Tuesday, 10 December 2013

Above the Parapet : a Talk with Short Story Writer Alison Lock

Welcome Alison! Your short story collection opens with a brother-sister rivalry taking place as the earth threatens to overturn their trivial concerns. Many of your stories also suggest the aftermath of a cataclysm, or are peopled with a world of survivors. Do you think we don’t listen to the planet enough?

Thank you Catherine—it is lovely to have the opportunity to tell about my writing. To answer your first queston - yes, I suppose I do think that.  We are all reliant on this planet and therefore it is important that we look after it, although I suspect that it will survive whatever we throw at it but it just might last a little longer if give it some TLC.

You also use magic, history and pluck to take the reader far beyond a comfortable contemporary framework. Tell us about your writing process – what comes to you first and where do you aim to take the reader?

Many of the stories are triggered by tiny moments, episodes, observances, but some are from larger events; catastrophes, tsunamis, earthquakes, volcano eruptions – things that make us ask: what would I do in that situation? Of course, if we were there, there would be very little we could do, and often people or nations do not have the resources to deal effectively with unexpected events, or even events that they know are likely to happen. Some of the fictional outcomes are down to the individual characters, like in 'Bugs' where Aunty Vi is the only adult who understands why Katy loves to play with worms and bugs.  It is the other adults who are not in tune with the natural world or the world of the child.  In the end it is Katy who has the last laugh. As for taking the reader somewhere -  I believe that the reader brings as much to a story as the writer, and that it is the connection that matters. It's all about resonance.

Tell us about the ideas behind the underground setting for your dystopian story ‘Erthenta’.

Erthenta was one of the first stories I wrote to be set in an underground world. The planet has been knocked by a series of meteor showers and has been knocked off its axis. The survivors have resorted to living under the surface in the caves and tunnels but they have to constantly maintain their environment as well as find food. The most useful creatures for nutritional and practical purposes are the Carcomites – a bug that is also poisonous. Also, the population has been unable to reproduce for a generation and Elsina is the first to become pregnant. She believes that the best way of helping her baby to survive is to take it to the centre of the Earth where it will receive a special blessing. It is one of the stories that is set in an extreme world and uses the medium of fantasy to explore and create the story. 

Several of the stories are prize-winners – how did you select which pieces to include in the collection?

This is my first collection of short stories and I decided that rather than give it a thematic overview I would use it as a showcase for my writing, which is why, although it has some very distinct themes,  it is also eclectic. I write poetry as well as prose and it is the use and combination of words that attract me most to the process of writing. Also, I like to look at ideas from different points of view, I don't just mean first person or third person but I like to try out second person too, and also to create a story within a different genre. There are so many exciting tools to use! I now find that I am often writing fantasy and futuristic stories because I can explore themes without the 'restrictions' of realism. I want my readers to let go too and enjoy the ride.

Your first book was a poetry collection and your language is clearly lyrical. Why the shift from poetry to short stories, and where do you feel most comfortable?

Strange as it sounds, I feel that poetry and short stories come from different places: whether it is from the body or from the mind – I'm not sure which—but often I know fairly soon into a new piece if it is going to be a poem or a short story by the way it feels. I now also write very short fiction – often called flash fiction. This is a great way to create an illusion or a sudden tension. 

How does social media affect your life as a writer? What role do you think social media should play in the life of a published author?

Social media is great on one level – when you work on your own it is wonderful to be able to discuss things with others who are also writing away in their attics, or, to swap ideas, or to pass on information via facebook, twitter or blogs. With an independent publisher the onus is mainly on the writer to promote their work, and hence, social media has become a necessity.  We write about ourselves and our writing and hope that people will be interested enough to buy our books! 

What plans do you have for the future? And what advice would you give to a short story writer trying to have a collection published?

The future for me is full of words. I am presently rehearsing a long piece of poetry and music which is a collaboration with musician Robin Bowles. We worked together on my 'eye of the heron' piece for the Holmfirth Arts Festival. It's here recorded on soundcloud. Do give it a click.
I love the coincidence of sound—the spoken word to music. I am still writing short stories too – I love the feeling you get when one is finished—like holding a sculpted ornament in the palm of your hand. I am also writing a novel for young people which is in the editing stages, and I also hope to publish another poetry collection.  I've had many single poems published that I would like to gather together – its a bit like signing off at the end of a letter – pressing your poems like flowers between the covers, preserving them and sealing them with a kiss.  

Who would you say has been your main influences and what are you reading now?

I have just finished reading David Vann's Life of a Suicide – an extraordinary book that deals with the deeper darker emotions in a very illuminating and descriptive way. I admire his work and came across him recently at a masterclass where his enthusiasm was utterly contagious.  I also constantly read poetry by a whole range of contemporary poets. 

Excerpt from Alison's story 'Erthenta'

Only those who dwell in caves can really understand. When the surface is a barren dry desert and the sun burns on and on, there is nowhere else to go. The caves becomes your world, your home, your street, your back yard; your life. No darkness enters from above; there is none, not since the final spin of the Earth on its axis nearly a century before. This is the place they call Erthenta. Once you experience the lure of the silence, the calling of the calm, the cool air caressing the flesh of your face, you will never again want to resurface. 

Elsina has lived here for twenty year-longs. The dark soil and shadowed rock beneath the burnt crust of Earth is her homeland. She ventures to the surface only long enough to seek out the scorched creatures that provide the community with a little cooked protein. At least there is a steady supply of water in the under layer where the streams ooze from the mountains of ice on the other side of the planet. Channelled, there is enough to quench the thirst of all Erthentans before it is evaporated by the surface heat, turning liquid to steam. Special midway caves have been set aside for the steam rooms where people can go after their day’s labours to sink their weary flesh into the vivifying banks of mud, to cleanse in the rich mineral pools and sup from the pure springs. 

They all believe their true home, the place of their origin, is at the centre of the Earth. It is a place they all aspire to visit at least once in their lives, to meditate at the holy shrine of Shala, to relieve their troubles, to submit their prayers, to feel the embrace of the inner void. But the path to the centre is known to be hazardous, crumbling with every rumble, splitting with each quake of the endlessly shifting tectonic plates.

Above the Parapet has had great reviews from Sabotage Reviews and Puffin Reviews and can be bought directly from the publisher or from the usual suspects! 

Monday, 2 December 2013

On Sleeping with Your Manuscript

There is neither a proportional relationship, nor an inverse one, between a writer’s estimation of a work in progress and its actual quality. The feeling that the work is magnificent, and the feeling that it is abominable, are both mosquitoes to be repelled, ignored, or killed, but not indulged.
Annie Dillard

This writer, who is busy muscling her way through a new series of short stories, is feeling the rub. How mischievous is the mind! One ecstatic moment the story seems a shimmering equilibrium, the next it seems like a dumping ground for word waste. How to manage the rollercoaster, I do not know. There must be inbuilt filters in the artist's mind: this is trash; this is glorious!

I don't usually read writing manuals, mainly because I'm afraid that the few ideas I have will, er, be upended and I will go scuttling back to base. But these words of advice featured on the astute Brain Pickings blog are ringing a clear bell.

When you write, you lay out a line of words. The line of words is a miner’s pick, a woodcarver’s gouge, a surgeon’s probe. You wield it, and it digs a path you follow. Soon you find yourself deep in new territory. Is it a dead end, or have you located the real subject? You will know tomorrow, or this time next year. You make the path boldly and follow it fearfully. You go where the path leads. At the end of the path, you find a box canyon. You hammer out reports, dispatch bulletins. The writing has changed, in your hands, and in a twinkling, from an expression of your notions to an epistemological tool. The new place interests you because it is not clear. You attend. In your humility, you lay down the words carefully, watching all the angles. Now the earlier writing looks soft and careless. Process is nothing; erase your tracks. The path is not the work. I hope your tracks have grown over; I hope birds ate the crumbs; I hope you will toss it all and not look back.

How true is this? How jumbled and hopeful you are at the outset with your bundle of words and a hot drink, then becoming more sure-footed as events, tone and language take hold. But how fearfully one sets out, placing every word painfully, terrified of going off upon an irrelevant tangent, a track that is meaningless. And then your muddy footprints are so evident at the head of the page. Do you cover your tracks? Have you reached the box canyon? Are you able to jettison your soft and careless beginnings and slide into the body of the work?

Dear Catherine, 
Writing is subtraction.

Interestingly, Brain Pickings highlights Dillard's two editing scenarios. Edit-as-you-go, or let your words unbundle, identify what their shape might be, and prune sharply. I'm an edit-as-you-go freak, especially with the short story where each word must earn its keep and, in being discovered and employed, propel the story to its resolution. I cannot write in a blindman's flurry at all - it just becomes catastrophic, a writing orgy, like my daughter's room on a Friday night. I'll get everything in my wardrobe out and wear it every which way.

I'll leave you with some parting words from Joan Didion,

I need an hour alone before dinner, with a drink, to go over what I’ve done that day. I can’t do it late in the afternoon because I’m too close to it. Also, the drink helps. It removes me from the pages. So I spend this hour taking things out and putting other things in. Then I start the next day by redoing all of what I did the day before, following these evening notes. When I’m really working I don’t like to go out or have anybody to dinner, because then I lose the hour. If I don’t have the hour, and start the next day with just some bad pages and nowhere to go, I’m in low spirits. Another thing I need to do, when I’m near the end of the book, is sleep in the same room with it. 

I love this one. Call me silly but I've always slept with my manuscript next to my head.