An Interview with Aliya Whiteley

Aliya Whiteley writes across many different genres and lengths. Her first published full-length novels, THREE THINGS ABOUT ME and LIGHT READING, were comic crime adventures. Her 2014 SF-horror novella THE BEAUTY was shortlisted for the James Tiptree and Shirley Jackson awards. The following historical-SF novella, THE ARRIVAL OF MISSIVES, was a finalist for the Campbell Memorial Award, and her noir novel THE LOOSENING SKIN was shortlisted for the Arthur C. Clarke Award.

She has written over one hundred published short stories that have appeared in INTERZONE, BENEATH CEASELESS SKIES, BLACK STATIC, STRANGE HORIZONS, THE DARK, MCSWEENEY’S INTERNET TENDENCY, SHORELINE OF INFINITY, and THE GUARDIAN. Her work has also appeared in anthologies such as Unsung Stories’ OUT OF THE DARKNESS and Lonely Planet’s BETTER THAN FICTION.

Aliya Whiteley also writes a regular non-fiction column for INTERZONE and has contributed numerous articles to DEN OF GEEK.

FROM THE NECK UP is Aliya Whiteley’s latest collection of short stories. It’s absolutely wonderful.

I interviewed Aliya Whiteley via a collaborative Google Document in August 2021.

This is a companion piece to ‘Desert Island Vincent Price’, an audio interview with Aliya Whiteley that I recorded on 4 September 2021.

GREENSMITH opens with a quotation from Peter Cook’s final television interview. It goes, ‘I have never attempted to achieve my potential. What could be worse than to achieve one’s potential so early in life? I leave it, on the horizon, glimmering…’ It’s a wonderful way to look at life. I feel like the narrator in ‘Brushwork’ would appreciate Cook’s sentiment, and maybe Cook would enjoy the significance of the final line, ‘Our tracks will leave thin lines in the white canvas of the landscape; between us, we are making delicate brushwork.’

That quote is only in my memory. All the interviews recorded by Pebble Mill (the programme on which he was appearing) around that time are lost. I think they were destroyed in a fire. But I have a really vivid memory of watching him say that, and I felt really moved by it, and inspired. Inspired enough to remember it for decades, if I have remembered it correctly! There’s a delicacy and hopefulness to it, and to the fact that I might not even have it in my mind accurately, that really appealed to me and came back to me while I was writing GREENSMITH, which is in part, I think, about how our understanding of the world is such a subjective thing. Potential is such a weird concept. Who judges what are we capable of? Capable of saving the world, the universe, ourselves? I love the idea that there’s always more to discover without, and within.

Peter Cook (BBC)

There are so many ways into your stories. There is the strong horticultural ethos, the imagery of growth and fertilisation and of how nature is so omnipresent in not only our lives, but also in our imaginations. And human systems and boundaries are so fleeting. There is this excellent line in ‘Corwick Grows’ about ‘a yew tree as old as the county itself’. And there is also the exploration of identity, or of how who we are shapes what we see. And then there is also, for me, your sheer love of the way language works. Many of these stories are incredibly clever and beautiful works of art. What does it take for you to feel satisfied that a short story you’ve written is complete?

If it feels intangible, maybe sometimes it’s meant to be that way.

Aliya Whiteley

Thank you. I get a general sense, at some point during the editing process, that it’s as close to done as I can get without driving myself to distraction trying to make it perfect. There will always be something that’s not quite right if I keep looking, so the feeling of being ‘done’ is enough of a cue for me to stop trying. Usually that happens once I feel all the imagery, the characterisation, the shape of the words, is working towards the same goal: the point I’m trying to put across. Even if I can’t quite be certain of that point in my mind. If it feels intangible, maybe sometimes it’s meant to be that way. It’s an odd business.

In the acknowledgements of FROM THE NECK UP you mention how you saw the ‘common and fertile ground’ shared by the stories when you assembled them into the collection. Where did you first see those connections?

It took me a long time to see the connections, and then longer to feel good about them. I think I’ve always been a bit afraid of repeating myself, but I feel more comfortable now with the idea that writers have themes, motifs, etc, that turn up again and again. During the process of choosing and arranging the stories for FROM THE NECK UP I began to really appreciate how plants, organic life, and change were big themes of mine. They’re pretty good themes, I think. But now I’ve seen them clearly, they can’t just crop up easily in the writing, so that’s changed the nature of the writing too, from this point on.

There is something pleasingly real about the voices in ‘Farleyton’, and ‘Compel’; and something comically bathetic about their endings. A pleasant suburban bathos, perhaps.

I love writing comedy, and I think quite a few of the stories have comic aspects. But I also love it when I’m not quite sure whether I should be laughing or not. We really can’t control what we find funny, but we try hard a lot of the time! I’m pleased to hear you found comedic things in those concepts. I definitely tried to work that in, particularly with the voice in ‘Compel’.

Have you felt tempted to go back and change things? Are any of the stories a redux in some way?

No, once it’s written it’s done. I never want to revisit a story, or even go back to that world, usually. I’ve managed once or twice to go back to a world I’ve created and write another story within that setting, but generally speaking I like to move forwards all the time.

Wait—having said that: ‘The Tears of a Building Surveyor’ is a redux! Sort of. I wrote a novel that never quite worked, and when I looked back over it I found a character that could be pulled out, and her sections became a story that first found a home at STRANGE HORIZONS, and then in FROM THE NECK UP. So there you go. I have revisited something.

The stories in this collection were published from around 2014 to 2020, roughly the same span as THE BEAUTY (Unsung Stories, 2014), SKEIN ISLAND (Dog Horn Publishing, 2015), THE LOOSENING SKIN (Unsung Stories, 2018), GREENSMITH (Unsung Stories, 2020), and SKYWARD INN (Rebellion Books, 2021). As you were writing the short stories in this collection and those novels, did the ideas start to intersect?

There’s a sort of distance that springs up the moment a story is finished…

Aliya Whiteley

They all feel very separate to me. I don’t picture them as linked, but of course some ideas move between them because they’re the things I’m thinking about regularly. (Or I was, at the time.) When I look back at them now I see them all as distinct creations, outside of me, and I have no idea how I made them, really. There’s a sort of distance that springs up the moment a story is finished, and they’re no longer part of me, or of anything else, from that point on.

What is your writing and revision process?

The first draft is longhand and then the business of typing that up and making sense of it is the second draft, and then I revise onscreen from that point.

‘Corwick Grows’ is a brilliant story. And very quotable. One of the cleverest lines for me was, ‘I wonder what comes next, when there is nothing left to be swallowed?’ What does the countryside mean to you?

A frame from Michael Reeves’s WITCHFINDER GENERAL (Tigon Pictures, 1968)

I’ve always been aware of the spookier aspects of it. I think maybe I saw WITCHFINDER GENERAL at a tender age. There’s something about the trees, the landscape, that’s terrifying in that film. It’s uncaring. The land is not on your side. It might tolerate you, or you might have managed to control it in some way, for a small amount of time. I liked this sense of the town expanding and contracting in ‘Corwick Grows’, in flux with humanity and with the land around it. That relationship between us and the landscape—what we take from it, what it has given to us and might demand back—is part of something I feel when I think about the countryside.

And from a literary or stylistic perspective, who are the writers you have known that have best captured that weirdness/Wyrdness?

I think maybe Angela Carter is a big influence on me when writing about weird happenings. Her fairy tales, and the way they relate back to classic fairy tales such as those by The Brothers Grimm. When characters get lost in the deep dark woods and the words curl around, and the sentences are themselves slippery paths through the forest and through the plot—I love that. That sense of telling a story, of knowing the fact it’s a story, is important to how the weird works, I think, for me. A lot of my stuff is about the act of making something into a story in order to find a way through it.

It’s interesting you mention Angela Carter as I wanted to show you this passage from her ‘Overture for A Midsummer Night’s Dream’, a work that first appeared in INTERZONE and was then collected in BLACK VENUS:

Something about this, about the interlacing of imagery of nature with imagery of psychology and human experience, and mythologising, popped into my head as I was thinking about ‘Corwick Grows’. Maybe something about feeling lost or swallowed up. And it feels to me that Angela Carter is striding towards an understanding of a mystery, but what is that mystery? She hasn’t pinned it down, maybe because it can’t be pinned down. What are you trying to pin down or understand better when you write? What is the maze you are trying to get through?

That’s it exactly! I love that extract. I’ve not come across that before.

I don’t know what I’m trying to understand, and I think it would be worse, somehow less interesting and more transparent, if I did know.

When you put pen to paper, do you start out thinking about the sounds and the textures and the rhythms of the prose, or are you thinking about the deeper structures first? And do opening lines—or closing lines, as those are often more critical and meaningful—generally go through a lot of changes, or do you have a very clear idea of where you want something to stop, or start, that is locked in?

The rhythms and sounds are absolutely a priority right from the first draft, yes. I think that has something to do with working in longhand, which really allows me to savour the words and hear them in my head as I write them down. It doesn’t work so well straight to screen. A lot of the structural stuff happens at a more subconscious level, I think, so I always feel quite lucky when it works out. Or sometimes more work is done in editing along those lines.

I know when I’ve hit the opening and closing lines that I want to use, but they don’t often come to me right from the beginning. It takes a bit of resculpting later, right at the end usually, to get those aspects right. The first line of FROM THE NECK UP (from the story ‘Brushwork’) has been through a lot of changes, for instance.

I’m interested in the difference between the voice of a character, the way they sound when we hear their words off the page, and the notion of a fully-realised character, a ‘built’ character with a backstory and all that. Can you do the voice without really knowing the character? And do you sometimes hear a character in your mind, hear the way they speak, the way they talk about the world, before you really know who they are?

The character is uncovering things about themselves too, as events happen to them. It makes me feel quite close to them, at times.

Aliya Whiteley

I usually discover the character through the voice, and I very much hear them in my mind as I write. I definitely don’t know everything about them from the beginning, but then, I don’t know everything about anybody! I like the space between the voice and the discovery of the character, when it’s an adventure you’re on together. The character is uncovering things about themselves too, as events happen to them. It makes me feel quite close to them, at times. We’re all going places together.

When it comes to short story writers, who do you admire most stylistically?

Graham Greene, I think. Doris Lessing. Stories like ‘A Little Place Off The Edgware Road’ and ‘Through The Tunnel’ are so good. Beautiful creations. A building of character and plot and rhythm and understanding, all at the same time, through great sentences. And I find them impenetrable in their beauty, in some way—I don’t think, if I came across them afresh now, I would be able to guess what would happen next. They contain real threat, real terror, for me.

Are there any short stories you’ve read recently which are still buzzing around in your mind? Or collections by writers that you would recommend?

Malcolm Devlin’s new collection UNEXPECTED PLACES TO FALL FROM, UNEXPECTED PLACES TO LAND is definitely rattling around inside my head right now. I was lucky enough to read an advanced copy, and it’s brilliant. The order of the stories in particular really worked for me. It makes some interesting choices there that really made the whole thing feel very cohesive.

It’s been a few years since I’ve read Sarah Hall’s MADAME ZERO but I still think about that a lot, for similar reasons.

Long term, Robert Aickmann’s THE WINE DARK SEA and COLD HAND IN MINE is on long play. And Richard Brautigan’s REVENGE OF THE LAWN. I reread that a lot. His voice is a place I love. There’s a story called ‘Ernest Hemingway’s Typist’ that is just perfect. I can’t even explain why I like it so much, except to say that it feels free of constraints. As if it’s enough just to write and then stop. No explanations, no conclusions. Just stop.

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