Claire Fuller began writing at age 40. Her debut novel, Our Endless Numbered Days, won the UK’s Desmond Elliott Prize in 2015. In this Q&A, Claire talks about Friday Fictioneers and The Prime Writers — two WordPress.com communities important to her work. She offers insight into Peggy Hillcoat, the main character of Our Endless Numbered Days, and shares the seeds of her upcoming novel, Swimming Lessons.
Our Endless Numbered Days is told in flashback by Peggy Hillcoat, at age 17. At age eight, Peggy’s survivalist father abducts her to a small, remote cabin, where they struggled to survive for nine years.
Peggy’s memory is foggy and her mental faculties sharpen as the tale is told. What were the difficulties of writing a character whose full mental development was likely stunted from malnutrition during nine years of wilderness survival?
For all sorts of reasons — the malnutrition included — Peggy isn’t completely sure about the story she’s telling. I enjoyed playing with the “unreliable narrator” idea — it’s an interesting way to lead the reader down paths that they aren’t expecting and then suddenly turn things on their head.
Our Endless Numbered Days in some ways is a coming-of-age story where the protagonist comes of age physically, but not mentally — Peggy is still very much a child at 17.
With that in mind I had to be careful about the language she used. I wanted to write a book with a lot of landscape description, but since we’re in Peggy’s head I had to make sure that every single word was one that she would know and use. I thought a great deal about how she would see the world when she was back home in London. So, for example, she’s confused about the number of useless things in her mother’s house; how much food they have, how warm the house is. I really tried to put myself in her shoes and understand her.
Check out a book trailer for Our Endless Numbered Days. Claire created the illustration you see unfolding in this video.
The Desmond Elliott Prize is an annual award for a first novel written in English and published in the UK. Worth £10,000 to the winner, the prize is named after the literary agent and publisher, Desmond Elliott.
Our Endless Numbered Days won the 2015 Desmond Elliott Prize for debut novel. What does acclaim feel like?
It was a wonderful moment when Louise Doughty announced that Our Endless Numbered Days had won. The event was held in a very fancy room at Fortnum and Mason in London and I was very nervous and excited. Two other books had been shortlisted besides mine — Elizabeth is Missing and A Song for Izzy Bradley; none of us knew who had won until Louise read the name out. It’s a great honor for my debut novel to be judged against two such tremendous books, and by a group of judges I really respect.
And although the prize isn’t much known outside the UK, it has opened many doors for me here, and made all sorts of people, from critics, to booksellers and of course readers, want to read and talk about Our Endless Numbered Days.
You participate regularly in Friday Fictioneers. How has the WordPress.com community influenced you and your writing?
But it’s the (Friday Fictioneers) community that I love the most — so inspiring and supportive. They’ll give constructive criticism when I need it and encouragement when something hasn’t gone right.
Friday Fictioneers is a group of bloggers who each write a 100-word story each week inspired by a photograph. We write our own story, post it on our website and then read and comment on everyone else’s story.
Creating this regular piece of writing and the WordPress.com community who join in and read has been absolutely instrumental in my writing. I use these pieces of “flash fiction” in all sorts of ways. They can be stand-alone pieces, or often I use them to inspire scenes in the novel I’m writing, or sometimes I slot them in as they are. But it’s the community that I love the most — so inspiring and supportive. They’ll give constructive criticism when I need it and encouragement when something hasn’t gone right. And these are people from all around the world, most of whom I have never met.
Swimming Lessons, your upcoming book, sounds intriguing. Will you share the seed from which the book originated?
In Swimming Lessons, Ingrid Coleman writes letters to her husband, Gil, about the truth of their marriage, but decides not to send them. Instead she hides them within the thousands of books her husband has collected.
The story actually grew from two seeds. Firstly a piece of 100-word flash fiction I wrote in response to a picture of a beach.
In my mind the narrator in this story is an old man who lived by a beach with his dog. He finds lots of things on the beach including a life-size plastic giraffe’s head, and a shoe with a foot inside.
The old man grew to become Gil — the husband and father in Swimming Lessons. The foot and shoe were written out of the story, while the giraffe’s head changed into a plastic life-sized whale’s head and is still mentioned.
The other seed was a project my husband and I did before we were married, when we lived apart. We wrote notes to each other and hid them in each other’s houses, in books and behind mirrors.
Eventually Tim sold his flat and moved in with me. When he was packing up, he found all the notes I’d written to him, but six years or so later, I’ve yet to find two of his notes, and he won’t tell me where they are.
You’re also part of The Prime Writers — a community of writers who published their first book after 40. What’s the best advice you have for anyone with a long-held publishing dream?
I didn’t start writing until I was 40, but I know that it can sometimes take a very long time to get published. My advice would be to try and write something every day. Writing is like a muscle; it needs exercise and practice to keep it in the best condition possible. Also to try to read something every day and understand how the books you like work — their structure, tone, style, and so on. And finally keep going. Remember that even the most famous and successful writers were debut authors once, in fact, there was a time when they hadn’t written anything, and were sitting looking at a blank page.
Which author, alive or dead, has had the greatest influence on you as a writer? What did they teach you?
Am I really only allowed one! That’s so difficult. I think I would go with Shirley Jackson and in particular her novel, We Have Always Lived in the Castle. For those who don’t know, it’s an odd story about two sisters living in a house after most of their family have been poisoned. I came across it when I first started writing, and I probably read it once a year and still keep discovering new things in it. I love Jackson’s style of writing, but even more than that, I love how she has created the most interesting characters and allowed them to be as peculiar as they like. I think Jackson taught me to simply write the kind of book I like to read.
In addition to being a writer, you also make art by sculpting, creating stained-glass lighting fixtures, and drawing. How do your creative pursuits fuel your writing and vice-versa?
Visit Claire’s site to see her drawings.
I have to admit that I haven’t made any sculpture for some time, but do still draw, and every time I pick up a pencil or an ink pen I wonder why don’t I do it more often. I don’t think my art and my writing do fuel each other directly — I don’t often make drawings of the places I’m writing about (the video of me drawing is an exception), apart from maps of locations or plans of the buildings where my characters live.
I think this is because I hold such detailed pictures in my head I’m worried that when I set them down on paper they will be so much more prosaic. But I do think and write very visually. So, I’ll often need to find a picture of a character or a place to describe it in what I’m writing, and when I’m writing, about a room for example, I’ll need to know everything contained in that space even if it is behind the “viewer” and never described. I’m very flattered when readers have told me that they can really “see” the cabin and the forest in Our Endless Numbered Days.