I went to my local indie bookshop in Abingdon, Mostly Books, for a ‘Book Group’ style event with Claire Fuller, (in the middle above) talking about her third novel Bitter Orange, which is now out in paperback.
I’ve read and really enjoyed Claire’s previous two books: her debut Our Endless Numbered Days (see here) and second novel Swimming Lessons (here). I’m really glad I finally made the time to read her latest; it’s another beautifully crafted drama, set in a dilapidated old country house during the summer of 1969, with a framing second timeline set twenty years later. (I’ll be reviewing the book in more detail for Shiny soon).
I’d not been to an author event in book group before. The smaller audience of members from the shop’s various book groups, plus a few extras like me, was perfect to sit in a circle, so everyone could join in the discussion with Claire. It was very informal, and a lovely way of finding out more about the author and her books.
Bitter Orange has just four characters really, five if you include the house. There is Frances, a 39-yr-old frumpy virgin who has recently lost her mum, employed by the new absentee Landlord of Lyntons to catalogue the garden architecture. Then there is Peter and his fiery Irish partner Cara, Peter being hired to catalogue the interiors. A fourth, Victor, the local vicar crops up occasionally. Frances, Peter and Cara all camp out at this crumbling mansion, and Frances becomes obsessed by the younger couple. Cara, an attention seeker, uses Frances to tell her stories – it’s hard to tell what’s true and what’s invention but Frances laps it all up. The novel has a slowburn start, but as summer progresses and the temperature rises, so do the tensions – you just know something’s going to happen.
I’m not going to say more, although we discussed aspects of the novel quite fully during the evening – it’s very hard to have a no spoilers book group discussion.
Claire explained about the inspirations for the book which were two-fold – hearing about a ceiling rose with an observation hole in the middle, and a book about urban exploring by a chap that snuck into dilapidated country houses. As for Lyntons, the mansion itself – that was inspired by The Grange – a Neoclassical house managed by English Heritage near where Claire lives; Claire has written a piece about it on her website here.
We were all interested to quiz Claire about how she writes, and it’s almost shocking to discover that she doesn’t plan at all. She just starts with the seed and goes from there. She told us how she hates doing the first draft, but loves editing. Having worked in marketing for ages before writing her first book, she can’t shake the 9-5 habit, so when she’s writing she keeps to office hours, and won’t give up if it’s not flowing. She’ll write conversations with the characters on the side for instance, to discover more about them, rather than go out for a walk. Claire hadn’t planned to become a writer – but was inspired by a short story competition at her local library, and an online arts project called Learning to Love You More by Miranda July which encouraged participants to do things outside their comfort zones. She’s currently working on her fourth book, a shorter novel, with – for the first time – a single timeline.
When she started the book, it was only going to be set in 1969, the decision to add the twenty years framing timeline came later – and allowed Claire to fade the older Frances’ story in from present tense into the past. Frances is being nursed, suffering from a wasting illness, visited by a vicar who’s encouraging her to tell her story – but she’s not letting on what really happened, it’s mostly all told in her head.
Claire also told us about how the book had been called Blood Orange all the way through writing it, but she was persuaded to change it when another book of that title (the recent psychological drama by Harriet Tyce) was announced. Making the oranges bitter actually required a significant rewrite in one place due to their lack of sweetness, but Bitter Orange actually fitted the book better!
Once we’d finished discussing the book, Claire signed everyone’s copies – stamping them with a lovely orange stamp too.
Source: Review copy (hbk) & own copy (pbk).
Claire Fuller, Bitter Orange (Fig Tree, 2018), now in Penguin paperback, 280 pages.