Claire Fuller is a Winchester-based author. Her first novel, Our Endless Numbered Days, won the Desmond Elliot Prize for debut fiction. Her second novel, Swimming Lessons, was published in 2017, and was selected by Book of the Month in the US in December 2016. Her short stories have won the BBC Opening Lines, the Royal Academy and Pin Drop competitions. In December 2017, she judged the Farnham Short Story Competition and this interview is based on a conversation with her at the award ceremony.
Neil: Your first book, Our endless Numbered Days, is a post-apocalyptic fantasy lived out for real. An obsessive father abducts his eight-year old daughter to live in a hut deep in the German forest. He tells her the world has been destroyed. The story is told in flashback by a 17 year old Peggy who is now back in London with her mother and the brother she didn’t know she had.
Your second book, Swimming Lessons, has just come out in paperback in the US and the UK. It also features family tensions, sudden disappearance, and the passage of time, again told from the perspective of a daughter. Ingrid writes letters to her husband about their marriage which she hides in his book collection rather than giving them to him. When she has written her final letter she disappears from a Dorset beach. Twelve years later the husband believes he has spotted her.
A theme running through both books is the power of stories and the way in which every reader creates their own truth. Am I over-interpreting? Or are these themes of loops in time, dysfunctional families, trust, absences, secrets, and the power of stories recurring themes for you?
Claire: I don’t plan themes before I start writing, but just sit down and begin. But of course some themes start to emerge as I go along and if I’m interested in them I’ll bring them out more. But when I’m writing one book I’m not thinking about the previous one, so the fact that you can see themes in my writing between the two is either accidental or something very subconscious. Having said that, dysfunctional families always make great stories, don’t they? Have you ever read a good book that features a completely happy family? And the same goes for secrets and absences. I find it really hard to analyse my own work, I think I’m just too close to it.
Neil: Without asking you to give away any secrets, are these themes also present in your third book, Bitter Orange, due in 2018? And does it also loop in time like the first two?
Claire: There aren’t any absences in Bitter Orange, but there are dysfunctional families (although the main characters aren’t a family), and secrets. But more than anything it’s about the power of stories, and how to tell our own.
I was determined not to play with time in my third novel. It’s very difficult to keep track of everything and make sure that things aren’t revealed before a character knows them, and so on. But inevitably I have done that. It’s from the point of view of an old woman (time period one), remembering the summer of 1969 (time period two), when a recently made friend tells her life story (time period three). Oh dear!
Book four, I’ve promised myself, will be different…
Neil: You write Flash Fiction for the weekly group, Friday Fictioneers. How does this help with your longer work?
Claire: Writing flash fiction is hugely beneficial to my longer fiction. Firstly, it helps me to hone my writing; to consider every word and its placement; to decide whether to be clear or obscure; how to layer meaning with very few words. And secondly it helps me write the story. Because I don’t plan ahead there are times when I really have no idea what is going to happen next, and the writing can become a little stuck. But if I write a 100-word flash fiction piece with the characters from the novel I’m writing (that I know very well), but put them in a situation that is unusual for them, I can expand this piece of flash fiction and use it for the next scene in the novel.
Neil: You’re a thoughtful and thought-provoking writer, yet your books are very easy to read. How do you strike a balance between making demands of the reader and looking after the reader?
Claire: I’m not sure how to answer that. It’s not something I’m conscious of when I write. But I am trying to write something that I would like to read, and I like to read novels with depth, that are well-crafted, but that have a good story that keeps you wanting to read on. That’s what I’m going for.
Neil: How did being published change the way you write?
Claire: I don’t think it has hugely. Except that when I’m writing I am aware that very possibly I might have to at some point in the future read those words aloud to an audience. That really helps focus the mind and make sure that the writing has a kind of rhythm, a musicality, that works when read aloud (and consequently helps even when read silently).
I do read all my reviews, good and bad, and in some cases I have agreed with things that have been said, and I’ve tried to adjust the subsequent book accordingly. But these are very broad changes, like slow down the ending, or deal with time passing in a clearer way. I suppose without having been published I wouldn’t be doing that.
Neil: How much research do you do for your books, and how do you go about it?
Claire: It really depends on the book. Our Endless Numbered Days and Bitter Orange both needed much more research than Swimming Lessons. With the latter, most of the research involved going to the beach where the book was set, walking in the landscape, and staying in the house that the family live in (it is a real house). With Our Endless Numbered Days I knew next to nothing about survivalism, so all that had to be researched, right down to how long a tube of toothpaste would last if two people were using it twice a day. I researched a lot online – watching lots of youtube videos about how to survive in the wild (thank you Ray Mears). With Bitter Orange, which is also set in a house that exists, I visited the house, but I also interviewed people who could help with historical and botanical detail, and I read a lot of historical books about the history of the English country house. In all cases I researched as I went along.
Neil: In the first two books, what did you edit out that the reader never saw?
Claire: That’s an interesting question. The biggest thing in Our Endless Numbered Days was that I toned down the homosexual relationship between Oliver and James, so that it became something Peggy (James’ daughter) was unaware of, but the reader suspects. With Swimming Lessons, my editor at Penguin kept asking me to make Gil a nicer character. He is still pretty awful, so you can imagine what he was like to start with! When I first started writing the novel I wrote about twenty thousand words from Gil’s point of view, and then decided that I didn’t want hear from this man anymore, so I cut nearly all of them and restarted from Flora and Ingrid’s points of view. All that remained of the Gil section was the prologue.