Claire Fuller gained a degree in sculpture from Winchester School of Art, but went on to have a long career in marketing and didn't start writing until she was forty. Her debut novel, Our Endless Numbered Days, won the 2015 Desmond Elliott Prize. She has an MA in Creative and Critical Writing from the University of Winchester and lives in Hampshire, England with her husband and two children. Her second book, Swimming Lessons, was published in 2017 by Tin House Books.
“Something Surprising,” an Interview with Claire Fuller
This interview was conducted via email by Interview Editor Lian Ammerman. Of the process she said, “Claire Fuller’s novel, Swimming Lessons, takes on unique perspectives that are fascinating to read. The narration takes place over multiple timelines, offering different views of the complexities within a family. It’s clear to see how much Claire enjoys writing, and I’m happy to have had this experience with her.” In this interview, Claire talks about stories growing from small beginnings, having written conversations with herself, and picking the perfect playlist to write to.
Superstition Review: Throughout the novel, you switch back and forth between the present and past, alternating between Flora’s perspective and Ingrid’s letters. How did you decide that this was the way you wanted to write the story, and what were some of the challenges that you faced in doing it this way? Was there a perspective that came easier to you than the other? Why did you decide to use Flora’s perspective rather than Nan’s?
Claire Fuller: The story, the characters, and the plot, in all my novels - Swimming Lessons included - grow from a small beginning, which is usually place and at least one character. I don’t make any upfront decisions about what the book is going to be about. With Swimming Lessons, I started with Gil (and then deleted a lot of his narrative), and decided I’d prefer to hear from one of his daughters and his wife. But because I had already decided that Ingrid had disappeared she couldn’t be in the present time of the book, so I had her write Gil a letter, and then another, and another. And I interspersed this with the present time from Flora’s point of view to break up the letters. I think both perspectives came equally; neither one was more difficult. There are in fact three time periods in the book (including the time Ingrid is writing her letters), and this was a terrible juggle. Making sure that one strand reflected the other but without repetition or giving anything away that shouldn’t be revealed, was difficult. There were also challenges in telling a story through letters: how to manage the fact that the recipient, Gil, would know a lot of what Ingrid is telling him, and how Ingrid remembers in so much detail. I see the letters more as entries in some sort of memoir. And it wasn’t a conscious decision to have Flora’s perspective rather than Nan’s; it was simply that I got into Flora’s head first, and I didn’t think I needed both sisters.
SR: I think it’s so interesting that you started writing with Gil and then ended up deleting most of his narrative. At what point did you know that this character wasn’t the focus?
CF: I was quite a long way in – about 20,000 words, so removing most of that was something I did with great trepidation. (I didn’t actually delete the words, but moved them to another file, just in case I changed my mind.) Gil had become tiresome to me, and kept justifying his actions in a way I didn’t like.
SR: At the end of each of Ingrid’s letters, you included the title and author of the book that she had slipped the letter in. How did you decide which books she would tuck her letters in? How did she decide which books she would tuck her letters in?
CF: The first one mentioned is ‘Who Was Drowned and Who was Dead’ by Barbara Comyns (although this in fact Ingrid’s final letter). I didn’t plan for Ingrid to put her letters in books, but I wanted her to hide one, and I cast around in the room where she was for somewhere for her to hide it. And since the room was full of books, a book seemed like a logical hiding place. I picked that book because it’s one of my favourites – I simply wrote down the first title that came into my head. But because this is the last letter Ingrid writers before she disappears – and possibly drowns – it seemed very appropriate. From then on I decided to select book titles that echo the contents of Ingrid’s letters. I haven’t read them all. Some titles I found on the internet, some are favourite books. I had great fun choosing them.
SR: I noticed that there seems to be some similarity in the personalities of Ingrid and Flora, though they seem to not always get along when Ingrid was still around. They’re both pretty free-spirited. Nan, on the other hand, is a lot more structured and methodical. Gil always seems to be either locked away writing, or out in the world gallivanting. What was the process like in creating these characters? Was it ever difficult to get into their minds? How did you decide what their dynamics with each other would be like?
CF: The kinds of people these characters became happened gradually as I wrote. If they did something surprising I would go back and rework their character to take account of any changes. I didn’t plan beforehand what they would be like, and I really like it when a character surprises me on the page, like real people can surprise me. Of course there were times when I had the character in dialogue with another and I wasn’t sure what they were thinking, so occasionally I would open up a blank Word document and call it, ‘We Need To Talk About Flora’, or ‘We Need to Talk About Ingrid,’ and then I would have a written conversation with myself about what I thought the character was thinking, or what they wanted, or what they didn’t like, or whatever the issue was that I was tackling in the novel. Once I was about half way through the characters started doing things for themselves – behaving in a particular way because I knew them so well. So their dynamics weren’t always conscious decisions. I did have great fun with Nan and Flora though – reverting to their childhood selves as soon as they were home.
SR: I love your process for building these characters. In what ways did the characters surprise you? How did you get into the habit of having conversations with yourself about them?
When I found out that Nan was going on a date with a woman, I was surprised. It wasn’t something I’d planned, but I was as pleased for her as Flora is. And the way that Ingrid grew and developed into her own person surprised me, but again, I was pleased with that. I’m not sure where the habit of having written conversations about them came from. I think I’d heard lots of writers say that when they were stuck, they often went for a walk, and the act of walking would loosen something. But that has never worked for me. Sometimes, oddly, reading another author’s fiction – as long as it is a novel I think is brilliant – will start me thinking about my own work, so I always keep a piece of paper by my side when I’m reading.
SR: Richard is an interesting character. Since he’s not one of the family members, he is able to maintain some distance from their situation. It’s also interesting that he stays so invested in this family, even though his relationship with Flora was only a few weeks old. Why did you choose to create a character like him and place him with this family? What are some of the things he can offer as a character that the other family members can’t? How do you see Richard and Flora’s relationship moving forward?
CF: Richard is there for a number of reasons. I wanted someone from outside the family to have a relationship with Gil, and be able to see this difficult man through the eyes of a non-family member, although Richard does come with some baggage of his own with regards to Gil, since he is in awe of him as a writer. I also wanted someone for Flora to discuss things with, and someone to offer her a potential future when the novel ends. Beyond their moment together on the beach, I really don’t know what will happen to their relationship. I never think what will happen to the characters after the book ends.
SR: The way Ingrid signs her letters to Gil changes as the story progresses. At the beginning she signs them in a loving, caring way, saying “Yours, always” or “Your Loving Wife.” As the story continues, she signs off in less intimate ways, using just her name and eventually just “I.” Can you talk about this progression, and why she decided in her very last letter to only sign off with a single letter?
CF: Ingrid doesn’t know what she’s doing when she starts writing the letters about her relationship with Gil. She only knows she wants to express herself (feeling that she hasn’t done this properly before), and thinking she wants Gil back. But as she puts their story down on paper she begins to learn about herself, and what she has missed out on, what kind of mother she thinks she is, what kind of husband Gil has been. That change in signing off is one way I used to show the progression from a wife and mother to someone more independent and sure of her own mind.
SR: In an interview with Tin House, you mention that you write your novels to soundtracks. How did this habit start, and how do you know when you’ve picked the perfect soundtrack for a particular novel?
CF: I nearly always have music on at home, so it didn’t seem odd to have music on when I was writing my first novel, Our Endless Numbered Days. That time I chose Iron & Wine. I can’t remember if I tried lots of different musicians out, but I chose that music pretty early on, and my brain learned that when that music came on, it was writing time, which I found a pretty useful tool in avoiding procrastination. Because it had worked that first time, I did try lots of music to write Swimming Lessons to, and thought at first that I would have a play list with tracks by lots of different artists, but that really didn’t work because they were all so different. I finally settled on Townes van Zandt – although I made a selection of his tracks because not all of them seemed right for the kind of book I was writing. Eventually, when the same music has been playing for months I no longer hear the lyrics, but the mood of the music helps the writing along.
SR: What does your writing space look like?
CF: I’ve only recently got my own room to write in. I wrote my first book on the sofa in my sitting room. Then I got a tiny desk in my sitting room for my next two. But now I’ve turfed my daughter out of her room (she’s at university) and redecorated it. I have a day-bed (so that she has somewhere to sleep) for afternoon naps, and lots of shelves and big red rug. It’s messy though – books all over the (bigger) desk and the floor, a heater by my side and a hot-water bottle, and a radiator for my feet. (I get very cold sitting still.) It’s so wonderful to be able to make a mess, and leave it exactly as it is at the end of my writing day.
SR: Your writing room seems so cozy! What types of books do you surround yourself with? Do they ever influence your own writing? How is writing in your new space different from writing on the couch?
CF: Other books do inspire me, or as I mentioned, help me when I get stuck. When the tone of what I’m writing is wrong, I’ll often dip into Wildlife or Canada by Richard Ford, and just read a paragraph or two and somehow this resets things. Most of the other books around me are ones I’ve been using for research on English country houses, but now that I’m moving onto another novel, I’ll have to give these back to the library.
My new space, and the new chair that comes with it, are definitely better for my back!