“A resonant short story is a beautiful and exciting thing.”
Alison Moore’s first novel, The Lighthouse, was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2012 and in the New Writer of the Year category of the National Book Awards 2012 before going on to win the McKitterick Prize 2013. Her debut collection, The Pre-War House and Other Stories, was nominated for the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award 2013. Born in Manchester, she lives near Nottingham.
Interview by Tom Vowler
Many people will be familiar with your Booker-shortlisted debut novel The Lighthouse, but can you tell us a little about your collection of stories The Pre-War House and its inception. As someone who writes both stories and novels, I suppose I’m curious: Do you ever allow the distinct literary forms to converge/compose in your head simultaneously, or are they written consecutively?
The Pre-War House and Other Stories contains stories published between 2000 and 2013, the first of them in a small competition anthology and the most recent in The Lampeter Review. All were at least started before The Lighthouse was published – the title story was written in 2009, a few months before starting on The Lighthouse, and won first prize in the novella category of The New Writer Prose and Poetry Prizes – so this collection documents my progress from my first short story competition win through to my first novel. I have written short stories whilst working on both The Lighthouse and my current work-in-progress, but they’re generally stories I’ve been invited to write, or stories written between drafts. I don’t want to take the energy away from a developing novel but on the other hand I’ve found that breaking to write a short story or two can be quite beneficial and I go back to the novel with a refreshed eye.
Do you think the disparity between forms is sometimes exaggerated? I say this because the qualities I most admire/seek in a short story – a quiet intensity, narrative compression, a unity of effect, artifice – are apparent in the novels I’ve enjoyed most of late. Is there a case to make for some themes and concepts being better suited to one form or another, rather than the two necessarily being divergent?
I know that for some writers the division is entirely clear and the two are distinct forms, like photography and painting. For me, though, the process of writing a short story is not that different from writing a novel, it’s just that the novel takes longer and I accumulate more notes. The way I go about writing the story – whether it’s 500 words, 3000 words, 12,000 words or 50,000 words – is just the same, but the longer stories are those that throw out more strands as I write. If writing a short story is like herding sheep from one field to the next, a novel is like herding them from one end of the country to the other – it’s basically the same task, just a bigger undertaking and more will happen along the way. That said, I do write short – my novel is a short novel and the qualities you mention are perhaps best suited to a shorter novel. It may well be that were I to write a much longer novel, a 500-pager, I would find it more like herding monkeys.
This quiet intensity, Chekhov’s ‘aliveness’, if you like, is evident in your collection’s opener, ‘When the Door Closed, It Was Dark’, the story richly vibrant. A theme to emerge in these interviews has been the lacunae left within the narration for the reader to occupy, for them to complete rather than merely experience the stories, which may or may not contribute to this sense of intensity. I wonder, does this resonate for you? And is this something you’re aware of during composition, of creating narrative space for the reader, or is the process more organic/unconscious?
On one level, this leaving of gaps was not a device I consciously adopted, it just seemed to evolve in my writing style. On another level, though, I am conscious of doing it as I am aware whilst writing of needing to strike the right balance between what is said and what is only suggested or is significantly absent, giving just enough information so that, for example in ‘When the Door Closed, It Was Dark’, the reader can see what has happened even though they are not explicitly told. It does ask a lot of the reader, but I’m thrilled that so many people seem more than happy to work with my stories in this way, reading them closely and re-reading them to see what is between the lines. In a recent blog review, a reader commented: ‘It is not usually until the end of the story that something is revealed that destroys that assumption of normality. Seriously, some of these revelations felt like a slap round the face, almost like Moore was shaking me and saying ‘how did you not see this before?!’ A couple of the stories I even re-read after that vital thing had been revealed and it becomes so clear that something is wrong, not obvious, but the word choices are trying to tell you something.’ That, to me, is a very satisfying reaction to how I write.
Do you think the short story’s often-employed device of ‘asking a lot of the reader’ is in any way related to the form’s lower commercial impact, or are the reasons more cultural/historical? And has the huge success of The Lighthouse (which I’d say, to its credit, also demands much of its readers) altered which form you plan to devote time to next?
I think the reason people often prefer novels is that they can spend more time with them. When you start a novel, you’re going to pick it up every bedtime for a week or so, or lose yourself in it for a few days on holiday, or carry it around with you and read a bit more when you can. It’s more of a companion. The short story is a relatively fleeting meeting, although hopefully an impactful one that will linger in the mind. Since The Lighthouse, I’ve written the first draft of a second novel and completed a few short stories. I derive great pleasure from both.
Certainly, for me, the great stories linger in the mind as much as their longer cousins. Given the unsettling, uncertain prognosis for publishing in general, how do you see the future for the arguably marginalised short story? Will there always be those who love to write/read them?
I absolutely think there will always be readers and writers of short stories. A resonant short story is a beautiful and exciting thing. One thing that’s vital is to have people championing short stories and bringing new short stories to readers, such as Nicholas Royle who publishes short stories as chapbooks through Nightjar Press and edits Best British Short Stories, and Salt, the publisher of this series as well as some fine collections. I’m looking forward to appearing at the short story festival Small Wonder this year, at Charleston near Lewes at the end of September.