Are you a fiction writer looking for help with your work? I’m delighted that I’ll be teaching a general fiction course at Arvon with fellow author Andrew Taylor, in May.
Based at The Hurst in Shropshire in the UK, this writing retreat runs from May 6th to May 11th. Andrew and I will be holding workshops and exercises around the main elements of fiction writing including character, theme, setting and narrative. Attendees also get two one-to-one sessions where we look at their specific pieces, and author David Hayden will be visiting for one evening. Plus there will be opportunities to share your work (if you want to), and plenty of writing time. And of course good food and great company. I’d love to see you there.
A little while ago I was invited to take part in a writing project run by A Thousand Word Photos, where a photographer gives three of their photographs to a writer, who then selects one which is used to inspire a 1,000 word short story. The story is then published online and read out to stroke patients around the UK, as part of the charity, Interact.
The photograph I selected (above) was taken by the renowned photographer Anastasia Taylor-Lind, and without knowing anything about it, I wrote a 1000 word story called Intelligent Private Lines, which you can read here.
A Thousand Word Photos recently held their first live event in London, where six short stories written as part of the project, were read out to the audience by actors, and the image that inspired the story was projected on the wall. I was delighted that my story was selected to be read by the actor, Jessica Raine (of Call the Midwife fame).
The paperback of Bitter Orange will be published in the UK on 2nd May 2019. (Readers in the US will have to wait a little longer.) And I’m delighted to share with you the new cover. As you can see it’s as different as you can get from the hardback, but I hope it will intrigue and entice a whole new set of readers.
The hardback is still available in many bookshops and available to order, but if you’re waiting for the paperback publication you can pre-order now from Amazon or (preferably) your local bookshop.
Make sure you sign up to my newsletter and follow me on Twitter or Instagram to hear about competitions to win copies of my novels. (A competition to win a copy of Swimming Lessons is running on both Twitter and Instagram until 7th February 2019.)
I’d love to know what you think about the cover – please comment below.
It’s that time again for my, and my librarian husband’s, top ten books. These are selected from books we read this year – not books published this year. You can read our lists from 2017, 2016, and 2015 by clicking on the years.
Here are some facts and figures about my list:
None of my top 10 books were published this year (although I did read plenty of recently published books)
I read 94 books this year (including a couple of manuscripts)
Three of the books on my list have been made into wonderful films: The Hours, The Wall, and My Abandonment (filmed as Leave No Trace), (and You Should have Left is in production)
Neatly, five female and five male authors made it onto my list (of my 94, 56 were female)
Two of my top ten are English translations from German: You Should Have Left and The Wall
The shortest book I read – You Should Have Left – made it onto my top ten. It’s 111 pages, but they are tiny pages. The longest I read was Night Film at 640 pages.
I listened to two of the novels on my list, and loved them so much I bought a physical copy: After the Eclipse (also the only non-fiction book on my list), and Odd Girl Out by Elizabeth Jane Howard
For an article I wrote in October about haunted house novels, I read several ‘scary’ books that I hadn’t heard of before, and two of them (You Should have Left, and The Elementals) made it onto my list.
If you’re thinking of buying a copy of Bitter Orange, Swimming Lessons, or Our Endless Numbered Days for someone for Christmas, let me know and I’ll send you a signed card for free, for you to include with the book.
I’m happy to post cards to anywhere in the world, just send me a message, telling me which book or books you’re buying, who I should write the card for, and what your address is.
In my first novel, Our Endless Numbered Days, a father takes his daughter to a European forest and after a terrible storm he tells her the rest of the world has disappeared and they are the only two people left on earth. She believes him. I like to think it’s almost what you could call a post-apocalyptic novel, or end-of-the-world fiction, or the term I like best: postapocalit.
Sometimes it’s a devastating disease, or a human-made environmental disaster, a natural catastrophe, or nuclear war that ends the world as we know it. Whichever event changes everything, the ‘rules’ seem to be that very few people are left to struggle for survival in a radically altered world.
When I was growing up in the 1970s I was allowed to stay up late (like Peggy in Our Endless Numbered Days) to watch the television series, Survivors about a group of people in Britain who have survived a plague. It gave me nightmares, but I loved it. And I’ve loved postapocalit and films ever since.
When I was writing Our Endless Numbered Days, I read or re-read as much postapocalit as I could find. (I also read a lot of survival fiction and non-fiction, and these lists will hopefully feature in future posts.) I read so much of it, that again I had recurring postapocalit dreams that didn’t go away until I finished writing.
A little while after Bitter Orange was published in the UK, the author and blogger, Isabel Costello asked me to write something for her ‘literary sofa‘ website. If you don’t know it or her, she hosts a huge number of fascinating posts, author interviews and book reviews. This is the piece I wrote, republished here, about the inspiration for the location in Bitter Orange.
There’s a place not too far from where I live called the hangers. It’s a short range of wooded twisting hills, so steep-sided that they haven’t been cultivated or much changed by humans, and the trees that cling there – beech, lime, yew and ash – are ancient. I regularly walk the footpaths snaking through these woods, and when I was looking for a location for my third novel, Bitter Orange, the hangers’ ghostly beauty seemed perfect. Bitter Orange is set in a dilapidated country house called Lyntons, and deciding which house it could be based upon was never going to be a problem. About ten miles from my house in the opposite direction to the hangers is The Grange, is a neoclassical property managed by English Heritage. In the grounds there is a lake and a small flint grotto, but most of the surrounding countryside is undulating farmed fields, beautiful in their own way, but not dramatic enough for what I had in mind.
So, I shifted my house ten miles east and set it down right at the foot of the hangers. That’s one of the perks of being a writer – I can move anything to anywhere else, even whole country houses. Now the hills and woods corralled the house, keeping whatever was there isolated and contained.
The original (real) house was built in 1660, red-brick and square, but in the early 19th century it was transformed into one of the finest examples of Greek Revival architecture in Europe. The land around it was built up so that the basement floor was completely underground, and at some point all the windows in the attics filled in so the servants mustn’t have got much daylight unless they went outdoors. In its hey-day The Grange had 24 indoor servants, while the estate supported 100 households.
But two world wars changed life for many English country estates and due to death duties their owners could no longer afford their upkeep. Many houses fell into disrepair and were consequently abandoned or demolished. (In 1955 England lost one house every two and a half days.) And The Grange was no different. It was last inhabited in 1964, and in 1972 it was almost demolished by the Baring family who had bought it, until the government got involved and the house was preserved.
And so it still stands today – preserved but unrestored. The outside is open to visitors (and free) all year round, but the inside is only accessible on certain dates for tours. And if you get to go inside you’ll understand why. Most of the interior has been ripped out, and many of the ceilings have gone (netting hangs under them to collect the falling debris). Plaster has gone from many of the walls, but enough remains to give this house an eerie atmosphere of a place kept in suspended animation. A house stopped in the final moment before disintegration.
Once I’d decided that my characters would live in a house inspired by The Grange for the summer of 1969, I visited the outside often, walking around the huge cedar of Lebanon trees, and down to the lake. The orangery (once renowned for its innovative system of channelling rainwater down its interior pillars to water the plants) now houses an opera company – The Grange Festival. The Festival hosts open days and the house is usually open as part of England’s Heritage Open Days scheme.
I visited the interior on as many occasions as I could, and I also wrote to English Heritage to ask if someone could show me around. Richard, the caretaker kindly took me into every room possible (there are still stairs up to the attic, but there are very few rooms that are safe) including every room in the basement. Here, the opera company stores its costumes and props, and so illuminated by bare bulbs I saw dummies and masks, brooms and top hats. As we walked around, Richard told me about the ghosts that haunt The Grange and confessed that sometimes even he (a down-to-earth type) doesn’t like to be there alone. I could see why. At least one of those stories made it into the finished version of Bitter Orange.
In the novel there is a bridge over the lake and follies in the grounds that Frances, the protagonist is commissioned to examine, including a mausoleum, obelisk and ice-house. It took me two years to write Bitter Orange and the landscape surrounding the house is so firmly fixed in my mind that when I go back there now, I look around and always think, but where is the bridge, where are the follies, and why aren’t there any hangers surrounding the house?
I grew up reading ghost stories — M.R. James, Edgar Allan Poe — and loved watching the ghost story dramas that were on television every Christmas. I’ve always enjoyed being frightened, to feel that surge of adrenaline when I’m doing no more than curling up on my sofa or in my bed. It’s a natural high without any serious consequences.
Haunted house stories bring that feeling of uncertainty or terror home. If you’re indoors when you’re reading a novel with a haunted house at its center, the room you’re in, its uncurtained windows and dark corners, will still be there when you put the book down, and so the thrill continues. And your own house doesn’t have to be a gothic mansion with turrets and secret staircases to be scary. Ordinary houses and apartments all have their own peculiarities that can unsettle. Are those noises water gurgling in the pipes or something else? Did the kitchen door creep open because it’s badly hung, or is something standing on the other side? The fun of reading novels with haunted houses is turning off your thinking brain and seeing how you react.
In Bitter Orange, my third novel, I play with the tropes of haunted houses: the grand dilapidated mansion, the bird found dead in a room, the white face at the window. It’s not only a haunted-house novel; Bitter Orange touches on the ghostly because the setting and the characters’ states of mind seemed to ask for it. Here are seven great haunted house novels that have me glancing over my shoulder:
This book is for anyone who has sat in a lighted room at night with a large glass window in front of them and worried about what’s out there beyond their reflection. Except that Kehlmann cleverly plays with that dread by altering the reflection so the terror becomes what is or in fact isn’t in the room. The narrator in this brief novel is staying with his wife and daughter in the antithesis of the haunted gothic mansion: a modern glass box rented from Airbnb, in the Alps. Written as a journal, the book includes the screenplay the narrator is attempting (pretending) to write, interspersed with notes on the state of his marriage. But as he looks back over what he’s written he sees entries he doesn’t remember making. The book plays with time-travel as well as hauntings, and even throws in a bit of geometry.
I couldn’t write a list of haunted-house novels without including this perfect example. Jackson sets the horror up from the first paragraph, saying of the house, “whatever walked there walked alone.” A paranormal researcher gathers three other people together, including lonely spinster Eleanor, to investigate Hill House in New England, a labyrinthine property of odd angles and dark corners. It’s clear by the end of the novel that the house has a malignant agency; it’s not haunted so much as it’s evil personified, which Eleanor becomes fixated on and changed by.
The McCray and Savage families decamp to their two Victorian summer houses at Beldame on a spit of land along the Alabama Gulf Coast, taking with them thirteen-year-old India who is visiting for the first time. But there is a third house in between the two, one that has been empty for years and is slowly being consumed by sand. No family member will step inside it except the spirited India. The location — all heat, light, and encroaching sand — is unlike the usual haunted-house trope of dank darkness, which makes it all the more vivid. The Elementals that inhabit the third house are slippery things, not quite ghosts, but some sort of malevolent shape-shifters that truly terrify.
In 1947 Dr. Faraday is called out to Hundreds Hall, a dilapidated English country house that he first visited when he was ten and his mother was a maid for the family: “I remember its lovely ageing details: the worn red brick, the cockled window glass, the weathered sandstone edgings. They made it look blurred and slightly uncertain — like an ice, I thought, just beginning to melt in the sun.” From that clever description, Waters hints that this story will be ambiguous and subtle. Faraday becomes entwined with the Ayres family as odd events occur in the house. This is an historical novel with wonderful period detail, and by the end you could say that it’s not the house that is haunted, but the people in it.
There aren’t any witches in White is for Witching, but there is a house in Dover, England that could be said to be alive. The story — which is slight — is told by four voices, one of which is the house itself. The main narrator is Miranda Silver, who has pica, an eating disorder which compels her eat things which aren’t food, including chalk and plastic. Four generations of dead Silver women exist within the walls of the house and it seems the building has no intention of letting Miranda go either. The writing style is fairytale-esque, and structure is unusual, with the points of view often swapping unexpectedly. There is a feeling of unsettling and confusing dark magic, and it’s the kind of book you have to sink into and not struggle against to discover its full enjoyment.
Mary and Graham Coles move to a rural cottage in Suffolk, England, one that is “dark and unsteady, turned in on itself.” They have suffered a terrible tragedy and are trying to make a new life for themselves in the country, but Mary catches fleeting glimpses of children in the house and hears their voices outside, as well as seeing a red-headed man. As this narrative develops we are switched into one taking place a hundred years previously. Here, a red-headed stranger is caught under a falling tree and taken in by the family who live in the same cottage as the Coles do now. We hear from a character who is “haunted” by a ghost from the future: “Merricoles.” The two timelines are intricately woven, and the whole story carries a wonderful undercurrent of menace.
This haunted house novel ticks a lot of boxes for familiar (and reassuring) tropes: rambling and isolated country house, weird current inhabitants, and a happy family that gets “stuck” there. Marian and Ben, together with their son David and aunt Elizabeth, rent a Long Island mansion from the Allardyce siblings one summer. But it’s so cheap, is it too good to be true? Marian becomes obsessed with the house and its contents, as well as an upstairs sitting-room beyond which lives old Mrs. Allardyce. Marian must provide meals for her three times a day, and yet never sees her. You do have to roll with the 1970’s dialogue and occasional sexism, but if you’re looking for a house that turns people mad, this is a classic.
Are there any haunted house novels you’d recommend? Let me know in the comments below.
“In the vein of Shirley Jackson’s bone-chilling The Haunting of Hill House, Fuller’s disturbing novel will entrap readers in its twisty narrative, leaving them to reckon with what is real and what is unreal. An intoxicating, unsettling masterpiece.” Kirkus (starred review). Read more reviews for Bitter Orange.
Bitter Orange is published today (October 9) in the USA and Canada. And to celebrate I’m giving away one set of all three of my novels: Our Endless Numbered Days, Swimming Lessons, and a hardback copy of Bitter Orange (with its US cover).
To enter, just visit Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram, and follow the instructions there. The competition is open worldwide.
The Canadian cover, from House of Anansi, is almost the same as the UK version.
Early US reviews have been great:
Kirkus (starred review) “In the vein of Shirley Jackson’s bone-chilling The Haunting of Hill House, Fuller’s disturbing novel will entrap readers in its twisty narrative, leaving them to reckon with what is real and what is unreal. An intoxicating, unsettling masterpiece.”
“In her new novel, Claire Fuller enhances the mystery with luscious detail: sights of ghosts, smells of overripe fruit, echoes of Cara wailing. The plot’s movements are rendered secondary, at least in the early going, to the atmosphere, and it’s to the novel’s benefit; with sensations so alive on the page, you’re constantly kept on your toes, attuned to the mania. You’ll ask, beguiled: What’s really going on here?”
Bitter Orange is published in the USA a week today (9th October). Tin House, my US publisher is running a competition for US readers to win a Bitter Orange hamper if you pre-order the book before publication day. And you can get a 30% discount off the full price if you order online through Powell’s Books, using the discount code ORANGE. Once you’ve pre-ordered, send your proof of purchase to email@example.com to be entered into the competition.
The book is already out in the UK and Germany, and you can read what reviewers have been saying.
In the US it’s been appearing on lots of round up lists of what to read in October, including:
Time Magazine: “Unsettling and eerie, Bitter Orange is an ideal October chiller.”
Entertainment Weekly: “Fuller (Swimming Lessons) weaves between two timelines in this story of a love triangle hurtling toward tragedy. Set predominantly in the English countryside circa 1969, Bitter Orange explores attraction, obsession, and the power of storytelling.”
NYLON: “Fuller is a master of the quietly eerie; she’s excellent at creating an aura of pervasive dread—and sustaining it till the very last page.”
Lit Hub: “A beguiled introvert, a manor in disrepair, and other people’s secrets? Easy sell.”
Vulture: by author Tana French – “Reviews say the book has an unreliable narrator, beautiful writing, and hints of Shirley Jackson and Daphne du Maurier. No way can I resist that.”
If you like the sound of that, pre-order from Powell’s Books, or anywhere else you fancy. Just keep your receipt.