Alison Moore's first novel, The Lighthouse, was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and the National Book Awards (New Writer of the Year), winning the McKitterick Prize. Both The Lighthouse and her second novel, He Wants, were Observer Books of the Year. Her short fiction has been included in Best British Short Stories and Best British Horror anthologies, broadcast on BBC Radio 4 Extra and collected in The Pre-War House and Other Stories. She published her third novel, Death and the Seaside in 2016 and latest novel, Missing, will be published on the 15th May 2018. Born in Manchester in 1971, she lives near Nottingham with her husband Dan and son Arthur.
Interviewed by Lee Wright
In April 2016 I enrolled on a five-week course titled "Elements of Fiction," taught by the 2012 Man-Booker Prize short-listed author Alison Moore. It was the first time I had ever been in a creative writing environment, and Alison was the first “real” writer I had met.
I was in a state of awe for the first two weeks. I read her two novels, The Lighthouse and He Wants, back-to-back. I couldn’t read them fast enough. Then, by the third week, I began to calm down. I listened, I took in every element, style and approach Alison spoke to us about.
One week she asked us to write a short story, gave everyone the same starting point, and expected us to read the piece out the following week. At this time, I had never tried the short story form, but with the challenge thrown down, I bought a copy of Raymond Carver’s What We Talk About, When We Talk About Love.
So, I wrote my story with Alison’s advice and Carver’s clipped style rolling around in my head. I read it out that next week (I had never read my work out aloud to anyone before, and for those reading this who find themselves in a similar position now, I can only sympathise). From what I remember, the story was heavy and far from perfect, but the comments that followed acted as a springboard. I went home and wrote another one, and another, and another.
Eventually I began to have a small slice of success, and my fiction continues to be published. There is no doubt that Alison Moore’s course was the turning point for me. Those five weeks in 2016 I won’t forget.
LW: You made the leap from writing short stories to novels with The Lighthouse in 2012. What difficulties (if any) did you encounter during the process of working on a longer project?
AM: In between the short stories and The Lighthouse, I wrote a 12,000-word story, which went on to win a novella competition and became the title story in my collection The Pre-War House and Other Stories but which was a struggle to write. That’s partly because I was writing due to having an unexpected free month (in between working full-time and having a baby) as opposed to having a specific story I was keen to write, but also because I was tackling a story that went beyond the kind of size I could see all at once, so I was navigating the story with no sense of what was coming. Now, that’s the best bit: writing into the darkness, not knowing what I might find.
LW: Do you find the short novel form more agreeable?
AM: I naturally seem to write short novels, all under 50,000 words so far, which might be due to my short-story writing background. Perhaps whatever draws me to writing short stories, and indeed that novelette/novella length which I love, also makes short novels sit well with me as a writer. As a reader, I enjoy plenty of long novels too – right now I’m reading the 900-page Blonde by Joyce Carol Oates.
LW: You’ve published a contemporary novel every two-years since 2012. Yet you don’t write to a formula (like authors in genres such as crime). How have you stayed so prolific?
AM: That time frame feels about right to me – if I gave myself too much longer I think I’d start to doubt and unpick the whole thing. So, I aim to draft a novel in about a year, and once I start it I live with it, so I avoid the difficulty of coming back to a project that’s cooled off since I last looked at it. I work with one eye on that two-year cycle which seems to work but which is entirely flexible if necessary.
LW: Have you matured as a writer?
AM: I’ve certainly developed better habits. Many moons ago I would merrily jot down a story idea on a slip of paper and then just stash it, never developing it; I had dozens of these slips of paper which never became stories. I also had to get better at reading and editing my own work. It’s second nature now, to take that starting point and just write, to see where it leads me, and then, when I have a first draft, to edit the hell out of it.
LW: Do you need a title before you begin a work of fiction?
AM: Yes, I like to have a title as I begin a piece of work, knowing that I can always change it later, once I know the story better.
LW: Since its publication, The Lighthouse has been translated into many different languages. Did you work with the various translators and how has the experience been for you?
AM: It’s been very interesting to see how different translators work. Sometimes I’m sent queries throughout a translation, sometimes I get a list of questions at the end of the process, and sometimes there is no communication at all. It’s quite odd knowing that I’ll never know quite how a translation reads. In fact, my new novel Missing is concerned with a translator and the importance of the language we choose.
LW: This November also brings the publication of your debut children’s book, Sunny and the Ghosts. What made you decide to try your hand at children’s fiction?
AM: Just as reading fiction when I was growing up made me want to write, so reading fiction with my son made me want to write something for his age range, which was 7 at the time. Having started to think along those lines, the basic idea came along quite quickly, and once I’d drafted the story I read it to my son, who gave me really useful feedback.
LW: What was the genesis for your new novel Missing?
AM: I have a very early note along the lines that someone suddenly, quietly, almost in passing, slips out of life "e.g. going through ice." The specific has changed but that sense of quick and quiet loss is a key element in the finished novel. I was also more generally interested in boundaries, borders, crossing from one place to another, and whether someone who has left will or can come back.
LW: Which one book (from any author or genre) would you recommend for the aspiring writer to learn something from?
AM: I’ve usually got a novel, a short story collection and a non-fiction book on the go, and my current non-fiction is John Yorke’s Into the Woods which discusses the nature of a wide range of works of fiction. I nose my way through my novels without planning, and when I came across Yorke’s idea of the midpoint ("Occurring almost exactly halfway through any successful story, the midpoint is the moment something profoundly significant occurs ... there can be no return to how life was before ... Do writers who are entirely unaware of story theory write them subconsciously?"). I took a look at my novels and found that at the midpoint of The Lighthouse, Futh "has passed the midpoint of his circular walk" and is heading back to Hellhaus; and, immediately afterwards, we have the scene on the cliffs in which his mother says she’s leaving, which is essentially the catalyst for everything that follows. I’ve found similar midpoints in all my other novels too. For someone who has never formally studied creative writing, it’s a fascinating read.
About the interviewer
Lee Wright was born in Nuneaton, Warwickshire in 1980 and has been writing both fiction and non-fiction since 2008. He is taking an MA in Creative Writing at the University of Leicester.