Interview by Jennifer Gryzenhout
I met Alison MacLeod a few years ago during a weeklong writer’s retreat in England. It was a week tucked away in an old house in the English countryside, completely focused on writing with other writers. Alison is one of the regular writers in residence for fiction. When I attended, she gave morning workshops around various matters of technique and one-on-one manuscript consultations. I couldn’t help but be struck by her enthusiasm for writing and drawn in by the eloquence with which she expressed it. Not only was she inspiring to work with, and not only is she a writer committed to beautiful and fresh forms of expression while getting at the heart of human truth, but she was also my fellow Canadian. Alison spoke with me about moving from her home in Nova Scotia to the UK, becoming a writer, and writing.
Did you always know that you wanted to write? At what point were you comfortable describing yourself as a writer?
Well, thinking back to when I was small, I used to tell people, oddly enough, that I wanted either to be a writer or a teacher for the blind. Of course when I mentioned the latter, most adults seemed to think I was a selfless little girl who wanted nothing more than to help others; I can still feel how they beamed at me. But in reality, Braille (which I taught myself in a rudimentary way) fascinated me because it seemed to me to be like a secret code, a mysterious form of human communication. All language on the page seemed to me like a secret code or a kind of magic or telepathy, a way of sending your thoughts and imaginings into the minds of others. I wanted to do that. In time, my ambitions towards Braille fell away but my love of stories grew as I grew. I suppose I wanted to be able to transfix others with stories in the way that stories had transfixed me.
In school, I wrote poems, stories and mini-newspapers. I had two wonderful English teachers who encouraged me; I still have the stories I wrote for their classes and their comments on each. Those comments were probably as precious to me as the first good reviews of my debut novel. I’ve always held onto encouraging words—teachers’ words, positive lines from editors, and so on. They’ve sustained me when the work was hard, often without an end in sight. Criticism is essential, too, of course—but I tend not to collect it for re-reading. It lives on in most writers’ memories, burned on with a blow-torch, and I’m no different.
I think I began calling myself a writer when I went off, at the age off 22, to the UK to join the university of Lancaster’s M.A. programme in Creative Writing. The M.A. gave me a kind of permission to call myself a writer. I’d made sacrifices to get there. I’d been writing what I hoped were real stories for many months – which seemed like a long time at that age. I’d saved long and hard. I’d taken on a student loan. I then travelled far from my home in Nova Scotia, with a heavy electric typewriter, a suitcase with a year’s worth of clothing, and hardly a shred of information about Lancaster in those pre-internet days. When I finally arrived, I was very homesick. I thought, what have I done? Where am I? So my writing became my ‘home’, the familiar place I could go in my mind. It’s still that for me. But in Lancaster, in time I found others—a special few on the M.A. They became my friends, my fellow writers, my tribe.
When you are working on a writing project, what does an average day look like for you?
My writing mind usually—and perversely!—hopes for bad weather so I’m less distracted by the views from my living room, where I write. On bright sunny days—when half of Brighton streams past looking like they’re on a permanent holiday, I sometimes leave my curtains closed. For the space of that day or those few uninterrupted days, I need to be able to forget the world in order to enter it more deeply, more intensively. In the morning of a writing day, I’ll try to stay in bed for ten minutes after I wake, when I’m still at the borders of sleep. In that short burst of time, I turn over the particulars of the current story or chapter in my head. That can be a lovely, fruitful time. It gives me a sense of something growing; of something I’m longing to get at again, and usually fresh images or small but important connections come to me. Times when the creative mind can ‘idle’ are vital—as vital as the intense marathon of it all at the desk.
In the last six months of the writing of Unexploded, I was so desperate to ‘be delivered’ of my book that I was increasingly staying up to 4:00, 5:00 and even, on a few occasions, 8 am. In other words, I was gradually becoming nocturnal—not something I recommend— but, if I wasn’t teaching the next day, I longed simply to stay with my writing and to ‘inhabit’ the work. I love it when three hours pass like fifteen minutes. It’s a great thing to be so deeply absorbed.
Unexploded is a beautifully written story about love and prejudice set during World War II in Brighton, England. What motivated you to write a story set in this period and place?
Any novel springs from, let’s say, a hundred ideas, images and things you want to explore. Above all, with Unexploded, although it’s set in 1940-41, I was in fact trying to think about the experience of war and terror today, and a few lines from a Margaret Atwood short story came back to me. The story is called “Poppies: Three Variations”. It’s a meditation on the poem “In Flanders Fields”, and at the end, she conveys very powerfully the truth that a war—whether far away or not, whether we’re particularly aware of it or not—becomes a part of the intimate fabric of our lives.
Perhaps the first inspiration for Unexploded came as I walked through London very early on the day after the bombings on July 7, 2005. Everything that morning had come to a complete and ghostly standstill. There wasn’t a single person (except me) on the tube at that early hour. The entire city was still in the silent but deadly grip of terror.
Later, at home in Brighton, I wondered what it would be like to live with that sort of fear—with that dread—for weeks or months or years on end. What would that do to a person? What did it do? It occurred to me that Brightonians had lived with that fear over a single significant year (1940-41) when the town waited daily for a major German force to land on its beaches.
The invasion on England’s south coast didn’t come. Hitler decided to turn east and invade Russia instead. But at the time, it was felt to be inevitable by both sides, and that singular year—now all but forgotten—seemed to me to be a strange, surreal and important story.
Not only would it allow me to ‘lift up’ the lost stories of what many people along the English coast had actually endured, but perhaps more crucially, it would allow me to explore our modern-day fears of ‘terror’: how we live with threats that are seemingly ever-present even when there is no visible enemy.
As a novelist, I wanted to re-create the pressure-cooker of life in the town over those 13 months. I wanted to explore the effects of fear on our most personal or intimate lives. Unexploded is the portrait of a marriage that is, in a sense, about to detonate under the pressures of that year; it is also an examination of the surprise of love; of how we lose it and how we find it.
I wanted, too, to explore the question of who and how we scapegoat at times of national crisis. Prejudice is perhaps most deeply troubling because it is so completely random. We know that people can be both decent and caring in some contexts and racist in others. I wanted to probe that human contradiction. While acknowledging the great courage and sacrifice of the era, I wanted to avoid sentimentality. That seemed crucial.
The novel was long-listed for the 2013 Man-Booker prize. What was your reaction to that? Has it had an impact on your writing career?
Absolutely. Two years of events, talks and interviews both in the UK and internationally are only now coming to an end, and as wonderful as that recognition has been, I’m ready now for things to quieten. My new novel-in-progress is also ready for things to quieten!
In your role as judge for various literary awards such as the International Frank O’Connor award for short fiction, what kinds of things stand out for you when you read a story?
The power of the voice of the page—the sense of being compelled to listen. That power comes from all sorts of things on the page, but perhaps, above all, it’s the precise use of language, an ear for the natural rhythm of a line of prose, a daring freshness in the telling of a story, and a sense of the work springing from a place that is utterly human. A great story or novel surprises us with honesty. It might be realist, absurd or experimental, but it delivers a vision that we recognise—physically, imaginatively and intellectually—as ‘true to life’, and it makes itself urgent, or so ‘whole’ you don’t want to break its spell by putting it down.
I recall that you are passionate about the short story form. You founded ‘Thresholds International Online Short Story Forum’ for the University of Chichester and you are soon to deliver your second short story collection. Can you tell us what it is you love most about the short story form?
Its intensity, its intimacy and the sense of mystery that its characters often possess—as in Chekhov’s stories where his characters don’t feel as if they’ve been written but rather that they exist mysteriously beyond the 20 pages of the story, beyond the author’s control, and beyond our reading of them. There’s something uncanny about the short story form, and I love that too.
What are the challenges in writing short stories? In writing novels? What are the rewards of each form?
The short story form is beautifully mutable. It’s so plastic. With each short story you write, you have to find its unique and natural shape; you have to discover the form every time. That’s unnerving and it can be exhausting but it’s also exhilarating. There’s such a sense of imaginative freedom. It’s wet clay on the wheel and you’re trying to hold on; you’re trying to capture the flux and mess of life in motion in very precise language and observation. Short fiction evolves from a very organic process of creation.
A novel, by comparison, is like architecture. Some things just work, some things never will. You need buttresses and keystones, plot, sub-plot and perhaps 4 to 5 turning points. I’m never someone who plots a novel before I write it—I need to discover it much as the reader needs to discover it—but, unlike a short story (where you might simply trust in a single image in order to begin), a novel requires at least a strong foundation as you start and a sense of a few supporting walls, idea-wise. It demands a lot. It’s epic labour. It’s orchestral. It’s a big singing space. But when you feel that you have perhaps made something big that is also, in some way, beautiful or powerful or moving, it’s a joyous thing. You can only give thanks to the writing gods.
What is your advice for fiction writers who are just starting out?
Be honest on the page—not as easy as it sounds of course. Take risks. Never rest with the skills you have; push them on and on, if only a little at a time. Be ambitious but not clever-clever. Remember that good writing is the work of a lifetime; it doesn’t follow neat learning curves. We all surge ahead, fall backward and move forward again. Read all the time. Mark up your books, underline great lines. Keep a notebook—it’s a larder of images and ideas when times are lean.
Jennifer Gryzenhout writes fiction and creative non-fiction. She has short stories published in Ink Tears and The Avalon Literary Review, and is the recipient of a Pushcart Prize nomination. She is a teacher of English literature and creative writing, and is working on her MFA in Creative Writing in UBC’s optional residency program. She is currently working on short fiction and a novel. From Calgary, she now lives in Amsterdam, The Netherlands.