By Claire Fuller
In 2011 a teenage boy turned up in Berlin claiming that he had been living in the German forests with his father for the previous five years and had forgotten everything about his life before this. Everyone believed him. He was nicknamed ‘Forest Boy’ by the newspapers and housed by German social services. The woods were searched for his father and their camp, but nothing was ever found. Much later it was discovered that the boy – Robin van Helsum – was lying; he was a run-away, with a different story to tell.
But by then I was already writing Our Endless Numbered Days using this news story as the basis for a screenwriting assignment I had been set on the creative writing MA I was studying for at the University of Winchester. My protagonist and narrator, Peggy, is taken to a European forest by her father, James. I wrote two scenes of a screenplay about the pair travelling to a remote cabin, and when I got my work back I had been given the lowest mark out of all of my assignments. Perhaps, I thought, I’m not a screenwriter.
But, I was still fascinated by the premise, and as my first year’s study came to an end, I decided to re-write the two scenes into prose. Now I had a bit of description, dialogue and two characters walking through the woods. What they needed was some back-story. I knew at that stage I wanted them to survive in the wild for some time, and if they were going to be able to do that, they needed some practical skills. In the next section I wrote, Peggy looks at a photograph of her father, a survivalist, who we learn has the knowledge for the two of them to survive.
I met many wonderful writers on my course, some of whom were doing the MA in one year, (I was doing it in two) and since they had already finished, we formed a writing group so we could continue critiquing each other’s work. One of these fellow writers read what I had written so far and suggested, as a passing remark, that I start the novel with a photograph which at that stage was in the middle of the story. But somehow in the writing of that, things got turned around, and now the novel starts with Peggy, aged seventeen, looking at the photograph but remembering back to when she was eight.
Once I had given James the skills to survive in the wild, I had to provide him with a reason to take Peggy there, and once they were there, I had to give her a reason to stay. The cabin is bordered on three sides by mountains and on the fourth by a river – and Peggy is afraid of water. But even more important than her physical restrictions, James tells her that the rest of the world beyond what they can see has disappeared and everyone else is dead.
Now a structure was forming – back and forth between Peggy’s time growing up in the forest, and a single day when she has returned to her London home and her mother, who is of course, still alive. To complicate matters at home, a brother has been born, one she’s never met.
Other decisions were made as I went along, often on the basis of things I like. I enjoy reading descriptions of nature – Roger Deakin, David Vann, Annie Proulx, Wallace Stegner. And I decided to make the forest into a character at the suggestion of another of my writing group friends. I also like The Railway Children. When I was growing up my sister owned the vinyl version of the film, and I played it so often I can still recite it even now. I like piano music, so Peggy’s mother is a concert pianist, and James makes Peggy a silent piano in the forest. And I had just watched the brilliant film Dog Tooth directed by Yorgos Lanthimos, where a man teaches his children the wrong words for objects, and so I had James do the same.
The rest of the book was also written without much planning. I knew Peggy would survive, I just didn’t know how, so I wrote a few more words every day until I found out. I made things difficult for James and Peggy in the forest, and for the rest of the family when she is back home. And it wasn’t until I typed the words on my laptop that I knew how the book would end.
Read our Shiny review of Claire’s novel in the Fiction section here.
Read more about Claire at www.clairefuller.co.uk
Claire Fuller, Our Endless Numbered Days (Fig Tree, London, 2015). 978-0241003930, 304 pp., hardback.
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