INTERVIEW: Clare Fisher

Clare Fisher

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Clare Fisher was born in Tooting, south London in 1987. After accidentally getting obsessed with writing fiction when she should have been studying for a BA in History at the University of Oxford, Clare completed an MA in Creative and Life Writing at Goldsmiths College, University of London. An avid observer of the diverse area of south London in which she grew up, Clare’s writing is inspired by her long-standing interest in social exclusion and the particular ways in which it affects vulnerable women and girls. All The Good Things is her first novel.

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Could you describe ‘All The Good Things’ in your own words?
Beth is in prison for doing something so bad, she feels like she is a bad thing. Then her counseller challenges her to write a list of good things about herself. Reluctant at first — ‘what if I can’t think of any?’ she protests — she is surprised by how much good she does find. From ‘sniffing the smell of a baby’s head right into your heart’ to ‘flirting on Orange Wednesdays’, the list is a way for her to come to terms with herself and with what she’s done. I’ve never been to prison and neither have most people, but I do know what it’s like to feel like a bad thing and to have little confidence in yourself.

This book tackles some difficult themes but it’s essential topic is hope, how to find it, and how to hold onto it.

How have you felt about the positive response to your debut novel?
It’s early days but I still get a shiver of excitement and wonder whenever someone I don’t know gets in touch to tell me how much my novel has moved them, or how it’s made them think differently, or ask questions, or laugh and cry. It’s strange and it’s wonderful and it makes me remember why I write.

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Could you elaborate on your writing habits?
I write best in the mornings and, occasionally, late at night. The absolute worst time is the afternoon. I am not a fan of afternoons. All the Good Things, and most of what I’ve written, starts with a voice, a voice that is born at either end of the day. Often, there is an accompanying concept; in this case, Beth’s list of good things, or in the case of my upcoming flash fiction collection, How the Light Gets In, a theme. This provides me with some sort of anchor and structure in what is otherwise an intuitive, sometimes painfully gradual, process; I am not one of those writers who plan everything out in advance. I wish I was; it sounds like a lark. But whenever I plan in too much detail, the writing falls flat. I prefer to discover my story as I go along. This means there is a lot of back and forth, a lot of writing, deleting, editing, starting again. I used to consider this a waste of time; now I have just accepted it is part of my process. I read as I write, as much as possible, and preferably things which address some problem or issue that I am grappling with.

You seem to be a very busy writer so how did you sustain the motivation and the energy to complete your book with all your other commitments?
It’s hard. When I wrote this book, I was working full time, as well as doing a range of other things, so it meant I just had to write whenever an opportunity presented itself; on the train to work — my train was quiet, thankfully — early in the morning, late at night, on Saturday mornings… Looking back, I’m not sure how I did it. Beth’s story grabbed me and I couldn’t let it go until I was done with it. There were plenty of times when I got stuck or lost hope. Often this was my subconscious’s way of telling me to leave the damn thing alone.

So I’d leave it alone, for a day or a week or however long it took until not-writing became more painful than writing. Then — even if I didn’t feel like it, even if I still wasn’t sure where I was going next — I’d return to it.

For such a deeply moving and profound book how did you conceive the idea and was there a lot of research that went into it?
The voice and the list came first; a lot of editing and research came later. I grew up in a diverse part of south London and have worked in some challenging schools, so many of the issues and characters had been swilling around my head for a long time; I saw how many kids were bursting with talent and yet didn’t get to realise those talents for reasons that were beyond their control. I wanted to get underneath those labels wider society tends to stick over vulnerable young women such as Beth and make her a real, complicated human. Speaking to people who’d worked with women prisoners and going to visit a women’s prison were immensely useful and eye-opening, and really helped me to hone the scenes that take place in the prison, rather than before.

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What did you find the most difficult part of the creative process?
The uncertainty. The moments where you feel exhausted and hopeless and empty, like you will never have so much as a smudge of inspiration ever again. It’s taken me a long time to accept that this is a part of the process and not a deviation from it.

Mental Health, The Care System and Prisons are areas that the majority tend to distance themselves from, but with ‘All The Good Things’ you delve straight into this world. These thematic elements are central to the book’s flow, direction and conclusion. Was this something you wanted to raise awareness of?
Yes. I don’t write with a specific message in mind; I hate fiction as polemic. Fiction is a way to explore people and worlds that are both similar to and different from our own;

I wanted to challenge myself to step into the shoes of someone very different from me. If I could make that imaginative leap, maybe readers could, too.

You also recently did a stint of creative writing in Prisons could you share your experiences of this and the effect it has on those whom you worked with?
It was one of the most moving, eye & heart opening experiences I’ve ever had. People kept asking me what were ‘they’ like? But my most striking impression was that ‘they’ were no different from ‘us’. I had some of the most lively and interesting workshops in the prison library. The difference was one of opportunity, of one mistake, of a background of abuse and mental health difficulties for which they’d received no support. I actually wrote a short article about it on the Penguin website here.

You have a wonderful skill for dialogue and it is something we loved about your characters, are there any tips you could give writers on how to create believable dialogue within their stories?
Be nosy. Or perhaps I should say ‘ear-y.’ I’ve always been fascinated by the way each person had their own unique language — turns of phrase they repeatedly used or certain sentence structures that somehow expressed their personality. But people drone and mumble on, and for this reason, reading is important;

read writers who are good at dialogue and try to work out why they’ve included those words and why. Each line should move the action forward and reveal something about the characters.

How did you find the step up from short fiction to novel?
The best comparison I can think of is like switching from sprinting to long distance, or perhaps a shower to a long bath…

Is there a medium you prefer to write in?
I usually write long-hand first; I never go anywhere without a notebook. Eventually I look back at my pages and try to work out which — if any — are worth typing up.

Are there any anthologies you would recommend?
How long have you got? Literary magazines such as Granta and Freshman’s can act as anthologies of great writing. Then there’s Best British Short Stories, Best American Short Stories, the Unthologies…

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We understand that you have a collection of short stories coming out shortly ‘How The Light Gets In’ being released by Influx Press, what can we expect from this collection?
This is a collection of very short, or flash, fiction on the theme of light, dark and how we find our way from one to the other. As such, it’s more fragmentary than the novel, and more playful, too; I experimented with different voices and forms, and some of the stories are only a few sentences long. Yet the central concern is the same: where does hope come from? Where does it go? How do we navigate through the literal and the more metaphorical darkness? It began life as a live art installation for Leeds Light Night in 2014, where some of the stories were performed by actors. I think it will make an interesting companion to All the Good Things.

Wordlab is a writing group in Leeds that you set up and run, how did this come about? Could you explain what happens there and what people can expect?
It’s an informal writing group that meets once a month to share words and advice. I have to admit that I have let it slip a bit recently, but plan to get it back up and running very soon. I set it up well before I had any promise of publication and found that just meeting with other writers to talk about writing was a huge motivation. I hope it’s motivated others, too.

What is the best piece of advice you would give aspiring writers?

Write. Read. Write. Read. Listen. Listen to the world. Listen to your heart. Listen to criticism: if you know in your gut that it’s right, then go back and edit with it in mind. Write. Read. Write…

Which writers have inspired you the most?
So many! Zadie Smith, Ali Smith, Lorrie Moore, Jackie Kay are who come to mind right now. (Ask me tomorrow and it would probably be someone different).

What are you currently reading?
I’m rereading The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers. It’s even more beautiful the second time around.

What books would you recommend?
Two excellent debuts which came out this year:
– Flesh and Bone and Water by Luiza Sauma
– The Flesh of the Peach by Helen McClory
Anything by Rebecca Solnit, Lorrie Moore or Lydia Davis.

What are your top 5 ‘Good Things’?

  1. My partner & family
  2. My friends
  3. Running
  4. Books (writing, reading & thinking about them)
  5. Peanut butter

BOOK

All The Good Things was published by Viking Books on 1st June 2017.

You can purchase a copy of All The Good Things from FoylesWaterstones, or The Book Depository:

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To discover more about Viking Books click here

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