This month our Forever Young Adult book club read Our Endless Numbered Days by Claire Fuller. If you've kept up with The Bookshelf blog, you may remember me raving about the story of a girl named Peggy whose father steals her away to the wilderness and convinces her they’re the only two people left alive on the planet. I was thrilled the group picked it for August and enjoyed my second reading every bit as much as the first! This book is particularly excellent for group discussions as it deals with a lot of fascinating concepts and has plenty of twists and turns. In lieu of posting a detailed review, I’m sharing the questions we had regarding the story and the author’s responses. Thanks again to Claire for taking the time to write to us!
Also, quick word of warning before you read on, DON’T read the interview unless you’ve already read the book! It includes spoilers. Trust me; you’ll want to experience Our Endless Numbered Days with no foreknowledge.
Did you know how the story would end when you started writing it? I knew I wanted Peggy to survive but I had no idea how this would happen. A little way in I knew I wanted her father to die, but until I wrote that scene in the cabin I really had no idea how he would die - it could well have been in an accident. It is a scary and exciting way to write.
Why did you choose La Campanella as the piece that Peggy and her father would obsess over? (We started our book club meeting by listening to it! I didn't know La Campanella prior to writing OEND. I started looking for a piece of music which was known for being difficult (Peggy needs to take a long time to learn it), but was short (I wanted to be able to explain the piece) and was also beautiful (I think it is a lovely piece of music. I hung around music forums and discussions online to see what pianists said was difficult, and listened and watched people play pieces on Youtube until I came across La Campanella. And in a lovely piece of synchronicity a little later when I was researching what kind of piano Ute would own I came across this video made by Bosendorfer which uses La Campanella (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MEcIL9nV4No)
After the first big storm just before James tells Peggy the rest of the world has been destroyed he keeps saying, "I couldn't do it." Peggy never asks and we were curious, what is it that he couldn't do? I imagined he thought he was trying to kill himself, but he realised he couldn't leave Peggy on her own.
How much research did you do for the book? Were you already familiar with the main subjects like what it would take to survive in the woods? I had no idea about survival. It is a subject I was very interested in, and the English television programme - Survivors - that Peggy watches was a real programme that I was allowed to stay up late and watch when I was a child. So everything in the woods I had to research: what they might have with them, how the cabin was made, what the weather would be like, the animals, the plants, what they needed to just about survive. Some of this was done in real life (watching my son fish and going into the woods near where I live etc), and much was done online (watching videos of how to skin rabbits and squirrels, and visiting survivalist forums where there were lists of what you needed as a minimum).
Your characters have very believable mental issues and the subtleties of those issues are beautifully woven throughout the story from the very first few pages. How did you go about writing those characteristics in? Are you at all personally acquainted with people who experience these types of issues? (If that's too personal, please feel free to ignore that last question!) Thank you! I don't know anyone with the mental issues that Peggy and James have. Because I didn't plan what would happen when I started writing the novel, it wasn't until I was some way in that I thought that James could have a mental issue (I think he is bipolar) and that this would work well with the story. So I researched that illness and its symptoms and went back and made James' actions fit. The same with Peggy. When James and Peggy reach the forest I decided that another character should arrive (how boring would it have been with just James and Peggy in the forest for nine years?), but since they were supposed to be the only people left in the world, I had to have Peggy invent the third person, and to do this she also needed to have issues. So I researched this - and it seems that it is quite common for people with severe trauma to create an altered reality in order to cope. I also researched vitamin deficiency and how that can lead to Korsakoff's syndrome where the sufferer confabulates (makes things up and believes them).
The story feels so real we had to wonder, is it in any way inspired by something that actually happened? And if not, what was the inspiration? It was inspired by a real story - sort of. In 2011 a teenager called Robin van Helsum appeared in Berlin saying he had been living in the woods in Germany with his father for the previous five years and that his father had died in an accident and that he had buried him and walked back to civilisation. The German authorities believed Robin and the forests were searched. He was housed and given money to live. Eight months later it was discovered that Robin had made it all up and had run away from home. It was a fascinating story, so I thought of that 'what if' questions that often start a novel: what if he had lived in the woods, how would he have survived, what would have taken him there, and why would he have come out when he did?
Did you choose Rapunzel to be Peggy's new name because of the similar theme of being locked away from the world by a parental figure? Yes - absolutely, and being saved by a handsome prince (although really Peggy saves herself). This also fitted with the fairy tale motifs scattered throughout the book: the shoe doesn't fit (Cinderella); the porridge is too hot (Goldilocks); Reuben says he can blow the cabin down (The Three Little Pigs); Breadcrumbs and being lost in the woods (Hansel and Gretel) etc.