Clare Clark Interview
March 10, 2010
the author of Savage Lands
It was a pleasure to have Clare Clark, author of Savage Lands, about the early French settlers of the Louisiana territory, visit the blog on March 10, 2010.
Savage Lands has a watery setting, and your first novel, The Great Stink, was set in the sewers of London. Do you find liquids scary?
No, in fact on the whole I have a pretty robust attitude to liquids, especially the imbibable kinds! I think what interests me is the hostile environments people in the past have been required to inhabit and to attempt to civilise. The filthy Thames in The Great Stink was, like the swamps in Savage Lands, a symbol of the struggle of those people for survival, a difficulty that, in the main, we in the 21st century, do not have to deal with. Most of us in the West exist quite separately from our landscapes, our sewage piped away, our swamps drained. I am very drawn by the quiet courage and strength of past generations who were required to survive in situations of - to us - unendurable hardship.
Your descriptions of the humid Southern landscape are quite vivid. Did you visit coastal Alabama while working on this novel?
Yes, absolutely, and I could never have written about it if I hadn't. I took steamer trips along the Mississippi, I hiked through miles of national parks, I walked around New Orleans with an eighteenth century map, tracing the paths of the first settlers. I was struck continuously by the unrelenting heat and humidity, the noisiness of the forests full of frogs and birds, by the extraordinary lushness, and I tried to imagine Elisabeth coming from Paris with all its chilly rules and social rigidity to this wild and untameable place.
Would a government official really park a twelve-year-old boy alone with an Indian tribe and not return for years, as the commandant does in Savage Lands?
Yes, the character of Auguste is based on a real-life boy, Saint-Michel, the son of a French harbourmaster, who was indeed left with the local tribes to learn their languages and act as a spy. There is very little information about Saint-Michel, as there is about most of the French history of Louisiana, but we know that, just like Auguste, he was sent to live with the Chickasaw tribe, having already learned the Houma language. He became the centre of a major diplomatic incident when, as a pretext for attacking their longstanding enemies, the Choctaws accused the Chickasaws of having burned him at the stake. Saint-Michel was eventually returned unharmed but it was this incident that provided the inspiration for the awful torture imposed on Auguste.
Review of Savage Lands by Clare Clark
See listing for Savage Lands at Powell's Books
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