Small Talk: Grace McCleen, author of ‘The Professor of Poetry’

Born in Wales in 1981, and brought up in a fundamentalist Christian household, Grace McCleen studied English literature at Oxford and York universities. Her debut novel, The Land of Decoration, won the Desmond Elliott Prize in 2012. She lives in London and is working on her fifth novel.

What is the last thing you read that made you laugh out loud?

Ned Beauman’s The Teleportation Accident.

Which books are on your bedside table?

Power Vs Force: The Hidden Determinants of Human Behavior, by David R Hawkins and The Miracle of Mindfulness, by Thich Nhat Hanh.

Which book changed your life?

The Bible, that’s the most obvious answer. But I was brought up with it, so it’s not the same. Moby-Dick showed me what the novel could be, and pushed back boundaries that even the modernists couldn’t push back.

When did you know you were going to be a writer?

I never “knew” but I began when I was nine when I wrote the preface to my autobiography.

What is your writing routine?

I really don’t have one. I haven’t been very well so I write in bed where I can sleep very regularly.

Who are your literary influences?

Virginia Woolf, Marilynne Robinson, Cormac McCarthy, Emily and Charlotte Brontë, WG Sebald, Emily Dickinson, TS Eliot, Walt Whitman, Gerard Manley Hopkins and Franz Kafka.

What do you snack on while you write?

Haribo sweets.

Which literary character most resembles you?

Josef K in The Trial.

Who would you like to be stuck in a lift with?

[French-Algerian actor] Tahar Rahim.

When do you feel most free?

In the absence of thought.

How do you relax?

Hot baths. Very, very hot.

What is the best piece of advice a parent gave you?

If it is the right time for something to happen, it will.

If you could own any painting, what would it be?

“The Eve of St Agnes” by John Everett Millais.

How would you earn your living if you had to give up writing?

I’d like to have the confidence to be a musician or a singer.

Where is your favourite place in the world?

The Villa del Balbianello, Lake Como.

Who is your perfect reader?

Me. I would understand exactly what I was getting at.

Interview by Anna Metcalfe

Grace McCleen’s latest novel is ‘The Professor of Poetry’ (Sceptre)

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