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Alison MacLeod

Website: Alison-MacLeod.com

Alison MacLeod moved from her native Canada to England in 1987 to take up a place on Lancaster University’s MA in Creative Writing. Her first novel was The Changeling, her second The Wave Theory of Angels. She teaches on the MA in Creative Writing at University College Chichester and lives in Brighton.  

Short story collections

Fifteen Modern Tales of Attraction (Penguin, 2007)

Reviewed by Sara Crowley

Interview with Alison MacLeod

The Short Review: How long did it take you to write all the stories in your collection?

Alison MacLeod:Eek. Should I admit this? A ‘debut’ collection makes the author sound so new, almost virginal, but the truth is the stories in the collection were written over a period of twenty years. I wrote three of the fifteen while doing the M.A. in Creative Writing at the University of Lancaster in 1988. I went on to write and publish my first novel, The Changeling, though I never stopped writing stories. But it’s tough, of course. There just aren’t enough magazines publishing short fiction, and though I’ll always be hugely grateful to writing competitions for publishing my early work, I reached a point where I didn’t want to go that route any longer. I wanted a wider readership, I suppose. That started to happen, little by little. I published stories with some great literary editors – at London Magazine, Virago, Pulp.Net, Prospect… Then, in 2003, I signed a contract with Hamish Hamilton for my next two novels, and I got bolshy. I phoned my agent from a petrol station, just as the contract was about to be drawn up. The idea had suddenly occurred to me: could we stretch it to a three-book deal to include a story collection? He phoned Simon Prosser, the publishing director of Hamish Hamilton, and the deal was done, largely on the back of my publication record up to that time, and Hamish Hamilton’s willingness, as a publisher, to take risks. I finished my second novel, The Wave Theory of Angels. Then I went on to sharpen the old stories and to write about eight or nine new ones.

TSR: Did you have a collection in mind when you were writing them?

AM: No. But as writers, we all have our preoccupations and our fascinations. I suppose I’m drawn to writing about life’s essential forces: the mysteries of desire; the big energies of love, birth and death; and the terrible and beautiful logic of the human body. I’m especially interested in these things in the context of where we are now – of modern times, in other words. So these preoccupations, I hope, draw the stories together into a genuine collection. I did weed out a few that seemed like strays, but I’m glad the fit isn’t too neat. Personally, I like to see variety and range in a story collection: I like it to be a bit of a ‘wild space’. I can get bored when reading a collection that was clearly designed as one. The concept can sometimes be a stranglehold. You feel the writer running dry.

TSR: How did you choose which stories to include and in what order?

AM: One simple ordering principle was important to me. The first and the last stories in a collection generally have a significance, or a weight, of their own. Two of the stories in Fifteen Modern Talesso that the land was darkened and Radiant Heat, deal with true-life public tragedies – I wrote each as a memorial of sorts to those events. For me, it was important that, out of respect for those involved, those stories were given those vital book-end positions in the collection. In general though, my editor and I wanted to create a sense of both variety and connection. So it was a bit of a shuffle till we got that right. I thought about changes of mood – where did the final line of one story leave you? Where did the opening of the next story take you? My editor noticed that a few stories were narrated, unusually, in the second-person, so she suggested we split those up. I also suddenly noticed how many penises there seemed to be popping up in the stories when read together as a collection! I got a tad nervous; I worried reviewers might have a field day. But mercifully, most seemed to see that the stories were about much more than sex.

TSR: Do you have a "reader" in mind when you write stories?

AM: No. I put my faith in a belief that there are interesting readers out there; readers who know they create a story with you; who don’t always expect to ‘identify’ directly with a character; who will take chances for new ways of seeing. But I think you can get into trouble as a writer if you’re writing for anyone other than yourself. It makes you self-conscious as you write, and that’s fatal. The early acts of writing have to be private, libidinous – only then will you take the risks you need to take as a writer. Then, once the story is alive and kicking, I get tough with it. I want it to be as sharp and clear as it has to be. It has to speak to others, not just to me. Anything less would be self-indulgence, not good writing.

TSR: Is there anything you'd like to ask someone who has read your
collection, anything at all?

RB: Who do they remember most, which characters, after finishing the collection, and why?

TSR: How does it feel knowing that people are buying your book?

AM: It’s the best. It’s what everything is about: sending your stories into the imagination of a stranger, and knowing they’re received. Magic.

TSR: What are you working on now?

AM: My third novel, which is set in Brighton, where I now live. And a few stories that have been commissioned, happily. And a collaboration with three other writers (Susanna Jones, Jeff Noon and William Shaw); it’s an online evolving ‘web of stories’ called 217 Babel Street. It’s been terrific, improvising with three writers I really respect.

TSR: What are the three most recent short story collections you've read?

AM: Helen Dunmore’s exquisite collection Ice Cream, Yiyun Li’s A Thousand Years of Good Prayers, and the collected stories of Gogol.