An interview with alumna author Claire Fuller
An interview with alumna Author Claire Fuller – by Eden Irving (BA (Hons) Creative Writing)
Claire Fuller is an award-winning author and alumna of the University of Winchester. With four published novels over the past seven years – her latest, 2021’s Unsettled Ground – and two awards, plus five nominations and shortlisted awards, it may come as a surprise to see how new Claire is to the industry, and indeed writing in general.
Born in Oxfordshire, she first came to Winchester to study Sculpture at the School of Art in the 1980s, graduating in 1989. First starting to write aged 40, she went on to study at the university in the 2010s on the Creative Writing MA, finding her passion, skillset, and a new career.
I sat down with Claire to ask her about her writing history, Unsettled Ground and her time studying in Winchester. Here are some highlights from our time together:
How did you come to start writing fiction? Was it a hobby before you made it a career, or was it a passion found later in life?
I guess it’s something I came to later. It was never a hobby, never something I intended to do. My first degree was in Sculpture at Winchester School of Art, and I didn’t start writing creatively until I was forty – kind of accidentally! I started writing short stories as an art project, and then decided to do the MA in Creative Writing at Winchester. It took off from there .
How have you found balancing your writing career and your personal life?
The writing does take over. I think because it’s a passion as well, because it’s something I love doing; it does consume me. When you’re in the middle of something, you’re thinking about it all the time, even if you’re doing as little writing as possible. That book is still in your head, so that when you get back to the desk you can write something. A lot of my social life revolves around writing now; I’ve made many new friends, I do lots of events that do impinge on my spare time, but I’m really happy to do it. I get invited to lots of festivals, and often my husband will come and it’ll be like a little holiday – although, I’m working, but it still feels like a holiday!
What brought you to writing at the University of Winchester specifically?
I have to say it is to do with practicalities. As much as I liked the sound of the course, I decided to do an MA in Creative Writing and I was working fulltime, and my teenage children were still at home, so practically, going anywhere else wasn’t a possibility. It was very much, can I walk to this place after work? Can I get back in time to cook the tea? But if I hadn’t liked the sound of the course, I probably would have put it off until later, so what the course was offering was very attractive.
How did you find your time in study change between your Bachelors in the School of Arts and the Master’s here?
They were utterly different courses, but maybe that’s to do with what they were offering. With Creative Writing you go to some lectures or tutorials, you go home and you work on your own a lot, unless you’re doing screenwriting or something more collaborative. But sculpture was very much about being in the studio; you get in at nine or ten – or if you’re an art student, sometimes a little bit later! – and you could work very late. There were people around you, people commenting on your work, tutors coming round and giving critiques. But then there was still work towards the final exhibition, in the same way you create a dissertation at the end of the Creative Writing course, so both needed that self-discipline and motivation.
What’s your most dear memory of your time at the university?
I remember submitting my first piece of writing for workshopping and the feedback wasn’t good. It was difficult for me to accept it, but later when I got feedback with people saying ‘This is really working’ – I remember thinking, ‘Oh my goodness, I might actually be okay at this, I might be doing this right’. It just bolstered my self-esteem, it was a way of keeping going, and you need an awful lot of that to write. It’s something internal that makes you say ‘I can do this’, even when you get criticism from all sides.
Did you find anything you workshopped or ideas you got during your Master’s ended up in your published work?
Yes, the first novel I wrote was because of a module I did at Winchester. It was Screenwriting; I didn’t want to be a screenwriter, but I had the choice between Screenwriting and Non-Fiction, and I knew I didn’t want to do Non-Fiction. In the module, our lecturer asked us to bring in a news story to kick off what we were writing. My news story was about a young man who turned up in Berlin, said he had walked hundreds of miles from the German forests; he couldn’t remember who he was, his father had died in an accident and had been buried in the forest. I just thought, that was such a fascinating story. So I wrote two scenes for a screenplay for that assignment – and got my lowest mark, but I knew I didn’t want to be a screenwriter so fair enough. I then turned that into prose, and that became ‘Our Endless Numbered Days’. Without that, I’m not sure I would have written four novels!
Something Creative Writing students are told repeatedly is to prepare for publishers and producers rejecting their work. What’s your experience with this in the industry?
I have that a lot with short stories, because I write a lot of them so I enter these and flash fiction for competitions all the time. But they’re not even rejections, you just don’t hear back, there’s just silence. When I first submitted ‘Our Endless Numbered Days’ to agents, I had a few rejections then. But generally, I have been very lucky with the lack of rejections; I got an agent really quickly, I got a publisher really quickly, and I’ve written five books now which have all been accepted. But it happens a lot, and the course really set me up for that, which is positive that I knew that might come and knowing I could handle it. Even workshopping is full of rejection; you have to deal with micro-criticisms. And now, it’s not rejection, but anyone can read my books and comment on it publicly, and not everyone likes them; sometimes it’s very hard to read. It is a very public negativity, which I have to deal with. There are people who do this to tear me down, so it’s up to me to weave my way through and not let them upset me.
Your most recent book, Unsettled Ground, focuses on themes of poverty, isolation, and family traditions. Why were these especially a priority for you?
I never start with a theme, or issues or a bigger subject, so I didn’t know that was what the book was going to be about. I start with a character in a place and write without a plan. So I had no idea that Jeanie, the main character, would be living in poverty and dealing with issues like very little education, illiteracy, lack of transportation, very little technology. Maybe when I’m a third of the way through, then I realise ‘this is what’s happening, this is what’s the book is about’. At that point, I usually look around for other fiction that seems to be around the same subject, and I didn’t find any contemporary fiction set in England based around rural poverty. I found that interesting because it seemed like it hadn’t been covered, so I thought, that could be useful – I’ve spotted a kind of gap in the market. I went away and researched as much as I could about it, talked to professionals who had worked with people in similar situations. Once I knew what those themes were, I was fascinated by them.
What books do you find yourself drawn to in your personal time? Are they related and end up intertwined with your own writing?
They all get mixed up. I’m very lucky in that I’m sent lots of proofs from authors and publicists who want me to write quotes for the covers. It’s lovely, getting lots of free books, but I do feel the pressure of that. If I spent my time just reading those, I wouldn’t be reading anything for pleasure, so I try to slip them between the fiction and non-fiction I read for myself. It’s all a big free-for-all; I choose whichever I feel like reading at the time.
You’ve spoken before about the torture of writing first drafts compared to the immense fun of editing. Does the latter come naturally, or did it take time to perfect it as a skill for you?
I think editing comes naturally, in the way that I love editing more than writing – really, I don’t like writing! I’m sure I have honed my editing skills; I like to think, having done it for ten, twelve years, I look for my own repetitions and author tics on re-reads – like in every draft, my characters are constantly leaning on things, leaning as a default! So I’ve become better at it and I spot my own mistakes almost before I make them now.
What’s one thing you wish you could change or have done differently in your career with the benefit of hindsight?
Well, I wish I was better at things, full stop! I do think about what has happened, but I don’t particularly dwell on it and think about what I could have changed. It’s more about, learning from those things and changing what I am doing next, rather than ‘I wish I could have done that, or wish that had happened.’ For example, when I got feedback that my endings need to be longer and less rushed; these things I learn along the way, I apply to what I’m writing now, instead of wishing I changed my previous writing.
As an alumna, how do you feel Creative Writing alumni can support and network better with each other?
It would be helpful for us all to be able to communicate together in some way – I don’t know what platform that would be, but we can’t support each other until we know who’s interesting in communicating. I don’t know what format that could be; whether that’s more of these interviews with ex-students, maybe finding out what other paths they’ve gone. Being a fulltime writer is rare, so finding out what people have done with their careers and how they got there could help others, through networking.
For any new students or budding writers, what advice or top tips would you give, that you value the most?
The one I always say that I think is always relevant, is: finish it! I should apply that to myself and own short stories, but it is easy to be swept up in the initial excitement of a story because you can see it, but then it fizzles out. 30,000 words is often the tricky point where all writers think, ‘why am I writing this, nobody’s going to read this’, and you have to try and push through that. Only when you’ve finished it do you know whether you have something worth editing, and for me a book is created in the editing. So yes, my advice is very simple – finish it.
This year, Claire Fuller received a Doctor of Letters at the Humanities and Social Sciences Graduation ceremony on Wednesday 19 October 2022.
Claire’s newest novel ‘The Memory of Animals’, about memory, love, survival…and octopuses, is now available to preorder!
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