Alison Moore

Author Alison Moore talks to us about her latest novel The Retreat and the authors she admires the most.

Alison Moore's short stories have been published in various magazines, journals and anthologies, including Best British Short Stories and Best British Horror, and broadcast on BBC Radio. The title story of her collection, The Pre-War House, won the New Writer Novella Prize. 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. You can find Alison's books on our catalogue.

Who were your heroes as you were growing up and when did you first start writing?

I had a teacher at primary school, in the first year of juniors, called Mrs Hunt. I vividly remember her telling us stories that she’d made up herself. She wanted to get them published and said to look out for them in the library. I remember being fascinated and impressed, both by her stories and by the idea of them becoming books in the library.

And I was very much in love with Anne of Green Gables. I read all the Anne books.

I always loved writing at school, and I remember making up little stories to help me get to sleep at night. When I was eight, something I submitted to a local writing competition was shortlisted and published, and I read it out at the local library, and I wanted to keep doing that. In my teens, I was submitting to national magazines including writing magazines, and got little boosts like payment or a prize from publications like My Guy and Just Seventeen.

What was The Lighthouse like to write and how did Futh take shape as it progressed?

I started writing The Lighthouse when my son was a baby. I used his stints of sleeping for reading or writing (or sleeping). There was no pressure because it was my first novel, I had no expectation of making a career out of it, I was just enjoying writing it, discovering it. And during that time, I met – via the Manchester Fiction Prize – Nicholas Royle, who went on to become my agent and my editor at Salt, so the timing of all that was perfect.

When Futh first arrived in my head, I only had a sense of his character and knew nothing of the story I’d write around him. But as soon as I decided to put him on a ferry and send him off on a circular walking holiday, I knew what the final chapter would be, so I also had a sense of the penultimate chapter. I like to have some idea of where I’m heading but, other than that, to discover the story along the way.

What is your writing routine and does it differ if you are writing a short story or a full length novel?

I work from home unless I’m out doing a visit or event of some kind, and in the current circumstances even those author events and teaching sessions have been online. I start with admin – emails and so on – and then get to work on whatever the priority is. For me, there’s no real difference whether it’s a short story or a novel, or even an article – I catch up with where I’ve got to and just try and make some progress. I edit as I go along. My husband works from home too so we have lunch together, and I stop work when our son comes home from school, but I can still chip away at things during the evening, and I like taking a walk at the end of the day and thinking things through.

Your latest book is The Retreat. Can you tell us a little about it?

I remember, during the writing of my fourth novel, wanting my next novel to have a fictional setting where there would be little rules and customs that my protagonist would struggle to get to grips with. I imagined her trying to understand this place, never quite belonging, always feeling slightly off-kilter.

In The Retreat, Sandra is in her forties and working as a receptionist, but she once dreamed of going to art college and still harbours artistic ambitions. At a drop-in artists’ group, she sees an advert for a two-week artists’ retreat on Lieloh, a previously private island – home to a reclusive silent-film star – which has intrigued her since childhood. She signs up for the retreat, delighted by the idea of living ‘in Valerie Swanson’s house, among artists, in a little community. She imagines them supporting and inspiring one another.’ Sandra’s story develops alongside a second narrative focusing on a writer called Carol who’s been trying and failing to write a fantasy novel, and hopes to finally manage it secluded on an island.

You have also published the Sunny books for children. How did that come about and will there be any more?

When my son was at primary school, it seemed natural to try to write something that might appeal to him and his age group. I wrote the first draft of Sunny and the Ghosts in a couple of months and loved doing it, and a huge part of the pleasure was reading it to my son, getting his feedback and input, as well as his drawings of ghosts on the manuscript. I also enjoyed working with the illustrator, Ross Collins.

I hadn’t planned to write a series but a shabby seaside hotel that appeared as a detail in that first book became the focus of a second book, Sunny and the Hotel Splendid, and then I thought it would be fun to explore the story of an off-stage character from that second book, so I wrote Sunny and the Wicked Lady. A trilogy seemed right; at that point, the series felt complete, plus my son was going to be leaving primary school, growing out of that age bracket. But I’m looking forward to doing more author visits to schools in relation to the Sunny books.

Is there anything you can share with us about your latest project?

I’m currently working on a short story, a commission for a themed anthology. I can’t share the details yet but I’m really pleased to be a part of it and I’m very much enjoying writing the story.

Who are the writers you admire?

I adore Tove Jansson – the Moomin books and her other novels. I devoured Maya Angelou’s autobiography, one volume after the other, when my son was a baby. I’m a huge Shirley Jackson fan, and wrote about some of her work in Writing the Uncanny: Essays on Crafting Strange Fiction. Having read a couple of novels by Anita Brookner, I now want to read them all, my next one being her first, A Start in Life. I was completely blown away by Bernard MacLaverty’s Midwinter Break and have my eye on his short stories next.

I kept seeing praise for Yoko Ogawa so I started with Revenge, which is a spellbinding collection of weird stories. Lucie McKnight Hardy’s doing some very impressive work – her debut collection, Dead Relatives, includes a chilling and beautifully written novella as well as the wonderfully haunting ‘Jutland’ and a story about chutney that is simultaneously comic and macabre and devastating. I very much admired Jhumpa Lahiri’s first collection, Interpreter of Maladies, and am about to start her second, Unaccustomed Earth.

And I love the way George Saunders writes about writing – with an engineer’s eye for how the machine works – in A Swim in a Pond in the Rain.

If you had not been a writer what career would you have chosen instead?

Before going on maternity leave and writing my first novel, I’d done mainly arts and education admin and project management, most recently as Assistant to the Director of Lakeside Arts Centre in Nottingham. That kind of work suited me so I’d be doing something along those lines if the Man Booker Prize shortlisting hadn’t made it feasible for me to continue working as a writer. I also worked as a veterinary assistant for a while, and I could have chosen to go down that route, so maybe in an alternate universe that’s what I’m doing.

Can you tell us one thing about yourself that your readers may not know?

I’m a BSAC Sports Diver. I haven’t been diving since having my son but I’ve had some fantastic experiences including getting breathtakingly close to a school of curious hammerhead sharks in the Red Sea.

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