Alison MacLeod grew up in Canada and has lived in the UK since 1987. Until 2018, she was Professor of Contemporary Fiction at the University of Chichester, where she is now Visiting Professor. Her 2013 novel, Unexploded, was longlisted for the Booker Prize. Her latest book is 2017’s short story collection, All the Beloved Ghosts, and her next novel is due out in late 2020 or early 2021. She lives in Brighton.
1. Who were your literary heroes and influences as you were growing up?
As a child, before falling asleep at night, I used to imagine I was in conversation with Lucy Maud Montgomery, the author of the Anne of Green Gables series. I grew up, in part, in Anne’s region of Canada - the maritime provinces - and I loved the way Montgomery’s books celebrated a girl with a lively imagination and a spirit that was bigger than she was.
Looking back, I can see that those stories were fundamentally about the power of curiosity and the transformative force of the imagination. Both have sustained me throughout my writing life.
Later, as a teenager, I loved the novels of Charlotte and Emily Brontë, Mary Webb, D.H. Lawrence, Robertson Davies, and Angela Carter. They’re very different writers, but each, in some way, breaks out of the purely ‘realist’ mode of storytelling to evoke a sense of a mythic or poetic reality running like a river beneath the visible world. That’s still what mesmerises me in fiction. It’s still what I try to achieve in my own.
2. Many Suffolk readers will know your work from the 2013 Booker longlisted title Unexploded. How did that novel develop, and why did you choose Brighton as the setting?
It’s funny. I’d never imagined I’d write a ‘World War Two’ novel, but between the research and writing, Unexploded occupied at least four years of my life. It sprang from an apparently unrelated London event.
I happened to find myself in central London the morning after the July 7 bombings in 2005. It was a ghost town, and at shortly before ten in the morning, I seemed to have an entire tube line to myself. Like everyone else that day, I was wondering what it would be like if this was how we were now to live; if that day’s sense of dread and generalised threat became the ‘new normal’.
I suppose I was still pondering that in 2008, when I came across the details of Hitler’s 1940 Operation Sea Lion, the plan for an amphibious invasion at key south-of-England coastal points, including Brighton, from Le Havre.
I’ve lived in Sussex since 1989, and in Brighton since 2000. On most days when I’m writing from home, I walk along the seafront, and the thought of an enemy force marching up the beach, past two pleasure piers and the hotels of romantic get-aways, seemed utterly surreal. That crisis, which was thought to be imminent from May 1940 - June 1941, allowed me to explore life in a town that lived for an entire year with the most visceral sense of dread.
Dread, of course, is a fear of something that is always present in its absence. It’s an emotionally complex place to be. The crisis for Brighton in that one singular year allowed me to explore the fear felt by the whole country that day in 2005. Whether I’m writing the historical or the ‘now’, I’m only ever really interested in writing for a contemporary audience with contemporary questions and preoccupations.
That said, sometimes, when subjects are almost too familiar to see clearly, I approach them ‘aslant’. The story of the coastal south of England in 1940 allowed me to approach questions of where we are today. I particularly wanted to look at the question of how nations scapegoat or make other people ‘other’ at times of national fear or uncertainty.
I wanted to explore how war, or any large-scale public event, seeps into in our personal, private and even our intimate lives - how those things are rarely as separate as we might think. In Unexploded, unexploded bombs lie buried in the streets of Brighton, and in the emotional lives of its citizens.
Ultimately, I wanted to explore what saves us in such times. I wanted to capture on the page the beauty of Sussex, its quality of sea light, and also the illicit but genuine love story of Evelyn and Otto.
3. In your 2017 book All the Beloved Ghosts you return to the short story format. When you start writing, do you know which format you will be writing in, or does this develop as you write and the characters emerge?
I think I do always know. Ideas for stories often arrive in image form or in the poetry of an opening sentence, which I might ‘hear’ without knowing what the story is.
The short story form bears as much relation to poetry as it does to novels. It’s mysterious in the way poetry is mysterious. Novels require entire ‘plaits’ of story and sound. They are orchestral. They demand different movements or acts, melodies to unify the whole, counterpoint too or sub-plot, and the interplay of voice and rhythm. Novels have to carry you through waves of experience and meaning, while a short story is, let’s say, a piano or a violin sonata: intimate and hypnotic.
If the novel is an orchestra in motion, the short story is a spell.
4. Is there anything you can share about your latest project?
My next novel will be out in late 2020. I’m finishing it now. It’s the story of one of my earliest, most memorable influences, Lady Chatterley’s Lover, by D.H. Lawrence, a novel I first read when I was 16. It was Lawrence’s last novel, written as he was dying of tuberculosis. My novel is the story of the earliest inspirations behind Lady Chatterley’s Lover, its creation from 1926-28, and finally, the international high stakes behind the 1960 Old Bailey trial of Penguin Books.
Penguin was brought to trial by the Crown for its plan to publish the first uncensored version of Lawrence’s novel in Britain, 30 years after Lawrence’s death, as part of a reprint series of Lawrence’s works. The fate of that single novel was era-defining in that suddenly we, as a society, would no longer support the policing of our private lives or the prosecution of the human imagination.
5. What is on your ‘to read’ pile at the moment?
I Want! I Want!, by Vicki Feaver
Serious Noticing, by James Wood
And for re-reading… In Montparnasse, by Sue Roe.
6. Do you have a message for your Suffolk library readers?
In book-signing queues, readers often, really kindly, thank me; I thank them sincerely in return. Books only come to life with another imagination. As I write a novel or story, I’m conscious that the reader and I co-create it; that it takes a shared faith, good will, and a shared capacity for pleasure in stories and language. It’s lovely when you can, even briefly, recognise that together.
I also feel a special gratitude for library readers - for people who go to their local library regularly and keep them open in these days when far too many are being shut down, starved of funding. Even one shut-down is one too many, but in this country, we’ve lost, I’m told, about 800 in the last decade. I find that both heart-breaking and troubling.
Libraries, like newspapers, are the cornerstones of our democracy and freedoms, even in this internet age - and perhaps even more so in this internet age, when we need to know full histories or complex truths that are otherwise often flat-packed into sound-bites or manipulated by bias on social media. We need books on shelves. We need the serendipity of finding a book we didn’t even know we wanted until we laid eyes on it in the stacks. We need a rich range of sources: fact and fiction; poetry and newspapers; little literary magazines and heavy books of art.
I remember the pleasure of discovering stories, as a child, at my library - and the sense of exploration and mind-opening moments I had there. I’m still never far from a library in my day-to-day life, and I have worked out of some of the best libraries in the world - the British Library, the Bodleian, and so on. But we are all made poorer when even a single local library is lost.
So I want to thank Suffolk library readers, not only for reading my books, but for being the citizenship of Suffolk libraries. Local libraries hold entire universes. There is such a lot going on in a library on any given day, and those experiences are intangible, manifold and beyond price or measure. I feel that quite passionately.