Melissa Harrison’s sensitively written, lyrical début novel Clay follows four city-dwellers over the course of a year. All share a deep connection to a seemingly grubby, nondescript inner-city park and the natural world within it.
Neglected by his mother, eight-year-old TC is free to bunk off school. Before his father left the family home, he gave TC a book about tracking wild animals and now TC spends his time in the small park, absorbed. His activities are observed by Sophia, an elderly widow who raised her family on the estate overlooking the park, and her young granddaughter Daisy. Also finding refuge from the concrete city is Polish immigrant Jozef who once had a farm in Poland but now ekes a living from various minimum-wage jobs.
As their paths cross, the characters slowly find beauty and solace in the unprepossessing park, and through Harrison’s delicate, finely observed writing, the reader does too. At the core of the novel is a heartfelt belief in the importance of the natural world and when we meet at her publisher’s offices, Harrison explains that she took inspiration from nature writing such as Robert Macfarlane’s The Wild Places and poet Kathleen Jamie’s Findings. “It felt like a conversation that I wanted to join in with but I didn’t think I was qualified. Partly because I didn’t think I was a writer, but partly because I thought you needed to be an expert to contribute to that genre. It felt like hearing a conversation going on in a room, and being the other side of the door but enjoying listening to it. I didn’t think it was something I could be part of.”
Harrison has always had a passion for the natural world. Growing up in a village in rural Surrey as the youngest of six siblings, she recalls a childhood spent “out in the woods, damming streams and building dens and running amok”.
Later, after moving to a flat with a garden in south London and acquiring a dog who needed walking, she started to pay close attention to her surroundings and to note down her observations: “The more I noticed, the more enriching it became and the less alienated I felt by living in London.”
Carrying a notebook, Harrison would scribble down tiny details—such as the way ivy leaves slowly encroached between the gaps of a fence. This meticulous attention to nature permeates the novel: “Although I didn’t set out to do this, I think there is a way in which it is taking nature writing to people who read fiction. I do see it as part of that genre which has been purely non-fiction.”
In Clay, the city is never referred to by name. “I wanted it to have a certain amount of universality,” Harrison says. “I wanted people who lived in Manchester or Glasgow to feel that it reflected their own experiences.” However, she thinks her fellow south Londoners may recognise some of the locations.
Clay began life as a series of “little disconnected scenes”—that these eventually came to be a novel at all sounds like quite an achievement: “I had spent my 20s wanting desperately to write, and not being able to write at all, not a word, nothing,” she says. It wasn’t until Harrison sought the advice of freelance editor Kathy Gale that she realised the fragments might be woven into a novel: “When I started writing it felt like I had to look the other way while I did it. I didn’t tell myself that this was what I was doing, that I was trying to write.”
She cut down her hours as a freelance sub-editor in order to devote more time to Clay, although subbing as a day job has proved to have a downside—“I’m paid to correct other people’s work, so my critical faculty is really strong. I can barely write a sentence without subbing it,” she says wryly.
At Gale’s suggestion she entered a competition—the John Muir Trust Award for “Wild Writing” 2010—and won, which perhaps played a part in obtaining her agent, Jenny Hewson.
Harrison was always keen on publisher Bloomsbury, partly as they are the publisher of Jon McGregor—she cites reading his début If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things as an inspiration for her sort of writing, “very lyrical and not very plot driven”.
But of the publishing process, she says: “I kept expecting, at some point, somebody to say: ‘These are all the things you need to change.’ I was poised for a complete rewrite.”
Harrison wondered “if [Bloomsbury] had taken that punt with [McGregor], and it paid off so well, then perhaps I could find a home there. In my head I had this feeling that [with] very descriptive writing and a small, quiet book I wasn’t going to get anywhere, but it turned out not to be true.”
Clay by Melissa Harrison is published by Bloomsbury - read our review.