Five Questions with… Stuart Clark

Stuart Clark will read October 25 and participate in the Charles Taylor Prize for Literary Non-Fiction Spotlight on October 26.

© Joy von Tiedermann

IFOA: In 2001, you left a position at the University of Hertfordshire to work full-time as a science journalist. What led to this decision?

Clark: I’ve always been fascinated with both astronomy and storytelling. So I followed an academic path to a PhD in research astronomy while in parallel, I pursued a writing career—I actually funded my PhD research by writing the cover copy for Star Trek videos in England!

As I experimented with my writing I discovered how powerful a strong narrative can be for delivering non-fiction. Ultimately, I decided that I could do more for astronomy by telling its stories to the general public, than by spending my career focused on researching just one tiny bit of it.

In the 17th century, German astronomer Johannes Kepler said, “The roads that lead man to knowledge are as fascinating as that knowledge itself.” As a science journalist, author and novelist I can tell both kinds of stories.

IFOA: What single achievement are you most proud of?

Clark: It has to be my Sky’s Dark Labyrinth trilogy. Having written non-fiction using literary techniques, I finally felt ready to cross the divide and approach it from the other way: fiction but closely based on fact.

Such “faction” as it has been called may have fallen from favour since its height in the ’70s but for the story I wanted to tell, I thought it was the best possible medium.

Science established itself as a cultural endeavour in the west just over 400 years ago through the work of astronomers such as Galileo and Newton. My ambition was to tell that story in the most entertaining way possible, placing the endeavour in its correct historical context.

I didn’t want to examine these great astronomers like scientific objects, nor deify them. I wanted them to live and breathe, and be the flawed humans we sometimes forget they were. So again a novel seemed like the best vehicle.

IFOA: If you could somehow transcend time and space, where and when would you go, and why?

Clark: Easy! Back to the late 17th century England, dressed in periwig and britches, and sitting in the ranks of the newly formed Royal Society listening to people like Robert Hooke, Edmond Halley, Christopher Wren and, of course, Isaac Newton.

This is the setting for the second Sky’s Dark Labyrinth novel, The Sensorium of God. The more I read about the times and the characters, the more I am amazed at the progression of thought during this era. Everything was up for grabs. Nature was now conquerable using mathematical analysis, and so they measured and questioned everything.

Science was born in the West at this point and shown to be a powerful way of making sense of the world around us. Our modern world derives from those meetings.

IFOA: What are you reading right now?

Clark: I have just finished The Night Sessions by Ken MacLeod. It’s a tightly written cross-genre novel (so ideal for me!). It is part crime, part thriller, part science fiction, rather Asimov-like in ambition but totally modern. What impresses me is MacLeod’s ability to juggle really big ideas about the nature of belief with down-at-heel detectives trying to solve crimes and drowning in paperwork.

IFOA: Finish this sentence: What surprises me the most is…

Clark: …how similar the scientific method is to storytelling. In a story, a hero is driven from his ordinary world into a special one, in which he must learn new rules in order to survive. At the end of that journey, he returns to his ordinary world with the power to solve the original problem, be it physical or emotional. Science is like this.

We transform nature into numbers through measurement and then enter the special world of mathematics. Those laws and equations transform our measurements into new knowledge that we can use to make more sense of the ordinary world around us. Mathematical analysis is like the magic forest of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

IFOA: Bonus question: International Festival of Authors in one word:

Clark: Epic!

For more about Clark visit his website or readings.org.
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