Benjamin Judge (BJ): The Arrival of Missives and The Beauty work well viewed as a pair, linked by narrators drawn to something that represents an unknown or ‘other’. The Beauty was set in the future, with a male narrator that had (trying to avoid spoilers here) a (relationship) with (something from nature) that seems drawn from deep within the earth’s past. The Arrival of Missives is a historical novella, with a female narrator who is in love with a man altered by something scientific and from a distant future. Was this mirroring always the plan, or something that evolved out of The Beauty?
Aliya Whiteley (AW): They do make a good pair but I really hadn’t thought about it at all until after I finished writing Missives and a few readers pointed out similarities. It’s strange because when The Beauty was done I felt that I had really written out some of the themes and ideas that interested me. It felt like a cathartic piece of writing, and I had managed to say everything I wanted to say, which is unusual for me. Then I went off and wrote some short stories and other things, and then started Missives and found myself drawn back into these big questions I have about the concept of the future, and how we wrestle for power over it. So I wasn’t aware of it at the time – it felt very different to me as a writing experience – but I quite like the way Missives works as a mirror image of The Beauty, in an unplanned way.
BJ: I can see how writing The Beauty would be cathartic, when it gets dark, it gets really dark. Would you say The Arrival of Missives is a more hopeful book?
AW: Hmmm. I don’t think of either book in terms of hopefulness or pessimism. Both have main characters who are incredibly optimistic in some ways, but the overall tone of the books – I don’t know. No, I don’t see Missives as more hopeful at all, but it’s not a hopeless book either. Perhaps, like The Beauty, it points out how difficult it is to communicate with, and live peacefully with, other people. Not impossible, but very difficult. There’s always hope, though, right?
BJ: Yes, there’s always hope, except maybe in a Little Chef. I think part of the reason I found the book hopeful was the setting. The period directly after the Great War was, clearly, a period full of loss and mourning but it was also a period of change. I thought you captured that brilliantly. It’s a hugely under-represented period in literature (especially considering contemporary fiction’s obsession with the war itself); what drew you to it?
AW: Thanks. (For liking the setting rather than finding the Little Chef Achilles’ Heel in my “there’s always hope” argument.) I knew I wanted to write about what comes after the traumatic event, rather than concentrate on the event itself. That interests me more. After the war everything is up for grabs: emotions, social strictures, interpretations of what the hell just happened. So the setting is the same as what happens to Shirley, and to Mr Tiller; it’s the moment in which they, and everyone, interprets after the event. And come to very different conclusions. I was petrified of the setting once I worked out that was what the book needed, though, so it’s really good to hear that it worked for you. Historical fiction is scary.
BJ: It is. I have been told that you should “just write the book and then fix the historical stuff later”. Was that your method or did you start from research?
AW: That was it exactly. I just cracked on in the end and put big rows of crosses at sections that I didn’t know much about, such as blacksmiths and Municipal Teacher Training Colleges. My first draft is always longhand anyway so when I type it up that gives me the perfect opportunity to change the crosses into something more meaningful, whether that’s to do with research or imagery or character nuances.
BJ: You are always one of the examples I give of writers that use genre in interesting ways. Whether you are using it subtly, as in Three Things About Me, or turning genre up to eleven in The Beauty, the quality of the prose keeps up with the ideas. You are writing a ‘literary fiction’ that isn’t constrained by an obsession with verisimilitude or ‘truth’. The up side of such a fearless, exploratory approach to writing fiction is the work is consistently outstanding, but the down side is that you make yourself difficult to market. Is it a sacrifice worth making? And how lucky do you feel to have found [your publisher] Unsung Stories?
AW: I did try to be a bit more marketable at one stage, when Macmillan were interested in a sequel to Light Reading. I think they were hoping it would become a series of crime books featuring those two characters, and that’s when I discovered that I can’t write a series if it’s not part of my original plan for those characters, and also that I’m rubbish at quashing my instinct to play with genre. It caused me a bit of heartache at the time as my idea of success was tied up with having a big agent, a big contract, and all of that stuff. So I went away and started writing things totally for myself instead, thinking they were probably unsellable but since I wasn’t going to be successful anyway, what did it matter? I wanted to feel good about the result, and to explore science fiction and fantasy and horror and romance and why they work and how they can be manipulated. I suppose I’m a really selfish writer in that I write to make the books I like, and I like surprises. I love to not have a clue where something is going, as a writer and as a reader.
Unsung Stories had only just started and I knew George, the Managing Editor, through a writing website. I was moaning at him one day about how I couldn’t find anyone to publish The Beauty (it was the wrong length for anyone to even want to take a look at and my synopses are always so terrible; I think my ideas just sound deranged when laid out on one page of A4) and he said – why not Unsung? I thought the length ruled it out of being published as a book, to be honest, but Unsung did such an incredible job of it. So I feel very lucky that they decided to ignore conventional publishing wisdom and put the book first over marketing concerns, and, of course, that then freed me to be able to feel confident in writing what I want and maybe even finding readers without having to compromise. I don’t think it gets better than that.
BJ: You haven’t done a Western yet. Could you do a Western?
AW: I can’t see myself ever tackling an autobiography, to be honest, having no great love of the idea of the ‘unvarnished truth’ when it comes to a life story. But never say never.
BJ: The main requirement of an autobiography is being able to force a bad pun out of your name. You could, at a push, get away with Aliya Whiteley – I Like to Writey, so I wouldn’t dismiss the idea out of hand.
AW: If I ever do write one that is definitely going to be the title.
BJ: Brilliant. And on that bombshell, I guess we’ll have to wrap things up if I’m going to make deadline. Thanks ever so much for chatting to us, it’s been a pleasure.
AW: Thank you, I really enjoyed it! It’s been great to chat to you.
Aliya Whiteley’s The Arrival of Missives is out now published by Unsung Stories.