Our Endless Numbered Days wins The Desmond Elliott Prize

I’m absolutely thrilled and delighted that my book, Our Endless Numbered Days has won The Desmond Elliott Prize for debut fiction. My husband Tim and I came back to London from our holiday in Sweden on the hottest 1st July ever recorded in the UK, 37.8 degrees.

The winner was announced by Louise Doughty at a ceremony held in the Drawing Room at Fortnum and Mason. Here are some pictures of the event, including me feeling very nervous beforehand.

There was quite a lot of media coverage, including a live interview with me on BBC Radio 4 Front Row (starts at 18 minutes 52 seconds), The BBC website, The Guardian, and The Telegraph.

If you’d like a signed copy of Our Endless Numbered Days, Foyles bookshop is running a competition to win one of three books. Click here to enter.

Reader, meet Writer; Writer meet Reader

Bellingham Book Club

When my book, Our Endless Numbered Days was published I didn’t think I was going to enjoy getting out there and talking to strangers. It was a frightening thought – having to answer questions, explain why I had made a character do something unpalatable, justify what I had written. The first event I attended as an author was a literature festival and I was terrified at the idea of even getting on stage. But when it was over I was pleased I had managed to talk about my book to an audience who stared back at me with what at least looked like interest. But it was the opportunity I was given to meet these people after the event that I discovered I enjoyed the most. They seemed so excited to be able to talk to an author and I too was excited to meet actual readers.156 June5

I’ve since realised that more than anything book related I’ve attended so far, I enjoy interacting with people who like reading. And the best events are book clubs.

As a writer it’s so energising to meet, talk, Skype or email with people who ‘get’ your book; to debate the real nitty-gritty detail, to discuss the breadcrumb trails I left and to hear who found them and who didn’t.

And for the readers, they get to hear the story behind the story, they get answers to all those questions that other book clubs wonder about: why did the author end it that way? Why did she include that character? Or even, I wonder what her writing process is?

“Having Claire’s answers to our questions was a real game changer,” says Dawn Landau, who is a member of a book club based in Winchester Book ClubBellingham, in the Pacific Northwest of America. “It was exciting to have concrete answers to things we had wondered about as we read the book. Claire gave us insights that really helped us flesh out questions we’d had when reading. Having Claire’s responses to our questions helped us all feel much more connected to the story and its characters.  A few of us said we were tempted to read it again, now knowing some of these details.”

Of course, nothing beats going to a book club meeting in person, but since I live in England and many of my readers are in the US, Skype is a good alternative. And if the time difference is too much to deal with I’m happy to answer questions by email.

“Initially, when I contacted Claire, we discussed doing a Skype meet and greet with her,” says Dawn. “However, it quickly became clearWinchester Book Club 3 that with the enormous time difference (we always meet in the evening, as several book club members work full time), this would be impossible, and Claire offered to answer questions by email instead. Admittedly, our group is not the most organised – our focus is on fun, with books as the thing that brings us together – so we didn’t get the questions to Claire until right before our meeting, but she still answered them all.”

Naturally, not everyone is going to like every book. And of course I’ve come across readers who didn’t get on with Our Endless Numbered Days, but if they can express in a constructive way what didn’t work for them, I’m still interested. It might even spark a bit of debate. Sylvia Conway-Jones is a member of a book club in Hampshire that I visited recently: “As a group we differed in which aspects touched us and Claire was extremely gracious in allowing us our individual interpretations and Winchester book club 2opinions.”

And it’s not just the story that can be a source of discussion: “Finding out about the writing and publishing process was fascinating and an added bonus,” says Syliva.

Whether the meeting happens face to face, via Skype or email, a little organisation will help it run smoothly: someone acting as the host (especially important if it is a Skype call or via email); some kind of structure to the evening rather than a free-for-all with questions; and since I won’t be expecting payment, it’s really appreciated if all the members leave a review on Amazon or another review site.Ohio book club

If you’re in a book club you’ve got nothing to lose by contacting an author and seeing whether they’ll be interested in answering some questions. Chances are they’ll be just as excited to meet you, as you will be to meet them.

 

 

If your book club is reading Our Endless Numbered Days and would like me to be involved, get in touch.

(Originally posted on the Tin House blog.)

The Girl in the Downstairs Flat

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Keith drilled the hole in the ceiling when the pretty girl in the downstairs flat was out. Or at least he hadn’t heard her for hours, maybe days come to think of it. He was sure she wouldn’t notice the small mound of sawdust in her bathroom because even though she had kept the door-chain on when he had introduced himself, over her shoulder he had seen how messy her flat was.

Keith pressed his eye to the hole. The girl lay in her bath, smiling, looking up at him. He drew back, shocked, excited. When he looked again she hadn’t moved.

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This is a Friday Fictioneers story. 100 (or so) writers writing 100-words (or so) inspired by the picture above (supplied this week by Rochelle Wisoff-Fields.

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Our Endless Numbered Days has been nominated for the Edinburgh First Book Award. This is a prize decided by public vote, so if you’d like to vote for my novel, click here – I’d really appreciate it. (Scroll to the bottom of the page, and I’m on the penultimate line.)

The Island: Giving Your Characters a Hard Time

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I’ve recently been completely hooked on the Channel 4 television series, The Island, where the adventurer, Bear Grylls drops one group of men and another of women on uninhabited Pacific islands and leaves them to fend for themselves for six weeks. How will they boil the water they find, what will they use to hack through the jungle, what are the essential tools that the groups couldn’t survive without? It’s had me shouting at the TV, ‘bring in the nets or the fish will rot!’ and, ‘don’t lie on the beach, go and get the water!’. It’s pretty compulsive viewing, and even more interesting for me in that I had to make some similar decisions for the characters in my novel, Our Endless Numbered Days.

Here’s a few of them.

Water: Peggy and James live for nine years in a remote European forest. James tells Peggy that the rest of world beyond what she can see has disappeared. But luckily one of their boundaries is a river; easy access to water you might think. I considered carefully about how many buckets they should have: too few and they would spend all their time going back and forth to the river; too many and it wouldn’t be enough of a challenge. With three they are able to have one tied by the river, and two to carry the water. (Later, even one of these is lost.) And to make it harder, the closest access point is a high ledge, so that buckets have to be lowered and lifted, and then carried up to the cabin.

Food: I needed my characters to be able to get through the severe winters and to find enough food, but novels (and reality TV programmes) are all about tension, so I didn’t want to make life too cosy. I wrote them an axe, a knife and a gun. And then I took the gun away (you can do that if you’re a writer.) I think I was quite generous – I gave them a bag of rice to get started, a fishing rod (Bear’s islanders get a few fish-hooks) and some seeds for when the spring comes. But then, since I also controlled the travel arrangements and the weather, I had them arrive at the cabin in late summer, and made their first winter almost impossible. Their food sources – the berries, mushrooms, squirrels, rabbits and fish – disappear. I let them have a month or so of preparations before the really bad weather hit, so they were able to chop some wood and dry some meat. But then, half way through that first winter I have James realise he has miscalculated the amount of food they will need, and they face starvation.

Shelter and warmth: Peggy and James live in a one-room cabin. They might not have to cope with sand flies and scorpions but they do need to keep warm. There is a stove which they use for cooking and for heat, but no blankets. Conveniently you could say, my characters arrive fully dressed in dungarees, coats and shoes, but I couldn’t let them have it quite that easy, so Peggy loses a shoe before she even makes it to the cabin. I love that when I’m writing, the consequences of one scene can be huge. What do you do if you only have three pieces of footwear between two people? Shoes can be shared, but then only one person at a time can go outside in winter, which makes it very difficult to catch large animals, which means you have to hunt or forage every day, and so getting enough food is a continual challenge.

Luxuries: I’m not sure Bear Grylls’ men and women would say they had anything that could count as a luxury, but although they weren’t able to take anything with them, they were able to forage. (Anyone interested in a used toothbrush washed up by the Pacific?) James takes toothpaste with them, but a couple of tubes were never going to last nine years (and the consequences of a lack of dental hygiene was paid for years later). James makes Peggy a comb (but eventually her hair has to be shaved off). Their candles are quickly used up (no head torches for Peggy and James) and so they begin to live their lives by the rising and the setting of the sun.

These are just a few of the decisions I made about how make the lives of my ‘islanders’ difficult; there were hundreds more.

If you’re a writer, how have you made the lives of your characters difficult, or if you’re a reader or viewer, what survival books or television shows have had you shouting at the page or screen? I’d love to know.

A version of this article was first published by Isabel Costello on her website. Image courtesy of Channel 4.

Flash fiction: The Choice

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In a hand-me-down swimming suit – sailor collar and bloomers – Alice sat atop the rock.  Charlie, Harry and Jack dived, their one-piece costumes sagging when they strode out of the water. Alice looked away. She watched them race each other on the sand and play tug-of-war with a chain. They demanded she select a winner, but there was nothing to choose between them: young, handsome men, full of life. She would have said yes to whoever asked first.

Two weeks later they were called up. Alice heard they didn’t even make it across the channel.

She should have kissed them all.

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This is a Friday Fictioneers story. 100 (or so) writers writing 100 words (or so) inspired by the top picture.

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Vote for Our Endless Numbered Days! The Reading Agency is holding a fun poll to see who readers think should win The Desmond Elliott Prize. Click here to vote for one of the shortlisted novels, including mine.

Writing Dual Narratives

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Gone Girl, How to be Both, Instructions for a Heatwave: everyone’s at it – using dual or multiple narratives to interweave two or more stories often from different time periods. Less common are books that use a dual narrative from the point of view of the same character.

In my novel Our Endless Numbered Days, the narrator, Peggy Hillcoat, starts telling her story in her present day – 1985 – and then goes back to 1976 to when she was eight. The chapters mostly alternate between one November day in 1985 and the time period from 1976 onwards, until the end of the novel when the two strands collide.

When I started writing I wasn’t looking for a clever structure, I didn’t even realise that the one I used wasn’t that common, I simply wanted to tell the story in the best way possible and like many first-time novelists I muddled my way through. I wrote each chapter consecutively, flipping back and forth between the years, but when I had finished the first draft, I wasn’t sure the 1985, single-day narrative hung together, so I lifted all of those chapters out and rewrote them. Then I put them back in, and revised them in-situ ensuring that they gave hints about what might be about to happen in the other time period, whilst not giving anything away. It was a challenge!

If you’re writing a dual or multiple narrative novel, here are some things you might want to think about:

  • Make each strand as interesting as the other(s). You don’t want readers to be skimming through one narrative because they enjoy the others more. Make sure they have emotional investment in all stories.
  • Break the action of each narrative at a critical point. The dual narrative structure is a perfect way to create cliff-hangers that will keep your readers turning pages. A cliff-hanger doesn’t always have to be something astounding; just make sure you leave a question in the readers’ minds.
  • Use each narrative to shine a light on the other. Have fun with your dual narratives – use them to bring out themes, to foreshadow events, to give hints and clues and as I said above, to set up questions. For example in my first chapter, in 1985, Peggy looks at a photograph of her father sitting at her mother’s piano: ‘I was surprised to see him sitting there. I have no recollection of him ever sitting at the piano or playing it, although of course, it was my father who taught me to play.’ How her father could have taught her to play without her recalling him doing it, hopefully sets up a question which is answered in the second narrative strand.
  • Find the way of writing that works for you. Some writers create the strands separately and then bring them together, some, as I did, write them at the same time. It doesn’t matter which way you do it, but when you do bring them together you have to work hard on the interweaving.
  • Make clear jumps between narratives. In Our Endless Numbered Days the jumps between the two strands are by chapter. This is probably the clearest way to sign-post to the reader that they are moving from one narrative to another, but even so, I decided to put a date and location at the heading of each 1985 chapter, so the reader was never lost. It can be done more subtly than this, and should be if the jumps are within chapters. You can use character, location, dialogue, or anything that will help the reader know which narrative they are moving into. This is especially important for the first jump you write.
  • Make a connection between the two narratives. The connection could be very subtle – a theme, an emotion, an object – or as in my case, very obvious – the narrator. But you do need to reveal a connection at some point, otherwise you might as well write two novels.
  • Don’t be too tricksy. Don’t decide on a dual narrative structure because you want your novel to be interesting or challenging; it has to be right for the story. Bear in mind that in a dual narrative you will probably have to withhold information at some point and you don’t want this to appear forced.
  • Remember to deal with aging. If your dual narratives use some of the same characters, you will have to make them age believably. My two strands are both about Peggy. She needed to have the same fundamental characteristics, but in one strand she is seventeen, whilst in the other we first meet her age eight. Similarly, you need to consider your characters’ physical characteristics and how those will change over time.
  • Remember the character arc. Writing theory often talks about the character arc – how will characters change over the course of the story; what will they learn? With a dual narrative from a single character’s point of view, this can be harder to manage. In the case of Our Endless Numbered Days, Peggy’s main arc happens in the 1976 and onwards chapters. But she also needs to change during the single day in 1985 in a way which matches the other character arc.

It’s a lot to think about, but the most important thing is, if you enjoy writing both narratives then most likely your readers will enjoy them too.

(This article was originally published on Writers & Artists.)

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Our Endless Numbered Days has recently been shortlisted for The Desmond Elliott Prize for debut fiction. The Reading Agency is holding an unofficial vote for which book readers think should win. Click here to vote for your favourite.

Flash Fiction: The Necklace

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The necklace had lived in the velvet box on her Grandmother’s dressing table for as long as Rose could remember. After the funeral her mother lifted it out, the diamonds uncurling languidly, as if she were waking them from a heavy sleep.

‘She wanted you to have it.’ In the dressing-table mirror her mother smiled, eyes filling with tears.

‘I never saw her wear it.’ Rose touched the jewels at her throat.

‘That’s because it wasn’t hers. It was your Grandfather’s.’ Her mother paused. ‘And the sequined dresses, the high heels, the lipstick.’ She smiled again. ‘They loved each other so very much.’

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This is a 100-word story written as part of the Friday Fictioneers online writing group, run by the wonderful Rochelle Wisoff-Fields. Every week many writers around the world write a story inspired by a picture (this week supplied by SantoshWriter). Click here to join in or read other people’s.

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Delighted to let you know that my novel, Our Endless Numbered Days, has just been shortlisted for The Desmond Elliott Prize for debut fiction. More information.

Our Endless Numbered Days shortlisted for book prize

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I’m absolutely thrilled that my book, Our Endless Numbered Days has been shortlisted for the Desmond Elliott Prize for debut novels. The shortlist of three (also including A Song for Issy Bradley by Carys Bray, and Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey) was decided from a longlist of ten books. The winner will be announced at an awards ceremony in London on 1st July.

You can read more about the shortlist on the BBC website.

The Letters in the Barn

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I’m a huge fan of the novel We Have Always Lived in the Castle, by Shirley Jackson. In fact, it could easily be my (current) favourite book ever. And so I’m very excited about the biography of Jackson that Ruth Franklin is writing. Every so often Ruth sends out an email to subscribers about how she’s getting on (you can sign up here), and this week I received an update about Ruth’s search for some of Jackson’s letters. It’s a fascinating story, and I’m sharing it below with Ruth’s permission.

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Last spring, during an ordinary day of research in Shirley Jackson’s archive at the Library of Congress, I came upon a file containing about a dozen long, chatty, intelligent letters from a woman I’ll call Anne. A housewife in Baltimore (my hometown), Anne sent Shirley a fan letter after reading an essay she had written about the Oz books, and an intense correspondence ensued: a letter every month or so for about a year, from December 1959 to January 1961. Shirley rarely saved drafts of her letters, but from Anne’s responses I had a sense of what she must have written: there were stories of family life (both women had four children), recipes, and much talk about books: fantasy and science fiction (Tolkien), poetry (Dylan Thomas), children’s literature (Oz, the Moomintroll series, E. Nesbit). There were also details about We Have Always Lived in the Castle, which Shirley began writing around the same time as the correspondence started. Poignantly, Anne wrote of her own struggle to write and her desire to carve out space for herself amid her obligations to her kids and her husband.

I closed the folder knowing that I had to find Shirley’s letters to Anne. Shirley’s diary-keeping was sporadic; with few exceptions, the only substantive letters of hers that still exist are to her parents and touch only briefly on her writing. Letters about her work on Castle, her last completed novel, would be invaluable.

A Google search turned up Anne’s daughter Nora, who responded quickly to my email. Yes, Nora remembered quite well her mother’s correspondence with Shirley Jackson; one of Shirley’s children had even come to visit the family in Baltimore. But Anne had died more than a year earlier, and most of her possessions were carted off in a dumpster.

I was saddened but not surprised. An occupational hazard of women’s biography is that one’s subject tends to correspond with other women — often non-writers whose papers are not preserved. I kicked myself hard for not having come upon Anne’s letters sooner, resolved to interview Nora at some point about her mother’s relationship with Shirley, and put the letters out of my mind.

A week ago, I received a surprise email from Nora. Her mother, it seemed, had owned a country house that would soon be sold. Nora realized that the letters might have been kept there, in an old animal barn. Those words galvanized me. We arranged to meet at the house — a four-hour drive from New York — the following day.

The barn, front view.

The barn was filled with a lifetime’s worth of detritus: old toys, clothing, knickknacks, and box upon box of newspapers, magazines, and letters. We soon were covered in dust and dirt. Mice had chewed through many of the boxes. An afternoon of searching turned up letters from various friends and family members, but nothing from Shirley. Nora had to leave, but I decided to stick around for another day: the barn contained easily a hundred more boxes. Feeling a little like Hercules before the Augean stables, I asked a friend to come and help.

Did I mention that all this was done by flashlight?

By the time she arrived, around noon the next day, I had already spent the morning taking apart the barn, with no luck. My friend wondered what was in the front half of the barn, which I had only glanced at: Nora thought the letters would be in the back. We opened the door to a room strewn with more boxes and old furniture — including a wooden filing cabinet. With some difficulty, we jiggled open the heavy top drawer. My friend reached inside and pulled out one of Shirley’s letters.

The elation we felt is hard to describe. There were definitely tears. After we calmed down, we went through the drawer carefully. Most of the letters were still in their original envelopes, with postmarks — important, because Shirley rarely dated her letters. Many were on her trademark yellow typing paper, which held up amazingly well over the last fifty-plus years. Anne had numbered the envelopes, so we could be sure we had found all the letters. In total, there were fifteen of them, and they are as extraordinary as I imagined them to be.

A small assortment of the letters.

SO WHAT DO THE LETTERS SAY? you ask. Well, for now that will have to wait. Soon, they will go to Shirley’s archive at the Library of Congress, where they belong. But first I plan to enjoy touching them for just a little longer.

It now feels like an anti-climax, but I have an essay in this weekend’s New York Times Book Review about Shirley’s two hilarious household chronicles, Life Among the Savages and Raising Demons. I also spoke about the books on the NYTBR podcast (my segment begins around 19:00). A few years ago, with my two small children in tow, I went to get Raising Demons from the library. The checkout clerk peered over the desk at my children. “Is it a how-to manual?” he quipped.
Wishing you a week of happy surprises and discoveries,
Ruth

Flash Fiction: A Bucket of Ice

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This week for Friday Fictioneers (the 100-word flash fiction group) we have something slightly different. Because our trusty leader, Rochelle, is busy getting her books published, we’re revisiting a photo prompt from July 2012. Then I was right in the middle of writing my first novel without any idea that it would one day actually be published by Penguin and several other publishers around the world. I used many of these picture prompts to write scenes, some of which actually made it in (although slightly altered) and this was one of them.

So firstly, here is the original flash fiction piece I wrote inspired by the photo above in July 2012:

“A winter like this I have not known since I was a child in Germany,” said my mother, her mouth still full of z’s and v’s even after all these years. She shivered and took her gin and tonic back inside.

Oskar rapped his knuckles on the thick ice that had risen like a soufflé out of the garden bucket. Its tap dripped an icicle.

“Would you like some ice with that madam?” he laughed. Oskar turned the handle, twisting hard; his mouth twisting too with the effort. The tap snapped off.

I cried – for the cold, for the homesickness, but mostly for the waste of a bucket.

 

And here is the scene that made it into the book:

Oskar rapped his knuckles on the thick ice which had risen like a soufflé out of a bucket hanging on a nail beside the back door. I recognized it; it was the bucket my father and I had used, with a tap attached to the bottom so we could brush our teeth with running water. In the frozen garden the tap dripped an icicle.

‘Would madam like something to drink?’ Oskar laughed and turned the handle, twisting it hard; his mouth twisting too, with the effort. The tap snapped off. And for the first time since I had come home I cried – for the music, for Reuben, but most of all for the waste of bucket.

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To write your own 100-word piece click here, or to read other people’s click here. The picture this week was supplied by Madison Woods.

And I’m excited to let you know that Our Endless Numbered Days has just been released as audio book. You can buy it at Audible.com or Audible.co.uk