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 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.
I don’t speak or read any Japanese but I recently came across this Japanese term: mono no aware. There is no direct translation into English, but as far as I can understand, it means a sadness or sensitivity at the impermanent, transient nature of things or life.
As part of the publicity for the UK release of my novel Bitter Orange, I was asked to write a piece for The Guardian to go in their ‘Made in’ section. This short article is written each week by a different author about the place that influenced them the most when growing up.
Mine was about the freedom I had as a child to roam the countryside around Sydenham – the small Oxfordshire village where I was born and spent the first ten years of my life. My father renovated a cottage in that village, and then built a house next door which we moved into. For six months while the build was going on we lived in a static caravan onsite and I played amongst the house’s foundations and helped my dad stack bricks. We sold the house in 1977 when my parents divorced.
The article was published in The Guardian on 4th August and you can read it here.
A day or so after it was published online I looked at the comments under the article. The first one said, ‘Claire, we live in the house your family built. You’re welcome to come and visit any time’. And then I got a message on Twitter from a man called Mark, saying the same thing. Via a series of direct messages on Twitter we established that Mark’s parents had bought the house from my family, and many years later he bought it from his mother.
A couple of weeks ago me, my husband, and my eighty-year-old father went back to visit the house for the first time in forty-one years.
I was excited to be visiting, but also worried about feelings that I couldn’t quite pin down: a kind of sadness at all the time that had passed since we lived there, a nostalgia for my childhood, but also happiness to be able to go back. All those feelings were still there when we arrived, but Mark, his wife, Emily, his mother (who is Japanese*), and his children made us very welcome. We were shown around the house, looking at what was different (a much improved kitchen and family room), and what was the same (the open-tread stairs, the wrought-iron fire screens and door handles, and the bedrooms). Mark’s neighbour also invited us into the cottage next door, and I was shocked at how tiny the rooms were when I remembered them as being huge. My dad, also clearly moved, told us about the minor injuries he sustained while digging damp-proof courses, and an indoor bathroom.
But the nicest part of the visit for me was standing with Mark in his son’s bedroom, which had been Mark’s, and before that had been mine. We looked out through the high window at the back garden and I had a lovely moment of mono no aware at the thought that all three of us had been (or were) children in that room, looking out the window at the garden, and that at some point in the future another child, possibly still unborn, would gaze out through that window too.
*Apologies to Mark’s mother if my translation of mono no aware isn’t exactly correct.
I can’t believe it’s been three years since my debut novel, Our Endless Numbered Days was first published. The book has introduced me to some wonderful people, and has given me amazing experiences. Here are 10 things you might not know about me and this book:
I can’t play the piano (there is a lot about piano music in the book), but I can just about read music thanks to a year of oboe lessons when I was fourteen.
My mother is German, but like the mother in the book she never taught me German. (That’s the only resemblance my mother has to Ute.)
The book was originally going to be called The Great Divide, and then Briar Rose (after Sleeping Beauty), until I decided on Our Endless Numbered Days (from the album by Iron and Wine whom I listened to while writing).
I chose the name Reuben for one of the characters because that’s one I had on a list of possible names for my son before he was born. (He ended up with Henry.)
When I was writing the book a friend shot me a squirrel and kept it in his freezer so I could see what it would be like to skin it, cook it, and eat it. (It went rancid when it was defrosted and I never even saw it.)
As a child I was as obsessed with the film of The Railway Children as Peggy is. My sister had the album and I listened to it so often I can still quote it.
The book was inspired by the real-life story of a teenager who turned up in Berlin saying he’d been living in the German forests for the previous five years.
At the UK launch we had a chocolate cake in the shape of a cabin. It all got eaten. (Very Hansel and Gretel.)
I am much more aware now of disaster preparedness and will sometimes buy more cans of beans than we actually need.
I didn’t go to Germany for research, but I did walk the woods near where I live in England. I wanted to spend the night alone in them, but when it came down to it, I was too frightened.
Buy a copy of Our Endless Numbered Days via these outlets. Read an article about what I’d learnt a year after Our Endless Numbered Days was published. Watch a video of me drawing the cabin from Our Endless Numbered Days. Contact me to ask me about the book, or if you’d like a set of book club questions.
It’s that time again when Tim and I debate our top 10 books of the year. This can include any book we read and finished in 2017, no matter when it was published. If you like counting you may have noticed that in the picture we’re both only holding nine books. That’s because Anything is Possible by Elizabeth Strout was also one of my favourites, and My Absolute Darling by Gabriel Tallent was also one of Tim’s. This year we’ve read less of each other’s than in previous years: I’ve only read two more from Tim’s list (Alice, and A Separation), both of which I loved, but didn’t quite make my ten. And Tim read Life Drawing this year, and Housekeeping a long time ago.
Click on the years if you’re interested in what we rated in 2016, and 2015.
I read 83 books this year. Below are more details about my top 10, starting with my top three (in no order). Click on the title for my full review on Goodreads:
My Absolute Darling by Gabriel Tallent. This is an amazing debut. Difficult subject, but wonderful writing.
Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson. I read Home a while ago, and didn’t love it, but picked this up on a recommendation, and wow! It was the penultimate book I read in 2017, and still made it into my top three.
Good Behaviour by Molly Keane. Another oldie, reminiscent of Mothering Sunday by Graham Swift, and a lot of William Trevor novels.
Dadland by Keggie Carew. This won the Costa Biography Prize in 2016. I was lucky enough to hear Keggie speak at a festival in France. I have to admit I didn’t expect to love this as much as I did, but it made me laugh and it made me cry.
Life Drawing by Robin Black. This had sat on my shelves for a while, and I finally picked it up this year, and loved it.
The Story of Lucy Gault by William Trevor. I read all of Trevor’s short stories this year, and two of his novels. This is the book that came out on top.
Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders. When I signed copies of Swimming Lessons in New York in February, in nearly every bookshop Saunders has just been in before me, signing his. This won the Man Booker Prize this year, and deservedly so.
Anything is Possible by Elizabeth Strout. Olive Kitteridge made my top ten books last year, and this was every bit as good.
The Lonely City by Olivia Laing. I also read To The River by Laing this year, and it was a close thing between that and this book.
Here’s a task for you: get five or so hardback books and look at the author photographs in the back. How many writers are smiling? How many look pensive? Which of them would influence what you think about the book? Continue reading →
Last August I was invited to the awards ceremony for the Jane Austen Short Story Competition. The event also marked the opening of a Jane Austen exhibition at Winchester Discovery Centre, visited by Prince Edward, Earl of Wessex. I’m not much* of a royalist but it was fascinating to see how these visits work (men in suits and wearing ear-pieces patrolling the library, lots of waiting and chatting with tea and cake, forming a literary ‘horse-shoe’ so the Prince could meet us all easily).
But the real event for me was announcing Sally Tissington as the winner of the short story competition, and David Constantine announcing Ingrid Jendrzejewski as the runner-up.
In April this year that we got to see the longlist of 25 entries. (There were almost 300 in total from around the world.) I read the hard-copies I’d been sent many times, each re-read whittling the list down further until I had six that I liked the best. Luckily David had a similar number on his shortlist, and we crossed over with a few. We met (in a stationary cupboard, but with coffee, grapes, and biscuits) to argue our case for those stories we liked best, while understanding that we had to be willing to let some go. It was a difficult decision.
This was my first taste of being a judge and on the other side of the fence (I have won both the BBC Radio 4 Opening Lines short story competition, and the Royal Academy / Pin Drop competition), and I enjoyed it so much I’ve agreed to do it again for another short story competition run by Rye Literature Festival.
While I was reading the 25, I jotted down some of the things that made me put a story on the reject pile. This is not a definitive list of what to avoid when writing a short story (even our winners may include some things that made me reject others) – it’s just some subjective observations from those I read, which might be helpful:
Many stories were lacking enough forward motion (too much internal thought), especially at the start.
Many stories began with an event in the future and then spooled back, resulting in a pluperfect tense (eg – she had arrived), which meant that the forward motion of the story wasn’t as strong.
Lots spent too long on the backstory and justifying the actions of the characters. Have I mentioned forward motion?
Some stories were too big for the word limit, which meant characters, plot and location were skimmed. (Although our runner-up breaks this ‘rule’ to great effect.) Covering a lifetime in 2000 words is tricky to pull off well.
Nearly all the stories had a cliché or two (or a few more).
Sometimes the characters didn’t feel real. (This also comes back to avoiding clichés.) Real people have quirks, and ticks, and odd thoughts and mannerisms. I wanted to see these.
Too many stories had too many typos.
There were quite a few exclamation marks. And adverbs.
The majority of the stories were written in the first person. (Third person will open up more possibilities.) But if the writer had decided first person was best, it was those with a really strong narrative voice that worked well for me.
Many stories didn’t have a powerful enough opening. They lacked the ‘story questions’ I was looking for. I wanted to be intrigued, beguiled, puzzled and above all to have to read on.
Some endings were lacklustre. I wasn’t looking for things to be tied up neatly, but I wanted some logic and satisfaction.
A few stories started in the middle of a scene or with dialogue, and this is difficult to get right. It made me think, ‘who are these people, where are they, what’s their relationship?’ rather than paying attention to what was being said.
And finally – this didn’t make me discard a story but it did niggle – even if the competition didn’t specify layout requirements I saw too many stories with a confusing layout. I would have liked: double-spaced, no extra gaps between paragraphs unless it’s a change of scene, Courier, 12 point, first lines indented unless they were the very beginning or the start of a new section, etc.
Both the winning story, and the runner-up are available to read online here.
I hope this post has been helpful if you write short stories and enter competitions. Do let me know in the comments below.
This is a video that I produced for the US launch of Swimming Lessons, which I forgot to put up here when the book came out. My daughter helped with the animation, and my son wrote and performed the music. He is available for commissions for videos or short films, and also for bookings for launches, openings, private views and other events (he’s based in Oxford, but can travel). Henry’s website.