Thanks to Penguin for including me on the blog tour of Clare Fisher’s stunning debut novel All the Good Things. Do look at other blogs too!
Ali: Thank you, Clare for agreeing to speak to me about your writing, and the publication of your debut novel All the Good Things. What I find compelling about this novel is the voice – completely original, down-to-earth and engaging. How did you develop Beth’s character? I know writers hate being asked this, but readers are always curious, so how much does Beth reflect any particular person you know?
Clare: It’s funny you mention the voice, because that is exactly where this novel began: I was going to sleep one night and I just heard it. I told it to please wait until the morning, but it refused, so I got up, scribbled it into my notebook, and Beth grew from there. I wrote the first draft quite quickly but I had to go back and rewrite to make her character more nuanced and detailed, sorting her reactions from my own. Beth isn’t inspired by a particular person — I can’t imagine writing any convincing fiction that was — however, growing up in south London and then working with young people in education, I came across many young women like Beth, and was always struck and bothered by how little they were represented in fiction.
Ali: How did you come up with idea of the diary of ‘good things’? It works particularly well as a structure for a novel. It could so easily have been a depressing read which it definitely isn’t. Instead, although desperately sad, the novel left me feeling uplifted.
Clare: The idea of the good things came quite early on — it was what kept me going back to Beth. The list also enabled me to find the universal in what is a very particular experience; trying to find hope in life is something we all will struggle with from time to time. I also think a lot of women — myself included — really struggle with self-esteem, constantly criticising and doubting themselves. If Beth can learn to see herself as good, surely we all can.
Ali: You paint the intensity of child birth and bonding with a new baby very realistically, and your evocation of prison sounds frighteningly authentic. How did you research the novel? How much of it is based on your own experience?
Clare: Beth’s life is a long way from my own life. Although I was born in south London and brought up by a single mother, our similarities end about there. I’ve never given birth, however I’ve always been fascinated and terrified by the whole business; growing a creature inside you, getting it out into the world, looking after it… How do we just keep on doing it? This was what drove me through these sections, although I also did a lot of Googling and talking to women I know who have gone through it, to make sure of the details, not least my own Mum, who has always been very open with me about this and many other things. The prison sections were developed hugely by reading books written by those in prison, speaking to some very helpful researchers and people who’d worked in both the prison and the care systems, and visiting a women’s prison myself. The prison visit was really valuable, both for showing me the physical details I could never have imagined, as well as the wide variety of women who are in there —- women who are so much more than the label ‘prisoner’ would lead you to believe. I also got the sense that being in prison had forced many into a kind of reckoning with themselves — the kind it is so much easier to avoid in everyday life. A majority of women in prison have histories of abuse as children and of domestic violence; for many, prison is the first chance they’ve had to understand their journeys, heal and grow. I hoped to capture this atmosphere of emotional intensity and immediacy in the novel.
Ali: I’ve worked (in education) with vulnerable children and families like Beth’s. I love the way you’ve given a voice to the people on the fringes of society, the ones many novel-readers might only encounter on say the Jeremy Kyle show, and easy to dismiss in a glib way; but you give her a strong individual voice as well as dignity, pathos and a sense of humour. The novel raises question about society in general: the social care system, how people with mental health issues are supported and how women are treated by the prison service. All very big issues. What made you want to tackle these in a novel? Clare: Thanks! Having worked with vulnerable children in education, and grown up in an area of south London which was incredibly diverse, I’ve always been aware that there’s this vast area of society which is little represented in contemporary fiction. When we do hear about young women such as Beth, it’s often in a derogatory, moralising, sensationalized way, as you point out. When I write fiction, the starting point is always the character, their voice, and trying to make them as real and nuanced as possible; I hoped that in doing this with Beth, I could show how the structural inequalities and injustices you mention impact on a person who is not the monster of tabloid headlines and ‘freak-show’ style TV documentaries but an individual with strengths and flaws, just like any of us. I like to read fiction that takes me to places, be they psychological, cultural, geographical, that I would not normally go; Beth’s story gripped me from the moment I started writing because it felt, at last, like I’d found a way to do this myself.
Ali: I understand that you’re planning to publish a collection of short stories later in the year. How much of a resurgence do you think there is in the shorter form?
Clare: Yes, that’s right, I will publish a collection of (very) short fiction, How The Light Gets In, in early 2018 with Influx Press. I’m not sure if I’m in a position to talk about the resurgence of the shorter form in general; but I certainly love it myself! I still don’t quite understand why reading short fiction has yet to become a widespread national habit the way novels have; it’s so much more suited to modern lives, bisected as they are by busy jobs, commutes, Smartphones, etc. But there is certainly a growing interest in the shorter form, and the rise of spoken word and live literature events is definitely providing a lot of new and exciting avenues for this infinitely shareable form. It’s exciting!
Ali: Which writers do you admire and emulate most (living or dead)?
Clare: Oh wow, where to begin? There are so many. Just so many. I like writing which shakes me, which really delves into difficult places, places I’ve not been before, and which will change how I experience the world from the moment of reading onwards. A few writers who have done this for me are Zadie Smith, Elena Ferrante, Eimer McBride, Lydia Davis, Warsan Shire, Leonora Carrington, Grace Paley, Adrienne Rich, Kate Tempest … I could really keep going for a very long time, and I’m sure some male writers would emerge, eventually, but I’ll leave it there, I think.
Ali: You talk about the importance of ‘letting our stories grow’ and listening to others – do you think we’re losing the capacity to listen and to tell stories, with our obsession with information and addiction to social media?
Clare: I think social media prioritises a certain kind of story, which is not really a story, but a very superficial kind of information exchange. Inevitably — and I say this as someone who spends more time on social media than I should! — this eats into time where people might otherwise engage with something more nourishing. However, I think the hunger for complex, satisfying stories is one that will never go away; the internet and social media can also be a great way of discovering new stories, books, places, etc. It’s when it becomes an end in itself, that the trouble starts… But I have faith that people’s real appetites will always win out, eventually.
Ali: You grew up in South London and now live in Leeds. I read that you see London as ‘edgeless; you can dive into it and swim around, coming across new people, new places, new ideas and movements seemingly forever.’ Do you find the same in Leeds? And do you feel as if you belong to both equally?
Clare: When I first moved to Leeds I was struck and quite disturbed by the obviousness of its edge: even from the centre you can look out and see vast stretches of green. You only have to go a few miles out to find woodland, unclaimed land, even the occasional stray horse. It is, of course, a far smaller city; it would be unfair to expect the same metropolitan buzz as London. It does, however, as I have discovered in the years since I moved here, have its own and very special beat. There is more space and, seemingly, more time; I doubt I’d have written a novel whilst working full-time in London, for example! There are all sorts of thriving arts scenes and people are friendly and supportive of one another. It’s easier to try out new things even if you don’t have a ton of money — which, sadly, seems less and less the case in London. I’ve come to love both cities in different ways and feel very lucky to be able to call them both home.
Ali: Thank you very much for answering my questions, Clare and good luck with your amazing book.
All the Good Things is available from all good bookshops and from Amazon: http://amzn.to/2q1zWY8