Today’s guest Claire Fuller has visited me before on the Literary Sofa and it’s lovely to have her back. When I read her debut novel Our Endless Numbered Days before publication, little did any of us know that it would go to take the 2015 Desmond Elliott Prize for a first novel – and yet it was no surprise when it did. In that story Claire created not just a richly imagined place, but an entire way of living – a very unorthodox and precarious one – in the wilds of a German forest. Her new novel Swimming Lessons draws on the more recognisable setting of the Dorset coast, a beautiful area I know having grown up in neighbouring Wiltshire. Since reading this book felt like a return visit, I invited Claire to talk about her experience of the location and how it translated onto the page. (My review follows):
There are two ways to the Isle of Purbeck, a sandy, hilly, heathy place full of sky and wind. The first is via a little chain ferry that takes foot passengers, cyclists and a few cars across Poole harbour to Shell Bay and the long winding road that passes through Studland, Ulwell and onto Swanage. And the other is by driving, because although the Isle of Purbeck is almost completely surrounded by water, it isn’t an island at all but a lumpy peninsula on the south east corner of Dorset.
I first visited Swanage when I was about thirteen with my best friend Karen and her family, who every summer rented a holiday chalet on the edge of Swanage. The town was full of amusement arcades, places that sold buckets and spades and windbreaks, and fish and chip shops. Not much has changed in thirty seven years, and that’s the glory of the place.
We might have come over on the ferry but I don’t remember that short stretch of water, or Ferry Road, and not much about the chalet, because back then Karen and I were more interested in pretending not to look at the boys on the beach who were not pretending to look at us, or hanging around the penny cascades waiting for another coin to drop into the trays below.
After I had children of my own, and while they were still young, I took them to the bit of coast along from Shell Bay: Studland Beach, Middle Beach and South Beach. All of them long crescents of sand, backed by dunes, and at the far end, crumbling cliffs. When they were teenagers and no longer so interested in trips to the seaside, I went there with my husband to walk inland, through the heath and up to the Agglestone rock to discover a different landscape. When we were too hot for more walking we went down to the nudist beach and swam.
When I came to thinking about my second novel, Swimming Lessons, I decided very quickly that it would be set by the sea, and when I needed a location, it was easy to choose the village of Studland around the coast from Swanage, with the beaches and the Agglestone playing significant roles, as well as Old Harry Rocks – the sea stacks at the end of the cliffs above Studland.
Only the Agglestone has come out of Swimming Lessons unscathed, and un-renamed. Old Harry Rocks have become a single ‘Old Smoker’. I moved the streets around in Swanage and gave it a secondhand book shop in a converted chapel (there is a bookshop in Swanage, but I didn’t base mine on it), and I renamed the place Hadleigh. Studland’s lanes and its pub are mostly the same as reality, but it also has a name-change to Spanish Green (the name of an actual village in Hampshire). I didn’t think I could get away with keeping the name Studland in a novel about infidelity.
So I had the place in mind, and it really wasn’t too much of a hardship to go to the beach for research. All I needed was the house the Coleman family could live in. Of course, this didn’t have to be an actual house in Studland (I moved the London house in my first novel, Our Endless Numbered Days from Hampstead to Highgate), but I found one for sale on Rightmove, which looked perfect. It would have been fun to write that this is an article about how I bought a house for research purposes, and I did consider phoning up and pretending to be a prospective purchaser so I could see the inside, but in the end I went one better. When my husband and I were again visiting Studland and walking around the village I saw a different house tucked away opposite the pub. It looked like a converted cricket pavilion.
Back at home I Googled it and discovered it was in fact a converted tennis pavilion owned by the National Trust who let it out as a holiday home. Last summer, just as I was working on the final edits of Swimming Lessons we rented it for a week and our now-grown children and their friends came back to Studland with us.
The house in the book is a swimming pavilion with two bedrooms, not three; the kitchen is bigger than in reality; there is a dilapidated garden, rather than simply a field with a badger set at the bottom, and I shifted the whole building closer to the sea. But the view of the bay is the same, as is the sunlight on the water, the taste of salt in the air, and the feeling that the Isle of Purbeck really is a tiny island unattached to the southern edge of England.
Thank you to Claire for this welcome burst of summer and sea air – I always really enjoy hearing about an author’s relationship with the place they choose to set a story.
It must be a challenge to follow an award-winning debut, particularly when the second novel has a more conventional premise, but Swimming Lessons fulfils expectations, proving that the well-trodden territory of marriage and dysfunctional family dynamics (which happens to be my home ground) can still feel fresh and distinctive in the right hands. The author also gets credit for pulling me into the story of a missing person when I thought I’d reached saturation point. There is so much to savour here: the elegant prose alive to all the senses, the insights into human nature and relationships which result in such engaging characterisation, and the sophisticated yet unobtrusive structure which produces a skilful accretion of revelations. In a way which reflects one of the book’s best lines, this is a story which leaves space for the reader’s own interpretation when all too often things are hammered home. It also offers a perceptive and honest take on parenthood and sexual politics, inviting reflection on how much – and in some respects how little – social attitudes have changed. This excellent and absorbing novel will further enhance Claire Fuller’s literary credentials and whilst I wish there were more novelists like her, I’m happy to settle for the fact she is one of a kind.