Alison MacLeod (photo by Kate MacLeod)
1. How and when did you get started as a writer?
I’m from a wordy family. My father was a journalist with a real fondness for the poetry he’d learned in school in the thirties and forties. Even in the depths of Alzheimer’s, when he couldn’t form complete sentences, he used to recite sections of Edgar Allan Poe’s ‘The Raven’. My mother’s big, extended family are born storytellers. I grew up on their stories and jokes; on their reports from wakes, Bingo halls and church dances exchanged around my grandparents’ kitchen table. I’d written since I was little but when I was 21, I decided I had to do more than tell people I was going to be a writer. I bought a Smith-Corona electric typewriter – an almost totemic thing for me at the time. I sat down and wrote about five stories in two months or less, which meant they weren’t very good at all, but they did have flashes of something. I travelled to the University of Lancaster from Nova Scotia – a journey into the unknown in those pre-Google days. It was the start of my MA in Creative Writing. I found a small community of other new writers. That, above all, was the turning point for me.
2. Where do your ideas tend to come from?
Everywhere: words overheard, landscapes I’ve loved (or felt alien in), early memories, my relationships, the lives of strangers, my favourite writers, dreams, newspaper articles, the 21st century and its weirdness. I keep a notebook – no regular entries, just the briefest outline, the seed of an idea, enough so I remember it but not so much that it stops humming with whatever it is that made it seem alive to me.
3. Are there particular ideas or themes that interest you or that keep resurfacing in your work?
Lately, I’ve been intrigued by the dovetailing of fact and fiction, of myth and life or, say, invention and history – a tricky thing but I find I keep going there. I wrote a short story (‘Notes for a Chaotic Century’) based on a stampede at a London IKEA. I’ve recently written another story (‘The Thaw’) that is based on the ‘secret’ story of my father’s aunt; I’ve used real names throughout. And of course, for my story in Matter 9 (‘Sylvia Wears Pink in the Underworld’), I read and re-read biographies and tried to distil that material while writing about my own experience of visiting Plath’s grave. But alongside the factual stuff, it was also vital for me that the story took off into something else, that it made a wild, imaginative leap to give a still wider, or more fluid, sense of Plath and her story.
4. Do you plan your writing?
Short stories are like pots on a potter’s wheel for me. They seem slippery and mysterious as I write them; I don’t know how they’re going to take shape (or if they will) but I trust my instincts and I trust the story to arrive at the shape it needs to be. Novels are different. They’re such big things to carry with you all the time. I need lynchpins – not chapter by chapter, scene by scene blueprint, not countless index cards, but a sense of a few key events and developments that give me a sense of something I’m keen to write my way towards.
5. Do you have a writing routine or any ‘rituals’ that you follow?
I usually write the first few paragraphs of any piece by hand but as soon as it catches light, I have to switch to the computer. I need to see it in something other than my handwriting – possibly so I can be more objective about it, but maybe also so I can believe it has a life that is independent of (and bigger than) me. When a story or scene is going well, I love staying up with it, when all of Brighton has gone quiet. It feels like a luxury. I become oddly nocturnal, writing from 9 till about 3 for nights on end. I dance to the radio in my kitchen as a reward for seeing a scene or a chapter through. I would dance in my front room where I work but there are big windows and I’d draw a crowd, for all the wrong reasons.
6. Who are your favourite writers?
I have favourite books rather than favourite writers but, off the top of my head, I love Chekhov, the Brontes, D. H. Lawrence, Plath, Toni Morrison, Ian McEwan, Paul Auster, Helen Dunmore and Hanif Kureishi. I think Adam Marek is one of the best new story writers around.
7. Do you have an ideal reader?
Good readers make good books happen. It’s a two-way creation, no matter how grand the writer. My ideal reader is simply someone who is very open. Being open is more important to me than a reader being, say, ‘literary’.
8. What are you working on now?
I’m working on my next novel, set in Brighton, my home for the last ten years and the ‘most poetic’ city in England according to the poet and reviewer John Davies. But I tend to say as little as possible about current projects. I feel I dribble away some of the essential energy when I talk about them; that I give away something that’s needed on the page. A bit of the shine perhaps.
9. What are you reading at the moment?
I’m re-reading Anna Karenina. I first read it when I was 16. I’m savouring it this time round, which means I’m defacing the copy by marking up any bits I love. I’ve also just started reading Waving at the Gardener, the Asham Award Short Story collection. The winning story by Jo Lloyd is one of the best stories I’ve read this year. She has such a good eye for detail (both gritty and beautiful) and her prose resonates with something you can’t put into words – as great stories do.
10. What piece of advice would you give to new writers?
Advice always sounds so po-faced when you write it down, but these are some of the things I wish I’d known earlier. When you’re in a phase of life that’s so squeezed you find it hard to work on a piece, think about it just before you go to sleep and first thing when you wake. Even that will keep it alive and growing. Read as much as you can and read as a writer, looking to see how something’s been done. For most writers, it’s an anorak-ish sort of pleasure. You need to see what other writers are doing in order to stay at the top of your game. Carry a notebook whenever possible. It reminds you to really look at the world; to get its details, its ‘this-ness’. When I started to write, I needed to be less dreamy. A notebook would have done the trick. Be resilient. Most writers (established and new) are having setbacks much of the time, even if you’d never guess. I’ve known several writers and artists with huge talent, but self-doubt can be crippling for some and can be the undoing of even great talent. After any rejection, you’re allowed a day of despair. That’s it. Take chances. Bite off more than you think you can chew. Then do all the work it takes.
Alison MacLeod is a novelist and short story writer. Her most recent book, Fifteen Modern Tales of Attraction, was published by Penguin in 2007 and praised by TIME OUT as ‘a baker’s dozen of excellence book-ended by brilliance…’ In 2008, she was won the Society of Authors’ Olive Cook Award for Short Fiction, while Fifteen Modern Tales was long-listed for the International Frank O’Connor Award and named as one of the ‘Top Ten Books to Talk About in 2009’ for World Book Day. Alongside her writing, she is Professor of Contemporary Fiction at the University of Chichester and teaches on its MA in Creative Writing programme. Alison has a new short story in Matter 9.