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Swimming Lessons: An Interview with Claire Fuller
Claire Fuller’s Swimming Lessons has only been on sale for a little over a week, and already the reception is thrilling. Tonight Claire will be in conversation with Jenny Offill at McNally Jackson and, if you can make it, we hope to see you there. Conversations with Claire are rich—I learn something new every time I talk to her. A few weeks before publication, Claire and I met over Skype and chatted about writing to music, staving of the “sophomore slump”, and not needing to love all your characters.
Masie Cochran: Hi Claire. It’s good to see you. Funny that after working on two books together, we’ve only met on Skype.
Claire Fuller: And you! I know, but also wonderful that this is even possible.
MC: Well, it’s something we plan to remedy in just a few weeks when you come to New York for your tour of Swimming Lessons. Have you ever been to the states?
CF: I’ve been twice, once to Maine, and the second time to California. And oddly enough both times was for my honeymoon. But I’ve never been to New York before.
MC: I’m really excited to see you read with Jenny Offill. I remember when I first read Swimming Lessons that it reminded me a bit, probably in the epistolary structure, of Dept. of Speculation. Do you see that?
CF: I’m really excited to meet her. I loved Dept. of Speculation. And yes, I think there are some similarities, especially in the first part where the narrator addresses her husband as you. That part really feels like a letter, or at least something written. Then the book changes to third person, and finally comes back to we.
MC: I notice on social media you often pair what you are reading with a meal, usually breakfast. What would be a perfect paring for Swimming Lessons?
CF: Breakfast is one of favourite meals of the day, along with lunch and dinner. Although Flora in Swimming Lessons has a lot more issues with food than I do, we do eat our eggs in the same way: I like to remove the yolk from the white intact, before breaking it. And the meals that Gil, her father cooks – mostly bacon and eggs – is a memory of mine from when I was ten and my parents separated and I would go and stay with my Dad for the weekend and all he ever cooked was ‘fry-ups’ (not that my Dad is like Gil in any other way). So perhaps the perfect pairing would be a couple of poached eggs on brown toast with some crispy bacon on the side.
Do you use the word ‘fry-up’? Do you know what that means?
MC: I don’t know the saying, but I’m guessing it’s our fried eggs or sunny side up eggs? Is the center cooked-through or wet?
CF: Actually it’s just everything fried in the same pan: sausages, bacon, eggs. And then after we’d eaten he would boil water in the pan to make the washing up even easier.
MC: That’s one of the fun things about working on your books. I’ve expanded my vocabulary to include British slang, throwing around terms like candyfloss hair. That’s not a compliment is it?
CF: I suppose the women with the candyfloss hair must think it’s nice. But no, not really a compliment.
MC: You’ve also influenced my music tastes. Many times you’ve told me that you had a particular sound track while you write your novels. How did (if they did) Iron & Wine—for Our Endless Numbered Days—or Towns Van Zandt—for Swimming Lessons—inform the narratives of your novels? Do you have a soundtrack for your third?
CF: I pick my writing sound track very carefully when I’m setting out on a novel, and sometimes it takes a few goes to get it right. It’s often a certain melancholic tone that I’m looking for. And it doesn’t matter about lyrics, in fact I prefer music with more complex lyrics like Iron & Wine’s, it makes me think about words but after a while the music washes over me anyway as I write. By the time I’m reaching the middle of a first draft the music has become such an integral part of my writing that as soon as I put it on I’m itching to start. The only drawback is that now when I listen to Iron & Wine or Townes Van Zandt I feel rather nostalgic for when I was writing the books and start to miss them and the characters. My third novel is being written to a Leonard Cohen playlist, and I’m sure that this will be even harder to listen to again when I’ve finished because of his death last year.
MC: You seem fascinated by the act of disappearing. It’s a theme in both Our Endless Numbered Days and Swimming Lessons. What about disappearance attracts you?
CF: I can remember walking through some woods with my father and stepmother when I was about twelve, and when they’d turned a corner I tried to imagine what would happen if, when I turned the same corner, they weren’t there, and when I reached the nearest house there was no one there either, and the town was empty, and I was the only person left. I still imagine that sometimes…what if my husband, or one of my children go out and simply never come home? What would I do, what would happen next, how would I live with not knowing? I think it’s all the (terrible) possibilities of that scenario I’m interested in.
MC: Your novels both explore family secrets (and family lies). It seems that the intimate confines of family can create deeper (and sometimes) darker secrets. What draws you to family secrets?
CF: Families are always an interesting dynamic. Generally we love at least some of the members of our family and yet it’s easy for them to irritate us (and us to irritate them). The relationship we have with a partner or a child is likely to be the closest we’ll ever have, and yet we still can’t know exactly what is going on inside their heads. Writing about family is like one of those murder mysteries, where you put a handful of people in a house which they can’t get away from, and wait for something explosive to happen. It always does.
MC: There’s a clear pleasure of finding things—ephemera and marginalia—in books in Swimming Lessons. But there is also a dark and devastating aspect to what you can find in books. Does this tension interest you? Can you name and books that particularly delighted you? Devastated you?
CF: I love finding things in books, not that I’ve come across anything that interesting, but even old postcards that have been used a bookmarks are fascinating; like dipping into someone else’s life for a moment. It’s a bit like eavesdropping though – you might listen at the door to someone else’s conversation hoping to hear something nice, when what you hear is, like you say, devastating. The books I like best are those that delight me and devastate me at the same time. Some that I read last year which did that to me include Commonwealth by Ann Patchett, Mothering Sunday by Graham Swift, and The Pier Falls by Mark Haddon.
MC: I love working on your novels because there are always so many layers. So far, both novels have a bit of a ‘twist’ ending (while never needing to rely on it). Do you go in knowing the twist or does it come to you through the writing process?
CF: I definitely don’t know it to start with, because I don’t know the middle, let alone the ending. And I didn’t intend to write books with any kind of twist when I set out. I don’t plan when I write, I just find some characters and put them in a location and see what happens. With Swimming Lessons I was about half way through when I realised I needed to know in my own mind what happens to Ingrid after she disappears from her the beach.
MC: Was there a scene that was particularly fun to write? What was one of the more difficult scenes?
CF: I really liked writing the letter that Gil writes to Ingrid, which is a love letter in an odd kind of way. He writes their life backwards (just as she, in her letters writes theirs forwards), although because he writes it when they’ve just met he’s rather presumptuous about what will happen to them in the future. Someone who read an early copy of Swimming Lessons said that this letter would have made them fall in love with Gil, which is what I was aiming for.
And the most difficult things to write were the arguments between Ingrid and Gil, and Flora and her sister, Nan. I don’t argue, I don’t really know how to do it, and although I’ve heard many arguments (mostly between my children), it was hard to put myself in the middle of it and make people say horrible things to each other. When I’d finished my first draft those were the bits I had to work on to try and get really cross.
MC: Do you play favorites with your characters? Some you like more than others? I know there are times that I struggled with Gil and other times that I felt Ingrid reflects parts of myself I’d rather not see. Maybe what I love most about your characters are their imperfections.
CF: I like them all, or at least I find them all interesting, even the nasty ones. But I have more sympathy for some than others. Gil is a particularly difficult character to like, for me and for readers; he does some reprehensible things. It’s often about whether you identify with a particular character, and there’s some of me in both Ingrid and Flora. I found early motherhood difficult, as Ingrid does. I expected it to come naturally to me and when it didn’t I felt incredibly guilty. Of course Ingrid and I made very different decisions about the course of our lives, but because I can understand the spiral of negativity about her life and her skills I have huge sympathy for her. She made some poor choices, and tried to live with them. And I like to think I wasn’t quite as annoying as Flora at twenty two, but I still like her feistiness, she just needs to harness her anger and use it constructively.
MC: You have the unique perspective of working on your novel in two countries at the same time. Are there marked differences in the process?
CF: There were big differences in the process of having my book published in the US compared to having it published in the UK, but I suspect that most of these were to do with the size of the organisations (Tin House compared with Fig Tree, part of Penguin in the UK), as well as the way my editors – you included – like to do things. By its very nature, Tin House and its staff can be flexible in how they operate. If something isn’t working you can change it easily and quickly, but in a very large organisation there are set processes – book production, copyediting, proofreading and so on – which have to work to a fairly rigid schedule because so many books are being published at any one time. That’s not to say that at Tin House you don’t have a schedule you need to work to, but unlike at Penguin you personally can and do get involved in copyediting for example, whereas my UK editor mostly doesn’t.
MC: As you know, I’m chomping at the bit (is this an idiom used in the UK?) to read your next novel. Give us a teaser?
CF: Yes, we use chomping at the bit. I’ve recently finished the first draft of my next novel. It was always been my plan to get this done before Swimming Lessons was published, so that I can keep thinking about it while doing publicity for Swimming Lessons. My UK literary agent has read it and made various suggestions, which I need to think about and then get to work on it. Here’s a little teaser: it’s about two women who meet in the summer of 1969 in England in a dilapidated and mostly empty country house. They both bring a lot of difficult history with them and a desire for penance which comes to a head at the end of the summer.
Claire Fuller‘s debut novel, Our Endless Numbered Days was published by Tin House in 2015 and went on to win the Desmond Elliott prize in the UK and was a finalist in the ABA awards. The book has also been sold in twelve other countries. Her second novel, Swimming Lessons will be published in 2017. Claire has written many short stories and pieces of flash fiction several of which have been published and won competitions including the BBC’s Opening Lines. She has an MA in Creative and Critical Writing from The University of Winchester, and lives in Winchester, England with her husband and children.
Masie Cochran is an editor with Tin House Books.