Bright shards of light

By Roger Lytollis

It's easy to see how Clare Sambrook's debut novel Hide & Seek captures the voice of a nine-year-old boy so well. The age gap between the book’s narrator Harry Pickles and Clare may be 32 years but Clare’s enthusiasm invites descriptions such as 'child-like'.

Having spent five years in Clare’s head, Harry and his family and friends have at last emerged into the wider world. In a Penrith coffee house Clare’s thoughts about her creations tumble out in a cheery babble. Things are “fantastic fun” or “brilliant fun”. And there’s plenty for her to be pleased about.

Hide & Seek has just been published to rave reviews and was hailed as “THE debut of 2005” by Publishing News. The book is being translated into 10 languages and the BBC has bought the film rights.

The idea came to Clare on a coach trip when a child went missing. The child turned up safe and well but the fear stayed with Clare and worked its way into her book.

In Hide & Seek, Harry’s younger brother goes missing on a school trip. Through Harry’s eyes we see the grief and turmoil which infects his and his family’s lives, straining relationships and twisting perspectives.

While the subject matter is inevitably dark, Harry’s point of view allows occasional shards of light through the gloom.

“When I had the idea for the story it came in a child’s voice,” says Clare. “In broad shape it was my eight- or nine-year-old voice. It wouldn’t have worked as well coming from an adult’s point of view. It would be too sad.

“But there’s room for comedy in the distance between the reality of Harry’s life and his perception of it. I’m interested in the way children can be full of sadness and still want to play football with their mates. If an adult is completely smashed, that’s it.”

Hide & Seek is set in Notting Hill, where Clare lived before moving to Cumbria. “I lived in a square like the one in the book. There was a bunch of boys about Harry’s age. I’d talk to them about what I was doing and ask them things. Some of their thoughts are in there.

“I thought it would be quite liberating to write fiction because you don’t have to worry about research and libel lawyers. But it’s just as important not to misquote a character as it is not to misquote someone you’ve interviewed. To me it’s very real. They’re real people.”

Comparisons have been made with Mark Haddon’s best-seller The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time, which is also told from a boy’s point of view. “I’m very glad about the comparison,” says Clare. “That’s a smashing book.”

Clare moved to Cumbria from London four years ago with her partner, investigative journalist Andrew Jennings. They live in the Eden Valley and have two children.

“We just wanted to go somewhere beautiful,” says Clare. “That was the full extent of the research we did.”

In her former life Clare was a journalist. She had wanted to write fiction but was deterred by the long odds against success. She spent four years at the Daily Telegraph, an experience she describes as “quite brutal and confrontational. They worked on the principle that what didn’t kill you made you stronger. I witnessed four people fainting in story conferences.

“I was on holiday once and I got meningitis. I woke up and thought ‘Brilliant – I don’t have to go to work!’ Then I thought ‘Wait a minute; if meningitis is preferable to my job...’”

She went freelance, doing investigative journalism for the Mail on Sunday and comment pieces for the Guardian. She and Andrew wrote The Great Olympic Swindle: When the World Wanted Its Games Back, which was short-listed for the William Hill Sports Book of the Year award. The book explored the corruption which taints the Olympic ideal.

“I think the most surprising thing when you look at people in public life behaving badly is they don’t think they are behaving badly,” says Clare. “They just see it as the fruits of power.

“Around the time the book came out we had our phone records intercepted. It’s not a nice feeling to know that someone’s spying on you.

“But we live in a country where that’s pretty much the worst thing that can happen to an investigative journalist.

“We were a bit cautious about parcels arriving at the house but I don’t want to exaggerate. It just felt like life had got a bit riskier for a while.”

As a freelance journalist Clare would investigate whatever stories she wanted to, such as the relationship between the gambling industry and the Government, and then see whether she could sell them. “It’s not the best way to pay the mortgage but it’s brilliant fun.”

When she reached her 30s Clare decided it was time to fulfill her ambition to write fiction. “The things adults said when I was a child about time going more quickly when you get older turned out to be true. From 10 to 20 takes ages. Twenty to 30 takes a reasonable time. Thirty to 40 – bang and it’s gone.

“In my early thirties I thought I’d better do what I want to do because time’s going by so quickly. I took a financial gamble as I gave up earning. My journalism career feels like another world now. I really enjoyed having a licence to be nosey. But writing Hide & Seek I felt happier in my work. I felt like I’d come home.”

Clare is currently working on her second novel. It will be set in Cumbria but that’s all she’s revealing.

“I didn’t talk to anybody about Hide & Seek when I was writing it, not even my partner. It seemed to make writing it a much more intense experience. And if I’m talking about it all the time I might get bored with it, and that’s the last thing I want.”

It’s probably not a good idea to push Clare too hard on the subject of her next novel. She is, after all, a karate black belt. When she describes the discipline her eyes light up and for a second she sounds like a cross between a 41-year-old woman and a nine-year-old boy. “Sparring is just fantastic fun,” she says. “It’s like the wrestling you do when you’re a child.”

Interviewer: Roger Lytollis, The Scotsman