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Powell's Q&A

Clare Sambrook

Describe your latest project.
Hide and Seek is my first novel. Narrator Harry Pickles recalls the year when he was nine and his little brother disappeared. Terence Rafferty reviewed it warmly in the New York Times.

Here's how Hide and Seek came about....

Some years back I stopped working in journalism and started, again, learning how to write. I happened to take a trip with my karate club. I had a brilliant teacher. He could kick high and break rocks, but logistics was not his thing. We had with us on the coach out a six-year-old boy, unchaperoned. He was not with us coming back. By the time anyone noticed, we were miles away, driving through the night.

I woke up to hear kids discussing rescue plans. To my shame I took out my notebook and wrote it all down. The kids who knew exactly what to do. The guy in charge who dithered and dithered and then, at last, got out his cell-phone — and stared at it like he'd not seen one before. That kind of thing.

The boy, it turned out, was safe; he'd been picked up by his aunt. I wondered, what if he'd been abducted? What if I were his brother? What happens to the family? How do I write it?

It was natural for me to write it as a boy; genitalia aside, I pretty much grew up as one. And nine seemed about the right age. My own memories of eight, nine, ten are acute: I was eight when my mother disappeared. I mean, she just died, but it felt like abduction to me.

So, here I had these observations in my notebook, these kids' voices in my head, and a sense that maybe I could write this. I knew a little of the territory and maybe I could bring something fresh to it, something life-affirming, something funny. I know that grief exerts pressures that sometimes explode into comedy. I wanted Hide and Seek to offer catharsis. I wanted readers to laugh as well as cry.

  1. Hide and Seek
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    Hide and Seek

    Clare Sambrook

  2. Hide and Seek

What has been your most embarrassing moment?
Aged eight, the choir gallery, a quiet moment of reflection during Midnight Mass. I farted. I don't know if it was the hardwood bench I was sitting on, the church acoustics, or a Christmas miracle, but the noise of it resounded like a bomb blast.

Offer a favorite sentence or passage from another writer.
From Joseph Heller, Catch-22:

"Yes," said Yossarian. "He poisoned the squadron."

Milo went pale again. "He did what?"

"He mashed hundreds of cakes of GI soap into the sweet potatoes just to show that people have the taste of Philistines and don't know the difference between good and bad. Every man in the squadron was sick. Missions were cancelled."

"Well!" Milo exclaimed, with thin-lipped disapproval. "He certainly found out how wrong he was, didn't he?"

"On the contrary," Yossarian corrected. "He found out how right he was. We packed it away by the plateful and clamored for more."

What section of the newspaper do you read first?
Doonesbury and Steve Bell's cartoon in the Guardian. Years ago Bell spotted Tony Blair's essential falseness. Funny, dirty, a ruthless, subtle satirist, he's terrific on George W. Bush. He's at

What is your idea of absolute happiness?
Uninterrupted sleep. Sweet dreams.

Why do you write?
Curiosity. To pay the rent.

Share an interesting experience you've had with one of your readers.
A woman came to a signing and introduced herself with gusto. "It's me!" she yelled. "Don't you recognize me?"

It turned out the Clare Sambrook who'd been her best friend at school was someone else, not me. Hoping to dispel her embarrassment I tried humor: "Shall I sign it, 'To my dear friend...'?"

"Yes," she said without a twitch of a smile. "That will do fine."

What do you dislike most?
The pursuit of happiness as if it were a career goal. The rape of the planet. SUVs. The notion that we might find identity and fulfillment through the brands that we buy. Words that don't mean what they say: "natural flavorings," "correctional facility," "collateral damage," "wealth creation."

Oh, now you've got me started... Hill and Knowlton, Halliburton, Henry Kissinger. And John-Joe X. Yes. Him. The boy at school who gave me such a kicking I still have the broken veins to show for it.

If you could have been someone else, who would that be?
A brighter, funnier, braver me. The kind of girl who wouldn't take nearly four decades to dare to write a novel.


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