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Tue, 09 Dec 2008 11:38
Mark Thwaite: What gave you the idea for The Wave Theory of Angels?
Alison MacLeod: I’d be nowhere without serendipity. Reading the Independent one day, years ago now, I came across a small notice that said, ‘Today is the feast day of Christina the Astonishing’ and gave a potted version of her story. I fell in love with the name and the story in which, according to legend, this young medieval woman sat up defiantly at her own funeral mass and flew to the rafters of the church – an image I found moving, odd and marvellous all at once.
In my double plot in The Wave Theory, two young women – a medieval and a modern-day Christina – fall into a coma, casting their two families into crisis. It’s a very different story from the legend of Christina the Astonishing, it had to be, but the spark of that legend, the image of an impossible flight, remained with me as I wrote.
Around the same time, I also stumbled upon the details of an uproar in the thirteenth century that I found intriguing. It was a major debate, believe it or not, about the number of archangels in the universe. That debate almost brought down the University of Paris, a place almost as powerful as the Church in 13th-century France, and I was fascinated. Why? How? Nine angels. Ten angels. It sounds laughable at first, like that apocryphal question about the number of angels on the head of a pin. In reality, it was a hot debate about the nature of the universe and the power of the human imagination. The banned Tenth Angel was held to be something like a muse for us mortals, someone with whom we connect through the imagination; someone with whom we ‘co-create’ the world, which implied, in turn, that Creation, or the universe, is always evolving.
In my novel, one of my main characters, Giles of Beauvais, Christina’s father-to-be, is a young man at the University at the time of this uproar. The medieval Church wasn’t keen on mortal participation in God’s universe. It wasn’t keen on communion between mortals and attractive angels. It also wasn’t keen on the source for the tenth-angel: an Islamic philosopher called Avicenna. So, along with the controversy itself, an anti-Islamic fervour swept through the University. As I read the history of the ban, eight centuries ago though it was, it seemed strangely familiar, given our 21st-century struggle with religious divides and fundamentalism.
Giles sticks by the notion of the tenth angel and is cast out of the university as a heretic. Years later, his opposition to the Church’s position puts both him and his family at risk – big-time – as he accepts a commission to work as a lead sculptor on a new cathedral.
While I was exploring angels and the medieval theories of the universe, I happened to see a documentary on M-Theory, an offshoot of String Theory which suggests that the universe is not a universe but rather a ‘multiverse’, or a universe of universes and multiple dimensions. Again, I was fascinated by the suggestion that the universe might itself be somehow creative, something that is continually evolving. These ideas from modern physics inspired the novel’s modern-day storyline of Dr. Giles Carver, also father to Christina and a maverick physicist who argues against the orthodox views in the scientific community, only to land himself in trouble just as his daughter falls ill.
As a writer and a reader, I guess I find the essential mystery of things exciting. I was also moved, as I wrote, by my two families, trying to hold onto each other, in the face of some very big pressures.
MT: How long did it take you to write it?
AM: Too long! Five or six years, I suppose. I doubt I will ever be able to afford so much research again! I’m also a part-time university lecturer, so my writing has to fit around the demands of teaching. It has been a tricky balancing act at times but, of course, that’s the reality. Many writers, even long established writers, need to work to support their writing. Anyway, I tell myself it’s probably not good to spend day after day sitting in a room by oneself! Also, real jobs give you insight into small worlds you can use as a writer. Not that writing isn’t a real job! (Sean O’Casey said, ‘When I stepped from hard manual work to writing, I just stepped from one kind of hard work to another.’)
My university job, for instance, helped me to write the part of the story about Giles Carver getting ousted from his university job. But the most unsurprising jobs can offer the best material. I’ve just read The Minotaur Takes A Cigarette Break by Steven Sherrill in which the minotaur of Greek Myth, half man, half bull, works as a line-cook in a cheap restaurant called Grub’s Rib. The language, the machines and utensils, the routines and tensions of that kitchen come alive in one of the best fictional settings I’ve come across in a while. Put the minotaur in so real a place, and you have to believe in that minotaur. So, as a writer, I found myself unexpectedly full of artistic envy as I read for what I’m guessing must have been Steven Sherrill’s experience as a line-cook.
MT: How do you write? Longhand or directly onto a computer, straight off or with lots and lots of editing?
AM: I make all my notes of ideas and research in long-hand. In my mind, it keeps me close to the material as I’m discovering it. But when I start to write, I need the computer. I need the story not to be in my hand, not to be so closely connected to me. I can judge it more objectively this way as I write. It also gives, or seems to give, the story an independence. It’s less tied to me. It’s more alive maybe. Psychologically, I suppose, that sense of my story having a life of its own is important for me as I write.
Plus I would go cross-eyed if I had to read too much of my own handwriting!
As for editing, every writer has those moments when a scene just flies the first time it hits the page, but those moments are rare for almost everyone. It’s naïve to think otherwise. I do edit and lots, even if the material of the scene of the chapter is basically right. It’s the detail though that needs to be good; the right word rather than the approximately right word. It can be part of the pleasure of the process, too, like polishing a bit of silver until it gleams.
MT: What do you do when you are not writing?
AM: I swim a lot. Not only does it stretch me out after hours in a chair, but I think the rhythm’s good for relaxing the mind into a place where new ideas come.
I’m afraid I also dance between chapters to the latest tunes on commercial radio in my kitchen.
I have no justification for this.
Um, what else, teaching aside? I read a lot of fiction, or as much as I can. As a writer, I always want to know what other people are writing. I also need to know because it ups my game. I hyperventilate a little when I go into bookshops because I suddenly see everything I haven’t read and want to. I leave with too many titles, my sense of proportion fast receding. Then friends give me books. Then family. And I start to think I need a self-help group.
I get together with other writer friends to trade new work. We usually leave each other slightly maimed but still walking.
I enjoy seeing films at a lovely old picture house in Brighton, where I live, but, if forced to choose between them, I’d probably go for theatre over film. I still feel like a kid at the theatre, as if it’s magic every time the curtain goes up and this live story with real bodies unfolds in front of me.
I love drinking coffee in Brighton and people-watching or eavesdropping. There’s not much time for this, sadly, but when I do manage it, it’s a treat.
I try to get a hit of EastEnders through the week.
I usually manage to avoid washing my car. But I do enjoy the standard displacement activities when the next paragraph seems just too hard: for me, that means doing the washing-up with a sudden verve, or paying bills with a renewed sense of purpose, or deciding that my mobile phone problems simply cannot wait; that I must get myself into that unending automated phone queue straight away.
MT: Did you have an idea in your mind of your "ideal" reader? Did you write specifically for them?
AM: Someone once said, ‘I divide all readers into two classes; those who read to remember and those who read to forget.’ My ideal reader is definitely the former.
MT: What are you working on now?
AM: I’ve just finished editing my story collection, Fifteen Modern Tales of Attraction, which is out next summer with Penguin. I love short stories. I love that big, charged quality that the best ones have because every word is essential, so every word hums. I’m also working on my next novel about which I’m keeping superstitiously quiet about for now. Martin Amis once said, ‘Writers very seldom talk about their gods... because it’s mysterious even to them.’ I try not to talk, because one can almost feel the energy leaking from a story as soon as one starts to describe, rather than write, it. Norman Mailer agrees with me, apparently. Somewhere he says, ‘It spoils something at the root of the creative act. It discharges the tension.’
MT: Who is your favourite writer? What is/are your favourite book(s)?
AM: Now this is a massive question, so I’ll head myself off at the pass by being brief and sticking to the contemporary.
Books that hit me like a gale when I read them for the first time: D.M. Thomas’ The White Hotel, Toni Morrison’s Beloved, Salman Rushdie’s Midnight's Children, Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ One Hundred Years of Solitude. I suppose they’re all big, rich and important books. They all also play fast and loose with the generic boundaries between realism and non-realism, something that has attracted me for as long as I’ve been reading. There are other old favourites, too: Angela Carter’s Nights at the Circus, Jeanette Winterson’s The Passion, Robertson Davies’ Fifth Business, John Fowles’ The Magus, Paul Auster’s The New York Trilogy, Amy Bloom’s story collection, Come to Me, and Tomas Eloy Martinez’ Santa Evita; as a writer-friend said to me of the latter, there isn’t a single misplaced sentence or word. (I’m really looking forward to his new novel, The Tango Dancer.)
MT: Do you have any tips for the aspiring writer!?
AM: Writing makes writing – nothing else can do it. When you’re sitting in front of the blank screen, when you feel crippled with inability, everything will change if you can just make yourself start. One sentence kindles another. It might be rubbish for a paragraph, a page, or several, but if you care about something in that story, if there’s heat in it in other words, the story itself will give you something you to work with. Trust the story, if not yourself.
MT: Anything else you would like to say?
AM: I like the way in which Armenian storytellers conclude their tales: ‘My story is over now. I can lie no more.’
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