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Claire Fuller on life as an author and her latest novel

PUBLISHED: 10:52 02 October 2018 | UPDATED: 10:52 02 October 2018

Claire Fuller (Adrian Harvey Photography)

Claire Fuller (Adrian Harvey Photography)

Adrian Harvey Photography

Turning 40 kick started a career change for Claire Fuller that took even her by suprise. She talks to Rebecca Fletcher about becoming a best-selling author, and what to expect from her latest novel

Embarking on a new career as a writer was not something Winchester-based author Claire Fuller imagined she would do at 40. Nor did she expect that her debut novel, Our Endless Numbered Days, would see her long listed for a catalogue of literary prizes; including winning the 2015 Desmond Elliott Prize, an annual award for the best debut novel written in English and published in the UK. Before deciding to take the plunge, Claire had studied Sculpture for her first degree at the Winchester School of Art, followed by a long career in marketing.

“It wasn’t something I ever intended at all. I had been doing some performance projects with my husband and we’d come to the end of that. I suppose I was looking for something else. Something that was challenging, that pushed me out of my comfort zone,” Claire explains.

That challenge arrived in the form of a short story competition run at the Winchester Discovery Centre.

“It was the sort of thing where you had to sign up, write a short story and then read it out loud to an audience. I hadn’t done any creative writing since leaving school at 18. It was really scary. The audience voted in a winner and if you won, you got a share of the door’s takings. It ran every six weeks or so and I entered and wrote and wrote. Eventually I won. I got £9.87!” she laughs.

Buoyed by her win and continuing to write stories, she decided to enrol on an MA course in Creative and Critical Writing at the University of Winchester. Signing up as a mature student made her more determined than ever to capitalise on the opportunities with which the course presented her.

“I had two teenage children at home; I was working full time and doing my MA. I don’t know how I did it now. I wanted to see if I could. Being a mature student, I wanted to get my money’s worth! I started writing my first book whilst I was on the course so it wasn’t as if I had space to write. It just happened to be the right time for me.”

Snatching time to write here and there, Claire would write before and after work as well as at weekends. Landing an agent as she finished her Masters was the icing on the cake and enabled Claire to take a huge risk, giving up her job and turning to writing full time. Her first novel began as an assignment set by one of the lecturers on her course and was inspired by a news story she’d read about a boy who appeared in Berlin, claiming to have been living in the woods for years.

“I just wrote this novel sitting on my sofa then sent it off to some agents hoping that it would come to something. I was aware of the statistics of how many novels are written and how many authors’ agents take on, and that they don’t always manage to sell it to publishers. It was a huge surprise to me. Really it was.”

As an author Claire has gone from strength to strength with Swimming Lessons, a second book, being described by The Sunday Times as having ‘a sophisticated sense of suspense.’ Claire is also part of a local writers’ group called The Taverners. Meeting at St James’ Tavern in Winchester every month, the group is made up of some who are published and some with short story collections, poetry or children’s books.

“We’re all local, all writing. We swap work, perhaps a chapter or two – they read my work as I go along. It’s great as a writer to work towards a deadline. Knowing that we’ll meet each month focuses me.”

Bitter Orange, Claire’s third novel, released on August 2, was inspired by a place much closer to home – The Grange in Alresford. Following the death of her invalid mother, Frances Jellicoe is commissioned to write a report on the garden architecture at Lyntons, a crumbling country pile bought by an absent American collector. There she meets the hedonistic and glamorous Cara and Peter and becomes increasingly entangled in their lives; caught in a web of stories and lies. As the dilapidated Lyntons begins to share its secrets, a hot decadent summer draws them towards a crime which will brand their lives forever. This is a book which is dark and brooding, a page turner which keeps the reader on edge just like the threat of a thunderstorm hanging over that summer in 1969 when the story is set.

“Lyntons is very much The Grange in Alresford. It’s a house that I’ve been visiting since I’ve lived in Hampshire, although I have moved the house in the book in my head to the Hampshire Hangers. The Grange is such an impressive house with those massive pillars – the way it sits in the landscape in its neoclassical style.”

Writing and editing Bitter Orange over a two year period, Claire would often walk the grounds of The Grange, just to soak up the atmosphere and immerse herself in her story as it unfolded. A private tour of the house with its caretaker sparked more inspiration with the wonderful tales he had to tell about the property, which belonged to the Baring family but is now owned by English Heritage and is also home to The Grange Opera Festival. Its buildings were also requisitioned by the army during WWII.

“Some of the more ghostly parts in Bitter Orange came out of hearing those stories,” Claire recounts. “I’ve always loved the idea of country house collectors. Living near the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford as a child, I loved that museum and the collection at Snowshill Manor – weird men collecting extraordinary things.”

However, for Claire, her new found career remains about writing a novel which readers will enjoy for her craft.

“I spend a lot of time thinking about a book – it’s not just that I sit down and write. The story has to be good, it has to have pace, there has to be a plot. I want people to be intrigued but it’s about the craft for me. I love making a perfect sentence that flows into the next. Making sure that every single word is the right word in the right place; almost like I am writing a bit of poetry. That’s really important to me.”

Judging by the reception Claire’s writing has already received, it is clear that she has certainly found her calling and we’re sure that Bitter Orange will be topping the charts very soon.

Bitter Orange is published by Fig Tree in hardbook, ebook and audiobook, priced at £14.99. Find out more about Claire at clairefuller.co.uk

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