Her first novel, Our Endless Numbered Days is published in the UK by Fig Tree / Penguin, by House of Anansi in Canada, Tin House in the US, and will be published in France, Italy, the Netherlands, Taiwan, Israel and Turkey in the coming months.
Welcome to Words with Jam, Claire! What made you choose the content for your first novel, Our Endless Numbered Days?
I set out to write the type of novel I like to read. I like rather dark stories that make the reader work by not laying out all the answers; where you have to read between the lines to discover what has happened. And in fact, where there can be several possible answers. I hope I’ve achieved that with Our Endless Numbered Days.
You're a businesswoman in 'real life' - what fuelled the desire to write?
I gave up my ‘businesswoman’ life last August to write full-time, but before that I ran a marketing agency for twenty-three years. I’ve always been creative (my first degree was in sculpture) and I suppose writing is another outlet. I stumbled into writing when I was forty. On a whim I decided to do NANOWRIMO one November and wrote just over 50,000 words in that month. From there I started writing short stories and reading them out at a local event, and then I decided to study for an MA in Creative and Critical Writing.
Your debut novel Our Endless Numbered Days (see my review here) was published by Fig Tree Penguin. Can you give us a brief resume of your journey to publication?
I finished writing Our Endless Numbered Days early in 2013 and sent it out to about twelve literary agents. I had a rejection and then a couple of requests for a full submission, and one of them got back to me very quickly and asked me to go up to London. I met with Jane Finigan from Lutyens & Rubinstein and we just clicked, so I signed with them the next week. Jane and I worked on editing the manuscript for about six weeks, and then she sent it out to twelve editors in publishing houses. She started hearing back from them very quickly, and we received three offers from UK publishers, so the novel went to auction. At the same time, Jane’s colleague sent it out to their foreign associates and offers started to come in from other countries. After about two weeks Jane brought the UK auction to a close, and Fig Tree, an imprint of Penguin won. It was incredibly exciting, and the whole thing totally unexpected. The novel has now been sold in nine territories.
I worked with my editor at Fig Tree on more revisions, as well as her Canadian and US counterparts. And nineteen months after Penguin bought the novel it was published.
Did you always want to be published? Or did you just want to write?
I didn’t start writing until fairly recently, but I’ve always wanted an audience for my writing, so in that sense I’ve always wanted to be published. But of course at first my audience was literally people listening in a room, or people reading my work on my website or in anthologies.
What are your earliest reading memories? Or the book of your childhood?
Some of my early reading memories are going through my parents’ bookshelves without censorship. My Mum wasn’t a great reader when I was growing up, but I really remember a German book she had about childhood illnesses, and being fascinated by the gruesome photographs. From my Dad’s shelves I read Small Tales of a Scorpion by Spike Milligan, which is a book of poems about mental illness. I also remember somehow being allowed to take out James Herbert’s novels from my local library when I was very young. Perhaps that’s where I got my love of dark literature from.
I’d like to try writing a ghost story. I read a lot of ghost stories when I was much younger and was terrified by them. I’m not sure it works in quite the same way for adults – I’m not so easily scared, but I’d still like to have a go.
What three novels would you take to a desert island?
A good question! Do I take the books I love the best, the books I know I ought to tackle, or those I would get succour from? Perhaps I’ll have one of each:
We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson. I re-read this often, and still find new things in it.
Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy. This book has been on my ‘to be read’ list forever.
Collected Poems by John Donne. Some of these I remember off by heart from school, and still love. I’d like to learn some more. What better place than on a desert island?
How do you start to develop a new character?
I don’t normally start with just a character. I have a person in a location and with a particular situation happening to them, and then see how they react. Sometimes I have interviewed my characters, by writing them questions and having them answer, but mostly they develop from the situations I put them in. After a while, when I’m in the middle of writing I can tell if I’m making the character do something that wouldn’t come naturally to them and I’ll have to go back and rework some scenes.
How important is location to you in your writing?
Incredibly important. I need to be able to visualise where my characters are; the space they are living in – right down to details that might not get mentioned, such as the layout of a house, what’s outside, what they keep in the cupboard under the stairs. Knowing all this helps me imagine them living and interacting with their surroundings. It helps with the atmosphere of what I’m writing, with the smells and sounds around them.
What advice would you give to up-and-coming authors?
Keep writing. Even if you don’t like what you’ve written, keep writing. You can’t revise and edit, and improve unless you’ve got something on paper.
Secondly, share your work. Get someone else to read it. Join (or form) a writing group. If want your writing to be published it is going to read, so you might as well start now.
And thirdly, read.
Where did the idea for Peggy Hillcoat and her story (Our Endless Numbered Days) come from?
It came from a news story in 2011. A teenager called Robin van Helsum appeared in Berlin saying that he had been living in the woods with his father for the previous five years and his father had died in an accident. Eight months later it was discovered that Robin had run away from home and had made his story up, but for a long time everyone believed him. It made me think what if he had been living in the forest, how would he have survived, what would have brought him out and what would have taken him there in the first place.
Do you have a new book in the pipeline? If so, can you tell us a little about it?
I’m revising and editing my second novel at the moment. Like Our Endless Numbered Days it’s also about a family in crisis, but a completely different family, in a different place, with a different problem. There is a lot of nature writing in it (which is something I love to read), but this time it’s set by the sea rather than in a forest. My editor hasn’t seen it yet, so I’d better not say any more.
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