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Black Static


Nina Allan: In Close-Up

22nd Jul, 2010

Author: Peter Tennant

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Nina Allan's work will be familiar to readers of Interzone and Black Static, to both of which she is a regular contributor. Her story 'My Brother's Keeper' from Black Static #12 is in contention for the 2010 British Fantasy Award in the Short Fiction category (you have until the end of the month to vote), and I'm hoping to review her Eibonvale collection A Thread of Truth in the next issue.

Using that double whammy as a pretext, I took the opportunity to ask Nina a few questions about her writing in general and the nominated story in particular.

PT: In the biographical blurb that comes at the end of 'My Brother's Keeper' when it appeared in Black Static we're told that you have an 'ongoing preoccupation with the imprecise nature of time'. Could you expand on what you mean by this?

NA: I was about twelve when I first read H. G. Wells's The Time Machine, and I suppose I could say I never recovered! I'd encountered the idea of time travel before that, most notably in Doctor Who, but in the case of the Doctor it was the monsters I was most interested in really, and it wasn't until I read Wells that I began to focus on the concept of time itself, and of time as a separate dimension. There's a bit right near the start of the novel where the Time Traveller likens the act of remembering - the thinking back in time to a particular moment - to time travel, and then wonders aloud if this innate capacity might not be harnessed and used in ways we can't yet imagine. That paragraph still gets me every time I read it, and seems to me to be the crux of that wonderful novel. The other image that sticks in my mind and won't let go is the idea of the model time machine, the prototype the Time Traveller constructs to test his theories, flying onward into infinity and never stopping.

On the one hand time is an immutable element but on the other it seems subject to all manner of subjective influences, the subjective influence of memory most of all. This 'chemical reaction' of time and memory has always fascinated me and is one of the key themes of 'My Brother's Keeper'.

PT: In the Afterword to your collection A Thread of Truth you give some account of where the ideas for various stories came from. What would you write for 'My Brother's Keeper'?

NA: 'My Brother's Keeper' was actually written as a way of prolonging my encounter with a group of characters from an earlier story. As part of my more general thinking about time I became fascinated by the mechanics of time-keepers, of clocks and watches, and the way their beauty seems enhanced by their usefulness and also by the mystery - the hubris even - inherent in the concept of measuring time, of time as a physical commodity. I kept returning to the idea of the watch as significant object, often associated with important rites of passage: birthdays, anniversaries, retirements. My story 'Time's Chariot,' which appeared in a Focus special issue as part of the BSFA 50th Anniversary celebrations, sprang from the idea of a young man being given a watch for his birthday, and what might happen if he found he was literally able to 'put back the clock.' I grew fond of that character, Martin, and I wanted to know more about him. Almost as soon as 'Time's Chariot' was completed I started writing another story about him, giving him a brother instead of a sister and taking him further back into his childhood. More recently I've been working on a third Martin story, in which Martin is older but still time-travelling. I see these stories as part of an evolving whole, with the characters like the court cards in a deck of cards. When the game is finished you simply shuffle the pack and begin another.          

PT: 'My Brother's Keeper' and five of the eight stories in A Thread of Truth have male protagonists. Do male characters appeal to you more than female and if so then why?

NA: It's not that I find male characters more appealing, it's simply that I've found them easier to write. I suppose it's fair to say that in my male characters what I'm doing is revealing the 'male' side of my personality, the combative, intellectual, fiercely independent and analytically perceptive side that I'm most confident in expressing. I love enquiry, debate, the collation of facts, the act of evaluation. I can read and write about that until the cows come home. The intensely private 'female' side of my personality, where I'm more vulnerable to hurt, has been slower in revealing itself. By way of example there's a work of mine, still to be published, based around the interlinked narratives of two main characters, one male, one female. I wrote Andrew's part in less than three months, and barring the usual redrafting it remains more or less as it was when I first set it down. Whereas it took me three complete reworkings to get Bramber's narrative right, a year or more of work, off and on.

Partly it's a technical thing. I need to feel certain that my imaginative vocabulary is sufficiently developed, that I am able to say what I want to say effectively. It's important as a writer not to let ambition get ahead of ability. It's only relatively recently that I've begun to sense a shift in balance, towards my female characters. Both 'Flying in the Face of God' and 'Orinoco' have female leads, as do my stories 'Feet of Clay,' 'Bellony' and 'The Phoney War' (all appearing soon in forthcoming anthologies). I've just finished a novella 'prequel' to 'Flying in the Face of God' which has a young girl as its protagonist. And there's more to come.

PT: I could be totally wrong here, but 'My Brother's Keeper' put me in mind of Angela Carter's work, especially novels like Wise Children and Nights at the Circus. Which three writers do you feel have influenced you the most and how?

NA: It's an amazing compliment to be compared with Carter, whose fearless spirit and abundant creativity must be an inspiration to all writers although perhaps for British women writers in particular. The subject of influence and inspiration could fill a book by itself, but I suppose the writers who have influenced me most are important to me because they have all in their different ways shown me what it is possible to aspire to. I believe very strongly that a writer should read above his level, that he should spend a lot of time reading writers he knows are much better than him and probably always will be. Some people might see this as a discouragement, but I am the very opposite - I see it as a goad! Understanding why someone is better than you and asking yourself questions about that is the only way you're going to improve, the only way you're going to work out what you want to achieve. Reading your near contemporaries is always going to be interesting, but reading them exclusively can make you competitive in the wrong way, and sometimes complacent. 

I first encountered Christopher Priest's work when I read A Dream of Wessex in my early twenties. Right from the start I knew his writing would be important to me, because it showed me ways of envisioning the world I had never encountered before. Priest's key theme is the nature of perceived reality, or more precisely how reality can be remade by memory. In a way this is what all writers do - remake reality by the exercise of memory - and yet Priest, in his use of extended metaphor and virtuoso control of novelistic form, takes these ideas one stage further. I consider Priest's The Affirmation to be the single most important novel of British speculative fiction since the war; much of what we now like to call contemporary slipstream fiction stands on its shoulders.

M. John Harrison's work has been crucial to me in considering ways to express both the beauty and the despair of being human and of being a writer. As in the work of Ballard, there's a kind of psychogeography going on in Harrison's work, in which the landscape a character inhabits can also be symbolic of the state of his mind. That rubbish dump in Signs of Life has to be one of the most convincing metaphors for our modern society I've ever come across. It's also an astounding piece of descriptive prose. For me perhaps the most important thing about Harrison's work is the way it shows us that the world we inhabit is already enchanted; we don't have to beef it up, we simply have to look around us and take notice of what is there. Harrison has written a whole story about precisely this and it's called 'A Young Man's Journey to London'. His novel Climbers, and many of the stories in Travel Arrangements, have speculative elements that are very slight by the standards of many, and yet they colour everything.  

I read Iris Murdoch from an early age and she seemed then and still seems to me one of a kind. Many women of that generation found it necessary to spend their writing lives discussing the question of a woman's place in society; Iris Murdoch didn't bother, because the idea that anyone should 'put her in her place' was clearly laughable to her. There's a tendency now to dismiss Murdoch's books as old-fashioned, 'social novels' of the middle classes, whereas in fact she was writing about madness, murder, suicide, kidnapping, sexuality, political intrigue, God and the devil, breaking taboos so often and so unconcernedly that people often failed to notice. Murdoch's first love was people, character, the individual exercise of free will. Her London is enchanted and her spirit immortal. The smell of wood smoke in a London twilight, tall trees against a fading sky - that's a 'Murdoch evening' for me, carrying with it the sense that anything and everything could be about to happen.

PT: One feature of your writing that I've seen commented on is the meticulous description you employ, as if you are very intent on pinning things down, though it seems to me that at the plot level ambiguity prevails. How deliberate is this on your part, and do you feel that the one reinforces the other?

NA: When I first looked over your questions for this interview I was deeply struck by this suggestion of yours that I might be 'intent on pinning things down,' because this is indeed exactly how it is for me. I even have in my mind's eye this ideal image of a needlepoint tapestry, or fine appliqué, the colours jewel-bright and the individual elements starkly delineated. My sensory perception of the world has always been heightened in this way. Colours especially but also smells and sounds and texture, these things have informed my view of the world and my sense of myself for as long as I have been capable of conscious thought. For me there is no such thing as banality and I don't switch off easily. I can get an adrenaline rush from the smell of dry grass or the glitter of new frost on the pavement at night. The pairing of certain memories with their symbolic physical counterparts in the external world provides the starting point for everything I write. It is part of my job as a writer to capture and preserve such details and my memories of them, to keep them safe from time's erosions. What you're hoping for of course is to reawaken similar responses and memories in the reader. Someone once told me that a story of mine had made her cry, because a certain scene in it had reminded her of her own grandmother. I took that as the highest compliment, a sign that I was learning to do my job.

I've always been rather frightened of plot, frightened of spelling things out, frightened of being too obvious. These are fears that I am battling to overcome.  I enjoy ambiguity. I especially enjoy open endings, in my reading every bit as much as in my own writing. I have learned however that too much ambiguity can leave you sounding vague, unsure of your ground. Worst of all it can alienate readers. I want to communicate with my readers, not shut them out. I am increasingly aware that I need to be as precise in defining my plots as in my powers of description. Future work I hope will bear the proof of that awareness.  

Each story I write is an experiment, an attempt to progress. These experiments are very much ongoing!   

PT: 'My Brother's Keeper' has been described as a ghost story. What do ghosts mean to you?

NA: Ghosts are hope. When we say we believe in ghosts what we are saying is that we believe in the persistence of individual consciousness. Where ghosts appear in my fiction they come as friends.

I know two people, my father and a close friend, who firmly believe they have seen ghosts. I myself have never been that lucky. The closest I have come to a real-world supernatural experience is the feeling of being haunted or watched over, the sense that one is not alone in an empty house, that a deserted stretch of coast or woodland is not so deserted. At the time such sensations can be terrifying, but in retrospect they are often exhilarating, tantalising, the only proof we have of an invisible secret world beyond our own.

All speculative fiction inhabits the shadowy space between the seen and the not-seen. I believe the truth of what we find there is subjective and ultimately unknowable. Television programmes that set out to prove or disprove the existence of ghosts can be fun to watch but their findings are mostly irrelevant. For me the creative drama lies in not-knowing. 

In a way all books are ghosts, the ghosts of the writers that wrote them. The act of reading is an act of communication with the dead.    

PT: There's a form of 'object fetishism' in the story - Rye has his gun, Violet her opal ring, Ferenc his black cane with a silver head, and Martin acquires the Smith watch. Each object is important to them and helps define who they are. What object serves a similar purpose for you?

NA: My memory is crowded with objects, mostly from my grandmother's house but also from the houses of friends, seaside hotels, jumble sales, provincial museums, junk shops, used furniture stores. I can't pass one of those places without wanting to go in, without the itching need to write a story about it. This is I suppose yet one more manifestation of my eye-to-mind coordination, the compulsion from a young age to invest everything with story and significance.

I love to know about such objects, to research how they are made and the people who made them. The act of making is storytelling in another form.

As I child I collected curios compulsively but as an adult I have had to stem the compulsion. Objects need care and attention to bring them to life. Neglect them and they die on you, transforming themselves pretty instantly into piles of rubbish. I don't have time to dust, I am too busy writing. I content myself with window shopping, and the hope that one day I'll have the freedom to acquire as many Victorian paperweights, sandalwood boxes and cracked Spode teacups as take my fancy.

In the meantime I've saved just a couple of things: my grandfather's Parker fountain pen, a lacquered wooden box containing two candle stubs, a small brass bell made from the much bigger, melted-down bell of an Orthodox church in Kursk.  

PT: As far as I'm aware the novella 'A Thread of Truth' is the longest work you've had published. Why do you find the short form so suitable for the ideas you're trying to put over?

NA: In fact I am putting the finishing touches to a novel at the moment. I've been working on it for almost two years now, but progress has been interrupted by various short story projects I've been asked to take part in. I am now within sight of the end, and I hope to have the book complete by the end of the summer.

I'm not in any sense intending to abandon the short story. Short stories - both the idea of them and the writing of them - continue to excite me and engage my imagination. They are like snapshots: intense, vibrant, fleeting. In terms of technique each story is like a stepping stone to the next, and the best thing about them is that they can be conceived and completed within a relatively short time frame. You can have an idea one day, and begin writing about it the next, and by the time you've finished work on that story you'll have learned something new about your writing and about where you want to go next. A novel takes a lot of planning, a lot of forethought - beginning to write a novel is like wading into a swamp. I think I'd go insane if I had to work on novels exclusively.   

PT: What are you working on now? What can we expect to see from you in the future?

NA: Well, there's the novel for a start. I also have three or four new stories due out soon, and the third, longer Martin story is almost good to go. Beyond that, I have already sketched out some ideas for a new series of stories I want to write, and looking ahead to next year there's a second novel on the horizon. I already have most of the plot worked out (yes, it does have one) and both the main characters are female.....


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