Terence Clarke

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The Long Confinement of “When Clara Was Twelve”


May 21, 2020

In 1985, an idea came to me. (I’ve had others. But this one turned out to be pretty important.) A twelve-year-old American girl named Clara Foy goes to France with her parents for a summer vacation in the mid-1950s.  While there, she discovers that her mother, Lauren, as a teenager in California, had an illegitimate child, a girl. The family are conservative Roman Catholics. So, this new addition was a great scandal for them, and the baby was given up for adoption, much to Lauren’s deep sorrow. But now, that baby shows up again, a pretty Parisian woman in her twenties named Emma Dusel. When Clara learns of Emma’s true identity, she takes it upon herself to introduce her new sister to their mother. The resultant difficulties break up the marriage of Clara’s parents, and reveal the deep emotional troubles that Emma has had throughout her life. Clara stays on in Paris with Lauren, to navigate the troubles between her sister and their mother….

And therein lies the tale of the novel I subsequently wrote, titled When Clara Was Twelve.

This was the last book I ever wrote without first making a preliminary outline of the thing. I just started writing it, beginning with the title, and it is for that reason that the first draft took me seven years to complete. (I had by that time written just one other book, a story collection titled The Day Nothing Happened that was ultimately published by Alev Lytle Croutier at Mercury House in 1988.) Without a preliminary plan, you can wander and wander up and down the darkness-beset hallways of your manuscript, running into closed doors, turning back, scratching your head, going in some different direction to some other closed door. I suspect this is one of the reasons that so many wishful fiction writers give up so quickly, get a job somewhere in the military-industrial complex, and never give writing another thought (except to wonder every few years about what might have been.)

I did complete that first draft in 1992. But the writing was so loose-limbed and conflicted, the plot so much a gathering of confused and unrelated themes that, together, they made up a story that was way too long, and very short on plot. I let it sit for three or four months, read the thing again, and put it in a drawer. Literally. The one element I liked best about it was the title, which even then was When Clara Was Twelve.

The manuscript came with me through various turns of life and travels during the next twenty-five years. I never looked at it. Luckily it was also the first manuscript that I had ever transcribed to a computer. So, it was there, through subsequent computers, beckoning to me silently as I wrote and published other books.

What brought me back to it in 2017 was the beloved title and the fact that I so love Paris. (I had lived there for two years in the 1970s.) I released the manuscript from its confinement. The typewritten version was on sheets of paper 8.5 x 11 inches. The paper itself was now mottled brown and yellow. The writing was quite often confusing because the last edit I had made was with a pencil. So…my as usual clumsy penmanship, smeared erasures, lost logic from one point to another. Arrows. Underlines. Scratch-outs.

Nonetheless, I read it and to my astonishment found that it had merit! Yes, it was still confusing. The author did not know what he had here, and so was flying blind. But there was something to it. Clara herself was interesting. Her relationship with her mother was complicated, sometimes badly conflicted, but negotiable. Emma herself was so upset with her long-lost mother that the task Clara was taking on appeared often unsolvable to her.

And there was Paris.

It is easy to write badly. Every writer should understand this, and should understand therefore why close, intense editing is so important. But Paris gives you an advantage right from the beginning because it so lends itself to description. I subscribe to the notion that you should write about the surroundings in a particular scene in such a way that the surroundings themselves comment on the actions of the characters. A teacup can be described in innumerable ways. So why not describe it so that it helps reveal the emotions of the characters themselves? A teacup so described can help the reader understand better what’s happening in the mind of the person holding it, or in the mind of the person watching how it is being held. Etc.

Visually, Paris allows for this in just about everything that happens there. So, I had made a point of describing Clara’s reactions to the city differently, depending on what she was learning about herself, her mother, and her sister. As Clara’s observations of Paris became more sophisticated in the manuscript, so did her observations about herself.

I started editing the novel again, twenty-five years after completing the first draft. The process was no easier than before. The mistakes and failings that had existed in 1992 still had to be dealt with. But basically, I thought, it isn’t bad! I cut and cut, wrote and re-wrote. Suffered the renewal of exhaustion. Cut and cut some more. Brought scatological words back to my vocabulary that I had not used for decades. Savaged the thing…. Put it back together….

And now it’s out!

(Terence Clarke’s novel, When Clara Was Twelve, was published on April 15 and is available everywhere.)

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