Alison Moore’s Journey to ‘The Lighthouse’.
I resisted reading The Lighthouse for quite some time. It’s one of those things where I hang back because everyone’s telling me to read it on the basis that it’s been short-listed for a literary prize. Added to this, the thought of ploughing through a book about a singularly unappealing male character, did nothing to stir my curiosity, only drive me further away.
Slowly, however, the nagging got to me and I finally cracked when I nearly fell over the table where Alison Moore was doing a book signing. I had bought The Lighthouse, so I really had to apply myself to reading it. I consumed it in a weekend.
It was not easy reading at times, because Futh is far from appealing and Ester is someone I know I wouldn’t like if I met her, but I was right in there with them experiencing their awkward lives. I had to keep going to see what happened.
While all this was going on, I spent a great deal of time gasping at the quality of the writing and the ease with which Alison kept creating the kind of rules for storytelling that only the very skilled can make their own.
Would you go through your writing journey to the point where you wrote The Lighthouse?
The first thing that seems part of that journey, not including things I wrote at school, was when I was eight I entered a poem for a local writing competition. The poem was eventually short-listed and published in a little anthology. I also gave a reading at Loughborough library. That was the first time I’d been published, and alongside adults, and I had to give a public reading. This made me feel really included and very proud of being seen to be good enough, especially alongside adults. I remember that being an important part of that experience.
So I think that’s what started me sending things off to magazines and competitions. I did that throughout my teenage years and was short listed and runner up several times and had pieces published in magazines.
In my twenties I began writing what I think of as ‘proper’ adult short stories. I had the first one of these published through Charnwood Arts (again Loughborough based). The same year I won a couple of prizes in competitions and was short listed in something else and published.
Then I stopped for a few years, because I got a job at Lakeside Arts Centre in Nottingham. I didn’t write much in that time, but I had a short story short-listed for the Bridport Prize. So in retrospect there were the odd things, but I don’t feel I wrote much in that time.
In 2009, I left to have my son who was expected to be early, so I’d allowed two weeks before my due date, although I knew I was leaving that dangerously late. In the end he was two weeks late. This meant I had a month in which I wrote a long story that won a novella competition.
After he was born I didn’t write for four months. Then I wrote a short story which was short listed for the Manchester fiction prize. And that brings us up to The Lighthouse.
So have you had any training in writing?
No. It’s all been the feedback in terms of, if something’s won a competition I know it’s got something going for it. If I don’t hear back from the competition, perhaps that story needs reworking. So it’s a matter of working out, ‘So these ones are successful and these ones are not’. It’s that kind of thing.
At the point I got up to before The Lighthouse I wasn’t in the habit of showing my work to anybody at all. The first person who would see my writing would be the competition judge or the magazine editor.
What degree did you take?
English literature. It was a fairly general degree. The modules included modernism, postmodernism. ‘Literature and madness’ was my favourite module. I did a dissertation in transgressive literature. I also did a bit of drama and video drama production. I ended up doing some work in this area.
I think English Language A-levels came into fashion after I did my A-levels. I did an English language O-level, but it wasn’t an option at A-level. Otherwise I probably would have taken both Literature and Language. As it was I just did Literature, and that’s what I went on to do at university too.
Did taking English literature help or did it hinder your writing?
I think it probably helped, because at school, I mostly remember focusing on descriptive language – for example the weight of Antoinette’s hair in Wide Sargasso Sea – but at university, I remember being in a lesson and someone talking in a certain way about a book and it was an absolute revelation – I began to see not just how to read a story but how the story had been put together.
Why did you initially write short stories and not novels?
I had practiced with a novel at university. Not as university work, but because I was always inclined to write. So I’d done short stories and various things. One competition I’d won in my teens was a scriptwriting competition.
I did finish the novel at the university but it didn’t entirely work.
I was interested in writing in all these forms, but perhaps the short stories allow for failure more easily, because if you start something and it doesn’t work, it doesn’t take up as much time and you can see if it’s not working much more quickly. However, I don’t think it was as conscious at that.
The other answer is that I write whatever the story is and I suppose the stories that were coming to me were smaller, shorter, tightly focused things. Overall though I think it is a way of essentially practicing writing; whether you’re practicing for your future short story writing or whether you’re practicing for what becomes novel writing.
When you began writing this novel, was because it was a story you wanted to explore in more depth?
Yes. It just turned out to have more characters in it and a slightly more involved plot, so it was a longer story. In fact when I started putting things up on my website, this difference in the division between the different types of stories struck me as quite interesting.
For example the story that won the novella competition has been put in with my short stories, because it’s very short for a novella, but it’s long for a short story – it’s about 12,000 words. But then The Lighthouse could be called a novella. So categorising my stories is quite difficult. My shortest story is about 500 words and the longest is The Lighthouse. But in a sense they’re all on a spectrum
How did The Lighthouse take form?
It was around the same time as my short story had been shortlisted for the Manchester fiction prize.
I often start with an image. I had an image of a man sitting alone in a kitchen, which isn’t his and there’s a woman upstairs who he knows; but she doesn’t know he’s there, and he was having trouble with his shoes. There was this sort of thing going on in this scene. This raised questions as to who he was and why he was there, what was his relationship with this woman. I wanted to explore it and I knew at that point it wasn’t just a short story. But I didn’t know whether it would be a full length novel.
So I started working on it. I went to the prize giving event of the short story that had been short-listed for the Manchester fiction prize and the head judge subsequently contacted me to say he particularly liked my story and did I write anything in a slightly darker vein? He runs Nightjar press which publishes chapbooks (individually published short stories). I wrote a story especially for that (When the Door Closed, It Was Dark) and he published it. I also wrote one for an anthology he was doing on bird stories.
Then he asked me if I was working on anything longer. I was working on the story I had been thinking about. He said he would like to see it. At this stage I was not used to sending people unfinished work. So I told him ‘It’s very much a work in progress and I have no idea how good it is’ and he said he would very much like to see this work in progress. So for the first time ever, I sent someone unfinished work and sent him three chapters as I finished them. He came back to me to say that he liked them and what he liked about them. It was a very open response which was important and encouraging.
He said he’d like to see more. So I did that all the way through. I sent him two or three chapters, or up to five chapters until I got to the end. All the way through he was giving me this very open, encouraging feedback. He wasn’t steering me at all, which was very important, because I think this was what I’d been afraid of (but not with him. If I had been afraid of this with him I wouldn’t have sent it). But the reason I’d become used to not showing unfinished work was because I was afraid if they edited it, the work would stop being mine and then I wouldn’t be able to write it. He didn’t do that all. I got to the end and he gave me feedback on the whole. At the same time I went back to the beginning and started a second draft – the first draft was 25,000 words, half the length of the second draft. By the end of the second draft I could really feel what it was.
When you started writing The Lighthouse, had you actually thought through a plot or did characters appear as the writing progressed?
I’d not thought a plot out, but I could see where it would probably end. I knew roughly what the last chapter was going to be. So I had a sense of what was going to happen in the end and not a lot about what would happen in between.
So about the character Futh? How do you pronounce it?
I would say because it’s German in origin it’s more like ‘Fooot’. My reasoning behind pronouncing it with a soft ‘th’ is that Futh and his father weren’t born in Germany. They were born and raised in England and they’ve become very Anglicised and very disconnected from their German roots. This means that their name is how an English person would say it to them. They don’t even really own their name.
The narrative when you look back to his childhood is intriguing, because there has been much discussion in writing about these retrospective points of view. For example an adult might look back to their childhood from an adult’s standpoint or, as you have done, the character looks back at their childhood from the viewpoint of a child. How conscious was this decision?
Not very conscious, but it’s an interesting point because he’s a very childlike man. He hasn’t fully matured. So he’s a kind of childman. He’s seeing the world through his child’s eyes at the point where he stagnated emotionally.
Ester’s history is also picked over alongside Futh’s.
Actually what is interesting about Ester is that some people thought it was more Ester’s than Futh’s story. In terms of the synopsis on the back of the book it’s Futh’s story, but some people see it very much as Esther’s story, which I found quite interesting.
Did you sense that was going to happen when you wrote the story?
No. When I started writing it, her sections were shorter than Futh’s and it was through the process of writing I got to know her much better and could put in more about her.
The book is emotionally bleak. How did this make you feel when you were writing it?
It’s difficult to say, because you’re speaking to me after the fact and halfway through I might have said something different, because I forget those details. I don’t feel I created it as such. I feel as if I went in and this is what was there and I wrote what I saw. So yes it is all rather bleak, but the thing about it is that many of the characters are reflections of each other, so if there’s some bleakness, it kind of echoes out from that. Then I suppose one of the broader themes is this sense of the situation of ‘can anyone escape?’ It’s kind of closing in. So yes it’s naturally a bleak world.
So when you sat writing The Lighthouse, you managed to remain emotionally detached from it?
Although I talked about writing what I saw, it wasn’t like being a distant bystander, I was writing from inside them too, seeing what they saw and feeling what they felt, but I do remember making myself laugh quite a lot. I thought it was just me, because I do find Futh really funny. For example, his obliviousness when he’s sitting there, yet again, holding this same pair of pants. The obliviousness to how this has happened to him, is how he sees it. I didn’t think anyone else would see the humour in it, but a few reviewers, as well as friends who’ve read it, have said how funny they’ve found it. That some people could see it was a delight to me. So no I found it very enjoyable to write and not depressing at all. Not that it’s hilarious throughout; but even the things that are unquestionably bleak can be amusing, because the humour is found in his suffering. So as long as I can feel the story’s working it leaves me very happy.
There are quite a few occasions where things are going on that are implied. For example what goes on when his father brings women back to the hotel room. So you’re leaving a great deal to the reader’s imagination, indirect hints are drip feed in, seen through the eyes of Futh as a child. Were you aware how far you could go with these inferences and trust the reader to pick them up, and how deliberate was your laying down of clues?
I did deliberately put clues in. But in the editing stage I am very conscious of the reader’s experience and it is obviously very important that it’s not so obscure that the reader can’t get it. That would not be a very satisfying reading experience.
The novel does demand close reading, and hopefully with that close reading, the reader can tell to a good degree what’s going on. Ultimately there’s still an open endedness, but that is deliberate, because Carl, at the end of the story, has a horrible feeling something has happened, but doesn’t know and he never will know and neither will the reader. So where there is this open endedness, it’s always mirroring someone’s experience. For example Futh may or may not know or understand what’s going on. To some extent children can’t always have the complete story, and with the ending that’s Carl’s experience we’re getting there.
Yes, there is a sense of discomfort all the way through the book. Futh’s visit to Carl’s home was excruciating. How hard did you have to work on that to make the reader squirm sufficiently without going over the top with the result of the episode not believable?
Well I felt like I was in the car driving with them. I saw a front door. They stopped. They went in. It was because it was what needed to be there. I can see that Futh desperately wants to go to this mother’s house. It may not be his mother’s house, but it’s a mother’s house, where she will feed them and he wants to go there, but it’s very cold and very unwelcoming. So that’s what it needed to be. Because I’d put myself in his shoes when I walked through the door that’s what was there.
It is interesting how you use words, because there was a naked egg and masticating, as well as all the noises and smells?
Yes I’m pretty nasty in that situation and it makes you so horribly close to them and their intimacy.
I know some people haven’t liked it because they haven’t liked any of the characters, whereas I rather like that in a novel, because it’s only in a novel that you want to be anywhere near these people. So yes, you wouldn’t want to get so close in real life, so let’s do it in a novel, because you can.
Futh’s work revolves around the manufacture of artificial scents and he seems to have a heightened awareness of smells all the time.
It’s hard to remember what I was doing at the time. I don’t remember reaching a point where I thought ‘I know what job he should have’, but I suppose it was always very intrinsic to him that he’s always trying to connect to the past and rediscover and recreate the past. Smell is so closely connected to the past that he had to end up with the job of makings smells. And of course his father was a chemistry teacher, so there is some kind of follow on there.
Then of course I did some research as well and I remember thinking ‘As yes, scratch and sniff’. I do remember at what point that became added to the mixture.
So yes there are some deliberate elements and I think there is also another extent to which it just had to be something like that.
It’s as if your subconscious comes out when you write.
Yes. I think if you open yourself up, things do occur to you, which are just right. This happens very regularly with short stories. Quite often I’m writing a short story and I have no idea where it came from and on some occasions I’ve actually stopped myself when I’ve been writing a short story to make a note for myself ‘this is what occurred to me, this is how this story started’, because otherwise, afterwards, I forget; it’s done, sealed and I can’t remember where it came from.
Do you deliberately put rhythms into your writing to have an effect on the reader or this another subconscious act?
I don’t write poetry, but I do feel that rhythm in prose is very important and I do read it aloud to myself to see how it feels. I’m not doing it in any technical way. It’s just that it will feel right and sound right, or it won’t, and I might make certain word choices, a contraction or a word with a certain number of syllables. Not to the extent that it would be the wrong word, but I will make choices like that to make the sentence feel right.
Your chapters have very short titles. What was the reason for that?
Futh’s chapters are all smells and Ester’s chapters are all her collections. I would hope that cumulatively it gives you a sense of them. He is all about smells and particular smells and Ester’s collections define her to some extent.
Let’s talk about that ferry journey, because I felt very nauseous after reading it.
We’ve been on the ferry, because we’d done the circular walk in Germany, so that’s where Futh’s ferry journey came from. But then, having written it, I needed to get some details in which I hadn’t recorded. Even though I had kept a little holiday diary, I hadn’t got that sort of detail. So I needed to go on a ferry again. Because I’d had my son by this point, we didn’t go as far as Germany, but we did go on holiday to the north of France on a ferry. So I could watch the doors closing. We also had a storm – at first we were out on the deck and then I lay on the bed, experiencing Futh’s journey. It was very lucky and fortunate timing. It was an excellent experience being able to feel seasick.
There are so many layers and themes going on. Again is this something you are able to do without too much thought, or do you have to go back and choreograph things because you found some them didn’t work?
I do edit a lot as I go along, but at the same time I do plough through the first draft, but quite slowly, because I don’t like to leave ugly sentences. Once I’ve written it I go back to the beginning and edit it over and over. In subsequent drafts and edits I choreograph the story and maybe move whole sections around. I don’t overwrite and chop big bits out, but I will move things around until they’re in the right place.
One thing I haven’t done yet is write a 500 pager. That would be quite an interesting exercise for me, having to move things around until it all feels perfect and fretting over every sentence and extraneous detail, with a book that’s three times the length of The Lighthouse.
You’ve been nominated for another award?
It seems to be The Lighthouse rather than me, nominated for New Writer of the Year in the National Book Awards, which is very flattering and a very different prize to the Man Booker Prize.
What are you doing now?
I had started feeling my way around a new book. Then I became very busy promoting The Lighthouse after the short listing for the Man Booker Prize. So the new writing is on the backburner for the moment. But the time will come to get back to that and the writing will be quite different I think, because I’ve had this sort of thing before. I’ve been writing something, then stopped to do some other writing or something writing related and come back to the work and have felt it was better for stepping away and then returning. So yes, I’ll get back to it soon, I think, with some useful perspective on it. It’s often helpful being able to mull over things in the meantime.