The Practice of Writing: A Conversation with Nina Allan
Nina Allan was born in Whitechapel, London, and grew up in the Midlands and West Sussex. She studied Russian language and literature at the University of Reading and the University of Exeter and earned her master’s in literature at Corpus Christi College, Oxford. She has lived on the Isle of Bute for nearly five years with partner Christopher Priest. They share the space with cats Djanga (a tabby Maine coon) and Barney (a seal point Siamese). “Through the course of the past eighteen months, both Chris and I have frequently remarked on how fortunate we have been, to be a part of this community . . . Being locked down is never going to be a great experience, but if you have to be locked down, a Scottish island must rank as one of the better options.” Allan worked day jobs for twenty years, mainly in retail such as record stores and bookstores. Combining resources with Priest allowed her to go freelance; she has been a full-time writer since roughly 2013.
When she isn’t writing, Allan goes running—which is actually still writing. “I love running, and run 8–10K most mornings. The route along the shoreline of the island makes it doubly pleasurable. And I’ve always found walking, running, and being outdoors generally to be a brilliant way of ironing out any writing problems—my thoughts are freed, somehow. Being outdoors and in nature for at least part of every day is very important for me, especially in the current climate.”
Allan’s first short fiction publication was “Coming Around Again” in Dark Horizons in 2002, followed by a handful of stories in both 2002 and 2003. The editor of Dark Horizons encouraged Allan to attend her first convention, a FantasyCon in Stafford in 2003. “I met people there I am still friends with, twenty years later, but at the time I knew no one, and barely knew that SFF fandom existed.” A few years after this, she became a regular reader of reviews and criticism, and it wasn’t long before she was writing her own. “Writing about science fiction literature gives me a sense of ongoing connection with the SF community both past and present.”
Allan’s shorter fiction has been fairly consistently published from the beginning, her career punctuated by numerous awards nominations and wins. “Bird Songs at Eventide” (Interzone #199, July–Aug 2005) was the first of many British Science Fiction Association Award finalists, and 2013 novella Spin (TTA Press) landed on the Locus Recommended Reading list, was a British Fantasy Award finalist, and won a BSFA Award. Her debut novel, The Race (originally published by NewCon Press in 2014, later reprinted by Titan) was a Kitschies Award and Campbell Memorial Award finalist. Her 2017 novel The Rift (Titan) was a Campbell Memorial Award finalist and Kitschies and BSFA awards winner. Along the way, Allan became a Shirley Jackson Award finalist, a Sturgeon Award finalist, a Hugo Award finalist, and a Grand Prix de L’Imaginaire winner. Even her nonfiction has been up for awards, and in 2018 she was listed as one of The Guardian’s “Fresh Voices: 50 Writers You Should Read Now.”
Published earlier this year by Quercus imprint riverrun, The Good Neighbours is Nina Allan’s most recent novel. Collection The Art of Space Travel and Other Stories is due from Titan this month.
Your first SF publications were in 2002. Just a few years later you were a BSFA Award finalist and by 2013, you had your first award win. What was breaking in like for you, how did it happen?
To be honest, I am not sure I have ever thought of it in those terms! When I first began submitting stories for publication, I had very little idea of what the SFFH literary ecosystem was like—I knew no other writers personally, I had never been to a convention. Then, as now, I was simply a writer trying to improve, sending stuff in and hoping readers would get it. Each step on the ladder has felt equally important, equally meaningful. The pleasure and privilege of having people identify with what you’re trying to accomplish never diminishes—and should never be taken for granted.
For me, each new piece of work is an exercise in pushing the boundaries, of discovering my own limits and trying to reach beyond them. I have never felt that I’ve “arrived,” only that, with luck and effort, I’ve arrived at a new jumping-off point. If I’m not scared of failure, I’m not doing my job properly.
Did the awards and acclaim have an impact on your writing or process?
An award win, an insightful review—for me they’re like rocket fuel in that they make me want to work harder, to be still more adventurous, to justify the readers’ faith in me by pushing on. Even negative reviews can be like rocket fuel; the important thing for me is not so much positivity (though of course that is very nice to have!) as genuine critical engagement. If a reader or critic has truly grappled with what I’ve tried to do, there will always be something in their words I can take away with me, something I can learn.
It’s a two-way discussion—I may not entirely agree with the other person, but if I can try to understand their point of view I will have profited from the exchange. Writing for me is a process of continual growth. I am single-minded, stubborn, and not at all easy to influence (ask my friends!), but I am profoundly interested in what people have to say. Reading other writers (especially writers who are better than me) and being part of a literary conversation—this is the bedrock. Getting an award is not the end point, it’s more like passing a milestone: yes, you’ve come this far, now journey on.
Has anything changed about your writing—craft, approach, or anything else—since those first short story sales?
In the ways that matter most, I am very much the same writer. I have an organic way of working that means I discover my stories in the act of writing them. I write about what interests me, subjects and ideas and questions I am passionate about. I write a lot, and I delete a lot—a fact that used to drive me crazy but that I have now come to accept and value as a part of my process. Novels can change course midstream—and frequently do. It’s scary to arrive at a point where I realize I have essentially to start again. But there is a strange kind of excitement in knowing that the true version of a work is out there—and that I am the only person on the planet who can discover it. It has been a long time since I’ve read any of my early stories—I don’t like to reread myself anyway, and the further back I go the more terrifying the prospect—but I believe the hallmark, the spiritual watermark, if you like, will not have changed much. Landscape and sense of place, time, memory, alienation, and uncertainty, the transformative power of art—my themes keep repeating, realigning themselves behind new façades. This is what writers do.
Most of the changes in my practice could be filed under the heading of technical experience. I have always had big dreams as a writer, but it is only now, some fifteen years and more after I started publishing, that I am beginning to find myself fully technically capable of writing the novels I want to write. A wonderful feeling, but one that carries with it an equal sense of responsibility. The biggest and most important change has been in the way I rewrite. I used to edit on the page, then my partner Christopher Priest introduced me to the method he has used since the days of typewriters, which is to begin each new draft from page one, reimagining and recasting the work as you type it out. When he first told me about “the method” I thought it sounded unbearable. Then one day when I was stuck on something I tried it out and found the improvements so immediate and so radical I was an instant convert. I cannot imagine working any other way now—and indeed, much of the pleasure of writing kicks in at that second draft stage, when you have an actual story to work with, an established sense of direction.
I truly love what I do. I never stop being excited by it.
On your site you talk briefly about your work as a reviewer and critic, saying, “I consider the practice of literary criticism to be an essential and valuable part of my work as a writer.” How did you get started as a reviewer and critic, and how did engaging in that work affect what you do as a writer?
I have loved writing essays about literature from when I was at school and have never stopped. It has always come naturally to me, even in the act of reading a book, to begin asking myself questions about what the writer is trying to do, how well I believe they have succeeded, and how the book compares with others. Engaged criticism—reflecting on the process and experience of reading—doubles the pleasure to be had from books, and in a broader sense, the practice of criticism is essential for the health and growth of our literary infrastructure.
There’s absolutely no doubt in my mind that my critical practice informs and furthers my practice as a writer, both in maintaining a healthy distance from my own completed work, an awareness of my own tics and flaws, and in keeping me passionately engaged in the conversation around literature. There is only one rule for me as a critic—no ad hominems. Taking personal swipes at individual writers instantly renders the criticism void, in my opinion, though a critic should be able to say anything they feel they need to say about what the writer has written. Those who get indignant about the “damage done” by negative reviews need to back up and take stock of what it is exactly we are in this profession for. The practice of writing is a vocation and should be treated seriously. A literature with no critical hinterland will rapidly become exhausted and derivative. Talking about books sometimes means asking hard questions, and reviews that aren’t prepared to do that risk ending up as puff pieces, of no value to anyone but the publisher’s marketing department. That’s not substantive engagement. Literature demands and deserves substantive engagement.
You strike me as a thoughtful reader with broad but literary tastes. What are a few books that you feel more writers should read, and why?
The only piece of writing advice I give regularly, in the faith that it will never fail to be relevant and useful for everyone, is to read, and specifically to read above your own level of achievement. The only way to truly stretch your ambition and your ability is to create your own personal reading canon, writers who you believe to be better than you, who are always going to be better than you, even if they’ve been dead a hundred years. The writers and works will be different for every person, but that’s the whole point—only you can truly know who speaks to you, and why. I have always felt that my most valued mentors and hardest taskmasters are other writers—writers I may never meet, but who I can speak with and listen to simply by paying attention to what they have written and how they went about it. For a writer, the joy and value of reading can never be overstated.
There are writers working in the sphere of science fiction, fantasy, and horror who are as great as any who have ever lived. That these writers are less and less the subject of common discourse within the community? Make of that what you will. I’m talking especially about writers like Paul Park, Michael Swanwick, John Crowley, Gene Wolfe, Greer Gilman, M. John Harrison, and Caitlín R. Kiernan, who is the finest horror writer alive. I’m talking about edge-of-genre writers like Iris Murdoch, Doris Lessing, J. G. Ballard, and William Golding. (Ballard’s The Drought continues to be a touchstone work for me, and I recently reread Golding’s Darkness Visible and found it to be one of the most powerful speculative visions of the postwar era.)
Of recent releases, I would pick out Susanna Clarke’s sublime Piranesi, Emily St. John Mandel’s The Glass Hotel, which in my opinion is even better than Station Eleven, Daniel Kehlmann’s Tyll, which poses as a historical novel but is something rather different, Carmen Maria Machado’s In the Dream House, Helen Oyeyemi’s Gingerbread, Martin MacInnes’ Gathering Evidence, Irenosen Okojie’s Nudibranch, Jesse Ball’s The Divers’ Game, Samanta Schweblin’s Little Eyes, Nicola Barker’s H(A)PPY, Namwali Serpell’s The Old Drift, and Robbie Arnott’s The Rain Heron. I would also implore readers to seek out the work of J. M. McDermott, a criminally underappreciated writer, whose novel Straggletaggle is one of the finest alt-fantasies I have ever read.
Your latest collection, The Art of Space Travel and Other Stories, is coming out with Titan this month. What was the process of putting together this collection?
Putting together this collection was a joy and a privilege! This is my first collection since NewCon Press released the limited edition hardback Microcosmos in 2013, and I wanted The Art of Space Travel to be something of a retrospective, a look back at what I’ve been writing in the fifteen years since my debut collection, A Thread of Truth, whilst at the same time giving a sense of where I might be headed, the themes and forms I find most compelling in the present moment.
I took the decision early on to skew this collection toward science fiction rather than horror, although there are some horror-inflected stories in there, most notably the novella “A Thread of Truth,” which formed the centerpiece of my first collection. As a reader, I prefer collections that give the impression of having an internal narrative, a common set of themes, and iconography, stories that appear to riff off each other even if they were written years apart. I wanted The Art of Space Travel to be this type of collection, as opposed to a “best of,” and I hope I’ve succeeded in that aim. I especially hope that readers will enjoy spotting some of the concrete links between stories, the overlaps between worlds.
Are there stories in this collection that were harder to write than others, or pieces that were far more personal than others?
I take every story commission seriously and would always turn down a commission rather than take on work I don’t feel I have the time to complete to the required standard. This means thinking time as well as writing time—much of the emotional resonance of a story comes from being totally immersed in that story’s world, at least for the period you’re writing it. For this reason, I would say that every story is equally difficult to get to grips with, if only because the standards and challenges you set yourself become more ambitious each time.
Every one of the stories is personal, even when the personal aspect may not be immediately identifiable to the reader. The story that steers closest toward autobiography is undoubtedly “The Gift of Angels.” The protagonist is not me—that much will become obvious almost immediately—but his experiences in Paris are grounded very much in lived experience. I wrote the first draft of the story in real time, as part of a writing residency in Paris I was lucky enough to be awarded in 2017. The brief I set myself for the residency was to create a piece of work inspired by Chris Marker’s 1962 science fiction film La Jetée, which is set in Paris. “The Gift of Angels” is almost like a secret diary of my time there.
When you think on the new collection, what are one or two standout stories for you, the ones you hope everyone reads, even if they don’t read the others, and why?
“The Gift of Angels” is my own personal favorite, both for the reasons listed above and because it treads closest to my current interests in terms of formal experiment. I’m also very proud of the title story, “The Art of Space Travel,” which was nominated for a Hugo in 2017 and is probably my most popular story to date. As a bonus, “Flying in the Face of God” remains close to my heart—if any of the stories in the collection could be described as a “breakout story,” this is probably it.
In your newest novel, The Good Neighbours, Cath is a freelance photographer with a visual disability, working in a record shop to make ends meet. In your interview in The Sunday Post, you mentioned that this is the first time you’ve featured nystagmus in your fiction. What has changed since the days of your first stories: Is it about having the right story, and the right protagonist? Or is it about a personal journey, and perhaps a shift in terms of which experiences you want to share with readers?
I think I have always written around it, or toward it, and the decision to write about my own disability in The Good Neighbours was less about a decision as such, and more about an organic progression in my fiction from sets of experiences that abut my own to a set of experiences that reflects my own specifically. I have always written about difference, about characters who are removed, for whatever reason, from the mainstream of society. Both the main characters in The Dollmaker have been stigmatized by society, as has Owen Andrews in The Silver Wind, Julie Rouane in The Rift, Aunt Lola in Ewa Chaplin’s fairy tale, “Happenstance,” in The Dollmaker, the list goes on. Writing about an outsider experience has always been fundamental to my work as a writer, and in fact I’d say it is inseparable from it, as my own outsiderness is inseparable from who I am, from my experience of the world.
Writing a character with my specific eye condition was something of an experiment for me. At the most basic level, I wanted to see if I could do it! Which isn’t as simple as it sounds. There’s that old adage about how a fish would describe water, when water is what it swims in. That’s what the experience of writing about my disability felt like for me. I hope it works. More than that, I hope it works within the context of the story. Only readers will be able to tell me if I’ve pulled it off.
One of the many effective elements in this book is the crime/murder mystery narrative. What, for you, are the hallmarks of excellent crime/mystery fiction? What is the key to writing a compelling crime/mystery narrative?
I have been a passionate reader of crime and mystery fiction for many years. Early favorites were the British writers Ruth Rendell, especially in her Barbara Vine incarnation, and P. D. James. As a reader, what I loved especially about this genre of fiction was its potential for exploring character. Barbara Vine’s novels in particular work by introducing us to a character, or a cast of characters, and then gradually upending everything we think we know about them. The action often hinges around a murder, but more than that, Vine’s books are about secrets, and the unearthing of unpalatable truths. Patricia Highsmith—another touchstone writer for me—is obsessed with the duality of existence, the face we present to the world and its obverse, sometimes darker reality.
As a writer, what I value increasingly about crime fiction is its flexibility. People tend to think of detective novels as formulaic—you have your murder, your troubled detective, your weird set of suspects—but in fact the format is incredibly versatile and thus incredibly freeing. As a good friend of mine once said to me, “all you need is a crime or a criminal to write about,” and once you have that in place you can take your story literally anywhere. Readers like a mystery, and so long as you play fair with them, they will follow you a long way in pursuit of a solution. The armature of detective fiction will support any amount of formal experimentation and narrative jump cuts, all the things I adore.
Of course, it’s important not to lose sight of the fact that you are presenting readers with a question, and that question needs answering. I don’t think there’s any harm in being ambiguous, in suggesting a solution rather than setting it in stone, but you have to give the reader something, or they are going to feel cheated.
What was the hardest or most challenging aspect of writing this book, and how did you deal with the challenge?
I remember I once set out to write a story about a serial killer, a WW1 soldier who found himself unable to fit back into civilian life, and so went to the bad. The problem was, the more I wrote about that character, the more I got inside his mind, the more I understood that he wasn’t a natural criminal, that the act of murder was, if anything, even more shocking to him following his war experiences. The story I set out to write changed substantially as a result—and eventually ended up as my novella, The Harlequin.
I found myself in a similar situation with the character of Johnny in The Good Neighbours. I knew from the outset that Johnny was a violent man, an uncomfortable presence to have around. I started out disliking Johnny intensely—but then I started writing from his point of view, and a whole other story emerged. Getting to know Johnny properly changed the trajectory of The Good Neighbours substantially, and I think of Johnny’s sections as the heart of the novel. I wanted readers to understand what Cath discovers—that Johnny is far from innocent, but that does not necessarily make him guilty of murder.
The last live literary event I went to before lockdown was an interview with the Scottish writer David Keenan, author the edge-of-genre crime novel For The Good Times, based around the Troubles in Northern Ireland. Keenan spoke of how writing for him is an act of surrender, of letting the characters speak through him. Writing the Johnny sections certainly had something of this feeling for me—like taking a deep breath, diving down, allowing the words to say what they needed to say. Not all of writing is like this for me, but when it happens it’s extraordinary, and game changing.
What is your favorite thing about this book, what do you want readers to know about it?
In writing The Good Neighbours, what I wanted most of all was to produce a book that would work perfectly well as a conventional crime novel, whilst at the same time providing an alternative dimension, an element of speculation that would give the reader something extra to think about, if they wanted to. Crime writers are incredibly skillful in weaving stories that will have readers coming back time and again, and it was important to me to incorporate some of the page-turning pleasure of that kind of narrative. There is a prosaic solution to the mystery—it’s possible to read The Good Neighbours and discount all the material about fairies and hidden people as the product of a disturbed mind. But it is this speculative element—together with the story of the Victorian artist Richard Dadd—that makes the story what it is. I hope readers will understand that and embrace the strangeness!
What else are you working on, what do you have coming up?
I have just delivered my next novel, which will be published in the spring of 2023. I wrote this book entirely within the period of lockdown, and aspects of that are reflected in the narrative, although not necessarily the aspects you might expect. Once again, there is an outsider character. Once again, there is a kind-of detective story going on. At least partly because of the period we have all been living through, with all its uncertainties and ambient anxieties, the novel took a long time to get right and many thousands of words were discarded in the process, but I am pleased with the way it finally turned out.
I also have two new stories in forthcoming anthologies, “A Storm in Kingstown” in Preston Grassman’s ruined-Earth anthology Out of the Ruins, coming in September, and “The Lichens” in Jonathan Strahan’s time-travel romance anthology Someone in Time, which is due next April.
I have just begun work on a brand-new novel, which is very much at the still-evolving stage. A scary part of the process, but that’s what I love about it.