Photo credit: Adrian Harvey
Describe your latest book.
is about 51-year-old twins, Jeanie and Julius, who still live with their mother Dot in rural isolation and relative poverty in the English countryside. They don’t have a bank account, don’t have any qualifications, don’t own a car, and have very little access to technology. They’ve managed for all their lives like this — growing vegetables and doing odd jobs for people for a bit of cash. But when Dot dies at the start of the book, Jeanie and Julius discover that she left them with a lot of debt, and the cottage they live in isn’t actually theirs. They suddenly have to negotiate life outside the bubble they’ve been living in. And they don’t do it well.
They might not have enough money, but what Jeanie and Julius do have is music. Jeanie plays the guitar, Julius plays the fiddle, Dot played the banjo, and their father the piano. They would play folk music together at home, and it’s not until Jeanie is forced to play publicly that everyone realizes how skilled she is. She is the kind of musician whom everyone stops to listen to. I hope that the music in Unsettled Ground
not only shows that despite a poor education, Jeanie is capable of great learning, but that it also lifts the story, and brings some joy to the characters and readers.
And I’m delighted that it’s been shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction
. I’ve followed this prize for many years, and discovered lots of wonderful books written by women.
What was your favorite book as a child?
Stig of the Dump
by Clive King. The edition I still own is illustrated by Edward Ardizzone, and it is his lively and captivating drawings of Barney with his caveman friend that stick in my mind as much as the story. There is one illustration of Barney looking up at the cliff just after he has fallen into the chalk pit which I would dream about: the terror and excitement of it. But I also love the idea of the two friends making things from old rubbish. It might be that Stig of the Dump
was well ahead of his time.
When did you know you were a writer?
Not until I was 40. Before that I was a voracious reader (and still am), without any desire to write fiction, although I had enjoyed writing stories at school. I thought that books came out of authors’ heads fully formed, and I hadn’t considered what I now know about my own work — that they’re, for me at least, created in the editing. I had been doing some challenging art projects, and I was looking for another challenge when I came across a short story competition in my local library. I entered a number of times before I won and then started writing my first novel, Our Endless Numbered Days
What does your writing workspace look like?
My adult children have now left home, so I’ve converted one of their bedrooms into my writing room. My husband has built me some lovely shelves, my father has given me a grandmother clock that we’ve had in our family for many years, and against the back wall is a day bed, in case I ever need an afternoon nap. (I’m doing lots of online events for the US publication of Unsettled Ground
, including one at Powell's with Ron Rash
, so I’m going to be up very late. That’s my excuse anyway.)
Introduce one other author you think people should read, and suggest a good book with which to start.
An author whose work I love is the Australian writer Charlotte Wood, and the book I’d suggest people start with is her latest, The Weekend
. Three female friends in their seventies go to clear out the beach house of their fourth friend who has recently died. The four of them have been friends for years but without Sylvie the dynamic has changed and irritations start to surface. I’m not sure I’ve ever read a novel which portrays older women as so complete and real.
What's the most interesting job you've ever had?
My first job was working in the polytunnel of a small market-garden, where I had to pollinate melon flowers by hand.
What scares you the most as a writer?
When I start writing a novel I’m always fired up by the idea and this will usually take me to about 30,000 words of a manuscript (my novels often end up about 90,000 words long). But because I don’t know which direction the story is going to take, when I get to the 30,000-word mark, that’s when I get scared. That’s the moment (or the days or weeks) when that little destructive voice inside my head says, Why are you writing this? No one will ever want to read it. How about this idea instead?
It takes a big effort to ignore it and carry on writing.
What's the best advice you’ve ever received?
It’s not so much advice I’ve received, but two ideas I’ve come across which help me with writing. The first is from E. L. Doctorow
: "Writing is like driving at night. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way." This is how I write, and it’s always reassuring to remember that a whole book can be written without a plan. And the other is from Ann Patchett
’s mother: "None of it happened and all of it is true." Something else I try to keep in mind when I’m writing.
Have you ever made a literary pilgrimage?
A couple of years ago I visited Thomas Hardy’s cottage in Dorset. I went partly to research the cottage in Unsettled Ground
, but mostly because I love Hardy’s writing, and I was curious to see the place where he was born. The National Trust, who own the cottage and its garden, have recreated what it might have been like inside in 1840, with 19th-century furniture and artifacts. It was amazing to wander in and out of the rooms and think this was where Hardy wrote Far From the Madding Crowd
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was born in Oxfordshire, England. She has written four novels: Our Endless Numbered Days
, which won the Desmond Elliott Prize; Swimming Lessons
; Bitter Orange
; and Unsettled Ground
. She has an MA in Creative and Critical Writing from the University of Winchester and lives in Hampshire with her husband. Learn more at www.clairefuller.co.uk