Article published on October 27, 2015.
Yet another new strand for nudge, IN CONVERSATION, we hope, will be the place where authors share their experience of the writer’s life. To start us off, who better than Claire Fuller and Catriona Ward who were two of our guests at the nb Readers Day in Winchester in early October 2015. And since they are both debut authors where better to start than to suggest they talk about just that? Coincidentally – and before we asked them – both had bought the other’s book at our bookshop on the day!
Claire: Hello Catriona. So, to kick things off, your debut novel, Rawblood, has just been published. What did you think having your first book published would be like, and what was different?
Catriona: Hello, Claire. Good question. Difficult question!
Rawblood has only been published for two weeks – so I have limited experience. So far it has been largely as I had hoped, which is wonderful. I will say that before being published I hadn’t fully understood the challenges debut novelists face in today’s extremely competitive market. You focus so much on getting published that it can feel like the end of the road when you get there. Whereas actually it brings a whole new set of challenges with it – and it’s just the beginning. We hope.
What I really looked forward to and what I have in fact most enjoyed over the last few months is bookshop talks, literary festivals, author evenings. Talking to readers and writers, not just about my book but books in general. Writing is an isolated profession, and that contact with likeminded book people has been both a pleasure and an education.
What did it mean to you, and how did it feel for your debut, Our Endless Numbered Days to (completely deservedly, I think!) win such a major prize as the Desmond Elliott [a prize specifically for best debut novel]?
Claire: It was absolutely amazing! Firstly Our Endless Numbered Days was up against some wonderful books that I know many readers love, including The Miniaturist and Elizabeth is Missing. And secondly there were three highly respected judges reading the books and making the decision on the winner, so it was a huge compliment for them to select my novel. The chair of the judges was Louise Doughty, and I’d already read and thoroughly enjoyed her novel, Apple Tree Yard. I really didn’t believe it when she read out my name at the award ceremony in London. Quite wonderful.
Rawblood is a wonderfully haunting and atmospheric novel. Did you always want to write in the gothic style? Is it a genre you grew up reading?
Catriona: I’ve always loved gothic literature. It’s fall-on-your-sword stuff, such a rich emotional and symbolic landscape – but it only works when paired with scepticism. You need the rational narrator to fully frame the horror. Jonathan Harker, in Dracula, Lockwood in Wuthering Heights… I devoured those books when I was young – as well as more recent authors, like Kelly Link, Susan Hill, Shirley Jackson, Stephen King. The conventions were embedded in me. When I started writing Rawblood, it all flowed very naturally into the style and structure. Having lived in the gothic for five or so years now, I’m ready for new pastures. I think the next one will be a bit different.
Your second novel, Swimming Lessons will also be published by Fig Tree / Penguin. Was writing your second novel a different experience to your first? How so?
Claire: It was different. At first I couldn’t help but be aware that there is now a potential audience who might be interested in what I wrote next and that was slightly inhibiting. But also I didn’t have a strong idea of what the novel would be about, as I did with Our Endless Numbered Days. Swimming Lessons came from a couple of things: firstly, a piece of flash fiction I wrote about a man on a beach, so I had a character and a location, but no idea what was interesting about him. And also a project my husband and I did before we were married. We wrote notes to each other and hid them in each other’s houses. He’s found all the ones I wrote, but several years later I’m still looking for some of his. But these were vague ideas and so unlike my first book, my second was full of dead-ends and I had to find my way past them to get to the story.
What’s your writing process? Are you a planner? When do you write, and where?
Catriona: That’s a wonderful story. No wonder it made its way into a novel!
I’m a planner but a vague one. I almost always know the end point of a scene, but not how to get there. That’s the exciting part. When characters start surprising you, when the fictional world feels complete, like something you’ve wandered into rather than something you’ve created.
I wrote a lot of Rawblood at night, at rather unsociable hours. My habits are more diurnal now. I like writing in the morning and early afternoon, preferably in someone else’s house. My parents’ house in Devon is a favourite. I talk to myself a lot while I’m writing, so it has to be quite a secluded corner.
Do any particular writers influence you, and how?
Claire: That’s a lovely way of putting it – ‘like something you’ve wandered into’.
Oh, so many writers and books. I was interested to see you mention Shirley Jackson. We Have Always Lived in the Castle is possibly my favourite book ever – beautifully written, but also something slightly sinister throughout it. I also really like fiction with lots of nature writing. David Vann’s novels, for example, especially Legend of a Suicide was a big influence on Our Endless Numbered Days, as was Wallace Stegner, and his novel Angle of Repose. They both have a very strong narrative and interesting characters (although Legend of a Suicide is really a collection of stories), interwoven with descriptions of landscape that is very vivid. Perhaps what links all three books I’ve mentioned is they are all quite dark.
I love that you talk to yourself when writing. Do you have any other quirky author habits?
Catriona: I love writing outdoors. It can be difficult, as I use a laptop. I was in France this summer past, and I dragged an enormous old table out of the house, down the hill into an old olive grove, and wrote there. It was lovely. At the end of my stay I couldn’t get it back up the hill into the house. Luckily it turned out to be an old, unwanted table so I didn’t feel too bad. I hope it will still be there next year waiting for me.
As you say your influences are quite dark. Our Endless Numbered Days and your forthcoming novel are both mysteries and also quite dark (I’m guessing, with Swimming Lessons!) What draws you to that kind of writing?
Claire: Yes, both books are mysteries and dark, although Swimming Lessons perhaps less so than Our Endless Numbered Days. I think what draws me to writing like that is it is what I first remember reading and enjoying as a young teenager. My Dad had a non-fiction book called Phenonema: A Book of Wonder which was about things like spontaneous human combustion, raining fish and fairy rings, which I was absolutely fascinated by. I also loved to be scared and read a lot of horror and ghost stories from an early age, and watched Tales of the Unexpected and the Hammer House of Horror series. All these spooky and dark influences must have seeped in, not surprisingly.
What are you working on now?
Catriona: Your Dad’s book sounds absolutely wonderful…
I’m in the midst of my next novel. Also a mystery (of course), and dark (naturally!) It centres around a famous mass murder in a castle in Scotland in 1928. The novel moves between the months leading up to the killings and an examination of the murderer’s childhood and adolescence – what was the moment which set her on the path to massacring her family? If indeed she did. I’m really interested in how we think and write about murder, and how that has changed through the years. In the same way that Rawblood is a hymn to the ghost story, this is rooted in the golden age of murder mysteries. It’s due out in 2017 from W&N – I’m still very much working on it, so everything I’ve just said could change completely.
So, our last question – Peggy in Our Endless Numbered Days is such a compelling character, and so wholly realised. Her excepted, who is the best fictional protagonist?
Claire: That sounds really interesting. I’m looking forward to reading it already.
I know I’ve already mentioned this book but my favourite fictional protagonist has to be Mary Katherine Blackwood, or Merricat, from We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson. She’s so wonderfully odd and yet also completely human.
Thanks so much for this wonderful conversation, Catriona, I’ve really enjoyed it.
Catriona: Thank you so much Claire. Fascinating, and I have really enjoyed it too! You’ve given me lots of wonderful new ideas for my to-read list.
Catriona Ward and Claire Fuller, October 2015
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