Interviews / Novelists

Interview with Alison Moore: “I think it helps to see how things cross-pollinate.”

Alison Moore’s short stories have been included in Best British Short Stories and Best British Horror and broadcast on BBC Radio. They have been collected in The Pre-War House and Other Stories, whose title story won the New Writer Novella Prize, and in Eastmouth and Other Stories.

Her first novel, The Lighthouse, was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and the National Book Awards, winning the McKitterick Prize. Both The Lighthouse and her second novel, He Wants, were Observer Books of the Year. She recently published her fifth novel, The Retreat, and a trilogy for children, beginning with Sunny and the Ghosts.

Born in Manchester in 1971, she lives in a village on the Leicestershire-Nottinghamshire border with her husband, son and cat. She is an honorary lecturer in the School of English at the University of Nottingham and a member of the National Association of Writers in Education.

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Your short stories have been recognized and included in several collections, including Best British Short Stories and Best British Horror. Can you talk about your experience writing short fiction and how it differs from writing novels?

The main difference I feel is just a sense of the size of what I’m holding in my head while I work it out, how many plates it feels like I’m spinning. I remember when, with a background in short-story writing, I tried to write something longer (The Pre-War House, which went on to win a novella prize) – the way I approached it was the same, but carrying it through felt like it involved different muscles, and developing those muscles then enabled me to write my first novel.

Your novel The Lighthouse was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and the National Book Awards, winning the McKitterick Prize. Can you describe your creative process while writing this novel?

It was an interesting time for me – I’d left a full-time job to have a baby, and when he was six months old the seeds of this story arrived in my head. I wrote when he was asleep or out with his dad or his grandma, and what really helped was that the longer story I mentioned above (which I was writing in the month before his birth) had got me into the habit of writing every day.

So when it came to writing this novel, I didn’t lose sight of it in between writing stints – whenever I got back to it, I knew what I wanted to do, and even if I had a problem to solve, I was enjoying it. I wrote the first draft in six months, and during that time I serendipitously met Nicholas Royle who was that novel’s first reader and who became (and remains) my agent and editor.

How did you develop the characters in The Lighthouse and what was your approach to character development?

It was (and always is) really just a case of being interested in these people, curious about them, wanting to know more about them. Futh began as a sense of a man with a certain history, certain baggage, and certain themes attached to him, and I wanted to discover his story. Ester started out as a supporting character, but her narrative grew because I was interested in her, there just seemed to be more to say about her.

Even though the story began and begins with Futh, and he is foregrounded by the blurb, a group of readers in Ireland told me that they saw it as Ester’s story, and in the Italian translation the title became La moglie dell’albergatore (The wife of the proprietor), so even though this title describes Ester in terms of her relationship to Bernard, it became her story rather than Futh’s.

What role did your own experiences play in the writing of the book?

Although I was interested in Futh as a character, the story only really started to move when I decided to send him off on a circular walking holiday I’d been on in Germany a couple of years earlier. I’d kept a diary, which was really useful when I started plotting out Futh’s fictional journey. (We’d had a brilliant week – poor Futh is less fortunate.)

After publication, a group of Year 13 students at a school in that same Rhineland region, who were studying The Lighthouse in their English class, got in touch to ask ‘how you were able to acquire such an accurate and subtly realistic picture of the German culture and general atmosphere’ – you can imagine how good that was to hear. Their take on the story was fascinating and invaluable, and they had a bunch of great questions; they were an absolute pleasure to correspond with.

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As an honorary lecturer in the School of English at the University of Nottingham and a member of the National Association of Writers in Education, what role does education play in your writing process and career?

I love visiting schools and universities to talk about writing, and the honorary lectureship at the University of Nottingham – which I was offered when The Lighthouse was published – has been really rewarding. It’s a two-way thing: any time I talk about writing, not just at schools and universities but on panels and so on, I’m learning as well, both from having to think it through and from the people I’m talking to.

It’s also just wonderful to know that people are reading and studying your work – I’ve been contacted by teachers and pupils in schools and universities in Europe, America, Australia and New Zealand, often just to let me know they’re reading my stories, which always gives me a boost; recently, I was invited to visit a German university, which was an amazing experience. And it honestly keeps me going, keeps me writing, knowing that people are interested.

Can you give us a glimpse into your daily writing routine and how you manage your time between writing and other responsibilities?

My son’s at school, so my work hours are mainly school hours. Unless I have an in-person visit or event, I get my son off to school then have a shower and get to my desk. There are three main strands to my work: the writing itself, talking about or teaching writing, and teaching English as a foreign language which I do online a few mornings a week.

I’ll always have a story I’m working on, and I just try to make some progress every day. Even a few hundred words a day is going to keep a story moving, especially as I edit as I go along. I stop when my son’s due home, but I can still get bits of work done after that. I’ll read in the evening as well, and I like to go for a walk before bedtime and think things through, maybe write a few more lines in my head.

As a published author with several accolades, what advice do you have for aspiring writers on balancing their craft and their daily lives?

I think it helps to see how things cross-pollinate, how our relationships and work and daily experiences can feed our writing. I’ve brought home lines and observations from the office, the classroom, train journeys, a trip to B&Q, and put them into stories or grown entire stories from them. My stories ‘Summerside’ and ‘The Stone Dead’ were inspired by things my son said. I gave my husband a kidney and turned the experience into a horror novella.

It also helps if you can write anywhere: much of my second novel was written in an on-site café while my son was at pre-school. For that horror novella, I wrote a few thousand words on my phone while I was in the hospital. I’ve found the shower can be good for doing a few lines in my head, and jotting them down afterwards. If I think of something when I’m out for a run, I can use the voice recorder on my phone and write it up later.

If you could have a conversation with any author throughout history about their writing routine and creative process, who would that person be?

I love being able to see old BBC interviews in which writers such as Daphne Du Maurier, Anita Brookner and Muriel Spark discuss their work, their approach to writing. I’d love to have met Shirley Jackson, but at the same time I’d feel like I should just leave her alone to write.

I’d love to know about the books you’re reading at the moment. What have been some of your favourite reads?

I’m currently reading and absolutely loving Michelle Paver’s Dark Matter, a ghost story set in the Arctic, and I’ve been working my way through Julio Cortázar’s short stories, collected in Bestiary. I adore Shirley Jackson and have read most of her novels and short stories but I’m still filling in the gaps: the next Jackson I’m planning on reading is The Sundial, which I understand was her own favourite.

What does your current writing workspace look like?

I inherited my desk from my maternal grandparents – it used to be in their hallway. It has a big drawer and wings and I love it, I’m very glad to have it. I’ve had the chair since I was a child. It seemed like the kind of chair you’d sit in to tell stories.

You can also see my Best Mum award and my ID card, and my reading copies – the books I take to events. The red car relates to a short story I’m working on at the moment. My workspace is in the bedroom – I know they say don’t work in your bedroom but I like having story things to think through when I’m going to sleep anyway.

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