Waterstones in Bath is fast becoming one of my favourite venues for book events. Yesterday they hosted another fascinating evening. Claire Fuller, author of Our Endless Numbered Days and the recently published Swimming Lessons, was expertly interviewed by Jason Hewitt, whose fabulous book Devastation Road I review here. I confess I have not yet read either of Claire’s books. I know her, if that is a term I may use, through her blog, Claire Fuller | Writing and art, particularly enjoying a recent series of interviews she posted featuring people who work within the publishing industry. Having heard her speak I am now also curious about her books.
The event was opened with a brief introduction by Jason followed by a reading by Claire from the opening pages of Swimming Lessons. They went on to discuss Claire’s writing and inspirations.
Claire had completed the first draft of her second book by the time her first was published. Thus, when it became such a success – amongst other accolades it won the 2015 Desmond Elliott Prize for debut fiction, was nominated for the 2015 Edinburgh First Book Award, was a Richard & Judy Book Club pick for Spring 2016, and a Waterstones Book Club book – she was not writing under the pressure of producing another hit.
Claire tries to write the sort of book she enjoys reading. Although she starts with ideas she does not plan her stories and much of the detail is developed as she goes along. She edits as she writes so a first draft, which takes her about eighteen months, subsequently requires just a few further months of editing before submission.
Swimming Lessons contains letters which the protagonist’s missing wife has left hidden within the covers of his extensive collection of books. The idea for this came from Claire and her husband who, before they lived together, wrote letters to each other in this way. Claire told us that she has yet to find some of these, that between them they own a lot of books. Even the old cynic in me found such an anecdote beautifully romantic.
The locations in Swimming Lessons exist but the village has been renamed due to the dark deeds, sex and infidelities detailed, which actual residents may not appreciate! The National Trust owns one of the properties featured and Claire stayed in it twice to soak up the atmosphere.
Both of Claire’s books are quite dark which she ascribes to her reading as a child. After school she would wait for a lift home in a library where she devoured the likes of Stephen King and other novels perhaps not now considered appropriate for a nine year old. One of the books she loved was Phenomena, about paranormal activity.
Although dark, Claire also considers her books to contain elements of hope. Her characters have depth and lighter moments together even if they are not always likeable. She agreed with Jason that the nastier ones can be a lot of fun to write.
Jason was surprised to learn that Claire writes to music as he requires silence, although he will play music to put him in the mood to write. Claire explained that before she starts she compiles a playlist she feels is appropriate for the ideas she has, and then plays this on a loop until the book is complete. Her family may not always appreciate this. She pondered if there was some CBT involved, that the music comes to signify that it is time to put words on a page. Now a full time writer she considers that progress has been made even if only a few hundred words are written each day.
Both Claire and Jason had their debuts published when they were in their forties and have since become members of The Prime Writers which they describe as a welcome source of advice and support, especially as writing is necessarily a solitary occupation. Claire described herself as an accidental writer, falling into it after deciding to try her hand at a short story. Her debut was her first attempt at writing a novel. She talked of luck as well as ability.
I could have continued to listen to this fascinating discussion but Jason had promised to allow questions from the audience and there were plenty eager to participate.
Claire was asked if the struggles some of her characters have with motherhood were drawn from experience. She admitted that they were, that she harboured a degree of guilt over her work-life balance and occasional need for her own space. In creating fictional characters extreme versions of reality can be woven into place enabling empathy from readers. Each comes to a book burdened by their own experiences so she also likes to leave a degree of ambiguity, especially in endings.
Claire was asked if she is happy with how she has been pigeon-holed as a writer. This is a known problem, for instance romance writers wanting to create a thriller, a change of direction their publisher may not be happy with. Claire is content for now. She would like to write a ghost story one day but feels this would fit with the dark themes she is known for. She mentioned that she explores other genres in her short stories.
Another question was asked about how happy Claire is with the advice given by her agent. Absolutely was the answer given, she trusts her completely. Claire’s debut went to auction but she was not simply required to accept the highest bid. It was recognised that the relationship she would develop with her publisher mattered too.
The evening was wrapped up with a reminder that Claire will return to Bath on 28th May when she will appear at the festival with Kate Hamer and Michael Hughes. I left her chatting to the queue of attendees eager to acquire her signature on their copy of her book.
You may keep up with Claire by following her on Twitter: Claire Fuller (@
Jason may also be found here: Jason Hewitt (@JasonHewitt123)
For news and events at the bookshop: Waterstones Bath (@waterstonesbath)
Claire is published by Fig Tree, an imprint of Penguin. Jason is published by Simon & Schuster UK.