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An interview with Claire Fuller, author of 'Swimming Lessons'

Shameless Plug: If you are a reader, or want to be a reader - we highly suggest you join our Refined Reads bookclub! Every month we work with the wonderful people at University Book Store to choose a book that either has a local tie, or the author is coming to town in the near future, or it's just an awesome read. Then we'll weekly provide chapter goals, author interviews, and discounts for purchasing the book at UBS.

We understand that it may be a little late for you to catch up with our March book, but that doesn't mean you can't put it on your list for future reads! We're just about finished with 'Swimming Lessons' by Claire Fuller, the mystery of a family in England that has had a rough couple decades. It all starts when mom Ingrid decides to write letter to her husband Gil, but instead of giving them to him - she hides them in the books he collects. After she writes the last one, she leaves. Seriously, just disappears. Some think she died, but Gil still thinks she's out there...and then one day, years later, he swears he sees her.

Intriguing, right? So we obviously couldn't pass up the change to Skype with the woman behind the magic - Fuller herself.

Seattle Refined: How did you decide on whose voice to write the book in?
Claire Fuller: [When] it first started, the book started off from Gil’s point of view completely. He was on a beach, he had a dog. All sorts of things were different. And I started writing, and I maybe wrote about 30,000 words from Gil’s point of view, and then I thought 'Actually you’re not a really nice man, I don’t want to hear from you anymore.' So I thought 'I’d really like to hear from your wife and your daughter' to get a different perspective on it rather than it being from his point of view. And I had to cut about 20,000 words and so I went back and started writing from Flora’s point of view. And then, because Ingrid had already disappeared, I thought, 'How am I going to incorporate her.' I decided it would have to be letters. And we were kind of looking back at the letters. So, that’s how that structure came about, by accident or by me getting annoyed with Gil really.

How did you pick the books in which Ingrid hid her letters?
The first came completely by accident. And the first one that I wrote that she put a letter in was “Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead” by Barbara Cummings which is a real book that I love. And that was because she was reading these letters in the house or writing these letters in the house, sorry, and Flora came into the room, she needed to hide the letter, so I had her pick a book off the shelf. And it turned out, I just wrote that one. But it seems quite right because “Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead” title seems to work very well. From then on I decided to do that. Some of the books I own and I love, like “We Have Lifted the Castle” by Shirley Jackson, one of my favorite books ever. And some of them I just looked up. They’re all real books, but I don’t own one on how to crochet.

For Refined Reads, this is the second book we’ve read where a writer writes about a writer. Did you have any concerns about writing about a writer? Do you share some of the same views as Gil?
I didn’t when I was writing it, but when I gave it to my editor in the UK, she wasn’t sure about a writer writing about a writer. But the feedback I’ve had from readers is that they quite enjoy that subject, books kind of in general. Kind of the one thing I really share with Gil and I really agree with is that readers create books and they create a different book each time they read it because they’ll bring different things to that reading, their history, what books they’ve read, what they’re thinking about at the time, all those kinds of things come into a book when you read it and they’ll all have different opinions about that, so it’s the reader response theory which I definitely agree with.

Was there a scene that was particularly fun to write? What was one of the more difficult scenes?
I really liked writing Gil’s letter actually. The one he writes to Ingrid, which is a love letter really. Although terribly presumptuous that he writes it so early in their relationship, he writes this is what’s going to happen. But I did enjoy writing that, so maybe I’ll have to write some more love letters, I don’t know. But the things I think most difficult were the arguments, because I don’t really argue. I don’t argue with my kids very much, I don’t argue with my husband. I’m just not that kind of person and so in my first draft the arguments were really tame, you know, oh no, don’t do that, please will you stop. And I had to make them much stronger and much more forceful, so I went over and over those.

Was there inspiration for the Swimming Pavilion?
It’s a real house that exists in Dorset, a village in Scotland, which I renamed to Spanish Green. It’s actually a converted tennis pavilion. You can go and stay in it, it’s owned by the National Trust, which is a charitable organization in the UK that looks after old buildings. I messed around with it a lot, so the rooms are in different places, it’s nearer the sea than in reality. But yeah, it really exists.

Why did you decide to call it “Swimming Lessons?”
I had lots of different titles while I was writing, working titles. There was one that was something like The 23rd of June, Wednesday afternoon about 2:17 p.m., which everyone was saying that’s just far too long a title. I also had Spanish Green which is also the name of the village. But none of them were quite working and it was actually my foreign rights agent in the UK who came up with Swimming Lessons that we all agreed that we liked.

What do you want readers to take from reading Swimming Lessons?
I’d like them to have read a story they really enjoy. A story that makes them think. Because just as Gil says, and we were talking about, we want/I want the reader to be really involved in this book and almost create it themselves. So that’s why, won’t give any spoilers, but it does make the reader work hopefully, and it makes them think, and the end of the book it’s up to the reader to decide what happens. I know some readers are frustrated because they want a novel that provides all the answers, but this one doesn’t, very very deliberately. So I want them to have to work a bit really.

What would you want them to hear from you? What would you want to hear from them?
I love meeting readers and finding out what they thought about the book. And I understand that not everybody likes every book, but sometimes that can make a better discussion in book clubs if people have different opinions. And I like hearing what people thought of it and different interpretations because people will bring different things to the book, things I sometimes haven’t even thought of or intended and that’s great. It’s like me discovering things about things I’ve written that I didn’t even know.

Who do you think was the protagonist in the story?
I think it probably is Ingrid. I think she’s the main character, the driving force behind the novel. But Flora is really important to. But the odd thing is, even though I tried to write Gil out of the story, I wanted it to be from these two women, he is still this kind of central figure that they revolve around just how it happened. I don’t plan my books, it’s just how it came out.

In the end, what do you think happened to Ingrid?
I think she’s definitely still alive. I think that she perhaps tried to commit suicide. Decided to go for swim but couldn’t do it. Came back for the coat from under the swimming pavilion and has been alive all this time. Where she has been, I’m not quite sure. But she has come back and I think she will probably make contact with Nan and Flora in the future. Perhaps keeping an eye on them from a distance one way or another.

Tell me about the decision to have Gil commit suicide?
I think that’s partly because he wants all the books burned and he wants the books burned because he’s found Ingrid’s letters and she says you must burn the books. And he doesn’t want his daughters to find them because of the things Ingrid has written in these letters that are hidden in the books. So, he asks Richard to burn the books but in the end, Richard can’t. And the only way he can really, is to be in the house. He’s too old and too ill to set light and get out. But also, I don’t think he wants his daughters to see him in the absolute final decline. In the way they can remember Ingrid as kind of perfect, and whatever age she was before she left, he wants them to remember him at that point, rather than that decline into death. So, I think that’s why he commits suicide.

Do you think Gil found any of her letters?
I think he probably found more than that because there are various hints but I don’t think he probably found them all. But there are things like he always says he doesn’t want a dog and there are loads of tins of dog food in the kitchen because Ingrid says she wants a dog. And lots more hints that he found quite a few, some of which Nan managed to give away to the book shop so that’s why he’s in the book shop looking for them, but maybe he didn’t find them all. Maybe the reader hasn’t read them all.

The book is about many things. One thing we took away was the difference between a parent as a parent and a parent as a human adult. What were the themes you were trying to play on?
There’s a point in the book where I think it’s Flora who asks 'Why is to mother so different than to father.' And I was trying to play on that. The fact that to mother you’re expected to look after your children and to love your children and to be there for your children, and Ingrid isn’t all the time because she disappears. And how men disappear, fathers disappear and yes that’s bad for the children, but we don’t comment on it quite as much as when women do it. So I wanted the readers to also think about that with their own prejudices about to mother and to father and how we all assume it’s the mother who should be doing that mothering. So not really a comment on it but just to make readers start thinking about that.

Do you have a favorite character?
I really like Flora too. I like how feisty she is, and how awkward and difficult she is. And she’s in her early 20s, but she does still kind of act like a 17-year-old. She’s quite willful. Yeah, but then I like them all. I even like Gil. I invest so much in my characters when I’m writing them that I like facets of them all.

How long did it take to write?
It took me about a year and a half, two years to write the first draft. And then lots more editing after that. And lots more editing with my publishers in America and the UK. So, it’s hard to say because also I was out promoting my first book at the same time as I was writing Swimming Lessons. So, two, two to three years-ish, something like that.

Anything you want our readers to know that we haven’t discussed?
When I write my novels, I have a soundtrack I’m listening to. And in this case it was Townes Van Zandt. I don’t know if you know him because … he’s an American country singer who died probably in the 80s. So, I wrote this book to Townes Van Zandt’s music and he also features in the book. And if anybody wants to go and investigate that more, the song Flora plays, which I obviously couldn’t quote the lyrics of, is None But the Rain, which is a really really beautiful song.

The full interview with Fuller is above, and we're holding our book club discussion on April 5. If you want to join, email hello@seattlerefined.

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