Q. Death and the Seaside is an intriguing novel, one that explores the relationship between reader and writer, as well as the act of writing itself. What inspired you to write it?
I’d been thinking for some time about writing a story about control and manipulation, so that’s one point of origin. Then a couple of years ago I wrote a short story called ‘The Harvestman’http://nightjarpress.weebly.com/the-harvestman.html and liked the idea of bringing the world of that short story into the novel I had started to write, drawing on the setting and the feel of that story, although the main character and the story are different.
Q. When Slyvia is reading Bonnie’s short story she comes away with a different interpretation and meaning than Bonnie had intended. Does it surprise you to read reviews about your own work, that bear little or no resemblance to what you had set out to do?
When I’m writing, there’s a certain amount of just trusting my instincts, and then I have to step back to see just why something – which just felt right – works, and sometimes that’s something I discover in conversation with readers. It’s not so much that an interpretation doesn’t resemble my intentions, but that the reading and discussion of the book helps me to see more clearly all the connections.
Q. The writer in me found those bits rather comical. Were you poking fun at academics and literary criticism?
I think the critical response to a story you’ve written can influence the way you feel and think about it. Bonnie as the writer is supposed to be in charge of her story, but here’s Sylvia deconstructing it and interpreting it before Bonnie’s even finished it. So in more ways than one, Sylvia is influencing Bonnie’s story.
Q. Which character did you have the most fun creating? Did she turn out the way you imagined?
Part of me wants to say Sylvia, because she surprised me – when I started writing her, I had no idea what she’d been up to. But at the same time, she wouldn’t work without Bonnie – it’s all about the dynamic between them.
Q. Although the novel is fairly short, you leave the reader with plenty to think about – there’s lots of psychological theory to get your head round. Was it challenging to explore the themes of mind control and free will, hallucination and manipulation amongst others without losing the reader? How did you balance the two?
It seems like it was fun, but it might be like childbirth where you forget the pain. Hopefully the theory is sufficiently woven into the narrative, supporting it rather than getting in the way.
Q. As the person who was ultimately in control, what was going on in the world and in your mind while you were writing?
‘The Harvestman’ came directly from a visit to Seaton in Devon in 2014. Having decided to use the same setting in my novel, I made another trip there in 2015 – we made it a family holiday, staying in a caravan for a week – to secure some further details. I was also reading or rereading the various books and stories whose depictions of the seaside have shaped Bonnie’s sense of what the seaside represents.
Q. Does your writing ever take a direction which surprises you?
All the time! It’s the loveliest thing, that sense of just starting somewhere – in what feels like a good place to start – and seeing what happens.
Q. There’s plenty going on in the space of what is a relatively short novel. Are you ever tempted to write something longer?
If the story I was writing wanted to be longer, I would absolutely press on. Perhaps this is the natural length for me, but it’s only dictated by the story and by when the story’s been told.
Q. Bonnie struggles to write the ending for her short story. Which do you find most challenging to write: the beginning or the ending?
I don’t start writing until I have a sense of where I can start, so there’s never a struggle to begin as such, but each stage has its own difficulties as well as its pleasures. With the beginning, the pleasure is the freedom you have when you’re beginning a novel, but it comes with the possibility that what you’re embarking on just might not work; the ending is informed by everything that’s gone before, so ideally it will just feel right, but some stories don’t give up their endings so easily – ‘The Harvestman’ didn’t until the second or third attempt, and Death and the Seaside made me work harder to find the ending than my previous two novels did.
Q. Finally, what advice would you give to Bonnie (and anyone else) working on a short story?
You have to get it down – often you have to write it to find it – and then stand back and see if it feels right, or what feels wrong. Let it rest for a while before looking at it again.
Alison Moore‘s first novel, The Lighthouse, was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and the National Book Awards (New Writer of the Year), winning the McKitterick Prize. Both The Lighthouse and her second novel, He Wants, were Observer Books of the Year. Her short fiction has been included in Best British Short Stories and Best British Horror anthologies, broadcast on BBC Radio 4 Extra and collected in The Pre-War House and Other Stories. Born in Manchester in 1971, she lives near Nottingham with her husband Dan and son Arthur.