Tag Archives: The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August

Claire North unmasked! Why one life isn’t enough for “Harry August” author

Charlie Jane Anders interviews the pseudonymous author of “The First First Fifteen Lives of Harry August,” which Julie and I both loved.

The author’s real name is Catherine Webb, who write her first book when she was 14, and who wrote seven more successful young-adult novels and a series of fantasy novels for adults using the pseudonym Kate Griffin. Pseudonyms keep a writer from being pigeonholed, but they have their own pitfalls.

Webb made the protagonist of “Harry August” male because a female protagonist would have inevitably made gender more of a focus of the novel than Webb wanted it to be.

The biggest reason for writing a male protagonist was the history of the 20thcentury itself. When Harry August is born, women still don’t have the vote; by the time he dies, the women’s rights movement is a loud voice fighting battles across the world. The change in society in that century is massive, but women were – and are still – discriminated against. Knowing what I do of my own politics, it seemed unlikely that I’d get through the book without being drawn massively into the world of gender politics and the changing battle for women’s rights throughout the century, and while this is vitally important and a story that must be told, the story of the kalachakra didn’t feel like the right way in which to tell it. Writing a male protagonist, therefore, allowed me to focus on the story of the Cronus Club that seemed most appropriate to the narrative.

Webb has training as a historian, and says writing a historical novel requires a mind-trick:

 A great deal of the history wasn’t about big events – Harry August spends a lot of time dodging World War Two, for example – but about zooming in on little things that made the time come alive. Thus, 1936 would not be described by someone living in it as ‘a year when war became inevitable’ since in 1936, war wasn’t inevitable and no one without the burden of retrospect would think of it in terms of war, whatever history has to say on the subject now. Rather, it is a year of jazz, economic recovery and the rise of ‘talkie’ movies. A generic knowledge might point to Charlie Chaplin as being active in this era; a quick internet search reveals the movies he made; a look at the movie of the year (Modern Times) shows that by then talkies were well underway; another click through gives the names of rival ‘talkie’ movies and fairly quickly, from just a general sense of what was happening in a decade, you have the kind of details of leading actors and popular musicians that can bring a year to life.

Book review: “The First 15 Lives of Harry August.”

The opening of the “The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August” by Claire North,  finds the main character dying of cancer in his old age in 1996, when he’s accosted by a seven-year-old girl.

“I nearly missed you, Dr. August,” the girl says. “I need to send a message back through time. If time can be said to be important here. As you’re conveniently dying, I ask you to relay it to the Clubs of your origin, as it has been passed down to me.”

I tried to speak, but the words tumbled together on my tongue, and I said nothing.

“The world is ending” she said. “The message has come down from child to adult, child to adult, passed back down the generations from a thousand years forward in time. The world is ending and we cannot prevent it . So now it’s up to you.”

I found that Thai was the only language which wanted to pass my lips in any coherent form, and the only word which I seemed capable of forming was, why?

Not, I hasten to add, why was the world ending?

Why did it mater?

She smiled, and understood my meaning without needing it to be said. She leaned in close and murmured in my ear, “The world is ending as it always must. But the end of the world is getting faster.”

That opening pulled me in like jerking a leash. And the rest of the novel pays off on the promise.

Soon enough, Harry August finishes up dying and, just like the other ten times he died, he finds himself reborn as a baby in 1918 England. Quickly, all the memories of Harry’s previous lives come back to him. He’s an adult mind in a child’s body, until the body grows to adulthood in the usual way. He’s immortal, but it’s a peculiar kind of immortality, bound to repeat over and over the same swathe of the 20th Century. (One time he makes it all the way into the 21st Century. He decides he doesn’t care for it).

The novel wanders pleasantly for its first half, as Harry goes through his first few lives, learning how to be an immortal and exploring the world of the 20th Century. In the second part, Harry confronts the cause of the oncoming end of the world, and devotes several of his lives to preventing it.

“Fifteen Lives” is a thrilling, thoughtful, and well-written science fiction novel that explores moral responsibility and the 20th Century. I hope you love it as much as Julie and I did.