Q&A with Samuel Burr, author of The Fellowship of Puzzlemakers

9 minutes read

We sat down with Samuel Burr, a graduate of Faber Academy's Writing a Novel course, to discuss all things writing in the lead-up to the publication of his novel The Fellowship of Puzzlemakers.

At its heart, The Fellowship of Puzzlemakers is a story about a young man finding his place in the world. Perfect for fans of The Thursday Murder Club or Lessons in Chemistry, it’s an uplifting and inspiring tale based around connections, community and friendship. It’s already a national bestseller in America and is set to be translated into 14 languages around the world.

 

Read on to discover Samuel’s writing routine, planning process and tips for writing believable friendships in fiction.

You studied on our Writing a Novel course with Sarah May. What made you choose the course, and how valuable was it to the writing of your novel?

I’d heard that one of my favourite authors Rachel Joyce had completed the same course so I was immediately intrigued and wanted to find out more. The moment I started scrolling through the Academy’s website, seeing how the course was structured and what the benefits might be I was determined to secure a place. I was particularly interested in the prospect of having my work published in the anthology, as I knew this was something literary agents actively seek out and read with an eye to spotting the next big hit. Luckily, the brilliant Sarah May invited me to join her class and the rest, as they say, is history. Sarah’s effortless, no-nonsense approach to creative writing was just what I needed! She had such an extraordinary ability to distil the most essential parts of the novel writing process into easily digestible nuggets that made the whole process less intimidating. In fact, so much of what Sarah imparted on us still informs how I write today. I owe so much to Sarah. Her enthusiasm and belief in my book really made such a difference.

The Fellowship of Puzzlemakers is described as being about ‘the power of friendship’. Did you make writing friends during your Faber Academy course? How important has peer feedback been to your process?

Peer feedback is one of the biggest perks of the course and I was so lucky to get feedback from so many different people with different backgrounds, outlooks on life, and writing styles. What’s invaluable is getting independent notes from more than a dozen fellow writers on your submission. The truth is, if one person says something you disagree with it’s easier to put it to the back of your mind. But if more than one person says the same thing, or even three, four, five fellow students make the same comment, it’s impossible to ignore. It’s such a great litmus test.

What gave you the inspiration for your novel?

Like most novels, it’s hard to pinpoint a single idea, person or story that inspired the book. But there is a moment that stands out as being particularly significant.

 

It was very early into the course – perhaps week two or three – and our tutor Sarah had asked us to step outside the Academy to observe ordinary people on the street for a character-building exercise. I ended up sitting in a café just around the corner from Faber, and no sooner had I taken out my notebook and pen, had four men in anoraks walked in and sat down opposite me. They were a crossword club. They proceeded to read out the clues of The Times crossword together and ting a little brass bell whenever someone found a solution, munching on cake and sipping tea as they did so. It was charming and funny and more than a little eccentric, plus it was quite an uncanny coincidence. I’d started the course wondering about writing a mystery that combined puzzles and prose having watched a BBC Four documentary about crossword compilers that had captured my imagination. It was as if the universe was trying to tell me something. I had this feeling in my tummy – a sort of bubbly excitement – that stayed with me throughout the writing process, right up until I wrote ‘The End’.

Your novel features a variety of puzzles – what’s your favourite puzzle to unwind with?

My favourite puzzle has got to be a jigsaw. There is nothing quite like drawing the curtains, pouring a glass of wine and sorting through a thousand pieces! The thing I love about puzzles is that they’re something we all have a connection to. Whether it’s memories of playing with a shape sorter as a child, doing a jigsaw with your grandparents, or Wordle on the tube. Puzzles are part of all of our lives. And they are pure escapism. When we’re solving puzzles we’re not thinking about anything else at all. I think we could all do with a bit of that right now.

Could you tell us about your writing routine, and how you fit writing into your everyday life?

Right now, my routine has completely gone out of the window. Learning how to write a second book while promoting the first is its own unique skill, and one I’ve yet to truly master! I do believe that creating a routine is fairly crucial for aspiring writers though, especially if you’re juggling other commitments. I’m lucky to be writing full-time right now, but when I was working in television and writing on the side, it was usually in the mornings that I’d carve out time to write. 5am to 7am to be precise. Horrifying to think about now, but there is actually something really special about those snatched hours. No emails to contend with. No WhatsApp messages to get distracted in. It’s amazing how much you can achieve while everyone else is sleeping.

The Fellowship of Puzzlemakers is intricately plotted: what is your planning process for writing?

I’d describe my planning process as painful, chaotic, and painstaking. If I’m honest, I like to plan but I’m also willing to abandon the plan should the writing lead me somewhere else. A very clever author once said that writing a novel is a bit like setting off on a long car journey. You’d be mad to get into a car and not know where you’re going. So I try to have the main beats of the narrative nailed down and a definite sense of the ending, but often it’s the unplanned diversions that create the most memorable scenes.

Do you have any tips for writers on crafting believable, authentic friendships in their fiction?

In life, all friendships are different, but as one of my characters points out in the book, ‘… a good friend should build you up, help to make you a better version of yourself.’ So, when I’m creating a scene featuring a set of friends, I’m thinking about what they have in common, yes, but I’m also thinking about why they’re different. What can each character’s unique attributes bring out in each other? How do they lean on each other for support? What about their friendship brings out the best in each of them? Where would they be without each other?

Your protagonist Clayton Stumper is described as being twenty-five years old, and that he ‘dresses like your grandpa and drinks sherry like your aunt’. Could you tell us a bit more about him? How did you come up with this character?

When it comes to Clayton, I must confess I am a massive young fogey so there’s definitely a few similarities between the two of us. I love Antique’s Roadshow, always have boiled sweets in my pockets, and rarely listen to anything but Radio 4. This book – and Clayton himself – has taught me to embrace that side of myself. I was intrigued at the idea of a young man in a very old world that was slowly disappearing before his eyes. I wanted to make Clayton a character you rooted for and for him to be the ‘ordinary’ every-man in this extraordinary world of professional enigmatologists. That’s what makes Clayton unique in the story. He’s the only one who hasn’t earned his place in the Fellowship. And that’s what makes the prospect of solving Pippa’s final puzzle all the more daunting for him.

What are your favourite books that thematically deal with friendship?

We All Want Impossible Things by Catherine Newman is one of my favourite books about friendship. It’s about two middle-aged best friends, one of whom is receiving palliative care. Doesn’t sound particularly fun, does it? In fact, on paper, it could be mawkish, but the tone is so perfectly judged. It feels so real and raw and all the more moving for it.

And finally, what’s next for your writing?

I feel so lucky to have the opportunity to write a second book with Orion Fiction. It’s another standalone novel and, while I can’t say too much at this point, I hope that anyone who has read and enjoyed The Fellowship of Puzzlemakers will also enjoy this second book. Nostalgic joy. That’s all I’m saying for now!

Samuel Burr Faber Academy Alumni

Samuel Burr studied at Westminster Film School and is now a freelance TV executive, developing and producing popular-factual shows including the BAFTA-nominated Secret Life of 4-Year-Olds. A documentary he shot inside a retirement village when he was eighteen years old launched his career in television and inspired his debut novel, The Fellowship of Puzzlemakers, which was acquired by Orion Fiction in a highly competitive eight-way auction. Samuel’s writing was shortlisted for Penguin’s WriteNow scheme and in 2021 he graduated from the Faber Academy. In his spare time, he volunteers for elderly charities AgeUK and Re-Engage. He lives in London with his partner Tom and their cat Muriel. He has always been old at heart.

Writing a Novel is designed to support aspiring fiction writers to develop their craft over six months, with courses in London (at Faber’s HQ in Hatton Garden), Newcastle and online.

 

A six-month programme of seminars, sessions will cover all the essentials of novel writing – including character, story, structure, plotting, voice, dialogue, conflict and more.

 

Find out more about the next iterations of Writing a Novel here.

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