The Three Rs: Alison MacLeod

March 29, 2013 § 1 Comment

Alison MacLeod is a novelist, short story writer and essayist. She is the author of two novels, The Changeling (Macmillan) and The Wave Theory of Angels (Penguin). Her third novel, Unexploded, will be published by Hamish Hamilton Books/Penguin in September 2013. Her stories have been widely published in the UK and broadcast on the BBC. In 2008 she was awarded the Society of Authors’ Prize (UK) for short fiction, in 2011 she was shortlisted for the BBC National Short Story Award, and in 2012 she was longlisted for The International Sunday Times EFG Short Story Award. MacLeod is also the author of the story collection Fifteen Modern Tales of Attraction (Penguin). She is Professor of Contemporary Fiction at the University of Chichester and Director of Thresholds International Short Story Forum.

When did you first know you wanted to write books?

I remember being very small – three or four – and clasping an oversized copy of  ‘Snow White and the Seven Dwarves’ to my chest.   The book was at least half the size I was, and its cover was cut to the shape of the cover illustration, which was Snow White in a rocking chair with the dwarves gathering around her.  In some way I can’t quite explain, that book felt alive to me as I held it, and I can still feel the thrill of that discovery.

I think I knew then that I wanted to make stories.  It seemed like magic.  It is.

macleod unexploded

What does your day look like while you’re writing a book?

On a good writing day — which means a day in an uninterrupted run of a few days — I usually wake late because I’ve been up till three or four the night before writing.  I lie awake for about ten minutes, turning over in my mind the newest material and sifting for its connections  — or simply letting my mind work sleepily at a problem in the story.

If I can avoid morning errands, I’ll be in a nightdress and cardigan till late afternoon.  I usually do my first writing shift from 2 p.m. till about 7.  I get progressively more feral as the day goes on: I rake my hand through my hair a lot; I stoop at my desk; my pupils seem to shrink in my face. I think I frighten the postman.  If the weather isn’t awful, I try to get out around 7:00 for a brisk walk around Brighton.  I head to the seafront and walk back through the grounds of the Royal Pavilion.  The rhythm of walking is good for creative thinking.  Ideas come.  For Unexploded, I was also always making mental notes about the beach or the piers or the Pavilion as I walked – all are locations in the novel.  That ‘gathering up’ of detail was a constant pleasure. 

My second writing shift starts at 9 pm and ends – usually with a hot bath – around 2.00 or 3:00 but sometimes much later.  Five hours might pass like one.  I love how peaceful the world is late at night.  It also feels a little illicit – deliciously free somehow – and that freedom allows for greater risk-taking while writing – something that’s as important as artistic control and rigour.

My nightly bath is the final part of the routine.  In the tub at the end of my ‘shift’, words arrive, like unexpected gifts from the soap-and-water gods.  It’s usually the next line I need — the opening line of a new chapter or the next line in a passage where I’ve been stuck.  I go to bed, tired but thrilled by the offering.

I dream much more vividly when I’m writing well; at those times, all the bits of me are more ‘connected up’.

Do you type or write?

I scribble the first few paragraphs (of a story) or first few pages (of a novel) with a pen.  I carry on until I feel it ‘catch’; until the spark of the story really takes.  Then I switch to the computer – because I can type faster than I write and because I want to see the story or chapter growing into a form that looks less like ‘me’ and more like itself.  I don’t want the reminder of my own handwriting; I want the ‘me’ to disappear into the story or at least into the crafting of the story.

What do you read while you’re writing?

For the last 5 years or more, I’ve been working on Unexploded.  It’s set in 1940-41 in Brighton, and the historical research for it has seemed, at times endless.  My front room, where I write, was blighted by stacks of books, photocopies and folders until just a month ago, when the copy-editing – the final check on a book — was confirmed.

When I’m writing a novel, sadly, I can’t read many novels, though I wish I could.  In imaginative terms, one story seems to be the most I can hold in my head at any one time, and any other novel than my own feels a little like a cuckoo in the nest.  So I read lots of short stories.  I love their beautiful intensities.  They’re like shots in the arm as I write.

What have you read recently that you really loved?

The stories, notebooks and letters of Katherine Mansfield.  I love the precision and daring of her stories (‘At the Bay’, ‘The Garden Party, ‘Miss Brill’, ‘The Daughters of the Late Colonel’, etc.).

Her letters are as sharp as they are poignant.  On her own illness (TB), she writes:I don’t care …what pain I suffer, so long as my handkerchiefs don’t look as though I were in the pork-butcher trade’.  Gosh.  Such a line.  And how can anyone not be moved to read: ‘Yesterday, upstairs in my room I suddenly wanted to give a small jump – I have not given a small jump for two years…  And this seemed such a miracle I felt I must tell somebody.’

Her words on writing and the writing life are scattered through her notebooks and letters: ‘I seethe with stories,’ she writes.  ‘I have this continual longing to write something with all my power – all my force in it.’  And at the end, when she was exhausted by the illness that would kill her: ‘I am tired of my little stories like birds bred in cages.’

What are your all-time favourites?

Such a tough one…  Forgive the chaos of titles.  Jane Eyre (C. Bronte), Wuthering Heights (E. Bronte), Anna Karenina (Tolstoy), ‘Lady with Lapdog’ (Chekhov), ‘The Dead’ (Joyce), The Great Gatsby (Fitzgerald), Gone to Earth (Mary Webb), Orlando (Woolf), ‘Good Country People’ (Flannery O’Connor), ‘Revelation’ (O’Connor’), ‘Everything that Rises Must Converge’ (O’Connor again), One Hundred Years of Solitude (Marquez), The White Hotel (D.M. Thomas), Santa Evita (Martinez), the stories of Katherine Mansfield (as above), The Hours (Cunningham), Beloved (Toni Morrison), The Tin Drum (Grass), D.H. Lawrence’s stories and novellas, Kafka’s stories and novellas, Gogol’s stories, The French Lieutenant’s Woman (Fowles), Riddley Walker (Hoban); Othello and The Winter’s Tale (Shakespeare), Brighton Rock and The End of the Affair (Greene), On Chesil Beach (McEwan)…  I’ll stop there to draw breath.

You can either write or read for the rest of your life – but not both. Which do you choose?

My life wouldn’t feel like my life if I didn’t write – so, in a sense, I’d have no choice but to opt for Option 1.  I’m lucky in that I’ve been able to read greedily so far in my life.  The books we read change us and become part of us.  I think they’d sustain me somehow.   And, as always I suppose, I’d be trying to write the stories I want to read. 

What’s your third R, and why?


It’s mysterious.  It’s hopeful.

§ One Response to The Three Rs: Alison MacLeod

  • hannah vincent says:

    Beautiful answers! The image of a diminutive AM clasping oversized novelty-shaped Snow White volume will stay with me a long time. So much to relate to in this article and so many striking images and phrases (progressively more feral AM, ‘beautiful intensities’, KM ‘seething with stories’…).

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