My enormous thanks to Poppy North at Penguin Random House for a copy of Swimming Lessons by Claire Fuller in return for an honest review. Swimming Lessons is published by Fig Tree, an imprint of Penguin Books, today 26th January 2017 and is available for purchase here.
Not only am I reviewing Swimming Lessons, but I am delighted to have the opportunity to interview Claire Fuller about her writing too.
‘Gil Coleman looked down from the window and saw his dead wife standing on the pavement below.’
Gil’s wife, Ingrid has been missing, presumed drowned, for twelve years.
A possible sighting brings their children, Nan and Flora, home. Together they begin to confront the mystery of their mother. Is Ingrid dead? Or did she leave? And do the letters hidden within Gil’s books hold the answer to the truth behind his marriage, a truth hidden from everyone including his own children?
An Interview with Claire Fuller
Welcome to Linda’s Book Bag Claire. Thank you so much for agreeing to answer some questions on my blog about your writing and your latest book Swimming Lessons in particular. Firstly, please could you tell me a little about yourself?
Thanks so much for inviting me! I’ve been writing short stories and novels for about ten years now. I never intended to be a writer. I did my first degree in fine art (sculpture), and then worked in marketing for many years. I found myself writing short stories almost by accident, and then decided to do an MA in creative writing, and my first novel, Our Endless Numbered Days came out of that.
Without spoiling the plot, please could you tell us a bit about Swimming Lessons?
Swimming Lessons is the story of Ingrid Coleman who writes letters to her husband about their marriage, but instead of giving them to him, she hides them in the thousands of books he’s collected for their marginalia and the things previous readers have left behind. After Ingrid has written her last letter she disappears from a Dorset beach. Twelve years later, her daughters, Nan and Flora return home to care for their father. Flora still believes that her mother could be alive and starts asking questions without realising that the answers are hidden in the books that surround her.
When did you first realise you were going to be a writer?
Not until ten years ago when I was forty. And it wasn’t so much that I was going to be a writer, but that I was doing some writing. I still had a full-time job in marketing and children at home. It was some time after my first book sold to Penguin and to several other publishers around the world that I decided to take the leap and write full time. I still can’t quite believe that this is my job.
You studied for an MA in Creative and Critical Writing. How has this influenced your writing?
I’d only written a handful of short stories before I went on my MA, so it’s hard to say whether the MA changed my writing. People sometimes say they can spot a writer who has been on a creative writing MA, but that isn’t my experience, especially since we weren’t taught to write in any particular way. I knew I wanted to write literary fiction before I went on it because that’s the kind of fiction I read. The best thing I got from the course (amongst many great things) was meeting other writers and forming a critiquing group. Five years on, we’re still meeting every month.
The Swimming Lessons cover suggests water, motion and light and shade to me. How did that image come about and what were you hoping to convey (without spoiling the plot please!)?
The cover was designed by the Art Director at my US publisher, Tin House. There’s an article about it on my blog here. I loved it as soon as I saw it, and luckily when it was shown to my publishers in other countries they decided to use it too – although most times with a slight tweak. I think it could be Ingrid or Flora on the cover, and they could be dominating the water, since the head is a different, vibrant colour, or they could be drowning, since the head is under the top of the sea. Either way I think it’s an arresting image.
I find your prose mesmerising. How conscious of style are you as you write and how much do you edit?
I’m not at all conscious of my writing style in my first draft. I just write, but I do edit a bit as I go along and then when I’ve finished the first draft of a novel (after about a year and a half), then I edit and edit and edit. I’m trying to write in a way that flows, maybe like poetry (although I don’t write it) – where every word and its position in a sentence has been considered. Is it the right word? Is it in the right place? I love this part of the work; the agonising bit is getting the first draft down when I don’t know what’s going to happen next.
I also think your writing is very poetic. Do you ever write poetry?
I’ve answered this above!
There’s an almost allegorical, fairy tale element to your writing. How has this come about?
Again, if this is the case, it isn’t conscious. I knew the major fairy tales as a child, but I don’t remember being particularly drawn to them. And allegory…perhaps this appears in my books because of the layers I try to put in; it’s not so much that I believe that extra meaning can be read into things in real life, but that it makes for a more complex read.
Swimming Lessons has so many literary references that I loved. How easy was it to find the right books in which to hide Ingrid’s letters?
Some of them came very easily because they are books I know and love, while others took more research, and I certainly haven’t read them all. The idea for Ingrid to hide her letters in Gil’s books came about accidentally. In the prologue of Swimming Lessons Gil finds a letter in the novel, Who Was Changed and Who was Dead by Barbara Comyns. I love this book and I chose it without really thinking, but then considering what happens – that Ingrid disappears and we don’t know how or why – it seemed appropriate, and I decided to continue with her hiding the letters inside Gil’s books. Small Dreams of A Scorpion by Spike Milligan, and We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson for example, are books I know well and love, while others such as Hand Crocheted Creations for the Home: Bedspreads, Luncheon Sets, Scarfs, Chair Sets by Bernhard Ullmann isn’t a book I own and probably won’t ever read, but was appropriate to the subject of Ingrid’s letter. I had a lot of fun choosing them.
You’re an artist as well as a writer. How much does this impact on your writing as I find your descriptions very visual?
It’s hard to say, because I only know the way I think, and the way I write, but lots of people have said they find my descriptions very visual, so perhaps the two are linked. I sometimes will draw a map of a location or a plan of the house my characters live in, but I don’t draw their faces or scenes from the book. However, when I’m writing a scene, the picture of it – the movements of the characters and the space they inhabit does roll out in my mind like a piece of film.
Gil made me think of Jay Gatsby. To what extent do you feel the reader should sympathise with Gil or blame him for the events in the story?
That’s interesting, although I think Gil is much more difficult character to like. I do believe that things like this are up to the reader to decide – there isn’t a right or a wrong way of seeing him. But the feedback I’ve had from early readers is that they can understand why Ingrid falls in love with Gil, but gradually they come to dislike him intensely, with some feeling a little sympathy return when he is old. I also think that the characters are responsible for their own actions and how these actions affect others. Gil’s behaviour is very bad, but Ingrid was warned about him by Jonathan and chose to ignore his advice. She could have changed her life and those of her daughters at an earlier point than when she decided to finally do so, but who knows whether the outcome would have been better for their daughters?
(I think you might have summed up my own experience of reading Swimming Lessons there!)
In both Our Endless Numbered Days and Swimming Lessons you explore family secrets and frailties. What draws you to these themes and how far do you think those elements are an essential part of the human condition?
I’m probably drawn to them because those themes are nearly universal. Most of us have families, and most of those families will have secrets, or at least things that go unsaid. And none of us are completely resilient. Stories that cover these themes can allow the reader to put themselves in the situation and think, what would I do?
You won the prestigious Desmond Elliott Prize for Our Endless Numbered Days. How was that experience?
It was so unexpected. Also on the shortlist were Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey, and A Song for Issy Bradley by Carys Bray, both wonderful books. The awards ceremony was on the hottest day in London in 2015, and my husband and I crazily came back from the middle of our holiday in Sweden for just one night. I honestly didn’t know that Our Endless Numbered Days was going to win until Louise Doughty made the announcement at the ceremony, so it was certainly worth coming back for.
(Well congratulations again, Claire.)
And finally Claire, when you’re not writing, what do you like to read?
I read a lot, at least a book a week. I regard it as part of my writing work – not just to read books for research, although I do that too, but to read novels. I prefer contemporary literary fiction of all sorts. The best books are those that make me pause and think. These will often help obscurely with whatever I’m writing. I’m not sure how the process works, but a really wonderful book by someone else will fire off all sorts of ideas, and so I do a lot of writing in the margins (like Gil in Swimming Lessons). The last book where this happened was actually non-fiction: The Lonely City by Olivia Laing, which I’d really recommend.
My Review of Swimming Lessons
Gil, Flora’s Father, has had an accident having seen his dead wife, and when Flora rushes home to be with him events from the past will reverberate and affect all their lives.
I so loved Our Endless Numbered Days by Claire Fuller (reviewed here) that I couldn’t wait to read her next book. Swimming Lessons is, in my opinion, even better.
Everything about Swimming Lessons fits its themes so perfectly, from the light and shade watery image of the cover to the eloquent, fluid and moving prose within its pages. Claire Fuller’s attention to detail is so assiduous and so erudite that I’m sure, as a reader, I haven’t appreciated enough some of the elements that fit the watery distortions and refractions of memory she explores. The writing is stunning. I loved, for example, the concept of smell as a colour and knew instantly exactly what the author meant when she employed this technique.
The construction of the novel is fabulous. Whilst there is actually little present day chronological plot, there are so many wonderful layers to the experiences related that the reader is drawn in completely. At times I felt as if I was holding my breath under water, especially in those passages in the letters written in the first person by Ingrid, because I didn’t want to spoil the intensity and atmosphere of reading. The Prologue and Epilogue profoundly affect the novel and I experienced an overwhelming feeling of poignancy reading them.
I loved the references to literature through Ingrid’s letters and the Gatsbyesque nature of Gil’s personality with his D H Lawrence style of writing. Some of the books mentioned I knew, and understood the connection to Claire Fuller’s narrative, and some I didn’t, but when this happened it didn’t affect my enjoyment at all – as a reader I have complete faith in the author so that Swimming Lessons felt natural and wonderful to read. There’s such skill in writing intricate, graceful prose and then making the reader gasp with a pared down sentence that moves on the plot with bang and Claire Fuller understands exactly how to employ this technique. I found the idea of tucking Ingrid’s letters into Gil’s books so tantalising and was delighted to find an item in my copy of Swimming Lessons too.
Swimming Lessons is essentially an exploration of flawed humanity through family relationships, marriage, sibling rivalry, grief and love and (literally in a way – read the book to see why!) skeletons in the cupboard. I found it hard to like Gil but couldn’t help myself feeling overwhelming sadness for him too. He, like Flora, Ingrid and Nan was so human and real to me I felt as if I were reading about people from my own life whom I knew really well.
Swimming Lessons is beautifully written, melancholy and moving. I thought it was perfect writing personified and I urge you to read it.
About Claire Fuller
Claire Fuller was born in Oxfordshire, England, in 1967. She gained a degree in sculpture from Winchester School of Art, but went on to have a long career in marketing and didn’t start writing until she was forty. Swimming Lessons is her second novel. Her first novel, Our Endless Numbered Days, won the Desmond Elliott Prize. She has an MA in Creative and Critical Writing from the University of Winchester and lives in Hampshire with her husband and two children.