Alison Moore’s debut novel, The Lighthouse was published by Salt Publishing in August 2012, and surpassed all expectations when shortlisted for that year’s Man Booker Prize, holding its own alongside established writers such as Will Self and Hilary Mantel, the eventual winner that year.
A second novel, He Wants, was an Observer Book of the Year 2014, and her third novel, Death And The Seaside was published last month by Salt to great acclaim.
I asked Moore about her journey as a writer and her recent experiences as a published novelist.
Tell us a little about yourself and your background?
I was born in Manchester but grew up in Loughborough. I have very early memories of being drawn to books and writing, and my first experience of publication and public reading (at Loughborough Library) came after being shortlisted in a local writing competition at the age of 8. After Loughborough, I went to university in Liverpool, and then lived in Sheffield for a while, before coming back to the Midlands. I’ve worked mainly in administration in arts and education organisations, most recently as PA to the Director of Lakeside Arts Centre in Nottingham. I now live in a village on the Leicestershire-Nottinghamshire border, with my husband Dan and son Arthur.
What were you like at school?
I feel like I wasn’t very different to how I am now! A bit shy, fond of the library…
Were you good at English?
English was my favourite subject all the way through school. English Language wasn’t available at ‘A’ level, but I studied English Literature at ‘A’ level and at university.
What is your creative background?
In addition to English, I’ve always enjoyed drama – I was in the Youth Theatre at school, and whilst majoring in English Literature at university I also studied drama, which I think was equally valuable in terms of thinking about narrative, point of view, setting, framing, and so on.
Which writers inspire you?
I tend to think I must have been influenced in some way by pretty much everything I’ve ever read, including formative years reading books such as Enid Blyton’s Faraway Tree series. Writers I’ve been reading and admiring in recent years include Shirley Jackson, Flannery O’Connor, Raymond Carver, Joyce Carol Oates, Sarah Waters…
Tell us a little about your latest book. What’s it about?
Death and the Seaside is about twenty-nine-year-old Bonnie Falls, who seems unable to get a grip on her life, or to finish a story she is trying to write, in which a young woman who has moved to the seaside comes under strange influences. Then Bonnie meets Sylvia Slythe, who encourages Bonnie to complete her story by taking a trip to the seaside world in which it is set. www.saltpublishing.com/products/death-and-the-seaside-9781784630690
What was the initial impetus for sitting down and writing your first novel?
The Lighthouse began with a vivid mental image of a man sitting alone in a woman’s kitchen, and his shoes were hurting him. He was a middle-aged man hankering after a woman from his past and having a bit of trouble with everyday things. This scene suggested returning, circling, obsessing, which gave me the idea to use, as a setting, the circular walking holiday I’d been on a few years before, in Germany. So I put Futh on the ferry and sent him off on his journey.
When did you decide to become a writer?
Perhaps it was when I was 8, reading my work out of the competition anthology at Loughborough Library; or perhaps it was in my teens, subscribing to writing magazines and trying to improve. But as someone who’s always loved books and writing, it feels more like an inclination that, rather than starting at some point, just never stopped.
Why do you write?
It’s an impulse. I would say it’s to do the way I think, the way I translate experiences and observations. I wrote a little bit about that here www.irishtimes.com/culture/books/where-the-real-and-fictional-worlds-meet-1.2733761
What made you decide to sit down and actually start something?
I’ve written short stories for years – I was sending pieces out to magazines and competitions in my teens and twenties, occasionally finding myself on a shortlist or being placed. In my thirties, I wrote a 12,000-word story which I found very difficult – although it went on to win a novella prize so it was worth it – and I think the stretch of that enabled me to write my first novel, The Lighthouse.
Do you write full-time or part-time?
I write while my son’s at school, so that’s pretty much full-time. And if there’s a deadline I’ll still be squinting at my laptop screen at 1am, 2am…
Do you have a special time to write or how is your day structured?
I can write at any time. I wrote my first novel while my baby was sleeping, and wrote most of my second novel while he was at pre-school two mornings a week – I used to stay and work in the on-site cafe or in my car – as well as when he was sleeping or when he was out with his dad or his grandma. Now my main hours are 9am to 3pm, when my son’s at school.
Do you write every day, 5 days a week or as and when?
My work days are school days, although I can also be thinking about stuff and getting the odd bit done on non-school days.
Do you aim for a set amount of words/pages per day?
Not at all. I edit as I go along, so I might even end up with fewer words than I started with. The important thing is that the story is moving forwards, becoming clearer.
Do you write on a typewriter, computer, dictate or longhand?
I write on a laptop, but if I’m away from my laptop when I get an idea I’ll write longhand.
Do you work to an outline or plot or do you prefer just see where an idea takes you?
As soon as I know how to start, I just get going, although sometimes by the time I know where to start I also have a sense of where I might be going. But I like that I don’t know what will actually happen en route – I like to take the journey along with my characters.
What was the sequence of events that led to you finding an agent or publisher?
After writing that 12,000-word story, I wrote a short story that was shortlisted for the Manchester Fiction Prize, through which I met Nicholas Royle, who was one of the judges. He invited me to send him a couple of stories for consideration for projects he was involved in as editor/publisher, and at the same time I’d started writing what became The Lighthouse. Nick became my agent as well as my editor at Salt Publishing, where he is Commissioning Editor for Fiction.
It must have been incredible to find yourself on the Booker shortlist, as a first time, independently published writer? What was that experience like?
It really was. The day the longlist was due to be announced, I was at home looking after my son, who was 3 at time. He had a new bike and wanted to go out on it, so we went down to the playpark and were still there – my son was selling me pretend ice-creams from under the slide – when my husband came along on his bike, and shouted, ‘You’re in!’ It was quite unreal, but I remember exactly how it felt… And then came the shortlisting, at which point it became possible to work towards writing for a living. I feel extraordinarily lucky to have had that big, timely leg-up.
What are Salt like to work with as a publisher? Do you have a very good relationship with your publishers?
I love working with Jen and Chris at Salt, who have published all four of my books. Things such as trust and flexibility give me the freedom to write the books I want to write. The whole team is great – I’ve worked with the same editor and the same cover designer www.johnoakeydesign.co.uk for each book, so I know we work well together and that gives me confidence in the process of each book and in the broader, long-term relationship. I’ve also been enjoying working with Salt’s publicist, through whom the Guardian recently commissioned an article on seaside books: www.theguardian.com/books/2016/aug/24/top-10-seaside-novels-beach-reading-graham-green-john-banville
What was the initial inspiration behind your second novel, He Wants?
I’d started to get a sense of a certain dynamic in this story I was going to write, including the idea of an ex-convict coming into a domestic setting, and uncertainty as to whether he was a threat or a more positive agent of change. At around the same time – this was 2011 – we had a family holiday on a remote farm in Dorset, with no TV or radio or newspapers, and during that week the riots took place across England, so there was this sense of all this upheaval and chaos but of being in a bit of a bubble. In He Wants, Lewis’s peaceful retirement is disrupted by Sydney, an ex-convict, whom Lewis finds sitting at his kitchen table.
Do you receive much feedback from your readers?
I do – it’s always a pleasure meeting readers at events and I genuinely love Q&A sessions, where we can chew things over. People also get in touch and tell me where they were when they read my stories: in ‘the deep words of Norway… a cabin we refer to as Elsewhere’… during ‘a 6 hour delay on the eurostar’… ‘on a drill vessel in the middle of the Baltic Sea’. I love knowing these things.
What have your experiences of press reviews been like?
With each new book, it’s been a huge relief to read the first press review and know that someone likes it. To find that there’s a great deal of support out there is brilliant. As well as finding new readers, a positive review is armour against the barbs of the negative comments!
When did you start writing your current novel, Death and the Seaside?
I’ve wanted for a while to write a story about control and manipulation. Then, in November 2014, I wrote a short story called ‘The Harvestman’ http://nightjarpress.weebly.com/the-harvestman.html and liked the idea of marrying the world of this story – which has been described as ‘a story about fear, and the way that fear can pull danger down towards itself’ (www.alison-moore.com/reviews/the-harvestman) – with the novel I was starting to write.
In between the writing and publication of The Lighthouse, I did a short story reading and everything was shaking – my voice, my limbs, the piece of paper I was reading from… I realised I was going to have to gain confidence in public speaking, so I got some tips on breathing and began reading at Nottingham Writers’ Studio’s live literature events and eventually the shaking drained away, and now I positively enjoy reading/discussion events!
What criticisms have helped you grow as a writer?
For a very long time, I didn’t show my writing to anyone I knew – the first person to see it would be a magazine editor or competition judge. In my thirties, when I first showed my work to Nick Royle, his feedback – comments, queries, suggestions – was perfectly pitched, which enabled me to keep showing my writing to him, and then to my husband, who is now my other reader and an equally good editor. So there’s the value of constructive criticism itself, but also the discovery that I have two people whose feedback I trust, and with whom I can therefore have that crucial working relationship.
Which famous person, living or dead would you like to meet and why?
Having read a number of biographies of D. H. Lawrence, I’m still intrigued by him and his life.
If you could have been the original author of any book, what would it have been and why?
I greatly admire the storytelling in The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters – although I’m not entirely sure this translates into wanting to have written it as that would change my relationship with the book, which I thoroughly enjoyed reading.
What advice would you give to aspiring writers?
I have found that the point at which a story seems to be falling to pieces, the point at which I start to lose faith in it, is usually the point at which in fact it’s all about to come together, if I just grit my teeth and stay with it. So stamina’s good, and make sure you get enough exercise!
Where do you see publishing going in the future?
There will always be new developments to be taken on board and hopefully embraced, but I do think people will always want physical eg paperback books, in addition to ebooks etc. I’m delighted by the positive attention independent publishers / small presses seem to have been getting in recent years, which will help them to thrive.
What are you working on at the minute? Do you have any upcoming projects?
Now that Death and the Seaside is out, I’m completing a couple of short stories and then, in September, I’ll start work on my next novel.
Is there anything else you would like to add that I haven’t included?
I also have some events coming up, which are listed here www.alison-moore.com/events.
How can readers discover more about you and you work?
Amazon Author Page: www.amazon.co.uk/-/e/B004SC7DWE
Author bio: James Gent is a freelance writer; passionate about pop culture, books & book people, and social media. He has contributed to several published anthologies including 1001 TV Series You Must Watch Before You Die, penned the group biography for the official Monty Python website, and is currently editing Me And The Starman, a tribute to David Bowie, to be published by Watching Books later this year. Follow James on Twitter, LinkedIn and WordPress.