1976: Peggy Hillcoat is eight. She spends her summer camping with her father, playing her beloved record of The Railway Children and listening to her mother’s grand piano, but her pretty life is about to change.
Her survivalist father, who has been stockpiling provisions for the end which is surely coming soon, takes her from London to a cabin in a remote European forest. There he tells Peggy the rest of the world has disappeared.
Her life is reduced to a piano which makes music but no sound, a forest where all that grows is a means of survival. And a tiny wooden hut that is Everything.
Of all the books published in 2015, Our Endless Numbered Days by Claire Fuller perhaps made the most profound impression on me. There was really never any doubt that it would feature as one of my books of the year. To mark the release of the paperback edition on 31st December by Fig Tree (Penguin Group), it’s wonderful to have a justifiable reason to share my review again. But first I’m really delighted to welcome author Claire Fuller to Being Anne…
Welcome to Being Anne – would you like to introduce yourself?
Hello Anne. Thank you so much for inviting me onto your website. I’m Claire Fuller, the author of Our Endless Numbered Days, a kind of psychological literary suspense novel. I didn’t start writing until I was forty (eight years ago), so it’s been amazing to have my first book published by Penguin.
Where did the idea for Our Endless Numbered Days come from?
The idea came from a news story back in 2011. I was studying for an MA in Creative and Critical Writing at the University of Winchester and my lecturer asked that all the students in his class bring in something that had caught our eye in the newspapers to help kick-start some writing. I chose the story of Robin van Helsum – a teenager who had appeared in Berlin saying that he had been living in a German forest for years with his father. I changed Robin to a girl and made her much younger and invented the rest of the story.
I read Our Endless Numbered Days last March, but it’s still vivid in my memory – and I found it very deeply moving. Does that please you? Was it the reaction you hoped for when you were writing?
I’m delighted by that! I imagine that’s what every writer hopes for – that their book will move a reader in some way. But although that’s what I dreamed of, when I was writing Our Endless Numbered Days I didn’t expect it to be published, so really I was just trying to write the kind of book that I like to read.
One of the most striking images in the book was that of the silent piano – did that come from your imagination?
Yes, completely from my imagination – although I’ve since learned from some readers that before the days of electronic pianos with headphones, there were such things as keyboards which made no sound, for children to practice on. I started by getting the father character, James, to make a fully-working piano but since he was doing that in the forest with only a few tools and not many resources I quickly realised this wouldn’t be possible. So he just makes a silent keyboard so that his daughter, Peggy can learn to play.
I still find it incredible that this was your first novel – and that you didn’t start writing until you were 40. What took you so long? Was it always in your plans?
I’ve always been a big reader, but being a writer was never in my plans. I couldn’t imagine how writing a book was done. My first degree was in sculpture, so my plans were always to be an artist, which is what I was doing until I was forty – although my ‘day job’ was in marketing. I guess, like lots of women I was busy bringing up children, running a house, with a full-time job. Even the art I was doing was squeezed into very little spare time.
And how did you start – when the moment came, did you just sit at your keyboard and write?
That’s such a good question – I’m not sure anyone has asked me that before. The first thing I ever wrote was for NanoWrimo (National Novel Writing Month) where you write 50,000 words in the month of November. But I don’t really count it because I didn’t edit it and deleted all of it as soon as it was finished. The first thing I worked on properly was a short story called The Last Lesson of Constance Carew, and yes, I did just sit down at my keyboard and write. I’ve just gone back and looked it up. The first line is: When I was ten my Great Aunt, Constance Carew, came to live with us and when I was ten and a half, she decided it was time I was taught to hear the dead.
Has membership of the Prime Writers group been a help to you?
The Prime Writers, for those who don’t know, is a group of writers who have had their first book commercially published when they were over the age of forty. It’s been an enormous help, mostly in terms of support. We have a private Facebook group where we can discuss openly all that is happening with us and our books, and share the highs, and occasional lows of being published.
Tell me a little about your path to publication as an author…
I was exceptionally lucky (and yes, I think there is some luck involved in getting a book published). I sent out the first three chapters of my manuscript to twelve literary agents, and I received an offer of representation from Lutyens & Rubinstein very quickly. I worked with my agent for about six weeks on some edits and then she sent it out to twelve publishers, as well as associate literary agents around the world. The novel went to auction in several countries, which was very exciting, and ultimately it was bought by Penguin for the UK, and by eight other publishers in other territories.
Our Endless Numbered Days won the 2015 Desmond Elliott Prize for debut fiction. What did that mean to you?
That was absolutely amazing. There were ten books on the longlist, and three on the shortlist: Elizabeth is Missing, and A Song for Izzy Bradley – both wonderful books. Louise Doughty (author of Apple Tree Yard) was the chair of the judges, and of course it was fantastic that Our Endless Numbered Days was considered to be worthy of first prize.
I already know how delighted you are that your second novel, Swimming Lessons, will be published by Fig Tree / Penguin at the beginning of 2017. The synopsis sounds quite wonderful. How’s it coming along? The difficult second novel, or easier this time round?
It was harder getting it finished. It took longer and there were more dead-ends that I had to backtrack from, than with Our Endless Numbered Days. There was one point where I’d got to about 25,000 words and I realised a whole strand of the story was wrong, so I had to cut 10,000 words out. I’m currently working on the final edits, and in fact there have been more of these than with my first book. I’m sure I’ll get there in the end!
Claire Fuller trained as a sculptor before working in marketing for many years. In 2013 she completed an MA in Creative and Critical Writing at the University of Winchester, and wrote her first novel, Our Endless Numbered Days, published in February 2015 by Penguin/Fig Tree. Follow Claire on Twitter and Facebook, or do have a look at her excellent website to find out more about her, her art and her writing.