Risingshadow has had the honour of interviewing Nina Allan.
Nina Allan is a British author. She is the author of A Thread of Truth, Microcosmos, The Silver Wind, Spin and Stardust. Her stories have appeared in British speculative fiction magazines Interzone, Black Static and Crimewave, and have featured in the anthologies Best Horror of the Year #2, The Year’s Best SF #28 and The Year’s Best Science Fiction and Fantasy 2012 and 2013. Her story 'Angelus' won the Aeon Award in 2007, and her short fiction has shown up on BFS and BSFA shortlists on several occasions.
Click here to visit Nina Allan's official website.
AN INTERVIEW WITH NINA ALLAN
Could you tell us something about yourself in your own words?
I’m a British writer of speculative fiction. I was born in London, grew up in southeast England, and currently live in Hastings, a Victorian seaside resort on the south coast. I’ve been writing stories since I was six years old, but my first published story came out in 2002, in Dark Horizons (the journal of the British Fantasy Society). My most recent story, ‘The Nightingale’, was published just last month in the British horror and dark fantasy magazine Black Static.
You have written several speculative fiction stories. Have you always liked speculative fiction? How did you become interested in it?
I have loved science fiction, fantasy and horror stories all my life, and I can’t imagine writing anything that didn’t contain some sort of speculative element. For me, fiction without the speculative often feels as if it has something missing. I honestly can’t say where that passion and fascination first came from, because it’s always been with me. My grandmother was a wonderful storyteller, and even as a very young child I was always on at her to tell me ghost stories. I remember first encountering Doctor Who at the age of six, and being completely entranced by it. The first adult science fiction novel I read was H. G. Wells’s The Time Machine, closely followed by John Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids – I was about twelve years old when I read these. I read a lot of science fiction when I was in my teens, but then I went to university, where science fiction was considered not to be a proper form of literature, and reading it was quietly discouraged. I rediscovered speculative fiction when I first started writing seriously, in my early thirties. I read Ramsey Campbell’s novel Midnight Sun and knew I was reading a modern horror masterpiece. I began to realise then something I had instinctively grasped all along, that horror, science fiction and fantasy could be every bit as complex and serious and innovative in literary terms as the social realism and high modernism that is more usually held up by critics and university professors as ‘great literature’. This was one of the most important discoveries and turning points of my adult life.
What are your favourite authors and books? What do you usually read?
This is a difficult question to answer, because I have so many! I studied Russian literature at university, and so it’s perhaps inevitable that Russian writers have affected and inspired me at a deep level, Nabokov especially – I reread him constantly. When I first began writing for publication, the British horror writers of the nineties and early 2000s were a huge inspiration to me – people like Ramsey Campbell, Nicholas Royle and Joel Lane, also some of the more adventurous American horror writers such as Caitlin R. Kiernan and Peter Straub. I think Peter Straub’s novels Ghost Story and Shadow Land are modern masterpieces. I also feel very close to writers who mix or bend genres, who blend mainstream and fantastical elements to create something indefinable – Shirley Jackson did this, so did Robert Aickman, also Iris Murdoch, John Fowles, Joyce Carol Oates, Kazuo Ishiguro, M. John Harrison, Christopher Priest. I’ve recently been rereading two important speculative novels from the 1970s, Kingsley Amis’s The Alteration and The Green Man. The best novel I’ve read so far this year is The Drowning Girl, by Caitlin R. Kiernan. I also love to read non-fiction in the subject areas that inform my writing, and I have a weakness for biographies of other writers!
Have your favourite author and books been an inspiration to you? Have they had an effect on your writing style?
My favourite authors are a constant inspiration to me – reading a novel by a writer you love is almost like having a conversation with a close friend. I think it’s difficult for a writer to say if his or her style has been directly affected by the work of the writers they admire – this is something for readers and critics to notice, and remark upon! To be influenced to the point where your own work looks like a pastiche or imitation of someone else’s would be a disaster, obviously – no writer would want that to happen. But I learn constantly from what other writers are doing, or have done. There’s nothing more inspiring than good writing, because it forces you to examine what you do, and hopefully to do it better.
You have written two short story collections (The Silver Wind and Stardust) which contain interlinked stories. What inspires you to write this kind of stories?
I think I’m actually not very good at writing ‘short’ stories – everything I do wants to be longer, wants to be stretched on a bigger canvas, and collections of linked stories are a fascinating and challenging way of doing that. I love to read linked collections – Keith Roberts’s landmark novel Pavane is really a linked collection, so too in a way is Arkady and Boris Strugatsky’s Roadside Picnic. One of the best things about a linked collection is its flexibility. You can do things with linked collections that you can’t do in a novel – in a way you can be more adventurous, because you don’t have to be so rigid in keeping to a linear narrative, or just one or two settings. So long as you stick broadly to a unifying theme, you’re free to go where you want within that. One of the most fascinating and original linked story collections I know is Robert Shearman’s Everyone’s Just So So Special, which is a kind of meditation on the progress of history, spread over almost two dozen amazingly original and moving, funny and horrific stories, all of which are completely different from one another and yet manage to remain part of a cohesive whole. The other thing I love about linked collections is the discussions they prompt among readers. It’s really up to the reader to decide whether what they’re reading is just a collection of stories, or whether it’s actually more like a novel that has been broken down, like a jigsaw puzzle, for the purposes of fitting it back together.
Stardust is an interesting book, because it contains stories in which the interlinking factor is Ruby Castle. Because Ruby Castle is a fictional movie star who is famous for her roles in horror movies, I have to ask if you're interested in horror movies?
I love horror movies, they’re my not-so-secret vice! On the level of pure entertainment, I can get some fun out of most horror movies, even when they’re badly scripted, or unoriginal. (I can tolerate bad horror films in a way I cannot tolerate poor writing.) But taken more seriously, the best horror movies are as inspirational and important as the equivalent works of literature. I am constantly fascinated by other people’s fascination with horror films, with ghost stories, with the classic themes and imagery and the countless modern variations on well worn stories. My favourite horror movie is probably Picnic at Hanging Rock, which many people perhaps wouldn’t even consider a horror movie. I’m a huge fan of the films of Park Chan-wook – I love the ‘Vengeance Trilogy’ especially, and his recent movie Stoker was exceptionally beautiful. Takashi Miike’s Audition is a superlative addition to the genre. Of recent British horror films, I loved Ben Wheatley’s dark and innovative films Kill List and Sightseers. I really enjoyed The Blair Witch Project when it first came out, and the first of the Paranormal Activity films, before found footage horror became too much of a cliché. If I had to name one ‘horror classic’ as a favourite, it would probably be Ridley Scott’s Alien. I was too young to see it the year it first came out (I was only twelve), but I’ve watched it at least five times since the early eighties, and it hasn’t dated a day.
Stardust can be seen as a novel which has been split into six parts. Because it's almost like a novel, I have to ask if you have ever thought of writing a novel?
I think that in a way all my short fiction to date has been a kind of apprenticeship in novel-writing. I’ve been trying to stretch my technical skills and the scope of my subject matter to that point where I have the ability to write a novel that will satisfy me as a complete work of fiction. The linked collections have been a stage on this journey, and I feel certain that I will want to write more linked collections in the future because as I say above I really love the form, which is perfect for a writer such as myself who enjoys reading and writing non-linear narratives. I have two early novels on my hard drive – the second of these especially has some interesting things in it and I might try redrafting it at some point – but they are student works really and I wouldn’t now want anyone to read them as they stand. Earlier this spring though, I finally completed work on a novel that I am happy with! It’s called The Race, and it’s a science fiction novel set partly in an alternate near future and partly in our own present. It’s about a girl with empathic powers who gets kidnapped by people who want to exploit her talent, and also about a writer who wants to discover the truth about a violent episode in her past. The landscape of my home town of Hastings is very important to The Race, both in its future incarnation – where the effects of global warming and the gas industry have brought damaging changes – and in its contemporary reality. I’ve just finished putting the finishing touches to the book, and I’m currently seeking a publisher for it. I hope to have good news about that before too long.
You recently wrote a novella called Spin in which the events took place in an alternate Greece. You also explored the Arachne mythology in this novella. It would be interesting to know if you're interested in Greek mythology and insects?
I read the Greek myths obsessively as a child. I think then I just loved all these fantastical, larger-than-life stories about mortals being changed into wild beasts, and gods engaging in deadly feuds with one another. The myths were like fairy tales, only more violent and in a strange way more like the real world, with all its politics and infighting and curious alliances. As a writer I’m still fascinated by the Greek myths, not just for themselves but also by the enormous influence they have had on our culture throughout the centuries. Many painters, composers and writers from many countries have made new works of art based around and inspired by these archetypical stories of love, lust, power and revenge, and it’s fascinating to see the forms these various homages have taken. I first went to Greece in 2010, to visit my father who now lives there. I fell in love with the landscape, and it felt essential to write about it. The story of Arachne, which is all about creativity and the artist’s ego, seemed a natural vehicle for my ideas, and the challenge of bringing something new to it was deeply engrossing. As for insects and spiders, yes, they’re a passion of mine, have been since I was four years old and first started to properly notice butterflies and moths. The world of invertebrates is boundless, and endlessly fascinating. It’s almost like having an alien planet right here on our doorstep! Spiders are amazing creatures, and I do find them beautiful. I first wrote about them in my novella ‘A Thread of Truth’ (from my first collection, also entitled A Thread of Truth) and I’m sure I will do so again.
What has been the most memorable moment of your career thus far?
Last October I was the guest of the British Science Fiction Association, at their monthly London meeting, where I was interviewed by the critic and editor Niall Harrison about my work – that was pretty memorable. Later this month I will travel to Paris, to be interviewed by journalists about the French edition of The Silver Wind, which will be published in August – that is a huge honour. Finishing the third draft of Spin, and knowing I was pleased with it – that felt good.
Do you have to time to do anything else than write?
Up until very recently I was also working full time as a bookseller! For relaxation I like to run (I have a dream of running in the London Marathon one day) and I love visiting new cities and exploring the landscape of the British Isles. I very much enjoy discussing the art and craft of writing, stories, politics, the world today. Oh, and I might have mentioned that I love watching horror movies...
Is there anything you'd like to add?
Thank you for posting this interview – it was a pleasure to answer your questions!