Wednesday, 19 January 2011

The Home Stretch

And so we reach the end of the MNW Round Robin. Sob. I’ll try to hold myself together for these final questions from Suroopa to me.

You are a fairly prolific and well published short story writer. Do you write them as and when a story idea strikes you or do you write many of them together with a common theme in mind? Are they linked to your novels? Do they remain a secondary form that nevertheless occupies a distinct imaginative landscape?

I get less and less short story ideas now. They all seem to get sucked into the novels, and that’s fine, but I do wish I could bash out a shortie once a week, as I used to. Quite often I don’t have an idea of what’s going to happen when I start writing a short story (or a novel, for that matter) so I wing it, and sometimes it works. I usually have a voice in mind, and that’s the only starting point. There’s never a theme or a planned collection.

The good thing about short stories is the amount of freedom they give me to make mistakes, and to write in other genres and styles. I can’t sustain anything very serious for too long, but I have written some literary short stories that I’m quite proud of. It’s also an excuse to push comedic elements to their limit, into slapstick sometimes, as with a piece like Spitting Wasps. And that story directly led to the character of Pru from Light Reading. But, you’re right, short stories are a secondary form to me, and they fit in around the novels, or not at all. And I have written a few short stories set in my seaside town of Allcombe but they never seem quite right. So yes, they must flow from a very different place, and that’s probably why I write them. They allow me to be a horror/sci-fi/slapstick,serious writer, which suits me very well. Talking of which…

Your novels do not seem to fit a distinct genre. Is that by choice? Does it work to your advantage? Do you write with sequels in mind?

It’s absolutely not by choice. I would love to fit, to be honest, because then I’d be more marketable. But the moment I try to write with a genre specifically in mind it all goes flat and boring for me. I think I’m constantly trying to entertain myself when I write. I aim to take myself, let alone the reader, by surprise. This is not conducive to how modern bookselling works. Publishers want a synopsis before you’ve begun writing, and they want you to fit on a certain shelf. I can understand that. I just can’t do it.

Here’s a snippet of a conversation I once had with a publisher:

Pub: I want you to go free! I see you as genreless! Just use that quirky, imaginative style of yours and don’t be concerned about where it leads, okay?

Me: So can my characters go into space, then?

Pub: No.

This kind of sums up my writing career so far.

How do you relate to your characters? Do you visualise them in their entirety or do they take you by surprise? I find that you portray strong and rather intriguing women. You also have a strong sense of place. How instinctive are you as a writer? How do you research a place? What sort of readership do you want for the women you create?

For me it’s all about the characters, but they’re like real people in that no matter how well you think you know them, there’s always something new up their sleeves. And they are all products of place. I mainly research a place by living there. Luckily, I’ve lived in a lot of places so I have a few to choose from. They are never exactly the same in my imagination; you couldn’t draw a street map from my version and have a clue where you were standing if you took a day trip there. But I like the pretend and the real version to sit side by side. I don’t see why I have to be accurate.

I don’t tend to think about a certain type of person reading my books. Right now my offspring, the Munchie, is obsessed with what girls like to do and what boys like to do. I keep telling her that it’s perfectly okay to like Spiderman and fairies, but she’s not having it. I hope that anyone could enjoy my books, not just girls or boys. I’m not really a big fan of the whole ‘books for women by women’ thing. Or that only men should like Michael Moorcock or Iain M Banks. If you like it, you like it. If you don’t, I didn’t write it with you in mind.

And finally, what is it about veggies that fascinates you?

I have to admit I don’t find vegetables that fascinating. I needed something to blog about, so I started listing the contents of my veggie box, and people seemed to enjoy it so I carried on doing it. Then, when Neil Ayres (ex-blog-buddy) redesigned our blog, he called it The Veggiebox. I felt I had to deliver more vegetable-based articles, so I started looking for vegetables in novels that I read, and I began to feel that all the novels I really liked had vegetables in them. And the ones that weren’t so good showed a distinct lack of veg. I don’t know why that is; maybe it’s indicative of a level of detail that I prefer in writing. I like to know what characters are eating and growing and placing in their fruit bowls and lunchboxes.

Vegetables (or fruit) make for a better novel. It’s my theory and I’m sticking to it.

Thanks Suroopa for the excellent questions, and thank you to everyone who took part or read along. Phew! And now we can slump back into our writerly slouches over our keyboards and get on with those novels. Chop chop everyone. There are onions out there to be sautéed, metaphorically speaking.


Eliza Graham said...

I am nervously scanning my past works to see how I measure up to the veg test....!

Ciara said...

Me too!! Need more spuds! :)

suroopa said...

Super answers, and somehow I seem to know better why I enjoy reading your work...

C. N. Nevets said...

Suddenly I'm glad I have blueberries in my novel.

That conversation with your publisher is very illustrative. Thanks for sharing that. I mean, as someone who wishes more authors had the freedom to transcend genres even as they redefine them (as a robot once said of Beck), I wish conversations like that didn't happen. But, as a realist, I knew that was the way of the world and it was helpful for me to see it spelled out.

My novel doesn't fit cleanly into a well-established US genre, but I'm hoping it's enough like a thriller to fool people.

Love your discussion of place too, by the way.

Frances Garrood said...

Really interesting answers. Aliya, and I can identify with your difficulties with short stories. I used to sell one a week, but now have difficulty thinking up any ideas at all. My ideas (although like yours, they don't arrive whole) tend to be novel-sized now. Sad, because a short story is such a satisfying thing to write; a miniature.

Doug Worgul said...

Excellent! Thanks, Aliya, for these answers,and for being the instigator of this Round Robin thing.

(By the way, lots of onions and cabbage in Thin Blue Smoke. Plus meat.)

Tim Stretton said...

This genre thing's a bugger, isn't it? One of the things I like about your stuff is its singularity. Toning down some elements to fit a genre box would only flatten its appeal.

I can see why publishers and booksellers like the world this way, but it only limits the range of material available to the curious reader.

"Aliya Whiteley" is a genre of its own. Isn't that enough!

Tim Stretton said...

...and Doug, no way can you put the veg badge on Thin Blue Smoke. It's the carnivore novel par excellence!

Len Tyler said...

Great answers, Aliya!

This genre thing is tricky - as I think we've said before. I'm not sure how we rise above it, but some authors such as Kate Atkinson do succeed in writing crime without being labelled crime writers.

Very many thanks for organising us over the course of the Round Robin. What next?

Aliya Whiteley said...

Well, maybe a Twittersation. All of us on Twitter can hang out together using the #mnw hashtag one evening and chat to each other. And if anyone wants to ask questions of us they can. But if not we can just chat to each other, which is fun too.

Alis said...

I think only onions made it into Testament in a scene where a character was cooking. There are more veg in The Black and the White as food is pretty key to survival when you're making your way across country on foot!

As far as genre is concerned, I'm just jumping in to historical with both feet so if I don't make it there I can't blame the book for not fitting into a genre. Which is scary, to be honest...

Brian McGilloway said...

Cool answers Aliya - and thanks for arranging the whole round robin.

I've a baby eating mashed potatoes in one book (and flinging them across the table), so I figure I'm covered - literally and metaphorically.

Matt Curran said...

You know, I have a severe lack of vegetables in my books! Mmmm. Methinks I need to put a carrot or two in The Fixer of Clocks.

Great answers by the way. Genre sucks, doesn't it? I discovered that the hard way when I tried to write out of historical fantasy. I've just finished a steam-punk/alt history thriller, and now I'm writing a time-travelling apocalypse novel, so no, it's a lesson I haven't learned.

Echoing everyone else here, many thanks for doing the round-robin!