Emma Latham talks to the award-winning novelist and sculptor about gender, art and being a writer who doesn’t like writing.
A hare shapeshifting into a woman with a bloody wound on her head? The bellowing of a white cow in the corner of the bedroom? If you aren’t familiar with Claire Fuller’s command of the unsettling, allow me to introduce her. A voracious reader of contemporary authors she populated her teenage bookshelf with the novels of James Herbert, John Wyndham and William Golding – books that were guaranteed to raise the hairs on the back of your neck. She once arranged for a friend to shoot a squirrel so that she could gut, skin and eat it. She takes her husband foraging for deadly mushrooms – all in the name of research. Just to be safe, I’m definitely ordering the drinks when we meet in the buzzing café Eat, Drink and Be, in Winchester.
Claire Fuller at her desk
©Photo by Emma Latham
The day is bright and sunny, the café doors are open wide and I sit near a window contemplating a bronze sculpture by Elizabeth Frink outside, and reflect on Fuller’s many creative talents, wondering whether the rhythm of a sentence is as shapely as a piece of sculpture. The author and artist, who for her first degree studied sculpture, has carved substantial figures, heads and ammonites, from limestone. She’s made lampshades from pieces of sand-washed and stained glass. She creates animated videos, draws and, of course, writes award winning novels. She arrives smiling and relaxed, to tell me of her plans for an easy going day. From coffee here, she’s going to meet one of her best friends for lunch – her ex-husband Paul. To read Fuller’s work is as satisfying as looking at a good piece of sculpture. She’s found her real métier in writing, expressed in novels that appear perfect from every angle.
Claire Fuller is the award-winning author of three novels all of which have themes and elements that unnerve the reader. Crafted in a lapidary narrative style her works resonate with shadowy paranormal motifs, undertones of the sinister and are peppered with disturbances. Her readers return to the riddles and ask questions that leave us in no doubt of Fuller’s skill in calculated uncertainty. Her willingness to answer those questions on social media platforms delights her readers, but she often remains ambiguous, allowing her readers their own interpretation. Her path to becoming an author of books sold in 19 countries, has come about because of this magnanimous attitude and an ability to put herself outside her comfort zone.
Now aged 52, Fuller, spent her early forties doing a series of madcap assignments for a worldwide collaborative art project with her future second husband. Fuller tells of a one person demonstration they did. ‘Tim made a placard that said “Less Driving, More Walking” and then he went and stood in the middle of a four lane road in Reading, while I took photographs.’ With an incredulous laugh she continues. ‘We did loads of them – maybe 30 . . . The ones I liked the best were those that made me feel uncomfortable, slightly embarrassed, and exhilarated afterwards.’ She honed her open-mindedness through daring. At the time she was following a book called: Learning to Love You More, by Miranda July. Fuller says, ’She encouraged people to go and do lots of projects, take photographs of them, send them off to her website and she would post them online. That whole website was sold in the end, to the Museum of Modern Art in San Francisco.’
Keen to test her nerve further, Fuller joined a regular library event that entailed writing a short story that took five minutes to read aloud – in front of a paying audience. ‘Although it was scary, I enjoyed the challenge, and after a couple of years I applied to do an MA in Creative and Critical Writing at the University of Winchester.’ All this she did alongside bringing up her family and co-running a small marketing agency. Having gained her master’s degree, Fuller started to write her first novel.
She landed herself an agent and entered the publishing arena when her debut novel, Our Endless Numbered Days – a haunting tale of broken trust, control and survival at a disturbing cost – caused a flurry of auctions amongst publishers at home and abroad. She chose Penguin in the UK. The novel, now translated into ten languages, has won multiple awards including one for first time novelists for its compelling narrative, arresting character, and which is both vividly written and confidently realised – the prestigious Desmond Elliott Prize.
It was the kind of glittering start that many people might not sustain, but as Fuller left the fanfare that goes with brilliant debut status, she showed that it didn’t affect her. Her next book, Swimming Lessons tells the story of a woman who disappears from a beach, having hidden, within the thousands of books her husband collects, letters detailing the truths of their marriage. The family exist in a dysfunctional limbo of hope and grief, some not realising that what they’re looking for lies hidden in the books that surround them. Shortlisted for The Encore Award for the best Second Novel, it shows Fuller’s insight into human behaviour and her ability as a serious writer, as well as displaying a playful, creative mind. ‘One of the inspirations for Swimming Lessons was a project that my husband and I did before we were married or living together. We decided we would write five notes to each other and hide them in each other’s houses. A couple of years after that we decided he would move in with me, and in the process of packing up, he found all five of my notes.’ But still, eleven years later, ‘there are two of his notes that I haven’t found, hidden somewhere in the house we share together. I’m certain they’re in the books.’
Another inspiration: ‘a piece of flash fiction about a man walking along a beach and the things that he found washed up there.’ He later became Gill in Swimming Lessons.
© Photo by Claire Fuller
Her latest novel, Bitter Orange became her third novel to be published by Penguin Books. It’s an unsettling, atmospheric story about puzzling secrets, loneliness and thwarted lives being changed forever. The characters are vividly realised in the setting of a dilapidated country house, which is so evocative that it achieves the status of a central participant in the faceted story.
A Palladian Bridge inspired Fuller for her novel Bitter Orange
I point out that the buildings in all her novels seem to be neglected and difficult to live in. She says, ‘A friend of mine said “do you realise that nobody can actually live in all the buildings in your books – they’re all uninhabitable”.’ Laughing she adds, ‘and actually the building in Book 4 is the same.’
Earlier this year Fuller typed The End on the first draft of her fourth book. ‘It’s developed in an odd way this one. It’s changed completely from the point of inspiration.’ It had started with a character who took Fuller to a point where, she felt, it just wasn’t working. Starting again, from a different point of view, Fuller depicts a new pairing. Not, as in her other books, parent and child, not man and wife nor unrequited love, but twins. Fuller describes how they combine, then pull apart and the tensions that evolve between them as they find their separate identity. She told me that she scrapped tens of thousands of words before she got it right.
The twins in Book 4 are male and female – a further test of her writing sensibility? ‘I don’t think it’s any different writing men as opposed to women – we’re all human beings. We might have different agendas, but I don’t think that’s based on gender, I think that’s probably based on personality. When I finished the first draft it was mostly from Jean’s point of view, supported by an omniscient narrator, and then I thought actually we need to hear from her brother Julius. So now, in my second draft, I’m writing bits from his point of view just to weave in, so within a chapter – within a paragraph – it shifts point of view. Everyone says you shouldn’t do that, but if you can make the transition work between one point of view to the other, and you don’t lose the reader, then I think it can work well. Especially as you’re dealing with twins.’ After all, that’s what a stage play does all the time.
Actually, by her own admission Fuller doesn’t much like writing. However, she does enjoy the words on the page and the editing. ‘The fear of not knowing what I am doing and the idea that I’m lacking someone else’s authority to be allowed to write has never gone away. Writing is still an uncomfortable activity for me. But my early efforts taught me that if I keep writing through the disquiet and the angst, the results pay off. The books I like best are those that delight me and devastate me at the same time.’
I ask Fuller, having learned to create art in three dimensions, is writing comparable in certain respects? ‘To me, they are utterly separate disciplines; I don’t use one to think about the other at all, but I probably do work in similar ways – things happen organically I suppose. I know the kinds of books that I like, and I try to write a book that I like to read. So with sculpture, I would start carving and just go with it, in the same way, I do in writing. I haven’t done any sculpture for a long time because it feels like the writing is my creative outlet. I don’t know what that’s like for other writers. It might be that all writers see their work like that. It might not be because I’ve done art. I don’t know because all I know is the way that I do it.’
And why would she want to analyse it? With Hemingway in mind, I for one, wouldn’t want to disturb “the pattern made by the dust on a butterfly’s wings” . . .
Fuller has made herself one of those people that she once thought of as different and special from others – a successful writer. Her website lists a full itinerary that makes me wonder when she gets time to write.
‘I think perhaps because I didn’t start writing till I was 40 and Our Endless Numbered Days was published when I was 48, that I don’t take any of it for granted. I say yes, more or less, to everything,’ she laughs, ‘because I think somebody might not ask me again.’
She’s become a kind of literary democrat and shares her creative vision through her interactions directly with other writers and her readers, as well as on social media platforms in an endearingly unselfconscious way.
Fuller starts her next book in the slipstream of the one that’s just been finished. ‘I want people to have some kind of emotional response to my books, but also I want to keep doing this for a living. And my agent is wonderful.’ So it’s not just about reviews. After the two years it takes Fuller to write a novel, she gives it to her editor in the hope that her publisher will buy the next book. ‘Then I have to see whether that’s enough to pay the bills.’
First Writing – There must have been writing before this, but I remember being told to be inventive for my English Language ‘O’ Level exam. The story title had to be Leaving Home. I wrote a story about a boy called Home, who left. (I got an A.)
First Memory – Drawing and cutting out some new heads for the paper dolls I had – the sort of dolls that you can dress in paper clothes with fold-over tabs.
First Book That Influenced Me – We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson. I didn’t read it until I was forty, when I was just starting to do some of my own creative writing.
Advice To My Younger Self – Leave that man before you turn 17 and he turns 31.
Take a closer look
Writing a Book: The Fuller Formula
- You take a couple of points that pique your interest, often from one of your flash fiction pieces. You have characters that you want to know more about or an idea that you want to develop. This might be a boy in a news story, a character spying through a hole in an ornate ceiling rose or the idea of a man walking along a beach and seeing what he finds washed up along the shoreline.
- You don’t plan before you start writing. If you can somehow write, almost using your subconscious, then whatever seems to come out in the first draft will show you what it’s about. This means that you’re prepared to scrap an idea if it isn’t working – even if you’ve written 20,000 words.
- You probably read around 160 books over the two years it takes to write your novel. You might feel the tone and style of one book or the content of another help to cast light on the story you’re writing. When reading nonfiction books for research, you might find a thread in a real story that can be woven into your own.
- As the story emerges, you need to choose your music. A playlist or album will become the soundtrack for that particular novel, whilst writing, to the point of inspiring a kind of Pavlovian reaction when you hear the music. For instance, you might look for a certain melancholic tone or more complex lyrics, to aid your writing mood.
- Because of how long it takes, you need to like the characters – be able to care about them. So you thoroughly inhabit each one, allowing them to be true to themselves. You let them guide you through the story – slowly so that you understand where the story’s going. Sometimes you disagree with them and have to take them aside. Writing a ‘talk’ between you both, in a document separate from the manuscript, frees you to be candid, experiment with style and find out more about them.
- You really see as you’re writing – it’s very visual. In your mind, you clearly see the characters in the place, whether that’s landscape, a house interior or wherever.
- Rather than set a target number of words per day, you see it as a routine: you start at 9 and finish at 6. This may mean writing fewer, but better words. You don’t mind if it’s ten or a thousand words, as long as you’re writing new stuff and moving the story forward.
- You write a sparse first draft and it’s hard – almost painful for you, but the reward is in the editing.
- In subsequent drafts, you enjoy developing themes that have emerged and adding layers of complexity and richness to the text. You love rewriting, editing and polishing.