Last night I went to the book launch of Alison Moore’s He Wants. It was a delightfully low-key affair in the Silltoe Room at the top of Waterstones, Nottingham, and the rain decided to hold off for the rest of the evening, leaving an intriguing rooftop view over the city.
Alison began by giving some background to He Wants. In August 2011, Alison and her family went to Dorset for their summer holiday. This was the time when the escalating riots that left the UK reeling from their size and ferocity. With no TV and newspapers and little contact with the outside world, the event only became apparent when the Moores returned to the hustle and bustle of everyday life. The concept of blissful ignorance due to geographical location became blended with an idea Alison had for a stranger arriving in a family situation where it was not immediately evident whether the visitor posed a danger to that family or not. This formed the starting point for He Wants.
After The Lighthouse Alison felt that her writing had changed, since the novel’s success made it possible to become a full-time writer. Alison also made a point of saying how much she valued the support of Salt’s Chris and Jen Hamilton-Emery, her editor and agent Nicholas Royle and her husband, Dan, as well as reader’s continuing interest in her books.
Alison briefly laid out the situation in the book. Lewis Sullivan is a retired widower, who used to be a school teacher. He is living in a Midland village where he has grown up and led a happy and uneventful life. Now, at the age of 70, he decides he is missing something and wants some excitement in his life. Possibly in the manner of ‘be careful what you wish for’, Lewis experiences his ‘shake up’ through his childhood friend Sydney (‘with a “y”, like the capital of Australia’).
Alison’s reading of the first chapter revealed the trademark details a reader has come to expect from her work. The small ‘WELCOME’ sign on the village cafe has the potential to be turned round when the reverse is true and the larger ‘NO DOGS’ sign is immovable. This is all significant because of Sydney and the fact he has brought a dog with him that carries a less than straightforward right of ownership (the extensive backstory of which is typically and exquisitely packed into the minimum of sentences). It is only the first chapter, but the reader is still steered through an undulating level of discomfort, as the dark humour shifts unnervingly through its gears. There is a clear sense that something is not right, but you cannot see the whole picture yet, so feel compelled to read on.
The first question after the reading was a logical one given the title of the book. ‘What does he want?’
He Wants is partly about what Lewis does not want (soup) and partly about what he did want to do as a child (go to the moon) and has not been able to achieve. There are wants all the way through the novel and, as with The Lighthouse, the chapter headings are significant (for example chapter 2 ‘HE DOES NOT WANT SOUP’ and chapter 3 ‘WHEN HE WAS A CHILD, HE WANTED TO GO TO THE MOON’).
The book allows for an exploration of the disparity between what Lewis may have wanted and what he has settled for.
Does the location play a big part in the story?
It felt right that the story should be set in a Midland village, particularly as Lewis has always wanted to live by the sea and never has. In another one of her magpie memories, Alison asked if anyone remembered a pub called ‘The Sea All Around Us’ that was landlocked in Leicestershire and nowhere near the sea; the situation Lewis finds himself in.
‘What was writing the second novel like compared to writing the first?’
With the success of The Lighthouse there were expectations to fulfil in the way she never had with her first novel. But the collection of short stories The Pre-War House and Other Stories helped, because it gave her the space to write and explore the next book. So she was able to enjoy writing He Wants.
Did you find the book funny when you were writing it? There’s a lot of humour in it?
It is not overt humour, but she did get a kick out of the little details she put into it and was delighted that other people had seen the humour. There was humour in The Lighthouse, which people had also picked up on. Humour is a very idiosyncratic thing, so she was not sure whether everyone would get it. She could not write a book stuffed with humour, but she sees humour in even the darkest moments of her writing.
Why do you write about men of a certain age?
These are the stories that come to her, although The Lighthouse was really two stories; that of Futh and Ester. Many saw the novel as Ester’s story and the book has been retitled in Italy to make it Ester’s story.
He Wants has to be about two men in retirement, because it is about a life lived and at 70 and 90 (Lewis has a father in a retirement home) this becomes a particularly weighty issue.
However, many of her short stories and her prizewinning novella, The Pre-War House, feature female protagonists.
Finally, Alison’s husband Dan was asked what it was like reading Alison’s work because it was very dark.
Dan said that, although Alison might be reserved while she was thinking, she was usually a very cheerful person and that she was in no danger of turning into a Stephen King character.
Alison said she had always liked dark stories, even as a young child she liked The Magic Faraway Tree which had some dark moments for a children’s book. She had also read horror.
But there is more light in He Wants than The Lighthouse, because this is where it was going.