Bristol Prize

Interview with Alison MacLeod

July 5, 2011   Joe Melia

We’re really delighted that Alison Macleod (below)  will be presenting prizes and speaking at this year’s awards ceremony in a couple of weeks time. As well as her brilliant collection Fifteen Modern Tales of Attraction (Penguin), Alison’s short stories have been widely published in magazines, journals and anthologies including Prospect, London Magazine, Pulp.Net and Virago. She is, also, the author of the novels The Changeling and The Wave Theory of Angels.

Alison writes about short stories, other forms of literature and the craft of writing in such a unique and original way that we couldn’t miss the opportunity to ask her a few questions ahead of the awards ceremony and her appearance on the Women and Short Stories discussion panel at ShortStoryVille.

Alison was interviewed by Ellen Grant, who graduated from Bath Spa University this summer.

What do you think are the most important and exciting qualities of the short story?

A good short story is a voice in our ear.  It’s intimate.  It’s a private world.  It’s also a world on a cusp, and that’s really thrilling in a good writer’s hands.   Something’s about to happen, something small very often, but the effects will be profound, life-changing.  It’s always metamorphosis, it’s always Ovid: someone is about to never be the same again.  Stories might be grim or poignant, lyrical or hilarious, but the good ones always leave me changed.  I feel, literally, moved, re-configured.  I love that.  I can go looking for it even, binge-reading story collections when I have the time.  I get addicted.  And because of the compression of the form, it’s almost only about this: life, the essence of it, unfolding on the page as you read.

You will be appearing at ShortStoryVille on the  ‘Women and Short Fiction’ panel discussion; so do you think the short story genre suits female writing or does female writing suit the short story?

It will be terrific to hash this one out at ShortStoryVille.  There are brilliant female story wrters whose work has formed me, and brilliant male story writers whose work has done the same.  I’d say the crucial thing is that the short story is a subversive form, arguably more subversive than the form of the novel (a form I love for different reasons).  The short story can be a daring space.  For women in the last few centuries, from Margaret Cavendish to Katherine Mansfield, from Kate Chopin to Alice Munro, the tale or the story has been at the very least a free space, one to pitch a tent in, seemingly when no one’s really looking.  It’s been an artistic home for women, but also, crucially, for many ‘outsiders’ over the centuries who wanted, or needed, to explore things ‘aslant’.  The short story is all about that ‘aslant’ or oblique approach.  It makes the form quiet, radical, human and delicious all at once.  It’s a literary sparkler, throwing off sparks in a short burst of time.  The best, by both women and men, blaze within you.

Do your experiences as a creative writing tutor inform your writing?

I think my long experience as a writing tutor has given me a sharp and pragmatic ability to edit my own work and to understand the craft of fiction from the ‘inside out’.  Although I’m mostly a very instinctive writer, when I’m revising and editing a piece of work, it’s a very lucky thing, I realise, to have this consciousness of craft.  It can speed everything up – and by ‘everything’ I mean the process of deepening a piece of work and of making it both honest and engaging.  Agents and editors can often point to something that’s wrong, but it’s very rare for them to be able to articulate why they think it is – and for some writers and editors, this can lead to an impasse.  It’s handy to be able to work in many ways around a manuscript.  If I can get even two months away from a piece of my own work, I can usually edit it pretty ruthlessly, as if it’s not my own.  I’m glad about that.  I don’t have to show anyone else too much of the mess that way.

How do you balance your time between teaching and writing?

The honest answer?  It’s not easy, especially with the tightening tourniquet on Humanities courses these days.  The Academy needs writers, but, broadly speaking, it has little understanding of the conditions writers need in order to write.  It can be enormously difficult.  You’re writing against the odds in many ways, and the odds were great enough to start with.  You also need to channel your own creativity into the work of the students you’re working with, and that can lead to burn-out – especially in a climate where students are increasingly being encouraged to think of themselves as paying ‘customers’ or ‘clients’.  I often see the generous offerings of very experienced writers being subjected to ‘tick box evaluations’, petty comments or strictly monitored ‘learning outcomes’.  It can make you lose heart!   But I’m delighted and proud when I see new writers really come into their own – and I see that a lot.  I’ve just had a particularly brilliant group of year-three short story writers, many of whom have produced knock-out stories.

Who are your favourite short story writers?

I probably have favourite short stories rather than favourite writers, but that list would run off the page.  So let’s say… Chekhov, Gogol, Kafka, Djuana Barnes, D.H. Lawrence, Tennessee Williams, Raymond Carver, Alice Munro, Angela Carter, Ian McEwan, Hanif Kureishi, Carol Shields, Amy Bloom, A.M. Homes, and many of my contemporaries.  There’s a lot of stunning work out there at the moment.

How does your writing process differ when composing a short story and a novel? Which process do you prefer?

I love them both.  They each have their own beauties and frustrations.  Writing a novel feels like you’re trying to build this big thing – a house or a cathedral even.  It’s hard carrying it around with you all the time: all those details and all those connections/buttresses that will, in time, span, say, 300 pages.  You need sustained periods of time when you can ‘go to ground’ with it and let things slow down.  You need times when you can be anti-social and ‘go feral’ to find the story’s deep connections.  With modern life, those sustained periods of time and that slowing down can be the real challenge, even more than the writing itself.

With a short story, you’re making a window – a stained glass window, a skylight, a storm window.  They need intense heat.  You have to stick with them, close to the furnace, for short periods of time.  You don’t know if they’ll come right until they do.

What are the most exciting moments for you when your work is being published?

I love doing readings.  Not all writers do, but I love being able to put breath and a voice into my words. I like the physical experience of it.  An author’s reading has what Ben Okri has called the ‘inner signature’ of a piece of a writing; I like to be able to put that out there, and I feel privileged when I hear other writers read their work.

I also love talking to readers about my work at festivals and readings, and I’m always grateful for their interest.  As a writer, you’re conscious that only when a good reader reads your story or novel is it truly ‘made’.

You once said that ‘The best short stories have a breathless, in-motion quality to them, a quality that makes them ideal for adaptation into film, as directors are increasingly realising.’ Which of your stories would you most like to see adapted to film and why?

Yes, short stories like films are all motion and observation.  Neither can sustain the kind of introspection a novel can.  They’re kindred forms in many ways.

Let’s see… I’d love to see four of my stories in film: ‘so that the land was darkened’ and ‘Notes for a Chaotic Century’, which are both in Fifteen Modern Tales of Attraction.  Also ‘Oscillate Wildly’ (in the anthology Paint a Vulgar Picture: Fiction Inspired by The Smiths) and ‘The Thaw’ (in the anthology Waving at the Gardener). My film agent is Kirsty Mclachlan at David Godwin Associates, by the way.  All proposals welcome!

If you were making an Alison MacLeod cocktail which three characters from literary history would you add to the mix?

Brilliant question.  Charlotte Bronte, D.H. Lawrence and Angela Carter.

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