Home Sweet Labyrinth: Susanna Clarke's Mysterious 'Piranesi' Will Lock You In

Sep 14, 2020

Susanna Clarke's debut novel, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, was a sweeping page turner about ancient magic set during the Napoleonic Wars. That blockbuster book was all about escape. Now, 16 years later, Clarke is focused on feeling locked in.

Her latest is called Piranesi ­­-- that's also her narrator's name — and his whole world is a strange, labyrinthine house. His name comes from a real-life person, Giovanni Battista Piranesi, an 18th-century architect and artist.

"He did some engravings of fantastic prisons which have haunted my imagination for a long time," Clarke says. "They could possibly be real places, but quite dark and looming. I must admit, I kind of want to go to those fantastic prisons ... and I want to walk around. ... They're meant to be gloomy, but I find them quite attractive."

The fictional Piranesi explores the massive halls lined with towering statues. He catches fish in the oceans that roar through rooms down below. He's at home in this mysterious house.

"He's in a very strange and in some ways inhospitable place, but he doesn't feel it's inhospitable," Clarke explains. "It is a meaningful place. The statues and the house all feel generally overwhelmingly benevolent to him and he feels like he is in communion with them, like he is sort of almost having a conversation with the world in which he finds himself."

Clarke struggled for many years to write this new book — more on that in the conversation below — but she says "it's very, very good to be back."


Interview Highlights

On why this novel is so much more compact than her first

The reason the reason is very, very simple: Very shortly after Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell was published, I fell ill. And for the last 15 years, I've struggled with ill health. I have chronic fatigue or something very like that.

The pressure of all the years when I hadn't written, and all the stories I hadn't written, weighed very heavily on me. - Susanna Clarke

So at some points during my illness, I suffered very badly with cognitive impairment, with what they call brain fog. So it had been impossible to write. But I got to a point where I felt I could write. But the pressure of all the years when I hadn't written, and all the stories I hadn't written, weighed very heavily on me. I very much wanted to write another big book, but I didn't feel that was a very sensible place to start.

On the parallels between her experience and Piranesi's

I was aware while I was writing it that I was somebody who'd become incapacitated by illness, who is to a large extent housebound and cut off from people. And I was writing a story about someone who lives largely alone, but in a vast house, in a house in which there are many, many things to explore and many avenues of exploration, and there's still knowledge to be found and still wonders to be seen, and there's still beauty to fill your eyes, even though you are cut off from a lot of other things.

On how writing changes her perspective

I see things more clearly when I write. ... Piranesi loves birds and somebody said: Did you put that in because you're a bird watcher? And I wasn't really a bird watcher, but Piranesi kind of taught me — after I'd written it, I went out and I got bird table, and I got bird seed, and I fed the birds, and I looked after them because I felt: Piranesi would want me to do this — so I did it.

On how it feels to let this character out into the world

Piranesi, he has this sort of clarity of spirit, not exactly an innocence, but ... I think he's a good character, and when my husband and I realized that the book was going to be published, we sort of looked at each other and said: How will he cope? Will he be OK? But I think he has a very strong spirit. I think he's going to be fine. So, yeah, I think he can go out into the world. I'm not too worried about him at all.

Connor Donevan and Jolie Myers produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Beth Novey adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Susanna Clarke's last novel, "Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell," was a sweeping page-turner about ancient magic set during the Napoleonic Wars. When it was published 16 years ago, it became a global blockbuster hit. A novel like that is designed for escape. Well, Susanna Clarke's new novel locks you in. It's called "Piranesi." That's also her narrator's name. Piranesi's whole world is a strange, labyrinthine house. His name comes from a real-life person - an 18th century architect and artist.

SUSANNA CLARKE: He did some engravings of fantastic prisons which have haunted my imagination for a long time. They could possibly be real places but quite dark and looming. I must admit I kind of want to go to those fantastic prisons of Piranesi. Then I want to walk around. I think then...

SHAPIRO: But maybe not forever.

CLARKE: Not forever. They're meant to be gloomy, but I find them quite attractive.

SHAPIRO: The Piranesi of this book finds his own labyrinth quite attractive. He explores the massive halls lined with towering statues. He catches fish in the oceans that roar through rooms down below. Piranesi is at home in this mysterious house.

CLARKE: So many of us feel alienated in the places where they are. And he's in a very strange and in some ways inhospitable place. But he doesn't feel it's inhospitable. It is a meaningful place. The statues and the house all feel generally overwhelmingly benevolent to him, and he feels like he is in communion with them, like he is sort of almost having a conversation with the world in which he finds himself.

SHAPIRO: Your first novel was sprawling. It was almost 800 pages, rich with historical details, packed with characters. Did you decide to take a more minimalistic approach when you started writing this?

CLARKE: The reason is very, very simple. Very shortly after "Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell" was published, I fell ill. And for the last 15 years, I've struggled with ill health.

SHAPIRO: Oh, my goodness.

CLARKE: I have chronic fatigue or something very like that. So at some point during my illness, I'd suffered very badly with cognitive impairment with what they call brain fog, so it had been impossible to write. But I came to a point where I felt I could write. But the pressure of all the years when I hadn't written and all the stories I hadn't written weighed very heavily on me. I very much wanted to write another big book, but I didn't feel that was a very sensible place to start. So at various times, I'd been working on this story that became "Piranesi." And I felt that is quite a small story. And so that was why I turned to "Piranesi."

SHAPIRO: Wow. And it also feels like a way of processing things like cognitive fog and physical limitations.

CLARKE: Yes.

SHAPIRO: It's hard not to see some parallels there.

CLARKE: Yes. I was aware while I was writing it that I was somebody who'd become incapacitated by illness who is, to a large extent, housebound and cut off from people. And I was writing a story about someone who lives largely alone but in a vast house, in a house in which there are many, many things to explore and many avenues of exploration. And there's still knowledge to be found and still wonders to be seen. And there's still beauty to fill your eyes even though you are cut off from a lot of other things.

SHAPIRO: Did the experience of writing this make you understand your own experience of incapacitation differently?

CLARKE: I don't think it made me feel differently about it, but it brought out - I think always when I write, I see things more clearly when I write. People would ask me - there's a lot of birds. Piranesi loves birds. And somebody said, did you put that in because you - you're a bird watcher? And I wasn't really a bird watcher, but Piranesi kind of taught me. I - after I'd written it, I went out, and I got a bird table, and I got birdseed. And I fed the birds, and I looked after them 'cause I felt Piranesi would want me to do this. So I did it.

SHAPIRO: And now you've let him out of the house of your mind that he was trapped in, and he is in the world. This book is published. How does that feel to grant this character you invented the freedom to meet all of these readers all over the world?

CLARKE: He's a very - Piranesi - he has this sort of clarity of spirit - not exactly an innocence, but he's a very - I think he's a good character. And when my husband and I realized that the book was going to be published, we sort of looked at each other and said, how will he cope? Will he be OK? But I think he has a very strong spirit. I think he's going to be fine. So yeah, I think he can go out into the world. I'm not too worried about him at all.

SHAPIRO: Susanna Clarke's new novel is "Piranesi."

Thank you for talking with us about it. It's good to have you back.

CLARKE: It's - you're very welcome. It's very, very good to be back. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.