FANTAST IN FOCUS: ALIYA WHITELEY
Aliya Whiteley is an author and librarian. Her new novella from Unsung Stories, The Arrival of the Missives, has just been released and is already making waves. Like her previous novel The Beauty (published in 2014), The Arrival of the Missives is a work of speculative, mind-bending fiction. It’s a seemingly ordinary romance set after the Great War in a rural English village. However, Aliya puts a surrealistic spin on the traditional period-piece antebellum melodrama, and transmogrifies the tale into a mystery of warring social and psychic forces. There also seem to be many references to age-old myths as well as 1960s-era sci-fi films. For example, an important character (we won’t say who) shares several traits with the Arthurian Fisher King. We spoke to Aliya to find out more about her influences and literary artistry.
The Custodian: You’ve written all sorts of things; sitcoms, short stories, poetry, novels. When did you decide to pursue writing full-time?
Aliya Whiteley: Ten years ago my daughter was born and I was fortunate enough to be able to stay at home full-time with her. That coincided with Macmillan offering to publish my first full-length novel, Three Things About Me, and I had a two-book contract with them so I cracked on with writing the second novel (it was published as Light Reading a few years later) and I think at that point I started to say to myself maybe I really was a writer by profession. I’d been writing for at least ten years before she was born, too, so I’d put in a lot of practice around various day jobs, in lots of different forms and genres. It took a long time to decide that I really wanted to be a novelist and short story writer with a particular leaning towards speculative fiction (well, at the moment, that’s how I’d describe it, anyway!).
C: In your short story The Librarian you draw on your knowledge of library science and delve into the “archipelagic” wonders of pedagogical and independent research. How has training as a librarian affected your writing and research methodology?
A: I think it’s had more effect on the subjects I choose to write about than on the way I write. How we manage information, represent it and distort it, is fascinating and a lot of my stories contain elements where information is being withheld or given in a certain light. The Librarian was a more overt exploration of the subject than I usually go for, but I really enjoyed writing it.
I’m not a great one for doing a lot of research, but I have friends (mainly historical novelists) for whom the plot and characters spring from the process of research, and I was really interested in that so I conducted a collective case study on how three novelists researched their latest books as part of my studies in Library and Information Management. It seemed to me that some writers find their inspiration in the act of learning about topics that interest them in a generalistic sense, to start, and that learning refines the imagination to the point where writing can start. Other novelists (like me) wham it on the page and check the details later. It’s all a bit haphazard at times but it works for me, and I’ve been doing it that way since I started writing. I’d rather check it later than think about it first.
C: The Beauty and Arrival of the Missives are strongly tinged with elements of supernaturalism. What’s your view on the use of the supernatural in your fiction? Is it more an examination of the strange realities of human psychology or something else?
A: I think I’m missing a dividing line in my head about the supernatural, or the weird. I don’t have a moment when I’m writing and I think maybe that’s pushing it too far or that could never happen because there’s such a freedom on the page that part of the joy is making it seem possible to the reader, no matter how weird it is. So from a personal point of view, it’s a necessity to the kind of stories I want to tell, which are stories where you can’t guess what’s going to happen next.
I love the element of surprise when I pick up a novel to read, and I love to create it when I write. We’re all really good at predicting what’s going to happen next in fictions, whether in film or television or in literature, because we get used to seeing the signs. It’s comfortable. The music or the cover or the blurb tell us what to expect, and we categorise the experience beforehand in so many different ways. I like the places in between. Making the realistic appear in a supernatural light, or letting weird happenings affect characters in more mundane ways, is a good way of exploring those grey areas. Crossing genres and playing with expected endings also gets a lot of exploration in my writing, I think.
C: You’ve mentioned Graham Greene and Ray Bradbury as two of your favourite authors. Which of their works was particularly influential on you?
A: Yes, I’m very much a fan of Graham Greene. I’ve read many of his books over and over, but particularly The Heart of the Matter, which is about making impossible choices because love and duty and faith don’t fit together in the main character, Scobie. How do you choose what aspect of yourself should have priority over the other aspects? And this tremendous inner turmoil plays out against a background of such petty bureaucracy; I love that juxtaposition. There’s a place in his writing that goes beyond genre into such truth.
Ray Bradbury’s short stories are so good. I remember reading The Small Assassin when I was a teenager and finding it very disturbing, and riveting for that. I think I’ve written my own version of that story quite a few times, his themes becoming my themes in the way that a great writer who catches you at the right moment can pass on his/her fever for a topic to you. Also The Day It Rained Forever captivates me, with its sense of possibility.
C: What about fairy tales and folklore? Did you have any extraordinary early experiences with the folklore of Devon?
A: I remember folklore tales simply fitting into the usual patterns of life seamlessly, to be honest, rather than any instance of being aware of its effect upon me. I had a soft spot for the Exmoor beast, who was either a monster or a big cat who had escaped from some circus or private collection, and who left a trail of sheep carcasses behind it over the moors. I finally got around to writing about it for Fox Spirit Publishing a few years ago in an anthology about European monsters.
When I was a child the small villages around my home town had their own customs, and they seemed as inexplicable as a lot of things that adults did, to be honest, so it’s no wonder it all blended together in my mind as generally being part of life. For instance, something like Combe Martin’s Earl of Rone festival, where nobody knows what it means any more, is mad and brilliant and strange, but when you ended up going along every year with your parents it assumed the quality of the expected, really. It’s only looking back on it that you see it from a different perspective, and realise how extraordinary it is. So the folklore was background, working its magic behind the scenes.
- View towards Lorna Doone valley, Exmoor. Image via Wikimedia Commons.
C: What’s next? What are your projects for 2016/2017?
A: The Arrival of Missives has been published, and after that I’ll start work on a new project which I’ll do absolutely no planning for, as usual! I’ll just sit down with a pen and a blank sheet of paper and write until it starts to take form. That’s as much of a plan as I’ve got.