writer from the same demographic.

More generally, there are often comic, sneering or, even worse, genteel and ‘noble’ portrayals of working-class characters that writers from other backgrounds might tend to towards creating. And then add in the fact that, on top of being a working class Brummie, Cait’s is a female perspective and you’re really entering sparsely populated literary territory. One of the things that Fly on the Wall does so well, is to makes space for stories to be told by ‘own voices’. You’re a publisher who doesn’t engage in the hypocrisy of contracting the same old demographic of writers to tell the stories of those who’ve been marginalised by the publishing sector itself.

As for it being grunge-y (a word, by the way, I would’ve cringed to hear back in the 90s but is a useful shorthand now), I just went with the old adage ‘write about what you know.’ When I write fiction, I use details from my own life to build a story. The events of the story didn’t happen but I do use places and characters, such as imagined versions of myself, in fictitious ways and I think this gives the novella its ring of authenticity.

Kayla: Obviously, How To Bring Him Back is a novella, which I personally feel remains an under-appreciated length of story. Did you always intend for How To Bring Him Back to be a novella? And what is it about the novella form that you enjoy (or not!)?

Claire: I first wrote a version of How to Bring Him Back as the final piece for my Masters in Creative Writing, so I always intended it to be a complete story in 15,000 words. I challenged myself to write a story with the scope of a novel in a few key scenes. I wanted to write the 90s scenes alternating between the point of view of each of the main characters, but in the end that didn’t give the sense of continuity I felt the narrative needed. I think it did help, though, to get to know Rik and Stadd as characters, because I’d taken that time to immerse myself in their perspectives.

I’d say as a writer, the novella form suits me as I tend towards brevity. I don’t like to over explain for the reader, I try to get the reader to feel alongside the characters rather than explain. I think a lot of story can be packed into sensory and emotional detail, so much so that my prose can tend towards poetry. I’m not big on distinctions between genre, anyway. In the writing market, it seems like a necessary distinction to work within a discrete genre, although there are notable exceptions. As a writer though, I see the distinctions between poetry and fiction as arbitrary.

As a reader, a novel is most likely to be consumed in chunks, like watching a tv series, whereas a novella has more in common with a film. I feel like there is something captivating about being able to set aside a couple of hours to be immersed in a complete story. All the better if it has a strong cathartic arc!

Kayla: Definitely! One of the most enchanting things about this story is the link to casting a spell and writing (“If I was going to cast a spell tonight…By what power? By the power of my pen.”) which is something I’m massively intrigued by. How, for you, are the arts of writing and casting a spell similar?

Claire: Spell has such a rich range of meanings as both a noun and a verb – there’s an indeterminate period of time, a spoken word that holds magical power, a compelling influence or attraction, and, more obviously, to name the letters of a word in order. Really, look up the word in a dictionary and I dare you not to be inspired by the range of its meaning. And all the meanings hold together language, a period of time and intention – as does the telling of a story.

Kayla: And, lastly, as someone that wasn’t alive back when the story chronologically begins in 1994, I’d love to hear about one trend you wish would make a comeback from the ‘90s? Or one you wish will stay away and NEVER make a return?

Claire: I mean I’m in serious danger of treading into ‘back in my day’ territory here! But let’s say in the mid 90s being able to go to the coach station ticket office in Birmingham city centre, which was a hole in the wall, and buy entrance ticket and coach fare to Glastonbury for about £70, a week before the event - yeah, I’d like to bring that back.

Kayla: Thank you so much for your time!

How To Bring Him Back is out now.

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