Once upon a time, in a bookshop far far away…
I picked up a book that caught my eye because of its title: “Our Endless Numbered Days”. Now, that is one interesting contrast. Let’s just look at the back and see what it’s about.
Two minutes later, I was heading out of the bookstore, my new book in my arms. Its unique title and beautiful cover had drawn my attention to it, but the story was what really enchanted me.
Peggy is eight years old when her survivalist father packs up and takes her into the woods, away from any form of civilization.
Leaving his wife behind, he announces to his daughter that there has been a major disaster, and the two of them are the only humans that have survived it.
Deep into the wilderness, the eight year old girl will have to learn how to survive. But the most difficult thing for her will be to learn how to live with the memory of a mother that is no longer there, and considered forever gone. For years, her life will revolve around hunger, hardships and fear. Her endless days will only be numbered by the change of the seasons.
Peggy, however, is a strong girl. She is the princess of her own fairy tale, a hero in her own story. And she proves it when, after all, she finds her way out of this.
But how did she manage to find her way out? What happened to her father? Can her life become normal again after this nightmare? What will she find when she goes home?
This is Our Endless Numbered Days
A fairy tale that is unique, interesting, and often dark. But, as you’ll see Claire Fuller saying later on, all stories need some darkness. After all, what good would it do for everything to be perfect, polished, and completely unrealistic?
Our Endless Numbered Days is Claire Fuller’s debut novel. It has been welcomed wholeheartedly by readers all over the world, and has also won the 2015 Desmond Elliott Prize. I had the honor of asking Claire Fuller some questions about the creative process of this story, as well as her personal thoughts on some of the aspects this book approaches. Here is, firsthand, the creator’s view of Our Endless Numbered Days.
Our Endless Numbered Days is your first novel. It has been loved by readers worldwide, and has also won the Desmond Elliott Prize. Did you expect that magnitude of response to your work? How did it make you feel when you found out you had won the Prize?
I didn’t even expect the novel to be published. I was aware as I was writing it, how difficult it is to get an agent and get a book published, so even those things surprised me. I certainly didn’t expect it to win the Desmond Elliott Prize. The announcement was made at a ceremony in London, and I had to go up and make a short speech and accept my cheque and a bottle of champagne. But I was so overwhelmed I left the cheque behind on the podium.
How long had you had the idea for before starting writing the book?
I thought of the starting point of the novel only as I started writing it. It wasn’t something that I considered for any length of time before I sat down at my laptop.
A question most authors find difficult to answer is where their inspiration comes from. If we could alter that a bit, what helps you create your worlds?
I think I can answer where my inspiration comes from in nearly all cases whether that’s my novels or short stories. With Our Endless Numbered Days it was from a news story in 2011, when a teenager appeared in Berlin saying he’d been living in the woods with his father for the previous five years. This story turned out to be a hoax, but that was the spark. With my second novel, Swimming Lessons it was a project me and my (future) husband did, to hide notes in each other’s houses. But while I’m in the middle of a novel, what often helps me to create worlds are pieces of flash fiction that I write. These will often inspire scenes within the narrative.
Our endless numbered days follows the life of Peggy, the heroine, who has clearly been through a very traumatic period in her life. How difficult was it to portray the psyche of such a traumatized person?
She definitely is traumatized but when I was writing her I didn’t think about that. I didn’t give her a label, I suppose. I knew she was going through some difficult things, and I put myself in her position and tried to imagine what she would feel, how she would behave, and what she might do to cope with those particular set of circumstances.
We watch the story unravel between past and present. Is there a part that you, as the author, found more challenging to write about?
The sections that took place in the present time of the book were harder to write for two reasons: firstly, Peggy’s characteristics and the things she had faced in her past clearly needed to have an effect on the kind of person she was in the present sections (whereas the present obviously didn’t have an effect on the past). But even more difficult was the need to be aware of the information that the present sections drip-fed readers about the past. I had to make sure that enough was revealed to keep the intrigue without giving too much away.
Who was the most difficult character to create?
I think this was probably James, Peggy’s father. He’s a complex man and his mind works in ways different to my own (which made writing him interesting), but of course we only see him through Peggy’s eyes when she is a child and a teenager. If the book was published I the majority of my readers to be adults, so I needed to try to make the readers understand his motivations even while Peggy didn’t question them herself.
Peggy’s father is a survivalist. Throughout the story we watch him organizing drills, creating lists, teaching his child about surviving in the wilderness. There was clearly a lot of research put into it. How much of a writer’s time is spent in researching?
I imagine it’s different for each author and every book, but when I started writing Our Endless Numbered Days, I knew very little about the history of the survivalism movement, and almost nothing about how to survive in the wild. I do my research as I go along when I realise there is something I need to know, so it’s impossible to break down the time between writing and research, but I did a lot for Our Endless Numbered Days. From what plants are safe to eat, how to make a fire, to how to skin a rabbit, and how many calories there are in a squirrel; I had to research it all.
There is often a “once upon a time” feeling in the story and many readers have characterized this as a “dark fairy tale”. How do you feel about this?
I’m very happy with that description. Once I’d decided that most of the story would take place in a European forest, it made sense to add to the feeling of menace by using a theme of fairytales. There are five or six traditional fairytales that are obliquely mentioned in the novel, and it’s up to readers to spot them!
We see a lot of effort from the story’s survivors to mend “lost” or “broken”, fragile relationships. How easy do you feel mending relationships such as this story’s is? Do you believe any human tragedy can be overcome by effort or are there things that cannot be mended?
I’d like to think that any broken relationship can be mended, but I understand that in reality this is more difficult, and depends to a huge extent on an individual’s bias, history, and character. I’m thinking here beyond the relationships in the book, or even family relationships, to broken relationships between countries, ethnic groups, and religions. I always have hope.
We see difficult decisions being made in the book, and “evil” actions. Do you believe in absolute “good” and “evil” characters?
Oh, definitely not. I try to make my characters complete people with good and bad elements, the same as with anyone in real life. I don’t think anyone is absolutely good or absolutely bad, sometimes people make the wrong decision, but there is always room for redemption.
Readers have argued in the past about whether the book has a happy or sad ending. Would you consider it a happy ending? What constitutes a happy ending in your opinion?
I would say it’s happy or sad, just hopefully real. There is some possibility and hope for Peggy at the end of the book, but she has a lot to overcome to achieve this. For me a completely happy ending, where everything is neatly tied up at the end of the book is simply unrealistic and will mean that I don’t enjoy the book. It also doesn’t leave any room for a life for the characters in readers’ minds beyond the end of the novel, which is something I also strive for.
Claire Fuller was born in Oxfordshire, England. She is a writer and an artist. Her second novel, Swimming Lessons, was published in 2017. Her third novel, Bitter Orange, is going to be published in 2019. You can follow her work on her page: https://clairefuller.co.uk/