In Claire Fuller's Swimming Lessons (House of Anansi Press), the truth is in the books -- literally. When Ingrid Coleman disappears, her husband Gil, is blindsided. What he doesn't know is that his wife wrote him dozens of letters -- letters which might explain her mysterious disappearance -- before she vanished. But rather than sending them, Ingrid hid the letters inside the thousands of books Gil collected.
When Gil and Ingrid's adult daughter Flora comes home 12 years later to care for an injured Gil, her persistent belief that her mother is alive is reignited. The fervour of her search for truth increases, even as the answers she seeks lie hidden within her reach.
It's a deliciously suspenseful premise that makes Swimming Lessons so irresistible, but it's Claire's prose and her complex portrait of an imperfect but fascinating marriage that will keep the book in your head long after the last secret is revealed.
We're thrilled to welcome Claire to Open Book today to talk about Swimming Lessons. She talks to us about the real life hidden notes that inspired the structure of the novel, the idea of truth vs. hope that the book examines, and conversing with her characters in order to work out tricky plot points.
Tell us about your new book and how it came to be.
My new book is Swimming Lessons. It’s the story of Ingrid, told via the letters she writes to her husband Gil about how she sees their marriage. After she writes each letter she hides it in one of the thousands of books Gil has collected, and when she’s written her last she disappears from an English beach. And it’s also the story of her adult daughter, Flora, who returns home to look after Gil. Flora begins to ask questions about what happened to her mother twelve years ago, without realizing that the answers in the books that surround her.
It’s my second book, and it came to be mostly from a project my husband and I did before we were married and lived together. We hid notes in each other’s houses, and when Tim packed up to move in with me, he found all those I’d written, but apparently, seven years later, there are still two in the house we share together.
Is there a question that is central to your book, thematically? And if so, did you know the question when you started writing or did it emerge from the writing process?
There are several themes, but the biggest for me is whether it’s better to know the truth, or to live with what you imagine. For example, would it be better for Ingrid’s family to know what happened to her even if they discover she drowned, or for them to live with the hope that she might be alive?
I definitely didn’t know the question when I started writing. I don’t plan anything when I start a novel – plot, structure or theme. I just let it happen. That makes it sound easy, but actually I find writing really difficult and don’t really enjoy it until I’ve got the end of a first draft.
Did this project change significantly from when you first starting working on it to the final version? How long did the project take from start to finish?
In part. I got to twenty or thirty thousand words of a first draft and realised that it was wrong, so deleted ten thousand. And then after I’d submitted a draft to my agent (after a year and a quarter working on it) I changed most of the second half. It took two years from when I started writing to when it was sold to a publisher, but then there were more edits.
What do you need in order to write – in terms of space, food, rituals, writing instruments?
If I’m writing a first draft I like to write to music that suits the project. It sometimes takes me a while to work out what that music should be – with Swimming Lessons it was the music of Townes Van Zandt. Other than that, I can write in most places as long as I have a laptop and it’s warm. (A hot water bottle is always nice.) I don’t have any other rituals.
What do you do if you're feeling discouraged during the writing process? Do you have a method of coping with the difficult points in your projects?
There are always difficult points in all projects. Sometimes I’ll go and read someone else’s book. If I like it enough it can often spark lots of new ideas for my work. Or if I’m grappling with a particular issue, like what does character x need to say to character y, I’ll start a new Word document called, ‘We need to talk about x and y’ and then I will write a conversation with myself and with the characters. Somehow that process will often help me find a solution.
What defines a great book, in your opinion? Tell us about one or two books you consider to be truly great books.
I can tell you about my favourite books, and the elements they share in common. I’m not sure they necessarily make a ‘great’ book; reading and the books we enjoy is always very subjective. I like plot and interesting characters, but unless the writing is well crafted I’m quickly frustrated. I like books where the author has taken the time to make sure each word is the right one in the right place, and that the writing flows so it almost doesn’t feel like reading. And I like my books to be slightly odd, dark; unsettling.
Books that I consider to be ‘great’ if that’s the criteria, include We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson, Mothering Sunday by Graham Swift, The Sea, The Sea by Iris Murdoch.
What are you working on now?
I’ve just finished a first draft of my third novel. My agent has seen it and given me a few suggestions, and now I need to work through another edit. It’s a bit too early to say what it’s about.
Claire Fuller was born in Oxfordshire, England, in 1967. She received 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. Her first novel, Our Endless Numbered Days, won the Desmond Elliot Prize and was a finalist for the ABA Adult Debut Novel Award and the Edinburgh International Book Festival Award. She has an MA in Creative and Critical Writing from the University of Winchester and lives in Hampshire with her husband and two children.