Time for a new interview, this time with the very talented Aliya Whiteley. I've enjoyed Aliya's work for a long time, not least because she's turned her hand to a lot of different kinds of stories and executed them all so well. I'm partway through reading her new collection, and it is one of the best things I have read so far this year, and may well stay that way. You should read it, I think you'll love it too. (Get here: Lulu)
We're in a lift, I'm someone important (come on, pretend), you've got thirty seconds (tall building, slow lift) to tell me about your latest book.
I’m stuck in a lift with Cher and you want me to talk books?! I’ll attempt to remain coherent. Witchcraft in the Harem is a collection of fantasy short stories that take you to dangerous and exciting places.
Here’s the blurb:
You’re running away from something terrible. You think you’ve escaped it, this thing, but it turns out it’s waiting for you in all the places you hide: your house, your garden, a self-help group, a seraglio, the island of Zanzibar, a museum in Turin, a hot air balloon in Canada, even in the ladies’ room of your favourite nightclub. You’ve carried it into these places with you. It’s inside you. And now it’s time for it to come out.
I loved Gypsies, Tramps and Thieves, by the way. Will you sign my face please?
Uh-oh. Not sure lifts are meant to stop suddenly between floors like this. Guess we've got a bit more time. Ignore the flickering lights and creaking sounds above us. Would you like to tell me about other books or stories that you have available?
Before I wrote fantasy stories I wrote comic novels. Three Things About Me and Light Reading are still out there for public perusal. And I have the true-life story of the time I fled my wedding (and took my fiancé along with me) available in the bestselling Lonely Planet anthology Better Than Fiction. None of these are as monumental as If I Could Turn Back Time, obviously, but one does one’s best.
Please stop repeatedly pressing the emergency button. The comment about building a ladder of bones to reach the ceiling hatch and get out of here was just blue-skies thinking. So, what are you working on now?
I’ve just finished writing a fantasy novel and I’ve got short stories coming up in magazines like Kaleidotrope and Per Contra, as well in the Best of Smokelong anthology, so these are exciting times for me. Please don’t make a ladder out of me. I have so much to live for.
You've told us about what stories you've written, and I know from my own reading how wide-ranging they are. How would you describe yourself as a writer?
I really don’t do just one genre or type of story. I write the ideas that come to me. I’ve always loved fantasy, but as a loose definition for stories in which anything could happen. I’d describe myself as unpredictable.
Pascal said: "Please forgive this very long and drawn out letter, I did not have time to write you a short one." Do you find writing short fiction harder than your novels?
The challenge of the novel is to keep going every day, and maybe find at the end of the writing process that you’ve wasted a year. I can’t tell early on in a novel if I’m wasting my time, so in that regard a short story is easier to write. Plus my mind works in short. I’m not a person that writes five thousand words and cuts down to two. I write one thousand words and work up. I often find with novels that the scenes I add late on in the editing process become the key moments, which is strange. But my brain works that way.
In your own writing, what do you think you do well, and what do you wish you could do better?
I think I can surprise the reader well. I love those moments when you’re reading a book or a story and you think to yourself – I have no idea where this is going. I love those moments, and I try to get that feeling into my writing. It’s very powerful.
Right now I’m working on a novel from a male point of view, and I’m wishing I was naturally better at that. I’m persevering, though.
Can you remember what made you sit down to write your first book or story?
Compulsory redundancy. I was an assistant at an insurance company and when they decided to close the office they needed someone to stay behind for three months and sit there with not a lot to do until all the furniture had been moved out. So I filled my time by writing. I wrote a really awful romantic novel, just to see if I could. And I could. That gave me the confidence to try to write something literary, and I wrote my King Lear/Dune crossover novella, Mean Mode Median. And I loved it – that feeling of creation and freedom.
Do you have a book or short story that you're very fond of, but you think should get more attention from the world than it has?
I wrote a novel a few years ago called The Flipside of Libby Frost and it is an Acker Bilk inspired weirdness of a novel that I’m very proud of. But it fell in that period when conventional publishing wanted me to write something a bit more commercial and so it never got published. Maybe someday it’ll make it out of the hard drive and into the real world.
Print publishing is a doomed but still predatory dinosaur rotting from the feet up. Ebook publishing is the vomiting out of the world's slushpiles onto the market. In the ongoing war of words and hyperbole, where's the happy medium to be found? Where do you think the publishing business is heading over the next few years, and what are you doing to be ready for it?
I really don’t know and I’m rubbish at predicting things. My experiences with larger publishers and the business model of publishing has taught me that I can’t do anything about it. I want to get my work out there and beyond that I am unbothered about the medium. I’ve done big publishing, small press, and self-publishing, and they all have something to recommend them. No matter how I get published, the only thing under my control is putting my best work out there so that I’m not ashamed of it. So that’s what I concentrate on.
What book do you most wish that you had written?
Rupert Thomson’s The Book of Revelation. Anything by Rupert Thomson, actually, because he’s brilliant. Or The Heart of the Matter by Graham Greene.
If you could give an aspiring writer one piece of advice, what would it be?
You only start to get good at it if you do it lots and do it for years.
If you could tell an aspiring piece of writer to ignore one commonly given piece of advice, what would it be?
Any reductive piece of advice annoys me. Don’t use adverbs, don’t use tags other than ‘said’, and so on. You get a feel for what fits after a while, and sometimes it’s an adverb or a different speech tag. She opined grandiosely.
Are you 'out' as a writer of fiction with work colleagues/family, and if so, what reaction did you get?
I was a full-time stay-home mother, but then my daughter ungraciously went off to school, so I had to come clean and admit I had also been writing for the past five years and wasn’t about to go out and get another office job.
It’s difficult to hide because I like writing in cafes. In fact, I choose one café that I love and I go there every morning, and so it would look odd to say I’m merely doodling when I’m obviously scribbling long sentences for two hours at a time. So I tell people I’m a writer, and they think I’m strange or deluded, and that’s fine. They’re always really pleased for me, though. Pleased that I’m happily scribbling away.
Gibbons or tigers?
I just wrote a short story about tigers that live in your brain, so tigers it is.