Susanna Mary Clarke is a British awarded author of fantasy and alternate history. She is best known for her debut novel Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell (2004). The book was longlisted for the 2004 Man Booker Prize and won the 2005 Hugo Award for Best Novel. Her second, Piranesi, won the 2021 Women's Prize for Fiction.
Susanna Clarke was born in Nottingham in 1959. A nomadic childhood was spent in towns in Northern England and Scotland. She was educated at St Hilda's College, Oxford, and has worked in various areas of non-fiction publishing, including Gordon Fraser and Quarto.
In 1990, she left London and went to Turin to teach English to stressed-out executives of the Fiat motor company. The following year she taught English in Bilbao.
She returned to England in 1992 and spent the rest of that year in County Durham, in a house that looked out over the North Sea. There she began working on her first novel, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell. It is an alternative history set in 19th-century England around the time of the Napoleonic Wars.
From 1993 to 2003, Susanna Clarke was an editor at Simon and Schuster's Cambridge office, where she worked on their cookery list.
Susanna Clarke signed up for a five-day residential course in writing fantasy and science fiction. There she met Colin Greenland, the co-instructor, and a renowned critic and champion of the genre. Greenland sent part of Clarke's short story The Ladies of Grace Adieu to his friend Neil Gaiman, the fantasy novelist and comic-book writer.
Gaiman later said, "It was terrifying from my point of view to read this first short story that had so much assurance ... It was like watching someone sit down to play the piano for the first time, and she plays a sonata."
Nevertheless, she has published seven short stories and novellas in US anthologies. One, The Duke of Wellington Misplaces His Horse, first appeared in a limited-edition, illustrated chapbook from Green Man Press.
Another, Mr Simonelli or The Fairy Widower, was shortlisted for a World Fantasy Award in 2001.
In her spare time, Clark continued to work on the novel, which took her 10 years to write. Her first literary agent, Giles Gordon, sold the unfinished manuscript to Bloomsbury Publishers in early 2003, after two publishers rejected it as unmarketable. Bloomsbury Publishers was so confident of the novel's success that they offered Clark a £1 million advance.
They printed 250,000 hardcover copies simultaneously in the United States, Britain, and Germany. Seventeen translations were begun before the first English publication came out in the U.S. on September 8, 2004, and in the U.K. on September 30, 2004.
The novel became a best-seller. It has sold over a million copies worldwide, and has been adapted into a mini-series of the same name by the BBC in 2015. Clarke's next book, Piranesi, was only published in September 2020.
The gap between her first and second novel was caused by illness. Clarke suffers from chronic fatigue, a debilitating condition that has hampered her writing process for nearly two decades.
Piranesi was adapted for BBC Radio 4, and read by Samuel Anderson. It won Audie Award and Women's Prize for Fiction.
Piranesi is “a truly original, unexpected flight of fancy which melds genres and challenges preconceptions about what books should be,” according to the Women’s prize chair of judges, Booker-winning novelist Bernardine Evaristo.
During the award ceremony she told the audience: “As some of you will know, Piranesi was nurtured, written, and publicized during a long illness. It is the book that I never thought I would get to write — I never thought I’d be well enough. So this feels doubly extraordinary; I’m doubly honored to be here. And my hope is that my standing here tonight will encourage other women who are incapacitated by a long illness.”
Susanna Clarke lives in Cambridge with her partner, the novelist and reviewer Colin Greenland.