Powered by a refreshing stance to push her stories outside the comfortable and time-honored parameters of genre, Aliya Whiteley looks to be one of the field’s more unique and idiosyncratic practitioners. Her new novella The Arrival of Missives, reviewed earlier last week, is another entry from the author’s elusive and stimulating oeuvre. Aliya took some moments to sit down and discuss the genesis of her novella, the balance of writing historically-tied fiction, and delicious jams.
• Appreciate you stopping by here today, Aliya. How’ve things been going?
Great, thanks. I’ve just come back from Nine Worlds, which was a convention filled with talking about my favourite things, such as post-apocalyptic novels and literary utopias. So now I’m thinking back over the conversations while enjoying the end of the summer.
• What was the first story that captured your imagination, the one that provoked the idea of becoming a writer yourself?
I remember having Roald Dahl’s “The Landlady” read aloud to me at school. I was probably about ten years old. The sharp eyes of the little old lady who stuffed animals, and the taste of bitter almonds in the tea, has stayed with me and I remember wanting to write something that good. That disturbing.
• How did The Arrival of Missives first occur to you? Was there a certain theme or image that served as the imaginative seed? How did it develop from there?
It started as a challenge set by an online writing group. The prompt was to write about unrequited love, and so I sat down to write about a young woman who has a crush on her teacher. It’s a topic I’ve wanted to write about for a while because it’s a ferocious, brutal kind of love. Any behaviour is justified by that emotion to the person experiencing it.
Shirley’s voice (my young woman) was so strong, for me, from the opening sentences and then the moment came to me when she’s looking through the window, secretly, at the object of her affection and she sees something so strange, so inexplicable… I didn’t know what that was until I got to writing that moment! I don’t tend to think too far ahead beyond these key encounters between characters, and their voices.
• You’ve spoken at some length previously about allowing a narrative to grow organically, saying that you enjoy “those moments in stories where you have no idea what’s going to happen next. The moments when genre can’t save you.” That’s one of the impressions I got from reading the novella, the idea of not using genre as a safety net. How did this manifest for you during the composition of Missives or any of your other work in general?
I’m very aware of the way that we use genre to ensure familiarity for the reader. It’s almost a comfort blanket. But the books I’ve always enjoyed the most since starting to read are those that don’t come with any sort of comfort. Much like with film, there’s a set of expectations attached to the way stories work, and genre can be a big part of that from the cover to the closing line. But we’re all so good at reading these familiar aspects that I feel there’s room to play around with them and use them to say new, surprising things about life and literature. So the idea of the message from the future that speaks of catastrophe – there’s so much more that can be done with that just by changing a few of the components, and suddenly the reader has to reevaluate that idea, making it so much more powerful, and interesting.
• Was there ever a temptation to furnish more information surrounding the otherworldly beings that communicate with the characters in the story?
Not at all, and I think that’s because I wanted to explore how we all make decisions based on little or unclear information. We have to do that, of course: vote in an election, buy goods, express opinions while knowing little of the facts but having come across a lot of advertising. I wanted to give just enough information for Mr. Tiller and Shirley to feel justified in their conclusions – but for it to also be clear to the reader how little real information that is.
• There are many formidable themes at work in The Arrival of Missives, such as war, fate, and the assigning of societal roles. You’ve mentioned that in writing The Beauty that many of the story’s Big Ideas were worked out to your satisfaction. Did you have a similar experience with Missives?
I don’t know if I’ll ever have another experience like writing The Beauty again, and I think that’s because it was the first time I managed to raise exactly the questions I wanted to ask when writing it. I think of it as my first successful piece of writing, so part of that feeling of satisfaction with the thematic exploration within it extends to my execution of it. Missives also raises the right questions, for me (I don’t think I’m in any position to provide answers!), and I’m proud of it, but I think now there’s more to be explored, and to do, in terms of discussing the issues and executing the craft.
• You noted some apprehension regarding the historical aspects of the novella, namely that there were certain significant chunks, like the operation of teaching academies, that were unknown to you at the time. Was this your first experience writing a piece blatantly tied to history? What would you say you learned from the process?
I have written historical short stories before but very rarely. I feel a responsibility towards representing the past accurately when I write about it, and that is daunting because I don’t feel it in contemporary pieces. But I’ve learned through writing Missives that a lot of that pressure relates to my feeling that the world, in the past, was a certain irrefutable way that we should aspire to represent, and that’s just not true.
So now I recognise that writing about the past has more in common with my interest in manipulating genre than in towing a line and recreating a truth. There’s a lot of interesting writing that can be done by taking some reader expectations about historical fiction and then using them to explore new avenues.
• Who are some of the authors that you enjoy and, more specifically, what is it about their work that inspires your own?
I love those moments in books where you can’t predict what is going to happen and you’re given over to the reading experience totally, so that’s the common theme for me in a wide range of authors. I started out loving Daphne Du Maurier and Graham Greene, Alan Moore, Shirley Jackson, and Octavia Butler, and then I found Rupert Thomson and Christopher Priest, and Ursula Le Guin and Iris Murdoch. It’s not about genre but about the way the subject is explored, I think – using voice and character idiosyncratically but believably to create an unpredictable world.
• Outside of fiction, you write articles prolifically for such sites as Den of Geek and Mental Floss. You share some of your favorite pieces from the past on your website, but what topics are there that you’d love to cover that you have yet to write?
I’ve not really delved into horror fiction yet for Den of Geek. I’ve recently been doing my favourite British science fiction novels by decade, starting with the 1950s, for them so maybe I’ll have a crack at doing the same but for horror novels next.
• Jumping off those last two questions, can you recommend one film, one television series, and one book that you’ve recently enjoyed?
I really liked Adam Roberts’ The Thing Itself for mashing together one of my favourite films (THE THING) with a philosophical concept and a chase narrative.
For a film that’s very deep and involving, I’d recommend Tim Roth in CHRONIC (2015), which I’ll be thinking about for a long time to come.
I don’t watch a lot of television. I don’t like the way everything seems dedicated to avoiding an ending. But I did watch the entire of MAD MEN, and loved it – but then, it does come with an ending, now. And a good one, too.
• If Mr. Tiller’s sentient rock had the power to grant you the opportunity to complete one of your ultimate dream projects, what would it be?
I’d like to write a graphic novel at some point and get it illustrated by some amazing artist. Here’s hoping the rock could show me that in the future.
• Since the moment you put your lucky pen to paper and composed the opening line to your first published poem, what would you say have been some of the most valuable lessons you’ve learned about the writing life?
For me, I learned that I needed to put the hours in to get better at it. I’ve written a number of novels that didn’t work as I wanted them to, but every time I learned something, and when I came across the same problems again I did a better job. That’s what I’ve been aiming for – to practice, and to do a good job. To write things that I’m happy with.
• Do you have any hobbies and interests outside of writing?
I love to bake, and I’m a keen grower of fruit and veg in my garden. It’s not really surprising to people who know me that a lot of fruit and veg turn up in my novels! I’ve just been making white currant and raspberry jam this past week. Yum.
• What work can we expect to see from you in the future? Any imminent public engagements where readers can come and say hello to you on the horizon?
I’m just starting work on a new novel so I don’t think I’ll be out and about much in the future, although I’m hoping I might get the opportunity to read one of my new short stories for Unsung Live over the next few months. Apart from that, I’ve got a story in the next edition of Interzone, which is issue 266. It’s about an unrepeatable garden, funnily enough. Flowers rather than fruit, this time…
• Thanks for stopping by again, Aliya!
Thanks so much for inviting me! It’s been great to chat about Missives – thanks for reading.