I’m delighted to have Alison Lock over at the blog today to talk about her debut fiction collection, Above the Parapet; “Short Stories that explore beyond the usual boundaries”.
Welcome, Alison! Now, just be careful, pet, as we climb into the harness - have you piloted a tandem paraglider before? No. Oh, right. Neither have I. Ne' mind, I'm sure we'll get the hang of it. Right, off we go!
I must start by quoting some of the extraordinary blurb from your book:
“The world is on a cusp, hovering between the familiar and the dystopian. With humour and compassion the characters are sucked into a slipstream of ordinary events and unusual happenings. A woman hears her roses crying as the ash begins to fall; a girl with hearing loss is more at home with bugs, a man with good intent transmogrifies. There’s a secret inside a pony, an occasional angel, a swarm of flying fish and then there is the dog. And all the while, the natural world is taking an ominous turn.”
This description seems to be suggesting your stories are “slipstream” fiction. But I found myself thinking about genres and how I would describe your stories. There’s a mythic quality to the subject matter. In “The Mission”, you give us a character called Gabriel - and I won’t spoil the ending, but - considering the location, it was difficult not to imagine this story as a kind of passion play. Indeed, there are other stories in this collection that make the Bible seem like boring realism, so much so that when asked what I was working on this week, I inadvertently said “Above the Parable”. In other stories, there are floods and all manner of natural disasters looming on the unnervingly close horizon, and “Inside the Pony” has a young girl, named Evie, hiding a secret inside a My Little Pony which made me think immediately of the Trojan horse, therefore, I wanted to ask if you could tell me about the inspiration for this collection?
Firstly, Rachel, thanks for reading the book and having me on your blog.
With regard to the inspiration for this collection, it was not a process of thinking, 'I'll write stories about climate change and relate them to events in the Bible.' I can see how you might think that, and isn't it interesting that stories of impending natural disaster have been written throughout time. In Greek tales, volcanoes were passages opening to the underworld. In the Scandinavian traditions, the sun, the moon and the stars take on mythic proportions, and the wind is ascribed to sorcery. In fact, in many traditions, the otherwise natural forces that create the world we live in are attributed to all manner of mythical creatures and supernatural forces, and today, some of the occurrences in these stories come close to the predictions of the climate change scientist. Perhaps it is the stories and tales read to us in childhood and passed down from generation to generation that never leave us. I can also see how the idea of a passion play has occurred, now you mention it. I suppose having a couple of angels inhabiting the village does set the scene rather.
Natural disaster in its many forms has become a part of our lives even if we don't experience it first hand; it is always on the horizon, visually, aurally, everyday, on the radio and TV; neither can we escape all the scientific analysis and reports from journalists on the scene. But I wanted to explore the everydayness of this impending feeling, how people are affected and how they are not, their everyday relations in the face of disaster, and not avoiding the darker, unpleasant side.
These stories exist entirely in the realm of the imagination, my imagination, although their source at times has come from actual events, such as flooding, rising sea levels, extra-ordinary heat. Placed within a short story, they are balanced uneasily between a liminal world of imagination, fable, history, and lived experience. It is the region behind the log that floats down the river, the wake of a bird in the sky, the slipstream.
Speaking of natural disaster, this harness is a bit tight. Ooph, that's better. Ooh, mind your head on that bird!
Nah then, I briefly mentioned location. Many of these Royston Vasey-esque stories are set in towns with plausible sounding Anglo-Saxon riddled names that I felt certain could be in my native Yorkshire. For example, Windblatter, I was so sure of its authenticity that I had to Google it, and found this:
Folgende Eigenschaften hat Ayla als TERRIER und Tussi-Yorkie:
- sobald es regnet, kann sie Pipi in Rekordschnelle erledigen (eigentlich hat sie gar kein Bock rauszugehen)
- wenn es nass ist / Schnee liegt, läuft sie am Rand auf den Pflastersteinen, um gar keine nassen Pfoten zu bekommen
- sie erschreckt sich vor Wind
- sie bellt im Wind Blätter an :lol:
- sie erschreckt sich vor ihren eigenen Pupsen
- wenn Hunde von weiten kommen, tut sie einen auf Rottweiler und bellt die Hunde an
For those of you who don’t read German, Google has kindly translated it as:
Has the following properties as Ayla and chick TERRIER Yorkie:
- When it rains, they can do pee in record fast (actually she did not feel like going out)
- When it is wet / snow, it runs on the edge on the cobblestones to get no wet feet
- They frightened of wind
- She barks at leaves in the wind: lol:
- They are frightened of their own fart
- When dogs come from far, she's doing on a Rottweiler and barks at the dogs
Yorkshire Terrier! Tell me, Alison, would I be awarded a prize rosette for budding Miss Marple at The Great Yorkshire Show? Tell me about the importance of place in your fiction. Does where you live or grew up shape one’s fiction, do you think?
Firstly, the name of the island, Windblatter, is entirely made up – although it might mean all manner of things in German (I had not considered this) – it just seemed the right name for the place, an island that was constantly battered by the wind – it's that simple. It's true that the Yorkshire Pennines are a powerful backdrop to my life, but, I'm sorry to disappoint you, Miss Marple, the story was not set there. In fact, if anywhere, it was a Hebridean island that inspired the setting of this story, and probably only then by a single garage that had been fixed to the rocky shore by steel ropes. There had been a hurricane the previous winter with tides so high that, in some cases, people were cut off from their loved ones, roofs lifted from houses, caravans blown from one end of the island to the other.
Setting is very important to me, and the natural world takes precedence in most of the stories. Often, those in tune with the natural world fare better than those who rail against it. In the last story Swarm, it is the girl who is able to speak the language of the Wingfish who survives and I placed this story at the end of the collection because I wanted it to end with a character who is lifted from disaster because she is in tune with her surroundings.
I liked that one a lot! Smashing. Oh, Alison, I'm not sure we're meant to be this high. That bird whose slip stream we were following seems to have given us the slip and pulled us into a thermal, only I'm not wearing any thermals and it's a bit parky up here and I'm ever so nesh. Can you drop us down? Speaking of drop....
One of my favourite stories in your collection was “Map Woman”. I loved the darkness, the ominous weather – nature is really the main character in all these fictions – but I especially liked that you don’t make excuses for your characters’ behaviours. They engage in some grim acts at times, although I found myself laughing at the end of “Map Woman”. This story actually reminded me of a film called “Sightseers”. Yet, for all the humour noir and surreal events, there’s a very real engagement with issues surrounding climate change.
What I thought particularly interesting was how you managed to present these themes on a level where they are relevant to ordinary people; you’ve come at this topic from a very original angle. Large events feel intimate, especially in a story such as “Ashes for Roses”, I think. I was so pleased to read a story about “a brother and sister living at their parents’ home well into their sixties”. You evoke wonderfully a sense of village life, and community, and also people who are often ignored in fiction. Could you tell me how you came to write about Leah and Henry?
I'm very glad you find the humour in my stories. I am aware that the elements of dark comedy can easily go unnoticed or be read in a serious way often because of their dead-pan delivery.
With Leah and Henry in Ashes for Roses, I wanted characters whose relationship is life-long. They could easily have been a husband and wife but I really wanted characters who went back to childhood with all the irritations and petty competitions that build up and often continue throughout adult life. I wanted to see how those characteristics would play out when placed in a potentially devastating scenario. I suppose it is to do with the things that we cling on to, things that might not mean much in terms of the material, but the things that are important in making us who we are.
Yes, I suppose that's true. And what I am now is clung to you in this tandem harness! Let's hope this scenario isn't life-long. Can you take us down, please? Any longer up here and I'll be wanting wings. Ah, land ahoy. Mind that pylon......we'll be grand, so long as you don't land us in Darfield; we'd be like Plague Victims Catapulted over Walls into Besieged City!
Finally, there are twenty stories in your collection, all packed with keen observations. You are also a poet and I find I am drawn to the fiction of poets, possibly because of the beautiful prose they employ.
“As a result of winning the Indigo Dreams Poetry Collection Competition in 2010, Alison Lock’s first collection of poetry ‘A Slither of Air’ was published.”
Do you find your poetry background helps you write fiction, or are the two genres in separate brain departments? How do you know the difference between a poem idea and a story idea?
I recently talked about the process of writing poetry and short stories in a post on Carys Bray's blog and particularly about the source; when an idea becomes a poem or a story or a piece of prose. I love poetry for its ability to express ideas using words as shapes, well, that's how I see it.
In short stories I like the subtle use of words, the light touch, the description that is also an emotion, the small things that describe the whole far better than a panoramic shower of words. I remember learning about the technique of synecdoche on my MA course and just loving it. It was such a revelation and it opened up so many possibilities. I suppose all writers have their favourite ways or techniques and these are useful but I don't believe that techniques+idea=a good story, there has to be that impulse to explore, create and learn about characters in their settings and the ability to take the reader with you. I hope my stories do this, because I just love what I do.
Are you going already? You shuftied off that harness pretty swiftly. Alreight. Thanks so much for talking to me, Alison. Thank you for landing us safely, albeit on top of a very precarious stone. Above the Parapet can be bought direct from Indigo Dreams, and here for Kindle.
“Alison lives in Holmfirth, Yorkshire. Many of her poems and short stories have been published in anthologies, magazines and even a mobile phone app. She has an MA in Literature Studies and Creative Writing from York St John University and was the first Poet-in-Residence at Holmfirth Arts Festival.”
Other nice things folk have said about Alison’s work:
“Alison's stories linger long after you've finished reading them. Soulful, unsettling and beautifully written.” - Rachel Connor
“As you begin savouring each tale, you don't want it to end. The worlds that she deftly conjures feel possible, yet otherworldly; the characters are complex and remain with the reader long after the stories end.” - Suzanne Gannon
“Ethereal, oppressive, playful, savage, chilling and haunting - Alison Lock's short stories are an unsettling journey into the unknown. Each weaves a magical and mesmerizing spell, each keeps the reader tense and unsure in a world that seems to shimmer between reality and ominous fantasy - some teasing and whimsical with a gleeful, misanthropic Roald Dahl humour, others more sinister and threatening. This 20-strong collection certainly impresses but it's a far from easy read, and not just because of the undercurrents of darkness. The tales - although lyrical and beguiling - often seem more like poetry than prose, challenging readers to bring their own interpretations and meanings to the sparse, cryptic storytelling.” – Iain Pattison. Amazon reviews.