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Interview with David Muirhead, author of The Clamour King (Snowbooks, 2008)

The Clamour King begins with Peter Chapman’s unexpected arrival at an all boys’ boarding school. Peter, it transpires, left his old school to escape a scandal, and it isn’t long before history looks set to repeat itself. For Peter is extraordinarily beautiful and the attention he receives is not always innocent.

As the boys prepare to perform The Bacchae – an ancient play telling the story of a god who can send people mad – tensions in the claustrophobic school reach breaking point, with tragic and violent results.

The Clamour King asks uncomfortable questions about innocence and culpability: no character escapes unscathed and even Peter’s own innocence is called into question.

I was pleased to be able to talk to David about his thought-provoking novel. Over a series of enlightening emails, he described readers’ reactions to his book, his own take on the themes and characters, and his plans for the future.

JA: What brought you to writing?

DM: I’ve been involved in writing and journalism in one way or another for quite a long time. More recently I’ve been involved in magazines. I founded a magazine called Wildside in 2000 and edited it for four years before selling it in 2005. I still write a column for them and the occasional feature. I earn my bread and butter from research and report writing on a wide range of topics, mainly in Africa, and mainly for government agencies or people like the World Bank. Dull stuff in the main, though not without its creative and inspirational moments. I also help my wife with her business.

JA: And was The Clamour King your first foray into fiction?

DM: The Clamour King isn’t my first published book, though it is my first published novel. The first was a book called The Curious Case of the Imaginary Tourist, published by Struik New Holland (now Random House Struik) in South Africa in 2006. It’s a book of mainly satirical, funny short stories, a world away from the novel. The book got very good reviews in the press here.

JA: Are there any writers who have influenced you?

DM: I can’t really point to a single author who has influenced me more than any other. I admire J M Coeztee as a writer. He’s technically brilliant, though I don’t enjoy his stories over much. William Golding, Graham Greene, V.S. Naipaul, Andre Gide… the list could go on and on. I like to think I’ve learned something from all of them along the way. I read very few novels these days, though, preferring factual books.

JA: Your collection of stories does sound very different from the novel. What inspired you to change direction, and of the two, which of the two genres do you prefer?

DM: The novel is totally different in tone from the short stories, and I think even stylistically they’re different. But there was no change in direction, as such, no decision to finish with short stories and move on to novels. I’d experimented with writing novels long before I actually started writing short stories. I find short stories much less demanding, especially since most of the stories I write are funny, or at least are supposed to be, even if they deal with quite serious subjects in the main.

The Clamour King was something else. It took on a life of its own and put me through an emotional wringer.

JA: I’m particularly interested in the almost supernatural subtext to the book – people who offend, or get too close to Peter seem to meet with sticky ends. One or two of the characters seem to be convinced his beauty is divine, and for Peter himself it seems to be more of a curse than a gift. If we can discuss it without spoiling the plot for your readers, how important were these ideas to you while you were writing the novel?

DM: The supernatural subtext is an important element in the novel, a kind of resonator. When it finally comes to the surface, Pearce says it’s a load of crap, but even he wonders about it. If people can’t explain why something strange is happening, if they don’t understand it, they often turn to the supernatural. And it always responds in one form or another. Peter Chapman’s perfect beauty and the almost mesmerizing effect he has on others is inexplicable for many of the characters in the novel, particularly because he’s such an ordinary boy in other ways. In some cases they are overwhelmed by it. Others feel threatened. His beauty and free spirit are somehow an affront to their own self-image, their own view of how the world is constructed. I think the same applies to some people who have read the novel.

JA: So some of your readers have found your work controversial?

DM: I was well aware that The Clamour King might be controversial and certainly far outside most people’s life experience, an uncomfortable read in parts, a fruit filled with bitter ashes, to quote Andre Gidé in his preface to The Immoralist.

I’ve yet to read a comprehensive analysis of the novel and I hope one comes along soon because I think it would help people get a handle on the story. The most succinct (and misleading) reaction so far has been: “Harry Potter meets Tom Brown’s Schooldays”. It’s not like that at all but I know where the reader who said it is coming from. It’s an easy read on one level but there are layers – dark and deep tend to go together. I get the sense that some folk need permission to say they enjoyed it – like Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice – the kind of permission a balanced critique can bestow

JA: I can imagine that – the novel does delve into some very dark territory. I’m thinking in particular – although by no means exclusively – of the sexual attention Chapman gets from his peers and teachers. It seems in places that he’s a very manipulative character, and is happy to exploit the effect his beauty has on people for his own ends. Were you concerned about the response you’d get from readers while you were writing this?

DM: At times, while I was writing, I worried what my family and some of the people close to me might think of some of the scenes, that I might become tainted in their minds by things that happen, like some of the characters in the book itself. I imagined folk saying: “How can he know this stuff, think this stuff?” On the whole I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the reaction from readers. A few have mumbled “very good” as though they are struggling to swallow a sour boiled sweet, but with most the reaction has been refreshing, honest and open, from young and old. People seem to find the novel a compulsive read, a page turner and quite a number have said they’ve read it through in one sitting which is a great source of satisfaction because I never meant it to be a “chapter at bedtime” book. But in a way that made me all the more determined to write it, because it’s mostly true and it was a story I felt that I needed to tell.

JA: A true story? So there are some autobiographical elements to the work?

DM: The Clamour King is based on real people and events, though obviously fictionalised in parts. There was a boy called Peter Chapman, and that was his name. He was a close friend. We were both at a boarding school near Brighton where the novel is set. So in a very real sense I didn’t have to research the story because I’d already lived through it as a boy. In retrospect maybe that should have been said on the cover, that it was based on actual people and events. Perhaps it would have been easier for some people to put it into context, or compartmentalise it, as people like to do.

JA: We haven’t spoken much about Dionysus himself – the original clamour king. The boys practice the play throughout the novel, and without wanting to give everything away, the ending alludes to the original play very strongly. Do you want to tell us anything about how you used the play to illustrate some of the themes in the book?

DM: I didn’t want the play itself to be too dominant in the novel but then again it is a pivotal thread binding the story together. I hope I got the balance right, I think I did. In the play, Pentheus is made mad by Dionysus and torn to bits by the Bacchae, including his mother – in a sense by nature itself. But I think you’re right. It would probably spoil the story for people who haven’t read it to talk about the ending.

JA: Did you have any trouble writing characters who were at least in part, based on real people? Were there any characters who you were attached to, or who you found it particularly difficult to sympathise with?

DM: I see all the characters in the novel as very separate from me, not as my creations, not dependent on me, not owing me anything. I never consciously felt as though I needed to get into the mind of a younger person. Virtually from page one they seemed to brush me aside and take over anyway, to get on with their lives, do their own thing, even someone like Wentworth. I suppose it was partly because many of them are based on real people I remember from my own school days, but its more than that. Even now that the book is printed and bound, I have the feeling that their lives go on somehow, full of small triumphs and disasters, humdrum details I know nothing about, an endless cycle in a kind of parallel universe. I suppose I should be freaked out about it, but I’m not.

I like most of the characters but I feel particularly attached to Peter. I suppose that’s inevitable. If I had to choose a personal favourite, other than him, it would probably be Pearce. Don’t ask me why. He’s a self-important, foul-mouthed little pain in the arse but I can’t help liking him. But then again, I like Leomond, the bulky bookworm, and steadfast Rowell, of course. For me, the most ambivalent character is Dryden.

JA: Let’s talk more about Peter, your main character. Every time I thought I got a grip on his character, he did something unexpected. Sometimes he seems to be a young boy, the victim of other people’s desires – desires he neither understands nor controls. At other times, he’s manipulative, almost provocative. This ambiguity is never quite resolved, is it?

DM: Yes, the idea that a thirteen-year old boy can use his physical beauty to seduce and manipulate those around him, especially in the context of a boys’ boarding school, is unsettling to put it mildly. The ambiguity surrounding that question is the source of the tension at the core of The Clamour King. Do the older boys rape Chapman because he “asks for it”? Does Dryden fall in love with him because he is actively seduced? What part does the continual abuse play in making Chapman who he is and how he behaves? I think readers must find their own answers as they read the novel and get to know the boy. The answers are there in the book.

JA: And my last question: are you working on anything now? Do you plan to return to the short story form, or have you another novel in the pipeline?

DM: I’m still writing short stories and should have another collection ready here in SA soon. I’m working – very slowly – on another novel provisionally called Counting House. You can probably guess from the title what that’s about – money and blackbirds. I’m also thinking of writing a sequel to The Clamour King, set much later, not in the school.

10 comments on “Interview with David Muirhead, author of The Clamour King (Snowbooks, 2008)

  1. fiona robyn
    October 15, 2008

    I’m off to order it now… thanks David, and thanks Jenn.

  2. Moira
    October 15, 2008

    Okay. The pair of you have managed to intrigue me. It’s not the sort of book I’d normally want to read … but I think I may have to.

    Thoughtful answers to interesting questions. Thank you both.

  3. Jenn
    October 15, 2008

    I’ve been promoting this novel a little at the libraru where I work and even the borrowers who have claimed not to like it have finished it, and have wanted to talk about it when bringing it back. It makes me wonder – should a book make us feel comfy and comforted, or should it be challenging, difficult, and a little disturbing? I think too much of modern lit fic is an easy read and confirms what we already think about the world. I like something a little more demanding of my time and emotions and although this is not a flawless novel it is certainly one that deserves a careful, considered read.

  4. RosyB
    October 16, 2008

    enjoyed reading that. Interesting themes. It sounds quite a disturbing read. The only thing I do sometimes wonder about is the way there can be a familiarity to the character so “beautiful” thing. Particularly in books about university like Leena’s piece The Night Climbers was sort of looking at. I suppose young people can get very fixated on each other, but i can’t help feeling that when the perfectly beautiful character is given as a reason for all this that it isn’t quite enough. perhaps because books are not visual and so the impact of someone has to be got across differently. Or perhaps because I’m not convinced that empty beauty is enough to draw that kind of obsession in real life – particularly if you say this boy is really quite ordinary. It was often the ugly charismatic boys who drew all the attention when I was in school. But perhaps the boys school thing makes that different…
    i am waffling about something in the abstract that I have noticed in books i realise and possible nothing to do with The Clamour King at all.

    What you were saying about manipulation and victim versus using powers is interesting – though I imagine potentially very controversial depending on how it’s done and how people take that…

    Thanks for an interesting interview.

  5. Trilby
    October 16, 2008

    This sounds intriguing. I’m also off to check it out…

  6. Ariadne
    October 16, 2008

    “people can’t explain why something strange is happening, if they don’t understand it, they often turn to the supernatural. And it always responds in one form or another.”

    That’s a very interesting observation! I read the extract and enjoyed it. Look forward to reading this one one day.

  7. Jenn
    October 17, 2008

    Rosy – I think the book does touch on the idea that Peter’s beauty may be divine, supernatural and sinister in some way – he is as much a victim of it (in my reading of the novel) as the people who fall under his spell.

    Having touched on this element, this certainly isn’t a book that relies on magic or the supernatural to work, and could just as easily be read as a pyschological coming of age lit thriller type book. It does resist classification, but I wouldn’t put it in the same catagory as The Night Climbers or The Secret History. More than either of these, it reminded me of Lord of The Flies…

    That’s an interesting point about books not being visual – we’re repeatedly told that Peter is beautiful, and we’re shown the effects his magnetism has on the characters around him, but he isn’t ever described in much detail. His personality is that of an ordinary boy, baffled by the effect he seems to have on people, but not above taking advantage of it now and again either. It is a difficult one, and brings me back to the supernatural – this ‘beauty’ is more of an aura, a cloak or a curse that something else has put on him.

    The quote from the interview that Ariadne pointed up is very appropriate, I think.

  8. Pingback: The 12 Days of Xcerpts: The Clamour King by David Muirhead » BOOK SA - Magazine

  9. Philip Gardner
    January 31, 2009

    As a boy at this school at approx the same time it confirms how i saw it at the time and why i hated it so much.
    Thoroughly enjoying the book and would like to be put in contact with the author

  10. Pingback: The 12 Days of Xcerpts: The Clamour King by David Muirhead | BOOK SA - Magazine

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This entry was posted on October 15, 2008 by in Entries by Jenn, Interviews: authors and tagged , , , .

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  • (The header image is from Aesop's Fables, illustrated by Francis Barlow (1666), and appears courtesy of the Digital and Multimedia Center at the Michigan State University Libraries.)
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