Alison Moore is an English writer. Born in Manchester, she lives in Leicestershire. Her first novel, The Lighthouse, was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2012 and went on to win the McKitterick Prize. Her debut collection, The Pre-War House and Other Stories, was nominated for the Frank O'Connor International Short Story Award that year. Her second novel, He Wants, was published in 2014. Both The Lighthouse and He Wants were Observer Books of the Year.
Interview by Paul McVeigh
Paul McVeigh:You have a voice that is quite clear; taut sentences, haunting stories that seem to settle somewhere in the gut with deeply uncomfortable characters and situations. Where do you think that voicecomes from? And what advice would you give to emerging writers who are searching for their own?
Alison Moore: I didn't strive to develop a voice as such, just to write a decent story; through writing plenty of substandard ones I eventually found my groove. As for the discomfort - when I was young, I sometimes couldn't watch the end of Fawlty Towers because Basil Fawlty's situation was just unbearable - I remember it being so painful to witness his ultimate unravelling that I had to leave the room - that probably sounds a bit weird now - but anyway it's possible that this is all a form of immersion therapy. Emerging writers need to read and write as much as they can - it feels like having to scrape off thick layers to get to the good stuff.
P: Your work is often dark and, at times, bleak. There seems to be a general consensus that "happy writes white". Why do you think that is? And what does that say about literature and the role of a writer?
A: It's an interesting one. When I started writing The Lighthouse, I had a healthy, beautiful and contented baby and had been shortlisted for the Manchester Fiction Prize, so I might have been desperately tired but I was also very happy and satisfied.
So I think the writing must be drawing on something deeper, whatever makes me a bit of a loner, regardless of the fact that I'm a perfectly happy loner. As a reader, I've always most enjoyed setting foot in fictional worlds that have a touch of darkness and bleakness to them, and it's a pleasure to have created a story that people seem to be experiencing in the same way.
P: What do you think made you a loner? And how close is that to what made you a writer?
A: I think it's just the way I am - my mum and dad were both quite quiet and focused. If I wasn't this way it's not to say I couldn't be a writer, but it's inextricably linked to the sort of writer I am - I wouldn't do very well brainstorming in a room full of comedy writers.
P: I think there is something in being tired that somehow skewers reality and perception, especially over a prolonged period of time. I think it removes some layers you don't have the energy to keep up and your emotions and sensitivity are heightened/closer to the surface. Could you tell us a little more about the 'something deeper' you write from and how you access it?
A: Yes, I agree about being tired - everything goes a bit strange. Ah, the 'something deeper' - it just feels like something that's in me as surely as my vital organs are. I don't need to look too closely, I might scare it away.
P: You've written short stories, novellas and now a novel. Are you drawn to one form over the others? Have you been training your writing muscles to lift heavier each time, or was it more of an organic process?
A: I don't think I am drawn to one form over another - I've written short stories since writing my first novel, and have completed the first draft of a second novel since writing the short stories. I just write the story that comes to me, whether it turns out to be a shortie or a longer one.
I didn't write short stories as a deliberate warm-up exercise to writing a novel, but I do think the years of short story writing made it possible to make the novella work, and I think that writing 'The Pre-War House' stretched me, bridging the short story writing and the novel writing. In terms of weight training, it might be like if you spend a few years carrying babies and toddlers around, you get stronger and might then be able to lift a bigger dumbbell, but that's not to say you had the baby so that you'd be able to lift the dumbbell.
P: How has the Booker short listing affected your career?
A: Before the nomination, I'd had a few stories published in magazines and anthologies. Just having my novel published was fantastic, but if it weren't for the Man Booker Prize, The Lighthouse would never have sold in the numbers that have made it possible for me to think of myself as a professional writer. It also means there's been an audience for my short story collection that wouldn't have been there otherwise.
P: At the time, it seemed a great boost to smaller publishing houses. How did your relationship with Salt come about and do you think the shift in perception of smaller publishing houses has had a lasting effect on writers and the public?
A: I met Nick as a result of being shortlisted for the Manchester Fiction Prize. In due course, he became my agent and he also became Commissioning Editor for Fiction at Salt. I wrote The Lighthouse and Nick took it straight to Salt. A year after the 2012 nominations, it does seem to me that you can still see the ripples from that increase in awareness of smaller publishing houses and the quality of their work.
P: Your editor , Nicholas Royle, is also your agent, could you tell me a little about your editing process and how Nicholas' dual role impacts on you as a writer?
A: I edit a lot as I write, and then I reread and edit until I can no longer see what I'm doing or am changing things and then changing them back and then I suppose it's time to stop. Nick's the first person I ever trusted to see unfinished work. He sees what I've missed - he's got a great eye for factual accuracy and consistency - so his feedback is invaluable.
The editing is a dialogue - sometimes he's absolutely right and sometimes he'll query something and then agree with my defense and that bit will stay in. I like that Nick is both my editor and my agent, so he's my go-to guy for any queries around my writing, whatever they might be. As long as the arrangement suits him, it suits me.
P: Your writing reminds me of the films of Roman Polanski; some strange and creepy, some horrific, always tense, edgy, hugely atmospheric and reality on the verge of dream/nightmare. It's in the text but also the space - the territory in a script where a director works, and I wondered if you have studied or worked in theatre or film?
A: That's an interesting question - I was in the Youth Theatre at school, then studied Drama as a subsidiary subject at university. When I graduated, I did some video work - I found the framing of scenes and the editing especially satisfying. I'm sure all that does feed into my writing; I get the same sort of satisfaction from the presentation and editing of a written scene. Imaginary props are much easier to come by.
P: You're reading soon at the Word Factory and I wondered how you feel about reading your work to an audience? Do you have any advice for writers who find the process nerve wrecking?
A: Public speaking used to be my greatest fear but then I realized I was going to have to learn to cope with it, so I gave a number of readings with vibrating limbs or where I was only breathing in and in and not breathing out. I always relaxed when I got into the story though. I learned to take a moment over my breathing before starting and then it got a lot easier. I still get butterflies but now I enjoy it, and I've got a lot of friendly audiences to thank for that.
P: What's the best piece of writing advice you've been given?
A: That would be when my future self travelled back in time to tell my teenage self that instead of writing ideas for stories on scraps of paper and then putting them in a shoebox under my bed, I should actually write the stories.
P: What are you working on at the moment?
A: Novel #2 is shaping up. The first draft is now ready to be seen by someone other than me.
P: Exciting to hear about your new novel. Is there anything you can tell us about it?
A: It's still in development - but I can tell you that it is not about an army of evil robots.
P: Who are your short story heroes and what is it about their writing that gets you?
A: An enduring short story love is Flannery O'Connor. Her stories are so vivid and resonant, both strange and very real. Other writers who have written favorite short stories of mine are Raymond Carver, James Lasdun, Alice Munro and Lorrie Moore.
Paul McVeigh is a literary contributor.
The interview appeared in thewordfactory.tv
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