Interview: Alison Moore

Interview: James Walker
Saturday 12 January 2013
reading time: min, words

Alison Moore’s unsettling debut novel The Lighthouse explores grief, helplessness and abandonment in a style  that threatens to crash against the rocks at any moment. Shortlisted for the Booker Prize, it’s the  first glimmer from an important new writer...  

So who is Alison Moore?
Alison Moore is a writer, born in Manchester in 1971. Her first short story was published in 2000 and her debut novel, published in August, was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2012. She lives in Wymeswold with her husband Dan and son Arthur and is a member of Nottingham Writers’ Studio. 

Tweet us an outline of the plot of the The Lighthouse…
A man travels to Germany for a walking holiday, spending his first night at the Hellhaus hotel. Hoping to find himself, he becomes lost.

The character you are referring to is called Futh - or was it Fluff?
I wanted a forgettable name for a forgettable man and for this reason I love it when readers call him ‘Furth’ or ‘Fuff’. He began as a man sitting alone in a woman’s kitchen, and his shoes were hurting him; he was a middle-aged man hankering after a woman from his past and having a bit of trouble with everyday things.

When did you first get the idea for the book?
I started writing the above scene in Autumn 2009 but then stopped to write a short story. At the start of 2010, I came back to what then became The Lighthouse, putting this man on a
ferry to Germany. The first draft took six months and the second draft took another six months, and then there was a whole lot of tweaking.

It’s a beautifully weighted novel that gives just enough detail to arouse numerous possibilities. Is this a particular style of your writing, or something that worked for this particular novel?
I can think of other short stories of mine in which key things are suggested rather than explicit, but it seemed especially apt for this story in which the characters don’t always know quite what has happened either – so Bernard is piecing together ‘clues’ regarding what is happening right under his nose; and Carl, in the end, has only his horrible presentiment and an absence to inform him.

The novel is full of subtle warnings that characters - and occasionally readers - fail to notice. What kind of warnings or advice would you give new writers hoping to find a publisher?
I’ve had a very positive experience with my publisher, Salt. Having an agent and editor I can totally trust has been an important element of that. Also I’d already had some experience
of working with Salt through a story of mine having been published in one of their Best British Short Stories anthologies. I think it also helps not to be dazzled by big advances and
suchlike; to focus on the quality of the working relationship.
Did you know that Salt were nominating you for the Booker?
Not in advance, but I knew before the longlisting that The Lighthouse had been entered.

Did you feel pressurised -  the Booker can be quite a financial gamble for some publishers?
It almost knocked me over harder than the longlisting or the shortlisting did. It was so unexpected, and flattering because it meant they thought it stood a chance. I don’t recall feeling pressure, just a fizzing feeling whenever I thought about it.

The previous Booker was criticised for its readability, whereas this one placed a greater emphasis on language and technical skill. What makes a good book - or come to think about it, a good competition?
I do like a good read and a page-turner, but I also want a book to impress and excite me with its linguistic and technical achievements. I think that if these prizes provoke discussion about books and writing then that’s valuable – one of the unexpected pleasures of reaching the longlist was how much people suddenly wanted to talk about my book.

So what was it like at the Booker ceremony?
Good fun. The venue was stunning, it was like eating your dinner inside a cathedral. And everywhere you looked there were faces you knew, and it can take a moment to realise it’s not actually someone you know, it’s Ian Hislop. All the other shortlisted authors are lovely, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed doing events with them. I particularly got to know Tan Twan Eng, who was very friendly; we arrived at the same time. Will Self came over to chat after dinner; he too is very pleasant and amusing. 

How have you coped with the sudden frenzy of publicity?  
It was bizarre, going from almost total anonymity as a writer to coming home from the Main Booker Prize party after the shortlisting to find dozens of emails about giving readings, appearing at festivals, talking to newspapers and radio stations not just in the UK but in France and Singapore, interest from agents and publishers, enquiries about foreign rights and even the first mention of a film. It was a bit overwhelming but also funny and interesting.

The only real difficulty was scheduling things around our three-year-old, but how we’ve done it is to include him as far as possible, so he often comes to festivals and venues with us and then plays with his dad for an hour or so while I do the event, and in fact I think it’s been a great experience for him as well as for me. It has calmed down a little now but there are still interesting requests coming in – I did a piece for Russian TV yesterday.

How has the whole experience affected you as a writer?
It’s had a huge impact on me as a writer. Without it, my book would probably not be in Waterstones. The prize gives an enormous boost to media coverage and sales, which gives me some security as a writer. In terms of confidence, yes, it has given me confidence with regard to The Lighthouse and in a general way. But as for the next story, you never know if you’re about to write a turkey.

Nottingham seems to have really got behind you.
I’ve had a huge amount of support – from Nottingham Writers’ Studio whose Twitter campaign was wonderfully encouraging, and entertaining too, Nottingham Waterstones who hosted the launch and a very enjoyable signing session, Lakeside Arts Centre who all wore Ali masks on Man Booker night, and Nottingham University who hosted a talk about The Lighthouse before it was longlisted and have now given me an Honorary Lectureship. My family and friends are all very pleased and excited for me, and I get good practical support from my husband and my mother-in-law, who look after Arthur while I’m doing events and interviews. My publishers – Jen and Chris at Salt – have been working flat out.

You can invite four literary figures over to dinner who would you invite, and why?
Truman Capote, Flannery O’Connor, Kurt Vonnegut, and Futh – to see if I can finally get a decent dinner inside him.

The Lighthouse is available now, priced at £8.99 from Salt Publishing. Alison Moore will be appearing at the Festival of Words on Sunday 17 Feb, 2.45 - 4.00pm (Love Stories) in NTU Newton Arkwright Building.



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