In her second novel, Swimming Lessons, Claire Fuller paints a vivid picture of a family that has fallen apart. Ingrid, the mother, disappeared long ago, and Gil, the father, begins the book by falling to his near death. Flora, one of their daughters, struggled for years with accepting her mother’s disappearance, and when Gil insists he sees Ingrid outside of a bookstore, she’s inundated with messy memories.
The book alternates between Flora’s present-day perspective and Ingrid’s, via a series of letters she wrote to Gil and which are now placed in books around his house, a re-purposed swimming pavilion.
I spoke with Claire about her new book, her favorite epistolary novels, and the power of the reader’s imagination.
Bradley Babendir: How did you pick the books that Ingrid was going to put the
Claire Fuller: A combination of things, really. It goes back to when I first started
writing because I didn’t really know that she was going to do that—write letters, put
them in books. The first book that I got her to put a letter in, which was actually the
last letter that she wrote, is actually the first letter Gil finds in the bookshop. It
was Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead by Barbara Comyns. And I picked that
one simply because I absolutely love the book. But then it seemed kind of relevant to
her circumstances, and that choice made me think, well, I’m going to pick books
relevant to the letters from now on.
Some of them were picked simply because of their titles, because they seemed to fit so nicely with the story, though I hadn’t read them. Especially the books about baking and crocheting–I haven’t read those, and I don’t really intend to. And there were some books that I picked because I really love them and they mean something to me and they were relevant to what was happening in the story and the letters that Ingird was writing.
Bradley Babendir: Other than Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead, what are some of your favorites that you mention?
Claire Fuller: We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson. It’s one of my all-time top favorite books ever. And Small Dreams of a Scorpion, which is a book of poetry by Spike Milligan. Have you heard of him?
Bradley Babendir: I have not.
Claire Fuller: Well, he’s dead now. He was an English comedian and he would write a
lot of comic poetry, which is what he’s known for. But this particular book is very
serious poetry and quite sad. It’s a book that my dad owned when I was growing up
and it’s very moving.
Bradley Babendir: When did the epistolary structure of the book become clear to you?
Claire Fuller: When I started the book, it was all from Gil’s point of view. It started with him as an old man and he was looking back on his life. And I was 30,000 words into writing
the first draft and I realized, “actually, I want to hear from Ingrid.” But if she has disappeared, then how are we going to hear from her? That’s how I started the
letters. And then I realized, “well, I don’t want to hear that much from Gil. He’s
talking too much.” I actually deleted about 10,000 words at that point, and I started
writing from Flora’s point of view, and how she and Ingrid see Gil in such different ways. Now the prologue is the only thing that remains from Gil’s point of view.
Bradley Babendir: What epistolary books do you admire? Did you look to any for guidance or inspiration for this book?
Claire Fuller: I don’t think I looked to any for inspiration, but there are some that I
love, such as 84 Charing Cross Road. Oh, there are lots, but I can’t think of any off
the top of my head. I almost deliberately didn’t read those types of books while I
Bradley Babendir: Gil is a writer and a writing teacher, and throughout the book, in
Ingrid’s letters, he offers lots of personal opinions on writing. For example, he strongly believes that the reader “makes the book.” How close do your theories align with his?
Claire Fuller: That I believe in so strongly. There’s some literary theory, I think it’s
called Reader Response. [Roland] Barthes and [Louise] Rosenblatt believed in this. I
think they’re completely right. There’s a gap between the reader and the writer and
the reader fills it in with their imagination. There’s a lot more than what is on the
page, and the reader fills it in based on their preconceptions and their history and
their beliefs and the circumstances of their reading. Every time anyone reads a book,
it’s always different. I’m sure everybody knows this, but here’s an example to prove it. When I was sending out book club questions for my previous book, Our Endless Numbered Days, I’d ask people to draw a picture of the cabin that the characters lived in out in the woods. The pictures were always completely different, even though I had described the cabin in a certain way. Some people will give it two stories, two chimneys, all sorts of things. People bring their own imagination to a book and I think that’s a great thing.
Bradley Babendir: Did you have any concerns about writing about a writer who was going to share his views on writing?
Claire Fuller: A bit. Luckily, I do believe in reader response theory. But there’s another thing that Gil says, that writers should get their ideas from their darkest, innermost, personal secrets, and I really don’t believe that. I suppose it’s quite possible that readers will think that’s what I believe, but it doesn’t worry me too much.
Bradley Babendir: So, where did the swimming pavilion come from? Is it based on a real place?
Claire Fuller: It’s a real place, and actually, the house is a real house, although it’s not
a swimming pavilion, it’s an old tennis pavilion. The seaside setting in the book is a bit of the seaside that’s nearest me. I would go there when I was younger, and now I take my
children. I did mess around with it quite a bit, though. The pub in the book is in a different
location and the rooms in the house are different sizes. You can go and stay in it and I stayed last summer with my family and it was just as the book was finishing. It was so
confusing to stay in a house that I had described in so much detail, and think, “but
there were meant to be only two bedrooms, and there are actually three.”
Bradley Babendir: Both of your novels center, in a way, around women who are
mistreated by men that they trust. What draws you to that subject?
Claire Fuller: I actually felt like I was writing about dysfunctional families, rather than the
relationships between men and women, and women being misled by men. I know that you can certainly read it that way. In my first book, I was interested in people being taken away. In Swimming Lessons, I’m interested in the people who are left behind, and the kind of impact that has on the families.
Bradley Babendir: Both of your novels also have timelines that go back and forth. Is
there something that you think that style offers that a more linear style doesn’t?
Claire Fuller: No, I really, really want to write in a linear style. I’m writing my third book now, and I just can’t seem to do it. Maybe it’s just how I write. I try not to [write that way] and it’s just how it comes out. I want some back story or a point of view from a different
time period and it just starts slipping in without me intending it to. One of these days, I’ll
write a novel that’s linear.
Swimming Lessons by Claire Fuller
Tin House Books
Published February 7, 2017
Claire Fuller is an English author of two novels, Swimming Lessons and Our Endless Numbered Days. She’s the recipient of a 2015 Desmond Elliott Prize and the winner of both the BBC Opening Lines Short Story Competition and the Royal Academy/Pin Drop Short Story Award.
Bradley Babendir is a fiction writer and critic. His work has been published by The Washington Post, NPR, The Paris Review, and elsewhere. He lives in Boston.