I’m thrilled to let you know that my fourth novel, Unsettled Ground has been shortlisted for the Costa Book Awards. This prestigious annual prize, which is fifty years old this year, awards prizes for books written by UK and Irish authors, in five categories: Novel, First Novel, Biography, Poetry and Children’s Book. One of the winners from these categories is selected as the overall Costa Book of the Year.
Unsettled Ground is one of four books in the Novel category, the winner of which will be announced on 4th January 2022. The five category winners will then be considered for the £30,000 prize announced in early February. You can read more about the prizes here, as well as seeing which other books are included in the novel category.
With this and the shortlisting earlier in 2021 for the Women’s Prize for Fiction it’s been quite a year! Keep your fingers crossed for me.
And if you’re in the UK and you’d like to buy a signed and dedicated copy of the hardback of Unsettled Ground, or any of my other books, click here.
This November and December, in time for Christmas, I’m offering UK readers a chance to buy signed and dedicated copies of my books, whether for yourself or as a gift. You can buy a single copy, several of the same book, or a combination. Find out more about Our Endless Numbered Days (paperback), Swimming Lessons (paperback), Bitter Orange (paperback), and Unsettled Ground (hardback). Once you’ve let me know which book or books you’d like and what you’d like me to write in them, I’ll calculate the cost of the books and the postage, email you a secure payment link, and once you’ve paid, I’ll get the books in the post. Simple.
As part of the Women’s Prize for Fiction short list festival, the wonderful actor, Juliet Stevenson read the opening of Unsettled Ground and now the video is available to watch. So if you’re thinking of buying a copy, this should serve as a taster.
Here’s a bit of extra info that you may not know: A few years ago I won the @pindropstudio / Royal Academy short story prize with my story, A Quiet Tidy Man, and the winner had their story read our by Juliet. So, not only has she read my work before but I got to meet her and I can confirm that she’s as friendly as she seems (see the picture above).
I have few in-person events coming up which you might be interested in especially if you live near Essex, Oxford, or London. Visit my events page for more details.
The UK cover of Unsettled Ground has had a refresh! The colours have been made much brighter, so now you can see all the creepy-crawlies in more detail, as well as the rotting fruit. Also included is a new quote from The Times (the previous one was about Bitter Orange, and some readers found that confusing), and the Women’s Prize For Fiction Shortlisted ‘sticker’ appears permanently in the bottom right-hand corner. I love how the cover really glows now, which makes it very eye-catching. Do let me know what you think. At the moment this new cover will only appear on the ebook.
I want to tell you about a message I received recently from Betsy Teter, a reader in South Carolina, in the US. It has astounded me. But first I need to tell you a little bit about Unsettled Ground. And this is going to include spoilers, so if you haven’t read it, I urge you to stop reading this article now, if you’re planning on reading the book.
You could always go and buy Unsettled Ground, read it, and come back here. In fact, you could buy it from Hub City Bookshop in Spartanburg, South Carolina, if you’re in the US (as well as being a physical bookshop, they also sell online).
But anyway, the thing about Unsettled Ground is that I made all made up. None of it is based on anyone I know or any stories I heard. In the book (as you know, since you’ve read it – ahem) Jeanie has rheumatic fever as a child, and then when she’s twelve her mother tells her has rheumatic heart disease (RHD) and so she must live a gentle life with her, at home. Only when Jeanie is in late middle-age does she discover from her doctor that she never had RHD and so nothing is as she imagined.
Betsy wrote to tell me about her mother, Bette Hubbard who died in 2008. Here’s what she said:
‘The doctors told [my mother] at age 13 that she had rheumatic fever and they sent her to bed for eleven months. Then they told her a couple years later that it had returned, and she was put back to bed for 9 months. Her family was so worried about her they carried her back and forth to the toilet. This was the central story of her life. She missed a huge part of her childhood. Then, when she was in her late 70s and began to develop some symptoms of Parkinson’s, the doctors dropped a bombshell: she had never had rheumatic fever. She had been misdiagnosed.
‘Bette was very bright, and her parents sent her to college in the warmer climate of the American South to protect her health. She was one of a small handful of Northerners at her college (in those days she was tagged a Yankee) and in her senior year she was elected student body president.
‘She died of some sort of Parkinsonian disease – the doctors called it “white matter disease”. We saw dozens of doctors trying to figure out what this was, and along the way, one of them told her there was absolutely no sign that she’d had rheumatic fever. Her heart was strong until her last days.’
Thank you so much to Betsy for telling me this amazing story and letting me write about it here.
* The title of this piece is a quote said by the mother of the author, Anne Patchett, and I keep it stuck on wall next to where I write to remind myself about what it is I’m trying to do when I write.
If you live near Oxford you might be interested to know that I’ll be doing my first in-person event in a while on 21st July at Blackwell’s Bookshop with fellow author Lucy Atkins (her latest novel is the amazing Magpie Lane). We’ll be interviewed by Sarah Franklin about our ‘dark fiction’. Tickets are available here.
While I wrote Unsettled Ground, I listened to two pieces of music: Polly Vaughn (an old English folk song) sung by Tia Blake, and We Roamed Through the Garden, written by my son, Henry Ayling. Listening to only two songs for two years, it was probably inevitable that they were going to become part of the novel I was writing. But they had a bigger influence: Jeanie and Julius, the protagonists in Unsettled Ground became folk musicians.
I thought it might be interesting to create a playlist for Unsettled Ground, for those who are currently reading the novel or those who have read it already. I hope that this selection – which are all pieces of music I love – will help add to the atmosphere of the book.
Henry is an unsigned acoustic guitarist – teacher, performer, and composer – and therefore his song isn’t on Spotify. But you can listen to We Roamed Through the Garden, here: www.henryayling.com/music/ It is number five on this page.
The playlist below will allow you to hear a little of each song. Open it in Spotify to listen to all the songs in their entirety. And please do let me know which you might know already and if any particularly resonate. Happy listening!
Unsettled Ground will be published in the US on May 18 and I have lots of online events planned, where, from the comfort of my writing room in England, I’ll be talking about the book, my writing process, and what it feels like for Unsettled Ground to be shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction. It would be lovely if any US or Canadian readers could join me on Zoom.
I was recently invited to a Words Away Zalon about motivation and inspiration for writers. If you haven’t heard about Words Away, its a small organisation that hosts events for writers on all kinds of interesting subjects. Sometimes these take the form of writers being interviewed about their process, or other times they run day-long writing workshops in London. At the moment everything is online, which means that anyone can join in.
What the audience were most interested in during my interview, not surprisingly, were the little tricks I use for my own motivation. I’m not a very motivated person when it comes to writing, and I have to use every technique I can think of to keep going. I don’t really like writing, what I enjoy is having written. I didn’t get to mention all my tricks during my Zalon, so I thought I’d put them down here.
Let me know if you start using any and find them helpful, and please do let me know in the comments what tips and tricks you use to keep writing. Perhaps I’ll do a list about inspiration next; but do let me know if there’s anything in particular you’d like me to cover.
Pretend to write something that isn’t your work in progress (WIP). Open a new document and write in a stream of consciousness style, or morning pages. Let yourself go, fool yourself, and you never know you might just start to write your WIP.
Try the ‘This is Shit’ Technique. When those little voices in your head which tell you what you’re writing is rubbish get too loud, wherever you are in your WIP type [ and let the little voice have its say. Write [this is shit[, or [no one is ever going to read this] or [if I get run over by a bus please don’t publish this], and then when the voice has run out of steam type ], and carry on with your WIP.
Interview a character or yourself about a plot point you’re having a problem with. For me this works best if I write it, but I know that for some writers they have an actual conversation and record it. Open a new Word document and type a heading. (I use, ‘We need to talk about xxx’.) Then type a question and let your subconscious brain answer it. I find it works best if I type the ‘interview’ very quickly without time for thought.
Keep a writing diary for each novel. This is a long term project, but worth starting. Every time you have a writing session write in your diary the date, the current word count, and one line about how that writing session has gone and any major thoughts. For a start, it’s helpful to see the word count increasing – motivation in itself, and secondly when you go through a really difficult patch you can open a diary for a previous novel and see whether you’re feeling the same level of despondency at the same word count as then. (I always am.)
Give yourself deadlines. If you haven’t been given deadlines by anyone else (publisher or if you’re on a course, for example), then give yourself some. Or ask a fellow writer to give you a deadline and make sure they follow up to see that you’ve achieved it.
Read someone else’s (excellent) novel. Reading a bad book doesn’t make me think I can do better, but reading an excellent novel makes me try harder with my own WIP.
Work on several projects at once.
Find the music that’s right for your WIP (tone / style / period) and put it on every time you write. Eventually, putting it on will mean it’s writing time.
Have a ‘word race’ with another writer. Agree a time you’re going to start and the length. Maybe 11am for an hour. Check in with each other just before you start and at 12 to see how it went. It isn’t meant to be competitive, but it helps to know that someone else is writing at the same time as you.
Visit the work every day. Write some of your WIP if you can, but if you can’t, then think about it – when you’re driving, washing up, cooking, whatever. If you have a good thought, email it to yourself or record it (if you don’t, you won’t remember it, or at least I never do). If you do this every day when you do get back to writing the WIP you will have something to write and you will be able to jump into it much faster.
My fourth novel, Unsettled Ground will be published in the US on May 18, when I’ll be doing lots of online bookshop events, including reading from the book, chatting about my writing process, the inspiration behind the novel and lots more. All tickets are free, but you need to register. See the list of dates here.
Unsettled Ground is already published in the UK, and is shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction. Buy a copy here.
This article was originally published on Isabel Costello’s blog – The Literary Sofa. Please visit her website for lots more author articles and information about her latest novel, Scent. Just before the post was due to be published I put out a call on Twitter for people’s dog pictures which could accompany the article. Many thanks to everyone who introduced us to their gorgeous furry friends. Isabel chose the adorable Johnny as Official Dog – thanks from Isabel and me to his owner Leah Bergen for use of the photo.
The dog in Unsettled Ground
This might be an odd confession for an article about dogs in books, but I am more of a cat person. I’ve never owned a dog; growing up, my family never owned a dog. We’ve always had cats, and my current one is a tabby called Alan. But I do like dogs, and that’s why I wasn’t too surprised when a dog appeared in my fourth novel, Unsettled Ground. A biscuit-coloured lurcher wrote her way in and became central to the story. But what to call her? I asked Twitter of course. Lots of people responded with their favourite dogs’ names (Luna and Mabel came up over and over). But in the end, I chose Maude, partly because that was what I thought her owner, Jeanie Seeder, would name her.
The Seeder family go through some difficult times and Maude, unfortunately, suffers along with them. What do you feed your dog when you can’t afford dog food, let alone meat? How do dogs behave when they sense illness, or when their owner is under threat? I did a great deal of dog research online, even joining a lurcher appreciation society on Facebook, where I lurked and read lots of posts about the funny things the members’ lurchers did. I watched lots of videos on YouTube of lurchers running (very fast) and sleeping (a great deal). I went for walks with my friends who had dogs, and I asked some of them lots of tedious details about how their dogs would react in certain situations. What I really learned from all my research, is that like humans, and cats, dogs have their own characters. Of course.
And just like human characters in novels, dogs in books can be used in all sorts of ways: to add tension, to gain sympathy, for light-relief and to reflect what’s happening to the human characters. If, like me, you love a good dog (or a bad one) in a novel, then here is a list of some of my favourite novels with dogs in them.
Fluke by James Herbert I read this book about forty years ago but it has stuck with me all this time. James Herbert was a master of the horror genre, but Fluke is not horror. This is a story about a dog, told in the first person, who remembers being a man. He believes he’s been murdered and sets out to try and protect his family. It’s about life and reincarnation and is probably due a re-read about now.
The Weekend by Charlotte Wood Three old friends in their 70s meet in the house of their fourth friend, Sylvie, who has recently died. They are there to help sort out the contents so the house can be sold. The three women, suffering from the usual ailments of old age and griping about each other, are wonderfully drawn. They might be getting on a bit but there are no old-age stereotypes here. Wendy brings along her old dog, Finn, who acts as a symbol of the women’s decline.
Help Yourself by Curtis Sittenfeld This is a short story collection with only three short stories in it. But what stories! In the first, White Women, LOL, Jill, a white Jewish woman is videoed accusing a group of Black people of gate-crashing her friend’s party. The video goes viral and Jill is ostracised by her friends for being racist. At the same time, an African-American TV presenter has lost her dog and the whole community wants to help her find it. When Jill discovers the dog in someone’s yard, she is determined to catch it. Sittenfeld’s writing and situations skewer suburban life.
The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters A wonderfully gothic novel with a haunted house (or person) which includes an old lab called Gyp. Caroline Ayres lives with her mother and disfigured brother in the run-down Hundreds Hall. They host a drinks party and their neighbours bring along their precocious eight-year-old daughter. At the party, the young girl is at first scared of Gyp, and then, behind a curtain she teases him, the dog bites, and the girl is injured. There are of course disastrous consequences for everyone. It’s a very tough read for dog lovers, but the incident helps to kick off the unsettling things that happen in the house.
So Long, See You Tomorrow by William Maxwell An old man remembers when, as a child, one of his neighbours was murdered and how afterwards he did something which he has been ashamed of ever since. In the middle section of the novel, the man imagines how the murder happened, moving between the minds of the main characters including the family’s dog. Unlike Fluke, the mind of the dog in So Long, See You Tomorrow remains very dog-like, but I still felt huge sympathy for his predicament.
Isabel Costello’s review of Unsettled Ground
In her fourth novel, Claire Fuller unearths lives rarely seen in contemporary fiction through middle-aged twins Jeanie and Julius, whose experience of rural poverty is all they have ever known. The novel is set in my home county of Wiltshire (which doesn’t happen very often either); we knew of people who lived ‘off-grid’ near the village where I grew up, long before it became a lifestyle choice for some. The gap between them and mainstream society was huge but not as wide as it would be now, when those without access to technology find themselves further marginalised from the infrastructure of everyday life. This happens to Jeanie and Julius when the death of their mother jeopardises an already precarious domestic set-up.
In less sensitive hands this could have backfired, but there is nothing patronising or romanticised about Claire Fuller’s vision of the protagonists’ rapidly deteriorating circumstances. In fact, she achieves an effective juxtaposition of hardship and, at times, squalor, with the simple joys of a life lived close to nature and as far as can be from materialism – few could read this novel without reflecting on their own situation. Both siblings have musical talent and the author’s characteristic sensory prose and artist’s eye make the story spring up around the reader in every dimension, including the emotional. The dark tone gives Unsettled Ground more in common with her debut Our Endless Numbered Days than her two most recent novels and if it was sometimes almost unbearably distressing, this is a testament to the empathy Fuller has and creates for the characters, despite heaping one terrible loss or setback after another on them – Jeanie’s vulnerability is especially poignant. A motif shared by all four novels is that of complex and unusual parent-child bonds, mostly extending into adulthood, and on that score this one is as fascinating as its predecessors. A literary highlight of 2021 which merits the recognition it received even before publication.
Buy Unsettled Ground
Unsettled Ground is longlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction, and is available to buy in the UK as a hardback, ebook or audio book. Click here to buy in the UK. Click here to pre-order in the US. Click here to pre-order in Canada.
For the past six years my husband and I have been taking a picture a day and at the end of each year making them into printed books. I wrote an article about it for Good Housekeeping which has just been published in their February 2021 issue. We started the project because we ended up without any decent photos of the two of us from our wedding, so now we take a picture every day of mostly everyday things. When not in lockdown this has included lots of book events, holidays and meeting up with friends and family. For the past year though there have been a lot of pictures of the two of us doing silly things or pictures of Alan the cat. The article isn’t online, so if you do want to read the whole thing I’m afraid you’ll have to go out and buy a copy of the magazine…or you could just start a project of your own.
My fourth novel, Unsettled Ground will be published in the UK on 25th March, and in the US and Canada on 18th May. Find out more about it here.
I watched 75 films this year. Unfortunately, I only got to watch two at the cinema before the UK lockdown. Here are my top ten in no particular order, and the places in the UK you can watch them. I prefer to give my viewing money to organisations other than Amazon, but I’d still rather watch films than boycott the company altogether, nevertheless as well as summaries of each film, I have listed the places you can currently see them in the UK. Read to the bottom and you’ll find a few bonus movies that I also recommend.
A few facts and figures about my 10 movies:
Five female directors, five male (which I’m pretty pleased about)
Four American-made movies, the rest from different countries
Three subtitled films
One from 1992, one from 2013, the rest from 2019 and 2020
Speculative / science fiction. Gemma and Tom go with a peculiar estate agent to visit a house on an estate of identical houses. When Gemma and Tom try to leave they can’t. It gets more and more odd, and ends with a clever circular twist. Available on Curzon Home Cinema and bfi.org
Once Upon A Time in Hollywood 2019 Dir: Quentin Tarantino USA
Action drama. It’s the 1960s and Rick is an actor in LA. His stunt man and friend, Cliff lives in a nearby caravan with his dog. The pair go to Italy to film some spaghetti westerns, and when they return they get to know Rick’s heavily pregnant neighbour, Sharon Tate. A reworking of the Charles Manson murders, this doesn’t end as expected. Violent, yes. Brilliant, yes. Available on Amazon.
The Assistant 2020 Dir: Kitty Green USA
Drama. Jane is an assistant in a film company in New York. She starts early and performs mundane tasks: clearing her boss’s office, fetching sandwiches, photocopying, as well as lying to his wife about where her boss is. When another assistant arrives in the office, Jane is concerned about her welfare but when she tries to report her suspicions things don’t go as planned. Quiet, reflective, excellent.
System Crasher 2019 Dir: Nora Fingscheidt Germany
Drama. Nine year old Benni, angry and out of control, is in the German care system. She runs away, back to her mother who is unable to provide the love and care Benni needs. She makes a connection with Micha and his family, and goes with him to the woods for three weeks to learn to take care of herself and although this at first seems to help, the system is unable to cope with her. Eye-opening, emotional, tough. Available on Curzon Home Cinema
The Last Days of Chez Nous 1992 Dir: Gillian Armstrong Australia
Family drama. Beth lives with her partner, JP, daughter Annie, and lodger Tim, in a house in an Australian city, when her younger sister, Vicky comes to stay. The house is wild with laughter and arguments between Beth and JP. Beth goes on a road trip with her father and when she returns much has changed in the house. Real, touching, memorable. Available on Google Play.
Parasite 2019 Dir: Bong Joon-ho South Korea
Black comedy thriller. Ki-woo, a poor young man living in a semi-basement with his parents and sister gets a job tutoring a rich family’s daughter. Over time he gets his sister, mother and father jobs for the family, ousting the existing staff. When the rich family are away, Ki-woo and the rest of them discover something unexpected in the basement of the house. Tense, thrilling, eye-opening. Available on Curzon Home Cinema and bfi.org
Ordinary Love 2019 Dir: Lisa Barros D’sa Britain
Family drama. At Christmas Joan discovers a lump in her breast. She begins treatment and her husband, Tom supports her through chemo and a mastectomy. At the hospital Joan recognises a fellow patient, who is her daughter’s former teacher, and a friendship develops. Quiet, emotional, beautiful. Available on Google Play.
Only the Animals 2019 Dir: Dominik Moll France
Mystery Thriller. Using a complex but satisfying narrative, this film weaves five different stories and perspectives together. A woman disappears in a snow storm and her car is found. Five people know something about what has happened and as the film visits each perspective we learn something new about the previous section. Clever, absorbing, satisfying. Available on Curzon Home Cinema
Blue Ruin 2013 Dir: Jeremy Saulnier USA
Action drama. Dwight, apparently a down-and-out, goes after Wade, the killer of his parents, after he is released from prison. But Dwight is neither a killer nor a homeless man, but he quickly gets tangled up in looking for and running from revenge for various murders. It’s complicated and violent, but very satisfying. Available on Netflix.
Never Rarely Sometimes Always 2020 Dir: Eliza Hittman USA
Drama. Autumn is 17 when she discovers she is pregnant. Not finding support from her family or her local clinic, and living in Pennsylvania where she needs parental consent to have an abortion, Autumn and her cousin, Skylar travel to New York. Female friendship, quiet, emotional.
There were a few more films that almost made my top ten which you might be interested in looking up. They are:
Which of my top ten have you seen and loved? Which have you seen and hated? And do you have any recommendations for me?