Claire Fuller: A first draft is usually terrible
I knew I would have liked to interview Claire before I read “Our Endless Numbered Days”. The novel was in my short “To Read” list of debut bestseller novels in first person narrative (an ongoing research project of mine in connection with an article soon to be released, also in connection with a personal writing project – don’t ask yet!). I didn’t know I would be so impressed with the novel, but being awarded the Desmond Elliott Prize 2015 should have a good reason. The novel became one of the best books I’ve ever read and – as all my friends are already aware – I just can’t stop talking about it. So you can imagine my surprise when Claire quickly responded to my interview request (I would believe it after seeing it published!)
So let me first introduce you to the plot so you have an idea of what this fuss is all about. Meet Peggy – now 17 years old – and her story that started when she was just 8.
Peggy Hillcoat is an ordinary 8 year old girl who lives with her German concert pianist mother, Ute, and her survivalist English father, James, in an ordinary London home. While her mother is remote and unwilling to share her music or even her language with her daughter, her father is committed to introducing Peggy to the eccentric world of survivalists.
The summer of 1976 starts with great outdoor adventures any child would love – Peggy is trained in how to trap and cook squirrels and rabbits, how to build a fire, how to pack in 4 minutes a list of essential items in a rucksack. But a sudden crisis triggers a crazed response in James and turns this once idyllic life into a nightmare. While Ute is on tour in Europe James takes Peggy away to a remote run-down mountain hut, “die Hütte”, deep in the German mountains, and explains to her that some terrible apocalyptic event has brought about the end of the world, they are now the last remaining people on earth and must depend on their skills to survive.
Peggy stays in the cabin for nine years, all the while believing the lies of her father. Narrated in flashback from the perspective of the 17 year old Peggy, who has returned to her old home in London, the story presents the horror of what unfolds in “die Hütte” and is moving and terrifying at times. We follow Peggy as silent witnesses – even though we know he is lying, we accept her father’s authority, we follow his lead. We have to get used to the claustrophobic home, we have to survive in the wild, we need to subsist during winter. We have no other choice but stick to the only other person left on earth.
I think it’s time to stop writing about the book. If you want to know more about this story, order it in English, French, Turkish, Danish, Italian or any other language published already or just write a letter to any big local publisher to ask about publishing it in Bulgarian.
As I am going to introduce Claire to you. She was born and raised in Oxfordshire, England, studied sculpture at Winchester School of Art, specializing in wood and stone carving, but she had a long career in a marketing agency and began writing short stories and flash fiction at the age of 40. “Our Endless Numbered Days” is her first novel and it was released in February 2015.
Claire was so kind to find time to discuss her plot and characters, her writing routine and her publishing experience in an exclusive interview for bgstoryteller.
Claire Fuller: “Even with bad words on the page I then have something to edit.”
An interview by Valentina Miziiska
Your story is about a child but writing such a serious and deep plot needs a grown up person, a mature writer. Did you know your story would turn so powerful, when you first sat at your computer to write it?
No, I didn’t know how it would turn out or what the story would be when I first sat down to write it, because I don’t plan my novels – I just start with some characters and a location and write to see what will happen. But when I realized that it was quite a dark story that I wanted to tell carefully, I made the 17 year old Peggy remember it, rather than the eight year old Peggy.
How much and what kind of research did you do for this plot?
I did a lot of research, specially for the forest sections. I didn’t know anything about how to survive in nature with very little except what is around you, so I had to research all of this – from how to kill a rabbit to how to skin a squirrel. I also had to do a fair amount of research around other things such as the kind of music Peggy and her father should take with them into the forest, and even the make of the piano that Ute owns. Most things were done online, but I did get out into the woods near where I live to listen to the sounds there.
Readers follow your main character’s story in two environments – during her “forest” years and the “1985, London” breaks. Did you write your scenes initially in chronological order and after you mixed them or it was this structure you followed from the beginning?
I wrote them in the order that they appear in the book, because this helped create the tension in both environments. But once I’d finished the whole story I took out all of the London scenes and put them into one document to check that they worked sequentially because that action takes place over the course of just one day. And then when I was happy with these chapters I slotted them back into the main story.
Did you have a full picture of Peggy’s character and character’s arc or they did develop during the writing process?
They very much developed as I went along. Because I was discovering as I was writing, what would happen to Peggy, I couldn’t plan how her character would change by the end of the book – this also had to be discovered. And her character also developed until I was happy with the kind of person she was, and when I reach that stage then the characters start to take over and will only do things that work for the type of person they are.
Have you experienced unexpected plot changes because of your characters’ decisions/actions that seemed more logical at certain points?
Not many with this book. Perhaps because I don’t plan ahead often what happens seems a logical consequence of what has gone before, so each scene is a natural progression of the previous one. I did however do some edits both with my agent and editors; the biggest of these was toning down the homosexual relationship between James and Oliver, although there is still something between them, but now it is just a hint.
Did you know how the story would end from the very beginning?
No, I didn’t. I’d no idea what would happen.
How long it took you to write the novel?
It took me about a year and half to write the first draft and then another six months to edit. But I did also have a full time job, and children at home, so I was writing around those constraints.
Did you know you could write before “Our Endless Numbered Days”?
Well, Our Endless Numbered Days was the first novel I wrote, but for a couple of years before that, I was writing short stories, so I’d had a bit of practice.
Tell us more about your writing process. Do you have a writing routine?
I sit down at my desk at 9am and finish at 6pm when my husband gets home from work, but I don’t write for that whole time – I’m on social media, or I’m reading, or researching. As long as the book is moving forward I’m happy. But when I’m reaching the end of a book I work much harder and longer hours including weekends.
Have you experienced a writers’ block?
I’m not convinced that writers’ block exists because you can always write something! Of course it might be rubbish and the next day you might delete all of it, but just to be putting words on the page will get you somewhere.
What’s the hardest part of your work and how do you cope?
The hardest bit for me is writing the first draft – I really don’t enjoy it. Sometimes the words don’t flow, I don’t know what is going to happen next, I don’t even understand why these characters are doing these things. I use all sorts of techniques to make me continue – bribery (often with food!), or word counts, or word races with other writers. Anything to get the words down. Because I know that even with bad words on the page I then have something to edit.
Have you ever thought of quitting before you end your novel?
I’ve not thought of quitting, so far. I’ve written three novels and finished them all, and I don’t have any that I’ve started and not finished, although this happens for me with many short stories.
Tell us about your experience with publication. Is it what you’d expected?
It is notoriously hard to get an agent and a novel published, but luckily for me it was an incredibly smooth process (so far), so in that way it hasn’t been what I expected. I didn’t expect to be able to give up my marketing job and write full time – I feel exceptionally privileged.
How did you select your agent? How did she impress you to sign with her?
I had several requests from agents for me to send them my complete novel, but in the end I only went to meet one of them, who offered to represent me then and there, and a couple of days later I accepted, so I didn’t really have to select her from a list of agents. But she did impress me – firstly with her suggestions with what she thought could be changed with the book to make it better. I agreed with everything she said. She also seemed very professional – excited by writing and books, but also someone who would be able to negotiate with publishers. Plus she scared away a pigeon who landed on our table (we were outside having a cup of tea), and continued talking even while doing it. That impressed me!
What’s the best thing you learned as a writer from your editor during the working process of your first novel?
That someone else who cares about your book as much as you do, and wants it to succeed, is a great thing. All my editors (“Our Endless Numbered Days” has been published in a few countries) have shown me how a book can be improved, how when you think the editing is done, there’s still more editing that will make it better.
What were the main issues you worked on?
My editor at Penguin is great at giving critiques about the story and characters as a whole – what is working in terms of plot and tension. So we looked at some of these. While my US editor at Tin House is very good at examining the fine detail and going through line by line, so I have the best of both worlds.
Have you ever thought you might not be capable of meeting her expectations?
It didn’t occur to me that I’m might not be capable of meeting their expectations – I would have worked until I did. By that stage it is quite a collaborative process.
Do you have a project now? Are you currently writing something new or editing something?
I’ve just finished my third novel but we’ll have to wait and see when / if it will be published. It’s about a woman called Frances who is commissioned to survey the follies in the garden of an English country house in 1969. There she meets Cara and Peter and becomes swept up in their lives. Together they discover secrets that the house has kept hidden for decades, while Frances also finds a hole in her bathroom floor through which she is able to spy on her new friends, uncovering stories that were best left hidden.
What’s your writing advice for Bulgarian aspiring writers and followers of bgstoryteller.co?
I think it would be the same for writers wherever they are in the world: firstly finish what you’re writing. A first draft is usually terrible, and it’s not until you get to the end that you can make it better. And then, edit, edit, and edit some more.
Thank you, Claire! It was a pleasure!
Thank you so much for inviting me!
Here is a link where you can find more about Claire: