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Alison MacLeod

By Sarah Hutchings

Alison MacLeod

This interview with Canadian born writer Alison MacLeod was first published on The Deckchair website on 11/06/2007.

How did you get your first break?
A story of mine, 'Hula-Hooping', was shortlisted in the Iain St. James Competition, the same competition that, I believe, brought Kate Atkinson into the public eye. It was a piece I had written during my MA year at the University of Lancaster. An agent spotted it in the competition magazine and asked if I was working on anything else. I had about a hundred pages of a first novel on the go, and he signed me up on the basis of that. He offered it to one editor - I forget where - who said no thanks. The next, Katie Owen, then at Macmillan, took a gamble and commissioned it. 'The Changeling' was published in 1996 to some (mercifully) great reviews. In fact, my very first review ever was broadcast live to the nation on Radio 4's Kaleidoscope; I turned the radio on that afternoon, generally terrified, but it was okay. Somehow that year I was even named as a 'literary babe of the year' in a Sunday Times double spread article - though it was a cheat. There was no photo and without a photo, who doesn't qualify as a literary babe of the year? But as this was all pre-Zadie, in the days when the phrase 'literary babe' was practically an oxymoron, it seemed like a minor coup.

Could you describe your working day.
I don't think I've ever written in the mornings, though I envy those who do. It seems so virtuous and pure. No, I do laundry, pay bills, take care of the admin of living, get distracted by emails, read, and loiter - weather allowing - on my patio. I turn my attention to writing and all my related displacement activities after lunch. I tend to get up between chapters or sections and have a dance in my tiny kitchen to Southern FM. If I were a better, more concerned human being, it would be Radio 4, but, um, there really aren't many tunes, and I need that shot of energy. I work till suppertime, then eat, watch a little TV or talk to friends and family on the phone. I'll start writing again at 9pm and work through till at least midnight, depending on the next day's demands (I teach as well). But in a great writing stretch, I might work till 2, 3 or 4am each night for weeks on end. I love the luxurious quiet and calm of the night. It feels like something I've stolen. My mind is often far more alert, though admittedly, the following morning, the postman often looks at me like I'm a slattern as he delivers a parcel at 10 or 11 and notes the tell-tale bed-hair.

I remember something Hilary Mantel said about that phase of writing when a piece of work finally takes on a life of its own and takes all your attention: she said, it 'eats up all the air in the room'. I think it's a great and perfect image. When I finally finish - or give up for the night - I go for a good soak in the bath. Often, here, when my mind goes idle, the next line of the next chapter or section comes to me. Or occasionally, it's just as I wake - as if the book is working it's own secret way through me as I sleep. But this could almost make the process sound easy and magical, when, in fact, the job of discovering or excavating the story is a major day-in, day-out labour, even on the days I'm not at the desk. Sean O'Casey once said, 'When I stepped from hard manual work to writing, I just stepped from one kind of hard work to another.' Believe it or not, it's almost physically tiring carrying a book around all the time. I also like what Paul Auster says, 'Writing is physical for me. I always have the sense that words are coming out of my body, not just my mind... An attentive reader is finding meanings in the book that can't be articulated, finding them in his or her body. I think this is what so many people don't understand about fiction.'

How does an idea become a book?
It's different every time, so, if the work is genuinely new and fresh, I'm never quite sure how - or if - I'm going to pull it off. It's a highwire act every time. But the not-knowing and the fear that comes with that is also what, in part, gives the new story or novel its tension and energy.

Generally though, a short story for me starts with the spark of a single image that intrigues me, or perhaps with the music or hint of a voice behind a certain sentence that comes into my mind, or both. So with this line - ' We met in the uncompanionable darkness of Sam Taylor-Wood's 'Third Party' - I could hear a voice and, more importantly, a rhythm of emotion in that voice. It gave way to my story, 'Life and Soul' even though I had no idea at the time what the sentence meant or who was saying it.  I get a certain hum in my head and chest when I know an idea is a premonition of a story. Another line that arrived fully formed was, ' When my wife, Angelina, is aroused, ball lightning slides from between her legs: a sphere of plasma, sometimes the size of an orange, sometimes the size of a basketball.' It's the opening line to my magically-real story 'Discharge' about the suppressed but growing anger in a particular marriage.  Again, I didn't really know what it meant when the line occurred to me. Writing a story is my way of discovering the story for myself, not of sending out a message or a single theme. Virginia Woolf said that all writers must be brave enough to write blindly, to write into the dark, as if we're wearing a small headlamp that can only light up and show us bits of the room - or the story - at one time. For most of the time, you have to go on faith, and you have to stumble over furniture.

Novels are the same and also different. They're like architecture with their cast of characters, plots and sub-plots so I need to have at least a few key cornerstones in place before I begin to write, even though much of it will remain unguessable for a long time. Research has been crucial to me because, in order to stay fascinated in a subject (and novels are fuelled by fascination, not just interest), I need to step into worlds I don't directly know - like an 18th-century court of law in colonial Jamaica where my character in 'The Changeling' was about to be sentenced for piracy.  In researching that, it was incredible to be able to read the court records at the Public Records Office of the actual trial of Anne Bonny. I felt almost physically transported to that place and time; I could 'hear' the event unfolding as I read. For 'The Wave Theory of Angels', I travelled to a cathedral in France, a physics lab in Chicago and a sleep lab, among many other places, though I wrote the last hundred pages hardly leaving my parents' basement, where I had taken up writing temporarily, cloistered away, quite weirdly, from the world.

Do you always finish reading a book you've started?
I used to always finish a book, and I liked the discipline of that.  I didn't want to discover that books were disposable. Now I'm promiscuous. I tend to have about four books on the go at a time. I also dip. I don't always finish them. I'm less respectful. Maybe three-for-two deals have a lot to answer for. Either that or life seems shorter than it once did.

Which book do you wish you'd written?
Many. But for the moment I'll choose Michael Cunningham's 'The Hours'. There isn't a  false note. The prose is so lovingly honed and yet it reads entirely naturally, resonating on and on. It has a translucent quality that's hard to get. There's also a great sense of quiet between the lines, like the best use of negative space in an artwork or stillness in a piece of music. It gives the characters force and dignity, and it's there in the sound of the novel, in the music of its prose. The music is something a writer has to find or sense even before much of the writing happens. Writing books rarely talk about that, and yet it's vital. It's also, at some level, quite primitive. Structurally, I also love the three-part plot because it's inventive, but so unshowy. Then there's the story itself - incredibly moving but ordinary and very grounded at the same time. The passage about the death of Virginia Woolf is an astonishing piece of writing.

If you weren't a writer, what job would you like to have done?
If I could ever have danced that well, a modern dancer - I'd love to lead such a visceral life. Modern ballet. Good flamenco. High-kicking chorus-girl stuff. I find bodies fascinating, and also often quite moving; they were probably the major source of inspiration for most of the stories in my forthcoming collection, 'Fifteen Modern Tales of Attraction'.

Otherwise, an art collector. I could easily get greedy and obsessive about art. I'm fascinated by the talismanic quality of a good piece of art; by the fact that there's only one of it (not, say, a print run of a few thousand); that something of both the energy and temperament of an individual life is there in the present-tense of the brushstrokes or the pressure of the pencil. Art always seems kinetic, and that intrigues me.

Describe your perfect day.
A swim followed by a picnic or a bonfire with friends and family on one of the long stretches of sandy beach on the Nova Scotian coast, where I grew up. Or (can't quite decide), a great café, people-watching, a love interest, a long stroll and an art gallery in a city I don't know yet.

What keeps you awake at night?
Sometimes, my characters. They get into my dreams. They argue. They give chase. They wake me up and elbow me with ideas (some good, some bad) until I scribble illegible notes in the little spiral notebook I keep in my bedside drawer next to my Sinex and eye mask. Beyond that: the usual. Money worries. My love life or the lack of it, depending. A senseless panic that I'll forget to put out the recycling or to renew my road tax.

Why did you choose to live in Brighton and Hove and what keeps you here?
I moved here in 2000, after ten years in Chichester. It's such a dynamic place for artists and writers - so much fantastic work in a relatively small area. There can be a poser element - an everyone-is-a-musician-or-an-installation-artist sort of thing - but I don't mind that. I love the fact that's it's both hilly and on the sea; it reminds me of Halifax, the city where I grew up. I felt instantly more at home here than anywhere else I have lived in England. And there is also almost nothing so cheering as a stroll through the North Laine or that sudden glimpse of the sea when you're not expecting it, or the sight of the Pavilion floodlit at night, all Arabian-Nights-esque and beautifully oddball.

How does living here inspire your work?
I find the contact with other artists and writers here constantly inspiring; that's not easy to come by for a lot of people. But more and more, the city itself is creeping into my work: its seediness, its romance, its stories. My story 'Dirty Weekend', in 'Fifteen Modern Tales', is set half in Paris, half here. I'm working on my next novel now, which is also set in Brighton. So I'm not going anywhere in a hurry.

Visit Alison's website.

This page was amended on 14/01/2012
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