Brighton author Alison MacLeod’s collection of short stories set in Sussex
PUBLISHED: 15:03 25 August 2017 | UPDATED: 15:03 25 August 2017
Alison MacLeod saw her most recent novel Unexploded longlisted for the Man Booker Prize. Now she has brought out a collection of short stories, four of them set in Sussex. She tells Jenny Mark-Bell why every word of a short story has to carry “a pulse of energy”
“A good short story is like a kick to the heart or a hit to the back of the brain,” says Brighton author Alison MacLeod. She should know. Not only is she a Man Booker Prize-longlisted author but she is also professor of contemporary fiction at the University of Chichester.
Her second collection of short stories, All the Beloved Ghosts, examines the ephemeral nature of human life. The title reflects the many souls that pepper the book’s pages: among them an eminent cardiac specialist preparing for his own heart transplant; a reluctant jihadist on a day trip; a young woman enjoying the night of her life; and a young man looking for his love in the London riots.
The author V S Pritchett said a good short story captures the character “at bursting point” and Alison says: “It’s almost as if under pressure the persona cracks and the real character steps through. The intimacy comes from that sense of a life stepping off the page.”
This collection is intimate in a very real way. There are elements of documentary, interview and biography. For the first time, Alison has also included some autobiography, notably in the powerful piece Dreaming Diana: Twelve Frames. The story tracks Alison’s perceptions of the princess against her own life experiences – including the dissolution of her marriage. “I’ve never gone out on that sort of limb before,” she says. “I had to think quite hard about writing it, and what to put in.”
In another story, a fictionalised version of Alison apprehends a disgraced politician in the hope of bringing him to justice but ends up captured by his secret service detail. She says she likes to take risks: “To me, art lacks a vital energy if the artist hasn’t dared in some way.”
This collection comes after Alison’s most recent novel, Unexploded, was longlisted for the 2013 Man-Booker Prize for Fiction. It was one of The Observer’s books of the year, serialised on BBC Radio 4’s Book at Bedtime and is currently optioned for film. She is now working on another novel but loves the short story form. “There’s an intensity to it. I love its beautiful immediacy, the way in which you can craft a tight shape. A short story is intricate whereas a novel is big architecture. People dismiss the short story as a sort of rehearsal ground for the novel but it really isn’t; I think in some ways it’s closer to poetry. It has that compression of form and every word has to carry a pulse of energy.”
Unexploded is set in May 1940, with Brighton plagued by bombs and in the grip of fear that Hitler will invade the town. “They even had a policy of flying gunner planes along the wider streets like London Road as the schools emptied, strafing the streets with gunfire,” says Alison. For Evelyn Beaumont, all this is the catalyst for marital disharmony. The pressure and dread are oppressive. Into that mix comes a German-Jewish painter, a prisoner in Evelyn’s husband’s internment camp.
The novel shares some themes with stories in All the Beloved Ghosts. “I’m really interested in where we all stand in relation to otherness and what we define as other,” says Alison. “At times of national crisis, when the economy’s in a difficult place and the nation is under pressure, who do we scapegoat?
“For me racism and prejudice is just so random that it’s almost surreal. If it comes down to the colour of our skin it could be the colour of our hair, the colour of our eyes . And yet it’s a persistent phenomenon that takes hold of society.”
She started the story Solo, A Capella soon after the London riots. “I was haunted and mesmerised by what was happening, that sense of utter unpredictability as to what could happen next.” Writing from the perspective of a young black man, she felt a heavy responsibility to get it right, and spent many weeks poring over first-hand witness accounts. “I do believe that as writers and artists it is our duty to step outside of our own skin and our own biography. There’s sometimes a notion that if I’m a white, heterosexual female living in Sussex that I should only write from that point of view, and I resist that entirely.”
Truthfulness to her subject was also on her mind when writing the title story, which is about Angelica Garnett and Charleston. It actually began much closer to home. “At the time my father was very ill with Alzheimer’s. In his final months the doctors insisted he go into full-time care.
“My father had been a highly articulate man but he had long ceased to be able to speak a sentence. One day I was visiting him, and for the first time in years he spoke fluently, saying: ‘I saw my father. He was standing right there yesterday’. What that meant I don’t know, but it made me think about time being not a sequence, but layered and porous.”
Shortly afterwards Alison saw Angelica Garnett, the daughter of Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant, speaking at Charleston – her childhood home. She was a very elderly woman by that point, in her nineties, and: “I could see all the layers of her life seeping through one another. I thought how strange it must be to be sitting in your former garden with a whole audience of people staring at you on stage.” Alison – who owns some of Angelica’s paintings – pored over the artist’s memoir Deceived by Kindness. She didn’t want to be intrusive and wrote to tell Angelica she intended to make her the subject of a story.
After sending the finished piece she received a rather terse reply: “Dear Alison Macleod, thank you for sending your story. I do not like it. However [“and this is where I thought ‘you’re absolutely fantastic’,” says Alison] I wish you the very best of luck with it.”
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