|photo: Adrian Harvey
Claire Fuller began writing fiction at age 40, following a career in marketing. After receiving her Masters in Creative and Critical Writing from England's University of Winchester, near where she lives, Fuller wrote and published three novels: Our Endless Numbered Days (2015), Swimming Lessons (2017) and Bitter Orange (2018). Her fourth novel, Unsettled Ground (reviewed below), was just published by Tin House Books.
What spurred you to write Unsettled Ground?
It was a place my son found in the woods in Hampshire not far from where I live. He came across this caravan, which in America is a trailer camper. There are loads of these things nobody wants anymore. They get left on wasteland or used by agricultural workers or just fall into disrepair. He came across this caravan in the woods that had been vandalized. And he knows I like weird places, atmospheric places where people have lived but no longer live and maybe have left something of themselves behind. I went out there with him and he was right, it was really atmospheric. It slept two people, but all the windows had been smashed, the door was hanging off, it was very smelly. There were some things people had left behind: shoes and bedding. It made me start thinking: Who had lived there? What circumstances had taken them there? And where did they move on from there?
I created Jeanie in my head, but I decided to go back in time to see what circumstances would have taken her to the caravan, and started writing. I don't plan my novels. It feels like I'm following the character, just running to keep up with them while I discover what they do and who they are.
What were some of the challenges in writing Jeanie and Julius as characters?
I think Jeanie is the most challenging character I've ever written; I found it really difficult to write someone who struggles to read and write. That's my job, to read and write, and it feels so fundamental to who I am. To not have it, to invent a person without any of that, was quite a challenge. I would put her in scenes and have her do things and then I would think, "Oh, but she can't do that, because she can't read!" All the time I was forgetting that this attribute just fundamentally affected all of her life. In the way that she has to learn to be very clever in finding her way around the fact that she can't read or write, I had to do the same.
Music is often what keeps Jeanie and Julius together, although they differ on what to do with their music. What led you to make music so central to this piece?
In all four novels, music has seeped in. When I start a book, I try to work out what I'm going to listen to. With Unsettled Ground it took me a long time. It came down to two pieces of music, which I then listened to for two years. The first is a song called "Polly Vaughn" which is an old English folk song, but the version I listen to is sung by a woman called Tia Blake. And the second is a song called "We Roamed Through the Garden," written by my son, who is an acoustic guitarist. I also wanted to show Jeanie was capable of great skill and learning. She's failed the normal education system, or it's failed her, but she's not a stupid woman. And I needed to give the characters and the readers some joy. It's quite a bleak book and I needed some moments to lift it.
Some terrible things do indeed happen. Their eviction is quite traumatic. What made housing insecurity a vital topic for you to explore?
In terms of housing, it wasn't the case that I planned to write about it. I had Jeanie in this cottage, and I started to write about how little money they had. If I wanted things to get worse for them--and, of course, you do want that in any novel--the next thing seemed to be eviction. When I finished the novel, I understood one of the things Jeanie really cared about was home. It takes me maybe a year and a half to finish a draft. When I know what a book is about, I'll go and enhance those themes. That theme of housing and worrying about home just came later, it wasn't something I planned.
Are there any books or authors you consider "tuning fork" texts? Books you return to for inspiration on atmosphere or tone?
I do have works I use in that way! One is Wildlife by Richard Ford. I absolutely love the story and there's something about the tone. If I'm writing and I feel like it's going badly and the tone is all wrong, I can open to any page of that book and I can say, "Oh, that's what I'm meant to be doing!" It's not like I want to copy what's there but it's absolutely a tuning fork. John Updike's Rabbit, Run or almost any of the Rabbit books do that for me. I don't want to write a Rabbit book or be like Updike, but it just gets me back on track. And in terms of content and writing I always go back to We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson for its weirdness and oddness.
What are you working on for your next project?
I haven't finished it, so I don't know what happens. I'm still discovering who the people are and what they're doing. But I started writing it the October before the pandemic started and it's about five people who volunteer for a flu trial in a clinic and then a flu pandemic happens, and they are stuck there. Because the pandemic happened, I've changed it so it's coronavirus because it would be odd to write about a flu pandemic when that's not what's happening now. If this book does get published, no one is going to believe me that I started it before the pandemic!
But I find it hard to write about people in a city or inside; I want to write about nature in fiction. If these people are stuck in a hospital clinic, where am I going to get my nature from? So the main character goes back to Greece and becomes a marine biologist specializing in octopuses. That's where the nature comes from. Lots of octopus stuff in this book.
Is there any kind of genre or type of story you'd like to try to write that you haven't yet?
I'd really like to write a literary horror or ghost story. I used to read a lot of horror--not gore, just unsettling, scary things. I struggle to find fiction that really does scare me. I'd like to see if I could do that. Could I scare myself? --Alice Martin, freelance writer and editor