Aliya Whiteley Interview – The Beauty & The Arrival of Missives
Aliya Whiteley is an author of strange and lyrical stories about fungal infections that breed new life even as they end the world and mysterious messages from the future. Her novella The Beauty (2014) was nominated for the James Tiptree Award and the Shirley Jackson Award, and her novella The Arrival of Missives (2016) has been nominated for the BFS Award and the BSFA Award. Both are published by Unsung Stories. Her novel Skein Island (2015) was published by Dog Horn Publishing. She has a story in the upcoming Unsung anthology 2084, inspired by the anniversary of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty Four (1948).
Fantasy-Faction caught up with Aliya Whilteley at Fantasycon in Peterborough, where she kindly agreed to talk to us about her writing.
Your novellas The Beauty and The Arrival of Missives are two very different coming of age stories. What is it about this type of story that you find compelling?
I think I’d written a lot of stuff before that wasn’t coming of age tales, and I really wanted to try something with younger protagonists and the way they find out about the world and how the world works. But a lot of my stuff tends to be with older, quite world weary kind of protagonists. So it really appealed to me.
I don’t plan, particularly. Usually I write in a café. I go and sit with a blank sheet of paper, because I write by longhand, and just start and whatever comes out comes out. And with both of those novellas the voices just came out completely clear from the word go. And I fell in love with Nathan first and then Shirley in The Arrival of Missives, just absolutely loved them. I just wanted to follow them and find out what happens. And it became clear from the level of enthusiasm they had about the world, the things that were around them, they were really young people, who aren’t so world weary. And I loved that about them. But it’s not necessarily something I would usually be drawn to. To be honest, sometimes when I find it in other books it annoys me a bit. I’m not a huge fan of the teenage protagonist or young adult fiction. I think these books really aren’t young adult fiction. But I love the fact that they start with this very innocent voice, and the innocence is key for the way the story plays out.
Both novellas feature really weird ideas and strong, well-written characters. What comes first, the character or the weird idea?
The characters always come first. And I don’t seem to have a line, where most people would say, that’s not possible. That wouldn’t happen. I seem to just write over that in the process. But because the voice is good you believe it, and you go with it, and I love those moments where a book really takes you by surprise. And I think the weird kind of things that happen in those books, what I’m really looking for is those moments where you go, oh my god, I didn’t realise that could happen, or that’s possible. Where it really goes free with the ideas.
I think both of them have that moment of, “I didn’t realise the book was about this”.
Yes. And I love that. I always loved it when I was growing up, and before you really had a concept of genre, that you just read freely. You used to just go to the library and pick up books. And the library never had a section that was science fiction. There was nothing identifiable about these books. I would just pick up and read with a totally open mind about where it would go. And I think those two books in particular I’d been trying to do that, just be totally free of genre. But of course it does end up being genre because it becomes science fiction and it becomes horror. Because I love those things. So I guess that’s naturally why you end up in that territory.
The Beauty was shortlisted for the 2014 Tiptree Award for its exploration of gender, which feels integral to your work. What makes science fiction such a versatile tool for exploring ideas around gender?
I was thinking heavily about how when we approach gender we have an us-and-them feeling to it. I think it’s very difficult sometimes for one gender to understand the other’s point of view on some issues, because you just categorise it as their problem. And I wanted it to be a book where our problem becomes their problem. And that’s all I was aiming for. But as I pushed on with the book it became really clear to me that I needed to really just go further and further with it. If I ever thought, oh my god I don’t know if I should do this, then the answer was, well you have to do it then. So it goes into some really quite strange territory. But I think that’s because the book tries really hard to get the reader to internalise what’s happening. It’s happening to you, it’s happening to us, it’s not happening to them. So that’s what that book is about.
Body horror crops up repeatedly in your work, from the fungal growths in The Beauty to the rock in Mr. Tiller’s chest in The Arrival of Missives. Can you talk a bit about that?
I love body horror, I think that’s why it keeps appearing. I really love John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982), which I think I saw at probably just the right or wrong age, depending on how you look at it. Where it’s like, oh my god, that’s just incredible! So, it always seems to crop up in one way or another.
The Beauty is also about the art of storytelling, and how the act of telling stories can reframe and influence our perceptions of events and memories. Was this something you were always interested in exploring?
Yeah, and I think The Arrival of Missives deals with that too, you know, with the story that arrives in a rock, and you don’t get to have a say about the story. You’re just part of it or you’re not. I think it’s a really big theme of mine. How stories work, and how they influence people, and how everything is based around a narrative that we construct, and who’s in control of that narrative, is kind of how I view the world on a daily basis. Certainly the things I’m writing now are still about that issue. It’s a really big theme for me.
The Beauty is being released by Titan Books in the states next year.
That’s right, yeah. And I think The Arrival of Missives is the year after. It’s amazing, so we’ll wait and see what happens with that. And there’s a new novelette that goes with both of those as well. So there’s like an extra bit that goes on the end of both of those books to kind of make them a little bit bigger. It’s really exciting times, we’ll see how that does.
What has your experience been working with Unsung Stories?
I think they’ve just been amazing. I feel really lucky to have come across them at just the right moment, when I was starting to write some weird fiction and thinking, oh my god I’ve written this weird novella, who the hell is going to pick this up? It’s just so strange, it fits no criteria for anything. I mean it’s the wrong length, it’s the wrong subject. But George [Sandison, Unsung Stories Managing Editor] just did the most amazing job of recognising what it was on its own terms and publishing it on its own terms, which was exactly what it needed.
The Arrival of Missives explores ideas around privilege and who gets to be part of the future. Was this something you were always interested in writing about?
Yeah, definitely. As I say, I don’t plan. So these things take me as much by surprise as anybody else. But yes, these seem to be big themes of mine. I didn’t know what was in the rock, or what it did, right up until the point where I wrote the scene where she puts her hand on the rock. And then, again like with The Beauty where you have those moments where you think, oh, I don’t know if I should go to this place. But I knew right from the beginning that if it was going to go someplace weird I was going to really grab it, because I really hate books that promise something and then it doesn’t materialise. So it was like, no the rock has been placed there by something and it’s there for a reason. This is a real thing. So, yeah when I came to write it I just wanted to go the whole hog with it and have this future vision. And I loved where it went, and was very excited about writing it.
The Arrival of Missives also deals with the trauma of World War I, particularly the difficulties faced by society afterwards coming to terms with it. What does that time period tell us about the world we live in now?
Once I started writing Shirley’s voice I recognised that it was going to be a historical novel. And that’s why I placed it in 1920, because I wanted it to be in the period where everything is just fluid. Where people are coming back and the society is remaking itself, and trying to work out what just happened, and why. So I think maybe that feels relevant to a lot of people because we feel like we’re in a very fluid section of social change at the moment. And we’re asking a lot more questions about the roles that are doled out to people and who gets to do what and why. So I think it has a resonance on that scale.
But it was certainly scary to write something historical and try and strike that balance between a voice which sounds recognisably sort of Hardy-esque. Although D. H. Lawrence was really my thing, it was like, it’s going to be D. H. Lawrence-ish because I love D. H. Lawrence, and to make that just palatable enough for modern people to get completely caught up in it. Within the first few pages it needed to move from being, oh we’re in some sort of rural idyll to being we’re completely with this character and what’s happening. So that’s kind of the balance I was trying to strike. But I loved the language and, I was thinking more about language and wanting to write something Lawrence-ish than anything else, when I wrote it.
The Arrival of Missives very convincingly evokes the transition of Shirley Fern’s infatuation with Mr. Tiller to the beginnings of a real relationship that could blossom into love with Daniel Redmore. What were the challenges of writing that?
To write two different kinds of love, you know, this kind of infatuation, that has to be proven to be a more surface kind of concern, and then underneath is this more brewing… Do you know I think I just got really lucky! Again I didn’t know that it was really going to work, but it became obvious as the book went on that she had this better relationship with him that could work. And I wanted her to realise that, to come to a deeper understanding of herself. And that section of the book is represented by her relationship with him. So it was a gift as a writer, when you put these early building blocks in place.
That relationship, you know, the beginning at the cemetery, where she sees him in the graveyard crying and thinks, oh, you know, I feel a bit for him, he’s growing up. These kind of feelings. Then it was just a gift to kind of develop it into this deeper understanding of herself and of him. Whereas infatuative love, really there was a lot of daydreaming. She spends a lot of time daydreaming about what might happen. And we can see that’s not really going to happen. So it’s about representing this real, grounded feeling underneath this surface layer of infatuation. And hopefully the book does that, manages to represent both strands.
Both The Arrival of Missives and The Beauty explore the claustrophobia of living in very small communities. Is this something you feel genre fiction could be doing more of?
I love working small scale and being able to be very intense, in that kind of scale. But I think the greatest benefit of working in genre fiction is that you can also do vast scale incredibly well. And I’m trying to write something at the moment that’s kind of going from very very intense small scale to vast scale to see if it’s possible to do that. It probably isn’t, but we’ll give it a go! I just love the idea that you can play around between the two. There’s a space somewhere where the two could exist together. But I’m a great fan of great big books. Dune (1965) is the one that absolutely captivated me when I was younger. I wish I could do that. But I think I work best in these very small environments where I can really laser in on particular themes.
You’ve written novellas, short stories and a novel. Do you find that you approach writing each format differently? Do you always know how much space an idea will take up when you start writing?
I just write until it’s finished, and that’s how long it is. I think possibly this is part of the problem for bigger publishers. Although Titan are going to publish The Beauty and The Arrival of Missives, which is amazing. I can’t make it longer than it is or shorter. It’s just the length that it is. I usually have an inkling when I begin if it’s going to be a short story, cause that’s very different when you work on it. But the difference between a novella and a novel isn’t always very clear to me. I guess if I worked in more subplots. But I like the real intensity I can get working with just one character. I’ve written novels, I’ve written novellas and short stories and flash fiction, but what I really like is not knowing what it’s going to be.
The Unsung Stories anthology 2084 contains your short story “Uniquo”. What were your experiences of writing for the anthology?
Usually what happens when I write for an anthology and somebody says, this is the brief, this is what you’re writing, I write one thing, then I throw it away and I write something else. With 2084 I wrote a completely different story which was very political, very much about the driving forces of Orwell and then I just thought, I don’t think this is really working for me, I don’t know if this is my thing. So I threw that all away and just went for the things that always fascinated me about Nineteen Eighty Four, which is how you can live in fear. For me it’s a book about fear. And emotion. Even though a lot of that book can seem very dry. And you know there are vast tracts of it that are very political kind of manifestos in fact. But the thing I first loved about it was the love story behind it and the horror story within it, which is about fear of everything. When you live in that environment. And I think that’s what my story is about.
Your writing draws from aspects of both genre and literary fiction. How do you feel about genre and your work’s relation to it?
I think it’s like the last thing that gets slapped on it. I don’t think it has a lot to do with me. And I don’t think in those terms particularly. Sometimes key ideas from certain genres really interest me and then I want to work with them and do something with them. So I grab them and put them in the thing I’m working in. But it doesn’t necessarily mean that everything is that genre within the story I’m working on. I’m incredibly lucky to be able to do that, to kind of just go free and not feel constrained to produce something that can necessarily be labelled easily.
The narrators of both your novellas have very distinct voices. Did you have any particular writers in mind when you were writing them?
As I said, for The Arrival of Missives it was all about D. H. Lawrence. Particularly the May queen scene, the scene that comes after that under the bridge, completely rip off of D. H. Lawrence. Just cause I love him so much. The Beauty, I can’t say that there was something that I had in mind that he reminded me of. He felt very fresh to me. And I just wanted to go free with that.
There are points where he’s quite religious in nature. And there are points in that book that feel like, that have a religious tone in his storytelling. And I was certainly aware of that. And of the fact that he was telling a Genesis story. It’s the end of the world but it’s the beginning of something else. And I wanted it to have the tone of a Genesis story. But apart from that, I didn’t have anything particular in mind with him. It felt very fresh. And I just let it go where it was going to go.
Your novel Skein Island explores ideas around mythology and storytelling, again around the idea that stories have hidden power. Can you talk about dangerous storytelling?
Yeah it’s absolutely a book about stories and appropriating your own story and being in control of it. And within the book, the female and male voices wrestle for control of these events that are happening to put their own stamp on events and say, this belongs in this category. So it is absolutely a book about gender, and how we colour the world by the experiences that we have, and how we decide to translate them into stories that we then tell.
And as a writer I’m absolutely obsessed with that, it would just seem to be my whole territory summed up. You know, I’m incredibly aware of the power of stories and how life is a series of narratives, and you decide whether it’s going to be a comedy or a tragedy, or whether you’re living in science fiction, or whether you’re living in history. Where do you place yourself in these things, and what relationship you have to your own story? And what I loved about Skein Island was that it very overtly wrestles with these issues. There’s nothing hidden about it, it’s really up front, kind of, people realising that they’re characters in stories that belong to other people, and wondering how they can become the driving force in their own lives.
What’s next for Aliya Whiteley?
Well I’ve written something new, so hopefully that will appear at some point next year. And there are some other projects lined up so we’ll see what comes next. But I have been very busy, so, hopefully it will all appear somewhere.
Thank you again to Aliya Whiteley for talking with us! If you would like to learn more about The Beauty, The Arrival of Missives, and Aliya’s other works, you can check out her website or follow her on Twitter.