Ali Shaw is the author of The Trees, The Man who Rained and The Girl with Glass Feet, which won the Desmond Elliott Prize for first novels. He grew up in Dorset and studied English Literature and Creative Writing at Lancaster University, then went on to work as a bookseller and at Oxford’s Bodleian Library. He lives with his wife and daughter.
Tell us a little about your background (where you grew up etc.) and your earliest experience/engagement with literature.
I was always a bookworm. In fact, I look back on my child self and wish I could read so much at such a pace. Both of my parents were camping-mad teachers who whisked us away to remote fields at the slightest opportunity, so my memory of every school holiday (and every long weekend) is of sitting on the grass or in a tent, working my way through a heap of books.
When and how did you realise that you wanted to be a writer and which author/s inspired you to pursue a literary career?
Discovering Kafka’s Metamorphosis was an almighty eye-opener for me. I think I was seventeen or eighteen, having written stories since I was small, but it was the first thing I’d read that used fantastical events in such an unexplained and expressionistic way.
The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka
Describe your early writing habits and how you sustained the motivation to write. Have you noticed any differences/changes over the years?
The thing I’ve always loved about language is that you can use it to invent anything. You’re not restricted by the need for props, special effects, studio equipment, etc. That alone kept me going through my early writing – I just had so much fun exploring what I could create. Getting things published changes that a bit.
Edits and re-edits can sometimes make you feel like you’re trapped in a loop, and although you see your work improving you long to be making something brand new. I’ve found it helps to temper those editorial phases with something else creative, which in my case often means buying a new sketchbook and taking regular time out from editing to fill it up with drawings.
What do you like to do to relax? (Do you have long walks in the woods, or enjoy battered chicken balls with red congealed sauce whilst watching westerns?)
I have a little daughter who is both my relaxation and my work. I used to go on long walks in the woods, but now she and I go on very short, very slow ones.
Your beautiful novel ‘The Trees’ has a tag line on the cover from the Irish Times, ‘Does for trees what Hitchcock did for birds’ – where did you draw your inspiration for the novel?
Almost everything I write begins as an image. The image leaps out of nothing, or out of some part of my subconscious I don’t have a map to. I’ll be walking down the street or doing the washing up or sitting on the bus and suddenly some strange or impossible image will burst into my head. Such as: going to the shop to buy a pint of milk, suddenly all I can think about are fully-grown trees erupting from the earth.
That’s all I begin with.
Exploring the possibilities of the image leads by turns to characters and stories, and reveals whether or not there’s a whole novel packed in there or a short story, or nothing worth writing at all.
The book has a fabulous opening chapter, which had me hooked after only two paragraphs. Many authors take a while to finalise their opening chapter; how easy was this for you to write?
The challenge with that chapter was to try to get the timing right. To show as much of Adrien’s miserable, ordinary evening as possible before the trees arrive. It’s important to demonstrate just why he needs something drastic to change in his life, but his stale existence is hardly the stuff of great drama. So throughout the first few pages there are small promises to the reader, strange sounds and unusual numbers of insects abroad, to reassure them that something big and scary and cataclysmic is on its way.
Are there any tips you might offer to first-time writers on cracking that initial hook/opening chapter?
Home straight in on whatever concept, character or story element makes your book unique. Do the minimum you can to set the reader up for it, then give them the biggest dose of it you can afford.
The book is hard to pigeonhole into a specific genre; was it your objective to make it ambiguous in this sense?
Genre’s a really artificial concept. It’s just a filing system, and filing systems are never a great inspiration for good art. I never think about it, and write whatever I feel drawn to.
‘The Trees’ has a fantastic array of characters from varying backgrounds, were any of these characterisations taken from real life people?
Adrien is a version of myself that I’ve exaggerated (I hope) a good deal. Like him I can get anxious over the simplest things, sabotage my own desires and despair about myself afterward. The novel is about anxiety more than anything else, so it helps to have a central character who suffers from that to a great degree. I think a lot of protagonists in a lot of books are exaggerated versions of their authors. Hannah is a piece of me too, and Seb. Others come from outside. There are a few characters in The Trees who represent alpha male figures, and at heart they’re all the same character. I think our species could better itself immeasurably by ridding itself of alpha males, so I find myself writing against them, rather than alongside them.
Which of these characters was most enjoyable to write and why?
There’s a character called Leonard who appears in the fourth quarter of the book, and he’s a nasty piece of work. Cruel characters make writing enjoyable not because of their cruelty but because they intensify the responses of the rest of the cast.
How much research went into your mastery of creating a world overrun by trees and shrubbery? Was it knowledge you already had or acquired for the purpose of writing the book?
I read a lot about woodland and about nature more generally, but I knew early on that I wanted the forest in The Trees to be a psychological place first and foremost. I wanted it to feel like the deep dark woods of childhood, the kind of place where the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm could be set. So along with books about trees I was reading books about tree spirits and shamanism and the folklore of the forest. These things all come from a time when we lived closer to the natural world, so there was something neatly cyclical about my research.
Photo Illustration of the Brothers Grimm’s Homeland by Kilian Schoenberger
I found myself relating to Adrien throughout the novel. Was he based on anyone in particular, real or imaginary?
As I mentioned above, he’s basically myself. In some ways the entire novel was a thought experiment in how to deal with anxiety. Whether the best way to diffuse it is through companionship, the natural world, the facing down of fears, etc. I don’t think there’s a universal solution to that, and I’m pretty sure there’s never a permanent one either. And of course in the natural world there is anxiety hiding in every burrow. By the end of the book, however, Adrien does arrive at certain conclusions that reward him enormously. His journey is all about reaching them, and changing his perceptions to allow him to accept them.
Your novel benefits from a rich cast of characters that the reader can’t help feeling empathy for. Could you describe how you approach the process of characterisation and character development?
Some of them just seem to arrive in the story fully formed, and those are often the most fun to write. Others are variations on a theme. Hannah is at first glance Adrien’s opposite – practical, compassionate, outgoing – but her characterisation happened in tandem with his. Adrien’s dilemmas are principally internal, so Hannah’s are external – all to do with other people. Yet as the story progresses Hannah has to internalize and Adrien externalize, so the two are able to assist each other. I find that kind of symmetrical character development very satisfying, because it allows human relationships to be the things that overcome plot obstacles.
Hiroko, Yasuo and the Kirin are all influenced by Japanese culture; is this a passion of yours or just elements to your storytelling?
I knew I wanted to include a character in The Trees who was very far from home, to explore what unique pressures that would bring. Japan was almost as far away as it was possible to get, and I’ve always found Japanese folklore fascinating. It seemed fitting that if the European characters were experiencing a forest like that of the Brothers Grimm, Hiroko would be experiencing it in keeping with her own folk tradition.
As mentioned previously, I thought the opening chapters were brilliant. I also loved the scenes at Zach’s house and the situations that unfold whilst they are there. With so many memorable scenes / passages in the book; which one of these was your favourite to write?
The ending. That is, the final ‘Heart of the Forest’ chapter. It gave me a chance to push myself stylistically in ways I hadn’t really attempted before. And completing it helped me better understand why I’d wanted to write the novel in the first place.
Who was the person or team behind the wonderful book cover of ‘The Trees’?
David Mann at Bloomsbury. When the editor first sent me David’s cover design, I was over the moon. I still am, and couldn’t be happier with it.
David Mann – Art Director at Bloomsbury Publishing
What is your favourite book?
This is one of those questions whose answer changes in keeping with the mood of the answerer. To spare you some sort of endless flowchart of all my possible favourites, I’ll say it’s the Collected Poems of Keith Douglas, and more specifically the final two sections of that. If you’re a writer you should read Words and his statements on poetry, if you’re prone to anxieties you should read The ‘Bete Noire’ Fragments, if you’re a human being you should read On a Return from Egypt.
What is the one piece of advice you would give aspiring writers?
I’ve stolen that from Ray Bradbury, but it’s the best motto you can have when you’re starting out. It doesn’t mean never think, it just means that you have to shut down your critical faculties if you ever want to complete a first draft. Don’t worry about a thing and just enjoy writing for writing’s sake, seeing where the story leads you and exploring whatever the moment invents. Otherwise you’ll forever be stalling and second guessing yourself and putting off writing. Only once you’ve got a first draft should you reboot your inner editor and get to work on that kind of thinking.
What is the best piece of advice you received?
See above. See anything from Ray Bradbury’s Zen in the Art of Writing.
We here at STORGY are lovers of the short story. Has this genre ever appealed to you as a writer?
Yes, I love it and used to write a lot of short stories. Now I tend to lean towards longer stuff, but who knows when that will flip back again. I’ve just finished reading the incredible Tenth of December by George Saunders and can’t decide whether I’m inspired or utterly daunted by it!
Are you currently working / writing anything new?
I got a grant from the Arts Council to work on a new novel, for which I’m enormously grateful. It’s still got a few revisions to get through, but it’s very nearly finished.
What are you presently reading and what books would you recommend?
I’m reading the Tombs of Atuan by Ursula Le Guin. I like recommending The Little Mermaid by Hans Christian Andersen, just in case people only know the Disney version. I have nothing against Disney, but the original story is one of the most beautiful and melancholy things ever committed to the page.
For our readership who may not have read your previous novels ‘The Girl With Glass Feet’ & ‘The Man Who Rained’ how would you best describe these in contrast to ‘The Trees’?
I think of them as sisters. They’re shorter, quieter books than The Trees, by which I mean that the drama in them is far less apocalyptic! Both fuse magic and folkloric elements with the everyday concerns of people living in isolated landscapes. The Girl with Glass Feet is about a girl who is slowly transforming into glass. It’s a cold and snowy book, whereas The Man Who Rained is full of heat and dust. That one is about a place where the weather can come to life.
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Interview by Ross Jeffery
STORGY Interview with critically acclaimed author Richard Thomas.
Available online from Sunday 1st January 2017.
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