It’s somehow appropriate that Claire North was somebody else the last time SFX spoke with her. That’s because her new novel, Touch, is the tale of a body- hopping entity, Kepler, that jumps from human host to human host. “A friend of mine described it as The Bourne Identity but without the need for passports,” says the writer. But while Kepler, of whom more later, has “no identity of its own”, things aren’t quite so drastically weird when it comes to Claire North. Rather, this is the latest pen name of YA novelist and sometime theatre lighting designer Catherine Webb, aka urban fantasy scribbler Kate Griffin, author of novels starring Matthew Swift, London sorcerer. At this rate, it could eventually take a small encyclopaedia to log all her different identities. “I hope so,” she says as brightly as a winter cold will allow. “I hope, though, that the first names always begin with ‘ C’ because I struggle to remember my own pseudonyms and it’s at least some way of getting vaguely in the area. Claire North was a publisher’s idea because I’d been Kate Griffin for a few years and then I accidentally wrote Harry August.
She’s talking about a novel that was one of the breakout hits of 2014. The First Fifteen Lives Of Harry August revolves around a kalachakra, someone who lives the same life over and over. It was a book that grew from “a palate cleanser” short story and, initially, North was confused by her publisher’s enthusiasm.
“I was still very much in an urban fantasy vein,” she recalls. “I was like, ‘ Oh no, no, no, this was my accidental book, I’m still writing Kate Griffin.’ They went, ‘ No, no, no, no, your accident is now your life.’ Oh, okay, not the end of the world, but still like, ‘ Oh, I’ll just re- gear my brain to that fact.’”
This involved getting her head around the idea of her book getting a huge marketing push. Harry August was a Book Club choice for Waterstones, Richard and Judy, and Simon Mayo. “Two people from the publishing office came with me,” she says of her appearance on Mayo’s Radio 2 show. “It was lovely but I was like, ‘ Guys I’m happy to get myself there…’” Occupation: Born: 1986 From: London Greatest H its: As Catherine Webb, North has twice been nominated for the Carnegie Medal. As Kate Griffin, she’s written six Matthew Swift novels. R andom Fact: North often thinks about her books while working in the theatre. But not when she’s busy, it’s more a case of, “I’ve got a 10- minute break, I’ll sit and have a mull.”
Safe to say nobody from Orbit ever turned up when SFX interviewed North in her Kate Griffin iteration. So how does she react to her new profile and all the ballyhoo that surrounds being Claire North? “I’m aware that it’s awesome, and I’m aware that sometimes people feed me cake when I go and do these things,” she says, “but other than that I actually try quite consciously not to necessarily follow up on the commercial effects, if that makes sense, because I think I might become a monster if I do.”
Not that she’s ungrateful, it’s more that being “an author with a capital ‘ A’ brings out something terribly frightened in me”. Her bloke, she adds, thinks she’s “invested a huge amount of energy in this whole freelance, independence mentality”. Which is rather admirable, but surely there was pressure to come up with another high- concept idea? North says she struggles with this term, and with labels such as literary. “I aim to come up with ideas that I think will be fun and interesting to tell,” she says. Nevertheless, it’s perhaps telling that she and her publishers knew the next Claire North book needed to be “like [ Harry North] but different” and that all concerned “struggled for months to find out what that meant”.
The answer turns out to be Touch. The spark for the book, she says, came from seeing people pass under lights and then disappear into the gloom while walking. This is reflected in the way that, in Touch, Kepler’s hosts effectively blink out of existence temporarily when it takes control of their bodies.
“I was quite interested in the idea not just of identity theft, but almost the theft of a soul, the theft of a complete life,” says North. “What are the moral implications of that, but also the psychological implications for the person doing the stealing? I think there’s a lot out there about possession from the point of view of victims. But I couldn’t think off the top of my head what it would be like to write from the point of view of someone who would be the possessor.”
This is perhaps because this in itself poses technical challenges. “There was that danger of ending up with a character who’s almost nothing, a character who having no physicality, having no family of its own has no definition or purpose of its own,” says North. “Kepler gets round that by jumping into a body and then becoming not exactly obsessed, but completely immersed in what it thinks that body’s identity should be.”
It’s just such challenges that can lead to a novelist getting “entangled” in a universe of what North jokingly calls “my art, my words, my art, my words”. In part to head off this risk of becoming An Author, North continues to work in the theatre: “So that there can be that moment on a Sunday night, at 11pm, when I’m seven metres up a rickety ladder trying to rig something that weighs more than me with a director underneath going, ‘ Cat, do you think that’s the right kind of red?’ I’m like, ‘ Yes, this is good, this is putting my life in a certain kind of perspective that I need.’”
Touch is on sale from Thursday 26 February.