Clare Fisher on Letting Female Characters Misbehave

By Dylan Brethour

Novelist and short story writer Clare Fisher tells the Word Factory about interrogating failure, female subjectivity, and why the topics she’s anxious to avoid are most interesting to write about.

Your PhD in Creative Writing is about failure. What drew you to a topic so many people shy away from?

I, too, have tended to shy away from failure, but I’ve often found that it’s the things I’m most anxious to avoid that are most interesting to write about. Hence I’m spending three years writing, reading, thinking and talking about it. I’m interested in unpicking the dissonance between our society’s fetishisation of individual success and productivity on the one hand, and large scale political and structural failure, and impending crisis, on the other. What can writing do with negativity and how it might (or might not) help us to imagine our way through our current predicament? These are some of the questions I’m asking.

Where does fiction fit into the stories society tells about us (and the stories we tell about ourselves) about failure and success?

Fiction is a way of telling us what it is like to live through social ideas of success and failure from the perspective of a particular body and consciousness; it has the potential to show how painful, ridiculous, inane and absurd many ideas can be, and to point towards alternative ways of imagining such concepts.

In your essay on working in prisons, you write about how women have to fight the ‘you’re shit’ voice. How do you push back against not feeling good enough?

It’s something I, despite my many privileges, still find difficult. I think reading other writers, particularly women writers, who are saying things I want to say can remind me that it’s worth having a go. Maintaining connections with supportive friends and family is also crucial.

How do you make a character who may have done terrible things sympathetic to your readers?

I try to angle the writing away from the terrible thing and towards the person who did it; their history, feelings, observations, thoughts.

Do we want our characters — maybe especially our women characters — to be too good?

Yes! There’s still quite a lot of pressure to write female characters who are likeable or who misbehave within safe boundaries. This is another aspect I’m exploring in my PhD and in the fiction I’m writing as part of it — how can interrogating failure create new presentations of female subjectivity?

What role does voice play in building empathy for a character?

A huge role. Creating a convincing and memorable voice goes a long way towards bringing your reader into the character’s mind.

Does voice have to be handled differently in short stories and novels?

I think with short stories, there is more scope for experimentation that strangeness that would be difficult to sustain or incorporate into a novel. But that doesn’t make it any easier.

Hollywood has put you in charge of a new fiction mash-up movie: a pair of characters taken from any two books team up to save the universe. Who would you choose?

Queenie from Candice Carty-Williams’ Queenie and Marian from Leonora Carrington’s The Hearing Trumpet.