Ingrid leaves her husband, Gil, letters that she’s hidden in books in his library. What inspired this scenario?
The idea came from a project my husband and I did some time ago. It was before we were married, and when we were living in different houses about forty miles apart. We decided to write notes to each other and hide them in each other’s houses. Then we decided that Tim would sell his place and move in with me, and in the process of packing up he found all five notes I wrote to him. Now, about eight years later there are still two of the notes that he wrote to me somewhere in the house we share. I think they are probably in our books, and we have hundreds, if not thousands of books (that’s what happens when a writer and a librarian get married). Sometimes I flick through a few, but I haven’t found them yet.
Swimming Lessons feels like part family drama and part mystery. Was it difficult to ensure that neither part overtook the other?
That’s interesting, because I wrote it simply as a family drama, without any intention of creating a mystery. But I suppose if you have one of the main characters disappearing without anyone knowing what’s happened to her, that does create a mystery. It was the characters and their family dynamics (both Gil and Ingrid, and Gil, Flora and Nan) that I was focussing on, so perhaps it never felt like one might overtake the other.
Ingrid’s narrative voice sparkles with personality and feeling. Did her voice come fully formed to your mind or did you have to get to know her first?
I grew to know her as I wrote. I generally start with some characters and a location and let them lead me into the story. This was how it was with Swimming Lessons too. I don’t know anything about the character until I start writing, but as I learn more about them, I will then go back and edit earlier scenes so that they have a consistent voice. I wanted Ingrid to start out as a young woman who felt she could be anything, do anything, and gradually get worn down.
Swimming Lessons is split between Flora and her mother Ingrid’s letters. Did you start out planning on this structure or did you have to go through several drafts before you realized it worked?
I started writing the book from Gil’s point of view, but then when I was some way into the book I decided I didn’t really want to hear from him that much and I would much prefer to see his character through his wife’s and daughter’s eyes. So I deleted quite a bit of the novel and in fact all that remains of the Gil section is the very beginning. By then I had already decided that Ingrid disappears, so it seemed obvious to write her story through a series of letters, with Flora’s story in between. (Although, actually I don’t see what Ingrid writes as letters, but more journal entries or a memoir.)
Though she loves her daughters, Ingrid struggles with motherhood throughout the novel. What made you want to take on the reality and hardships mothers, especially new mothers, face?
I didn’t feel that had been written about much in fiction. In the books I’ve read Mothers always seem to love their children as soon as they are born even if they didn’t intend to have any. But that wasn’t the case for me, and I wanted to explore that. I grew to love my children as they grew. I also wanted to explore further the thing I battle with, and I know a lot of other mothers do too – the guilt that I’ve never been good enough.
Here at the Reading Women, we’re all about female voices. What women authors have inspired you and your writing?
Oh so many. From a while ago I would include Shirley Jackson, Iris Murdoch, Barbara Comyns, Jean Rhys, and Barbara Pym. And more recent writers: Ann Patchett, Elizabeth Strout, Olivia Laing, and Emily Ruskovich.
What has been the favorite book that you’ve read this year?
I we’re talking about 2017, then I think it would have to be the new Elizabeth Strout book of linked short stories called Anything is Possible. These circle around some of the people who knew Lucy Barton, the main character in Strout’s previous novel, but you don’t have to have read that to enjoy her latest book.
But if I’m allowed the last 12 months, I think I’d have to go for Ann Patchett’s Commonwealth. It’s such a wonderful book, with a mystery at its centre, but also very much about family and focussing on character.
What are you working on now?
I’m just completing a final draft of my third novel. I haven’t yet worked out how to explain the story in just a few lines, so you’ll have to wait and see what it’s about!
Claire Fuller didn’t start writing until she was 40. Her first novel, Our Endless Numbered Days was published by Tin House in the US, and has been sold in a further twelve countries. It won the 2015 Desmond Elliott Prize for debut fiction, and was a finalist in the ABA (American Booksellers Association) 2016 Indies Best Books Award. Her second novel, Swimming Lessons, was also published by Tin House earlier this year.
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