Leeds writer Clare Fisher is an exciting new voice in contemporary literature. With her debut novel out next month, she spoke to Yvette Huddleston.
It’s quite something to have the manuscript of your debut novel immediately picked up by an agent and particularly impressive for it then to secure a deal with a major publishing house.
No wonder, then, that there is a bit of a buzz around the publication by Penguin next month of young Leeds-based author Clare Fisher’s novel All the Good Things. It is a remarkable book – moving, profound, urgent – and Fisher is clearly a writer to watch. Her short fiction has been published widely in anthologies in print and online, she was the runner up in Ilkley Literature Festival’s 2015 short story competition and in 2013 won the London Short Story Prize and Cinnamon Press writing award. And she is still only 30. As I say, one to watch.
All the Good Things tells the story of 21-year-old Beth who, as the book opens, is in prison for an undisclosed crime which she refers to throughout as ‘the bad thing’. Beth is encouraged by her kind therapist Erika to write down, in a notebook, a list of the good things in her life. These become the chapter headings of the book – with titles such as ‘friends you can be weird with’, ‘reading out loud to people who listen’, ‘running as fast as the Thames flows’ – and we gradually begin to build up a picture of Bethany’s life so far. It includes a lot of hardship, disappointment and upheaval but also moments of joy such as sharing silences with caring and empathetic Foster Dad Number 1, flirting in the Odeon on Orange Wednesday and smelling her baby’s head for the first time.
The novel began, says Fisher, with a voice. “All my writing has been quite voice-driven and I have always been interested in characters who are somewhat outside the mainstream. One night the voice of Beth came to me. She was a young woman in prison who had done something bad but I didn’t know exactly what had happened to her.”
Originally from Tooting in south London, Fisher has been living in Leeds for the past three and a half years and wrote the novel while working full-time in Halifax, much of it, she says composed on her daily commute by train. “I wrote the first draft in about nine to ten months which is fairly quick. I had Beth’s voice and I had the concept of the ‘good things’ – having that structure really helped.”
Her research involved a lot of reading about prisons, visiting women in New Hall Prison near Wakefield and speaking to professionals working with prisoners, but she also drew on her own experience of growing up in South London. “Because much of the novel is about Beth’s life before prison, that was inspired by seeing young people from tough backgrounds who were really talented but without the kind of opportunities that middle class people might have. I also worked as a teaching assistant in Kilburn for a while in quite a deprived area and it underlined to me what I had already seen.”
Beth is a complex and immediately engaging character. Challenging, damaged and defensive, yet loving and wholly deserving of the care and attention that she has for so much of her life been denied. She is bright with a great deal of potential but her circumstances – which include an extremely difficult relationship with her troubled mother, being moved from one foster home to another throughout her childhood – have worked against her. Beth’s was a voice that needed to heard, says Fisher. “From the beginning I wanted to create a character who was difficult and was maybe the kind of person who might be easy to judge or dismiss but then make her likeable. I have been running some creative writing workshops in a women’s prison in London and some of the prisoners have done bad things, but fundamentally they are the same as anyone else – we have more in common than we think.” Fisher, who has an MA in Creative Writing from Goldsmiths, teaches on a freelance basis, works part-time as a bookseller and also runs a writing group in Leeds as well as the book club at Hyde Park Book Club. So she is firmly ensconced in the Leeds literary scene and feels very settled in her adopted city. “The book is all set in London but I don’t think I would have written it if I was living down there. Leeds is a much calmer and more welcoming place, it is easier to get on with what you want to do.” She is already working on her second novel.
All the Good Things is a heart-breaking story but ultimately life-affirming and hopeful. Told in the first person in a unique and authentic young voice, it gives the reader access to Beth’s innermost thoughts and feelings. Beautifully written – raw and unflinchingly honest, tackling difficult themes head on – it is a novel of rare emotional insight and power.
“There are a lot of difficult issues in the book in relation to mental health,” says Fisher. “A lot of young people struggle with those issues – and that is definitely something that needs to be talked about more.”
All the Good Things by Clare Fisher is published by Penguin on June 1, the launch will be at Leeds Waterstones at 6.30pm.