A black-and-white portrait of Claire Fuller

‘I like to write about outsiders’ Claire Fuller on Unsettled Ground and becoming a novelist in her forties

Claire Fuller’s fourth novel dazzled the Costa judges with its depiction of rural poverty. Here, she tells Alice Vincent about where her characters come from.

For the past seven years, Claire Fuller and her husband, a librarian, have taken a photo every single day. At the end of the year, they bind them into a book. On the afternoon we speak, the author shared images from 2021’s album online. “What we’ve discovered is, when we look back through photos, you can take a really beautiful photo of a sunset or the sea, but it’s the pictures of people we want,” she tells me, from her home office in Winchester. “It’s always the people, even if they’re pulling a face or think they’re having a bad hair day.”

You could say the same about Fuller’s books. The novelist writes novels so steeped in foreboding that reading them feels like the thick air of a hot, midsummer’s day before a thunderstorm, but it’s her characters who are truly unforgettable. From 1970s teenager Peggy Hillcoat and her survivalist father James in Our Endless Numbered Days, Fuller’s 2015, Desmond Elliot Prize-winning debut, to the ailing Frances Jellico, narrator of Bitter Orange, Fuller brings people to the page who we read about with fascination.

Oddballs, eccentrics, however you want to call them: these are people that interest me

Her latest novel Unsettled Ground, which has won the 2021 Costa Novel Award and was shortlisted for the Women's Prize for Fiction, is no different. Jeanie and Julius are 51-year-old twins living in poverty, and largely out of sight of society, in the dilapidated cottage their mother raised them in. They don’t have bank accounts or a landline, they barely have a complete school education; Jeanie is illiterate, a mysterious heart condition having kept her shuttered away from the world since childhood. What they do have is one another: mother and offspring played folk music together, on fiddle and guitar and banjo. But when Dot dies one morning, Jeanie and Julius are left unmoored. What unravels in the wake of Dot’s death are secrets and lies as the twins attempt to forge a kind of life without her.

“I do like to write about outsiders,” says Fuller. “Oddballs, eccentrics, however you want to call them: these are people that interest me. People who are 51 and still live with their mother, I think, are really interesting people. How does that happen? What is their life like?” What’s imperative, she says, is “to let them speak for themselves. Not put any put any judgment on them and the way they live their lives and the choices they make, just try and have some empathy.”

The judgement – or lack, thereof – is one of Unsettled Ground’s greatest attributes. The book’s first pages contains the “small deceits” of Dot’s life; the trouble is she’s no longer alive for the reader to understand what justified the actions that resulted in her children’s isolation. “It was very, very deliberate to have her in the first chapter, so that she couldn't answer these things,” says Fuller. “Because I was also interested in what happens after someone dies. It seems to me that we all start by saying good things – ‘Wasn't she a good woman and didn't she love her children?’ - and then gradually, we begin to find that she wasn't the person that everybody thought and that the children had to decide why she did these things. Something I really like to do in my writing to try and bring the reader in so that they must have an opinion. You want a reader to have feelings because it means that they are involved.”

Fuller started writing creatively when she was 40, in the midst of a career in marketing and after studying a degree in sculpture. The roots of her novelist career seem to be part of a lifelong search for creativity, rather than a determination to write, in particular. “I was always making art while working full time – drawings, sculpting, big stone and wood carvings. But when I started writing, that immediately that really took over,” she says. “That creative itch is relieved by writing and I do feel like I am creating an object in the form of the physical book but also in the in the completeness of the novel.”

She began a creative writing MA after throwing herself into a local short story slam: “I didn't win, of course, I wrote very a bad short story and I read it out very poorly. But I carried on doing it because I liked the feeling of having written.” Endless Numbered Days was written during her MA. “Penguin bought it, which was all very amazing, and everything changed.”

For the isolation of her characters, Fuller is community minded when it comes to writing. She is part of the Prime Writers group, founded before the release of her debut to celebrate the work of new authors above the age of 40. Ageism in publishing has been something Fuller’s spoken about on BBC Radio 4’s Front Row. “We felt that there wasn't any group supporting that kind of age bracket and we had debut authors who are in their 60s and 70s, she explains. ““It does feel like that the focus of debut novelist is on younger novelists. I think things are gradually changing, but there are still some problems around prizes that have those limitations.”

We have cocktails and talk about books: what could be better?!

Perhaps unusually for a novelist, Fuller also runs a local book club, which has recently returned to staging in-person gatherings after the pandemic: “We have cocktails and talk about books: what could be better?!”

Her fellow readers, however, are kept firmly “out of the room” while she’s writing. Fuller’s novels don’t emerge from complex wall charts or reams of research. Instead, she writes and sees what happens. Unsettled Ground was written in the room she speaks to me from now, formerly her child’s bedroom, which she occupied after they went to university. Through the walls, she could hear her son playing the guitar – “which ended up in the book”, she says. The first words she wrote of Unsettled Ground were also those of Dot’s body being discovered. “I hadn't even finished that scene where the mother is discovered because I thought, well, who is this that's discovered dead on the floor? How did she get there?” Once she established that, Fuller kept writing chronologically, with Jeanie and Julius’s lives unfolding on the page before her.

Fuller’s books, I say, often involve secrets. “I think you're right, and often intend not to write about mysteries and secrets and lies. When I finished Bitter Orange, I thought I'm not going to write a book with a mystery. And then it comes! What can I say? It intrigues me: things happen that I don't know the answers to until I have finished the book and my subconscious has kind of worked them out.”

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