Welcome to the first in a series of conversations between two of The Prime Writers. This month Antonia Honeywell, author of The Ship, and Claire Fuller, author of Our Endless Numbered Days, talk about the connections between their novels.
About The Ship: Financial crises and environmental disasters have brought the world into a state of collapse. A wealthy businessman, Michael Paul, buys a huge cruise ship and selects five hundred worthy people to live on it and form a society in which his daughter Lalla can grow up unafraid. They’re too grateful to ask many questions. But Lalla has never been hungry, or threatened with execution, and her doubts will not lie quiet.
About Our Endless Numbered Days: In 1976 Peggy Hillcoat is taken by her father, James to a remote European forest. There he tells her the rest of the world has disappeared. Peggy isn’t seen again for another nine years. Our Endless Numbered Days has recently been shortlisted for The Desmond Elliott Prize.
Antonia: Shall we start with our main characters? Both our novels are very much about fathers and daughters – tell me about James’ desire to take his daughter Peggy daughter out of the world – where did that come from for you?
Claire: That was the idea I started with, it was how and why he took her that was more of a puzzle for me. So the first scenes I wrote were Peggy and James in the forest. I didn’t know how they got there, or why they were there, or how they would get out. The original idea came from the news story about Robin van Helsum a teenager who said he had been living in the German forests with his father, but I made up the rest of the story and changed the boy into a girl.
Antonia: I hadn’t realised that Our Endless Numbered Days was inspired by a news story. Did you change the gender of the main character to create distance from the actual story, or because your story needed a father/daughter relationship rather than a father/son one?
Claire: I changed the gender because I thought it would be easier for me to write from a female point of view, especially since I knew I wanted it to be first person. Because this was my first novel (ever, really), there were lots of things I just did without too much consideration, simply because they interested me, or it would be easier, or (I hoped) make a more interesting story.
And how about with The Ship? Was that always going to be a (mostly) father and daughter story?
Antonia: Yes, The Ship was always a father/daughter story. The father is the control figure – but also the one for whom the ethical questions are subject to the personal ones. He is singleminded about saving his own daughter from what he sees as the collapse of society – so singleminded that he becomes blind to the wider implications of his actions. In The Ship, the mother is the voice of conscience and reason, and the father is so set on his own course of action that he simply can’t hear her.
How do you see the relationship between James and Peggy’s mother, Ute, in Our Endless Numbered Days?
Claire: I’m not sure either parent is the voice of reason and conscience in Our Endless Numbered Days – neither James nor Ute were big on parenting, but then, it does start in 1976, when parenting wasn’t something most people thought about.
But James, like Michael, is certainly set on his own course of action, and is single-minded and blind to the consequences of what he does. Or at least, he is so bloody-minded that even if he realises the consequences he’s not the kind of man who will just back down and say ‘sorry, I made a mistake’ and take Peggy back to civilisation.
It’s interesting that you mention Michael as the control figure. I read The Ship as very much a story about trust and control, with Lalla fighting against Michael’s constraints. Did you think about themes before you were writing, or did the story / plot come first?
Antonia: The themes definitely came first. I wanted to explore the idea of how a child experiences the world around them, and of the responsibility of the parent in that regard. I call Michael the control figure because it is through him that Lalla experiences society’s collapse. He mediates the information she receives; he interprets it for her. And of course, he decides on his family’s response to the mess the world is in. But the story itself didn’t really take shape until the second draft. The first draft was really just a series of sketches exploring Lalla’s perspective on the various settings of the novel; through writing those, I carved out the plot. I began with the themes, an opening and an ending. The challenge was joining them up.
How did the plot of Our Endless Numbered Days take shape? Was it fully formed when you began to write, or did it change significantly as you wrote?
Claire: It’s so interesting finding out how other people write! I’m not sure I could write a book starting with a theme or a concept. Our Endless Numbered Days started with needing solutions to story problems, and themes came later in the revision stages.
I started with James and Peggy in the forest and I knew Peggy makes it home after many years. So, in order for them to survive, James needed to have some survival skills, so I made him an early Survivalist. But since there weren’t really any in England in 1976, I gave him an American friend. Then I needed a big reason for James to take Peggy away from her mother, and when they were in the forest I needed a big reason for Peggy to get out when she did. Everything was driven by plot necessities.
Another similarity between our books is that neither of them provides all the answers to the reader. Personally, I love to read books that make the reader do some of the heavy lifting. How about you?
Antonia: I agree completely. My favourite novels – the ones I go back to again and again – tend to do this. For example, Villette leaves the reader wrestling with Lucy Snowe’s happy ending (very frustrating to readers who like things tied up with ribbon and perhaps why Villette is less widely read than Jane Eyre), but actually it’s all about Lucy’s character and desire to make her own choices. Having said that, I do like resolution – and I feel that both our novels do resolve – but maybe not in a conventional way. Can you see yourself going back to Peggy in a future novel?
Claire: I’m very happy with the resolution at the end of Our Endless Numbered Days, it does feel complete for me. Lots of people have asked me what happens to Peggy, and whether I’m planning to write a sequel. It’s not in my plans for now, but who knows in several books time? I do really like Peggy as a character.
I noticed that lots of reviewers have said they feel The Ship was perfectly set at the end for a sequel. Is that something you planned, or that you would want to do?
Antonia: For me, Lalla’s story is complete. There’s only one thing she can do, and the story is really about whether she finds the courage to do it. I care about her intensely, I admire her enormously, but I don’t think the novel’s set up for a sequel. Or at least if it is, I’m not ready to write it yet.
Let’s talk about something wonderful – Our Endless Numbered Days has been shortlisted for the Desmond Elliott Prize (so many congratulations). How has that been as an experience? A help or a hindrance?
Claire: Oh, in no way has the shortlisting been a hindrance. It’s been one of the most exciting things to have happened. I was absolutely delighted that it was longlisted, and still can’t quite believe it’s been shortlisted. Even if it doesn’t win (and it’s up against some amazing competition), I’m so pleased that the book has got this far.
What has been your favourite experience of being published, and what difference do you think there is between being published for the first time at 40 plus, compared to say at 20? An impossible question, but I’d be interested to know your thoughts.
Antonia: My favourite experience of being published has been meeting with people who’ve read The Ship and discussing the novel with them. I’ve been to a few book groups and it’s so exciting to know that people have given so much of their very precious time to reading my book, and that they have things to say about it. I’ve been really touched by e mails from strangers describing the parallels they’ve found between Lalla’s story and their own. Interestingly, most of these are very positive – worth bearing in mind when evaluating the novel’s ending (re: conversation above).
As for being 40+ – well, it’s been a long hard road to get this far. The Ship isn’t my first novel, it’s just the first one to have been published. I think that the fact it’s taken a long time means that I’ve realised that I write because writing is what I want to do. It was quite an empowering thing when I accepted that I was going to continue to write, even if I died unpublished. Although of course I’m glad I didn’t (die unpublished, that is).
Tell me about your beautiful cover. Did you have any say in it?
Claire: There was another version of the UK cover, which I wasn’t too keen on, but luckily for me the sales team at Penguin didn’t think it was quite right, so another was designed – the one that was used, which I love. I’m sure I could have given my opinion about it, but I also understand that the cover is part of the sales and marketing process and I trust in my publisher to get it right, since they’ve been doing it for a lot longer than I have.
My editor explained it very well once, she said that the cover doesn’t have to explain what the book is about; the cover is about capturing someone who’s browsing online or in a shop and getting them to pick it up or take another look.
I’ve seen your book often classed as YA, would you agree? Are you happy with that label?
Antonia: The YA label is relatively new in the industry – there are many classics that would be classed at YA now (I’m thinking of Catcher in the Rye, Nineteen eighty four, Lord of the flies just for starters). And there are some wonderful YA writers, too – who wouldn’t want to be classed with Patrick Ness? I think a novel about a sixteen year old girl realising the truth about the world around her is bound to attract a YA label – and that’s fine, I’d be proud if that very critical and enthusiastic readership took The Ship to itself. But I feel The Ship has things to say to a much wider readership, too – the danger of a prescriptive label is that people might not pick up a book they’d really enjoy reading. W&N didn’t publish or market The Ship as YA, but if YA readers find their way to it, I’m grateful.
I’d love to talk about our shared references to classic children’s literature – The Railway Children for you, Ballet Shoes for me. I loved the way you used The Railway Children in Our Endless Numbered Days.
Claire: That simply came from my own love of The Railway Children – although I have to admit it was the 1972 film and the album of the film that I knew. I didn’t read the book until my editor at Fig Tree gave me a copy just before Our Endless Numbered Days was published!
But I like the parallels between the two – a parent that leaves and the other who takes the children (or child) to a new, strange home which they have to make their own. And for Peggy knowing it off by heart is a solace, just like her doll Phyllis, something that helps her remember home and comforts her. A line from The Railway Children is used as a clue in the twist, but you’d have to be a massive Railway Children fan to spot it.
Antonia: I have a challenge now – I love The Railway Children and Our Endless Numbered Days, and will go looking for that clue!
Claire: I have to admit that Ballet Shoes isn’t a book I know. How does that work with The Ship?
Antonia: Ballet Shoes is a Noel Streatfeild novel about three girls who are adopted separately by an eccentric fossil hunter and left in the care of his great niece and her elderly nurse. They become sisters by accident, therefore, and have no family history to live up to. The novel is about each of them seizing their own identity amidst the relative poverty in which they’re brought up. Lalla, of course, isn’t brought up in poverty – anything but – but she is thrust into a world that’s not of her choosing. Posy, the youngest of the three, is a ballet dancer, through and through. When I read the book as a child, I found her selfish and uncompromising. I couldn’t bear her, and much preferred Petrova, who is constantly having to put aside her dreams of learning to drive and fly aeroplanes because the family needs the money she can earn by dancing, which she hates. But as I grew older, I realised that there’s a heroism in realising what you were born to do, and doing it. I read Ballet Shoes with my eight year old daughter recently and was struck by this heroic side of Posy, which I hadn’t appreciated as a child. Also, Ballet Shoes is set in London – by making it Lalla’s favourite book, I gave myself a way of contrasting the Fossil girls’ freedom of movement with Lalla’s restricted life, and of connecting Lalla to the mother she has lost.
One of the most striking things that happens in Our Endless Numbered Days is the manufacture of the silent piano. Peggy and James practically starve to death as a result of making it. Why was it so important? Are you a pianist yourself?
Claire: I’m not a pianist. I can’t play any instruments (although I did learn the oboe at school and once sang in a folk band – but that’s another story). But despite that, music is incredibly important to me, and I listen to it when I write.
James builds the silent piano in the forest because he promised Peggy there would be a piano, and there isn’t. But he also likes being the one to teach Peggy to play (her mother doesn’t although she is a concert pianist). The piano becomes a connection to her mother and makes her stronger. Whoever is in control of the music has strength. It starts with Peggy’s mother, Ute, then moves to James and finally at the end of the novel, to Peggy.
Both Lalla and Peggy grow up in claustrophobic worlds. How did you visualise the ship, and especially its stores which were so vividly described?
Antonia: I wanted Lalla’s world to be one that the reader might envy – hence the seemingly never-ending supplies of food and entertainment and new experiences. But I also wanted to examine the cost of that abundance – the compromises the people of the ship have had to make in order to accept those riches. Peggy and Lalla both grow up in worlds that are created for them, and everything they know about the world beyond their immediate unit is mediated in some way. Peggy can’t know that the world beyond die Hütte is thriving when her father tells her it’s all gone. And every adult in Lalla’s life needs Lalla to believe that there’s no alternative to the ship. Both Peggy and Lalla experience their worlds at a remove, and that remove means that they’re being controlled. I’m fascinated by the fine line between caring for children and controlling them.
Are you able to say anything about what you’re writing now?
Claire: I’m writing about a woman who writes letters to her husband but instead of giving them to him, she hides them in his books, and then she disappears. And about her youngest daughter, who wants to find out what happened to her mother, but in the process has to come to terms with the kind of man her father is. It’s set by the coast, so there’s lots of swimming, which I love.
How about you?
Antonia: I’m writing another novel too – about another young girl trying to make sense of her own life and choices, but with a modern setting. And a touch of dark fairytale, too.
Watch out for next month’s Writer to Writer post, featuring Vanessa Lafaye and Karin Salvalaggio.