Gig Review: Claire Fuller in Bath

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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.

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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.

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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.

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You may keep up with Claire by following her on Twitter: Claire Fuller (@ClaireFuller2)

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.

 

Gig Review: Jason Hewitt in Bath

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Yesterday evening I attended my first book event of the Autumn season. With two of my children now up at university I have more time to treat myself to such outings. This first excursion was to Toppings bookshop in Bath where Jason Hewitt was due to hold a local launch for his second published novel, ‘Devastation Road’, which I review here.

I follow Jason on Twitter so had picked up on the fact that he has recently moved from London to Bath. What I had not been aware of was that he has a personal history with the city. Twelve years ago he graduated with an MA in Creative Writing from Bath Spa University. In the audience were a number of other writers who have either taken this course or are currently attending. There were also published authors, family members and various friends there to support this very personable young man. It was one of the most open and friendly events I have been to. I enjoyed chatting to a variety of attendees both before and after the author’s talk.

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Jason opened by explaining why he came to write this book. His first published work, ‘The Dynamite Room’, is also set during the Second World War and he wished to stick with the same period. The challenge was how to tell a story that had not been told many times before. As he was unfamiliar with events in mainland Europe around VE day he decided that others may also have this gap in knowledge. There was scope to inform readers as well as to entertain.

We were treated to three readings from the book. As always it was interesting to hear an author give voice to his characters. Jason is also an actor and was a delight to listen to. He appeared very relaxed in front of his captivated crowd.

The plot explores memory and the impact of its loss. Owen, the main character in the book, wakes in a field with no recollection of who he is or how he got there. When he discovers that he is not in Hampshire, as he first believes, but rather in Czechoslovakia, he determines to make his way back home to England. Thus begins a road trip during which he joins the many hundreds of thousands of other displaced people caught in a war ravaged Europe at that time. His memory gradually returns, snapshots finding context and merging to provide some coherancy to his background.

Jason explained that he wished to evoke the numbness felt by many, particularly in Germany, as the war ended – the surreal atmosphere caused by the pause when survivors wondered what would happen next. The many prejudices did not just disappear. The celebratory atmosphere experienced in Britain was not enjoyed here.

Many people in Germany were just waking up to what had been happening so close to their homes. There was the practicality of how to deal with a vast number of stranded foreigners. There were ill and injured requiring treatment, including those liberated from the dreadful camps. There was the question, reminiscent of the refugee crisis today, of who should pay.

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Jason concluded his talk by taking questions from the audience. I wondered if the unusually high quality of these was down to the fact that so many attendees were writers themselves.

He was asked about his research for the book. As a part of this, Jason made the same journey across Europe that his characters took. He aims for historical accuracy in his writing, only veering from fact when essential for the plot. Although entirely fictional, what happened to each character happened to someone for real. Place names have been changed but each location exists.

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This fascinating discussion could have gone on much longer but time was called and I took my copy of the book to be signed. I was taken aback to discover as I left the shop that a couple of hours had passed. Time truly does fly when spent in such convivial company.

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Devastion Road is published by Scribner (Simon and Schuster UK) and is available to buy now.

 

 

Book Review: Devastation Road

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Devastation Road, by Jason Hewitt, is a harrowing yet sympathetically told story of one man’s experience of war and the terrible cost of such conflicts on all involved. It opens with the protagonist waking up in a field with no memory of who he is or how he got there. He is injured but knows not how. The clothes he is wearing do not seem to fit and he carries no means of identification. As hazy memories of home life in Hampshire flit in and out of his aching head he stands up and starts to walk. He joins the tens of thousands of other displaced persons in a Europe torn apart.

The man remembers that he is called Owen, that he worked as an aircraft designer and has a brother named Max. He comes across the bloated bodies of the dead, ransacked homes, and then a teenage boy named Janek who offers him food. Janek is a Czech and they struggle to communicate as neither speaks the other’s language. In amongst the muddle of thoughts and images that come and go, Owen decides he must travel to a place called Sagan, and it seems that Janek will help him to get there.

At Sagan they find a camp that triggers further memories, although it is all but deserted. Both Owen and Janek wish to find their brothers so they decide to head north and west. On the road they meet a girl carrying an infant she is trying to give away. Events unfold and she joins them. Irena speaks several languages so communication is easier, but she offers little about herself.

While travelling towards Leipzig the three learn that Hitler is dead and the war ended. They arrive at the city and view the destruction wrought to achieve this result. Owen wishes to return to England, but Janek and Irena demand that he help them. After all that they have been through his loyalties are torn.

Much has been written about the Second World War. This story keeps the conflict as a backdrop exploring the personal impact on just a few of the people whose lives have been irrevocably altered, who have lost everything they owned and become separated from those they love. In the destruction and confusion it is not always clear who has survived or where they might now be. By focusing on these three individuals amongst the flood of refugees pouring through a ravaged continent it becomes possible to empathise with the reactions to this vast, man made disaster, and to better understand why so many dreadful, smaller events took place.

There is no shirking from the individual barbarisms war can create. In places it is distressing to read but the author avoids judgement, offering up all nationalities as casualties. The anger and desperation of the survivors, the cruelties but also the kindnesses are well evoked. The writing is succinct yet conveys what Owen is suffering with sensitivity. Each of the trio is damaged by their experiences, and their actions, even when horrific, are presented with compassion. Given the refugee situation in Europe today it offers much to ponder.

I was deeply moved by this book yet it is not written to tug on the heart strings. The skill of the author in bringing to life a known history in such a personal way is to be lauded. We need stories like this to ensure that our capacity to empathise is not overloaded by the sheer number and scale of the disasters still happening around the world. The people suffering are individuals, just like us. If we would expect help in their situation, we should be offering it to them.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Scribner.