An Interview With Alison Littlewood
I can’t think of a better way to end the first month of 2012, which has been a record breaking month for views, than to have Alison Littlewood, author of A Cold Season over for a chat. You should have all heard of Alison, her book can be found in all good bookshops, and the majority of supermarkets chains.
Hi Alison, thanks for stopping by, how are things with you?
They’re good, thanks Jim! Really nice to be at Ginger Nuts.
Things must be very hectic for you right now. How are you coping with things?
The last few weeks have been crazy – hectic yes, and full of surreal moments. I seemed to spend most of the time suspecting I was dreaming most of it (still do, really). And there was one stage where I had to go and lie down in a darkened room for a day. But mostly, amazing!
Did you ever think a year ago that you would be the centre of all this media attention?
Absolutely not! And it’s slightly scary. What’s scarier though is that I remember at one stage thinking I’d put my manuscript of A Cold Season to one side and just concentrate on the next thing. I’m glad I didn’t. I’ve always tried to be sensible about handling rejection, but to be honest when the novel got picked up by a publisher I was at a pretty low point. It just goes to show how writers need to keep going, because everything has changed since then.
You have been doing a lot of meet the writer events, how have these gone? Have you met any unusual fans yet?
Actually I’ve met some really lovely people, and it was brilliant to have friends and family all come out to an evening book launch in Leeds – it was like a big reunion! There were people there I hadn’t seen for twenty years.
I did meet a couple of ‘unusual’ folk though, yes, but I wouldn’t call them fans. I had one lady snap at me ‘I’m a Christian, I only buy books for my grandchildren, and I wouldn’t fill their heads with that rubbish!’ Um, thanks… 😀
Do you ever get friends and family to point out your book and go “oh look there’s your book”?
I haven’t really asked them to, but people have been doing that, which is really nice! And it’s great that they’ve sent pics of it in various shops (especially when they’ve just turned it face out, heh heh). I did ask my brother Ian to send a photo if he spotted it in Birmingham airport – I’ve no idea why, but I always used to look at the bookshops in airports and wonder if one day…
On a similar note how do you feel about seeing your book in the local supermarket, it must be a bit of surreal feeling?
It’s funny but I’ve heard it’s been spotted in Asda, Tesco, and Sainsbury’s, and every time I’ve thought blimey, I must go and have a look – but I just haven’t had the chance yet! I’m a bit of an internet shopper. I will go and have a look round soon though (and will probably take some sneaky pics).
And have you ever accidently dropped a copy in someone’s trolley? Or even been tempted to sign a few copies?
Ha! No, but the trolley thing sounds like a plan. I have been into a shop and asked if they wanted their stock signing before, on the grounds that ‘a signed book is a sold book’ (or so I’ve been told!) Though it’s a bit daunting, because you do wonder if they’re just going to think you’re a nutter and say ‘no, not really.’
Why did you start writing?
I’d always loved books, and deep down, I loved the idea that I might be able to write one myself. But for years I thought of writing as something other people did – writers were these exotic creatures, weren’t they? Eventually I just forced myself to give it a go, by signing up for a local night class – I suppose I decided that dreaming wasn’t going to get me anywhere, though I was pretty nervous in case I found I was hopeless and had to put the dream to rest. Actually, I remember being spurred on by reading Stephen King’s On Writing, too.
And who would you say has been the biggest influence on your writing?
I would say that’s my mother – she’s a book lover too, and always used to take me to the library, which used to seem like a big adventure – I remember being let loose with all those worlds to discover! Getting into books at an early age, for me, meant loving them for life.
Can you remember how long it took for you to first be published? And was there many rejections leading up to it?
I had a piece of life writing published in a little under a year, and it was about a year after that when I started getting actual stories published. And yes, I had plenty of rejection along the way, though none seemed to hurt quite as much as the very first one. I don’t remember where I’d submitted, but I still remember how it felt.
How do rejections affect you, are you able to brush them off or do they deal on your mind?
Mostly I brush them off and move on. It helps to have a few pieces circulating at the same time, so you can tell yourself you might do better elsewhere! As I say the first one hurt, but once I’d got over that, it became easier. I’d just learn what I had to learn from it and try to do better. It did get to me a bit once I started sending the novel out, though, because I found that people wouldn’t even look at it. That was a bit disheartening. Thankfully, Jo Fletcher did!
I’d say it’s obsessed with the dark and mysterious and strange and unsettling. I always seem to circle around the mysteries in life, the things we never will be able to explain.
In these days of genre pigeon holing what genre would you say best describes your writing?
It’s a tricky one – I’ve heard A Cold Season referred to as a thriller, a chiller, a dark fantasy and a horror novel. As a short story writer I’d say I mainly write dark fantasy, but I also write horror, a little crime and the occasional SF story. I tend to run with an idea rather than set out to write in a particular genre. The things I write are always pretty dark, though, so ‘dark fiction’ would cover it all!
A lot of people have misconceived perceptions about the genre, how do you try and rise above them?
I might have to let you know, when I’ve managed it! I have found that people in bookshops will look at the cover and say ‘that’s not for me’ straight away, though it’s horses for courses I guess. On the other hand I think a lot of people read and enjoy horror without realising it. For instance, I would say that The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold is one of the more horrific things I’ve read, but you’d never find it on the horror shelf.
Other than your own writing what would you say are the five best examples of writing in the genre?
Gary McMahon’s The Concrete Grove is brilliant.
Audrey’s Door by Sarah Langan – genuinely creepy.
Joe Hill’s Horns (or Heart-Shaped Box, I love them both).
The Tooth Fairy by Graham Joyce.
Song of Kali by Dan Simmons (now there’s a novel which puts you in a really dark place).
No, wait – I’ve got to include The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon by Stephen King. And something by Conrad Williams. And I love anything written by Neil Gaiman. Only five? Seriously?!
Oh God, and there’s The Road by Cormac McCarthy – an incredible book, which is probably more SF, but horrific as they come. OK, I’ll shut up now.
Your short stories have been published in a number of quality books and magazines, which one would you say you are most proud of?
I always loved the literary dark fiction in Black Static magazine from TTA Press, so it was an aim to get in there. I garnered a few rejections first, but getting an acceptance from them was a really proud moment! Their production values and illustrations are great too so it’s lovely to see my work in there. I was also really pleased to be in the anti-fascist anthology Never Again, from Gray Friar Press.
As well as Cold season, the book Fogbound From Five has also just been released. How did you come to be involved in this book?
It was a straightforward one, really – I received an invitation to submit and sent something in.
Can you tell the readers what the anthology is about? And what is your story about?
It contains five stories about passengers on a train heading off into thick fog. The main character in mine is a young lad who is forced to confront his past as well as what lies hidden in the fog.
Which other story in the anthology do you wish you had written?
Now, I couldn’t possibly choose between my fellow contributors. I do love the fact that Mark West collaborated with his young son (the Dude) on his ending! And it really works – a fitting end to a suspenseful tale.
It’s a bit early for it to have gathered many reviews so far, but fingers crossed!
So A Cold Season? What exactly happened on that commute to Saddleworth, to inspire the story?
I spent a lot of years crossing Saddleworth Moor every day, and the bleakness of the landscape up there definitely became part of the story. It was trying to get across the tops during the last really bad winter, though, that really sparked something off and snowbound Darnshaw village was born. Actually, the novel opens with the main character travelling the moorland road in thick fog – I’ve done that many times, and it’s very eerie. (Or maybe I just like fog.)
What would you say are the main themes behind the story?
The main drive of it is about isolation, discovering inner strength and independence, different types of loss, and the way love can shape you and change you.
Is there a message to the story, or is it just a good old fashioned story?
I didn’t set out to drive a particular message home, but if there’s one in there, it’s probably about free will and standing by the choices we make.
The book is part of Jo Fletcher’s inaugural line up, how did you come to work with Jo?
I really wasn’t doing very much with my manuscript at the time – I’d queried a few people and not got very far, and pretty much let things lapse without even managing to get someone to read it! Then I did a Twisted Tales event in Liverpool, which was a Black Static showcase. Afterwards I got chatting to Roy Gray, who handles events for TTA Press – he knew my work from the magazine and suggested I sent A Cold Season in to Jo. He made the introduction, and it all seemed to move pretty quickly from there!
She knows this business inside out and has worked with some amazing names, including Sir Terry Pratchett, Joe Hill and Neil Gaiman. She’s not just a terrific editor though – she’s a lovely person! It’s great working with her.
How do you feel about the book being picked up by Richard and Judy?
It was a shocker! And I was thrilled, of course, because they have a huge influence, and the fact that it’s in conjunction with WHSmith means the book is on prominent display in their branches. I’m very grateful that they’re offering this kind of support to a newbie. Filming with them in London was fun too! I never expected to be sitting on a couch with Richard and Judy – it was definitely one of the more surreal moments I’ve had of late!
Are you nervous about the much larger critical field that book has been exposed to? Do you now feel you have more to live up to than before?
Well I am, a bit! It was so unexpected. And I’m trying not to think about what I might possibly have to live up to, or I’ll get all stressed. I’m telling myself it’s still just me and my laptop…
And speaking of critics, which is more important to you, critical acceptance from within the genre, or acceptance from the more mainstream critics?
I’ve met some fantastic people working within this genre, so their opinions will always be extremely important to me. Both would be nice though! Although I’m one of those folk who can read a nice review and still spend hours worrying over one negative point. So, erm, I need to learn not to do that.
And how was the book selected for the club?
Quercus put it forward for consideration (Jo Fletcher Books is one of their imprints), and thankfully it passed the various selection stages. Richard and Judy then made the final decision from a shortlist.
Do you know who else has been selected for this series?
Eight books are selected for each season, and the spring picks are out on the WHSmith and Richard and Judy websites. There are a couple in there that might be of interest to genre fans – a dark crime novel called Midwinter Sacrifice by Mons Kallentoft, and Before I Go To Sleep by SJ Watson. They’re both on my ‘to be read’ pile.
What do you like to do when not writing?
Sleep! No, actually I like going for walks, taking the camera along and working on my photography skills. I haven’t had much time for it lately though!
Can you tell the readers about any of your future projects?
The next novel is a twisted fairy tale meets crime story. I loved fairy tales when I was a kid – I
sometimes wonder if that’s one of the reasons I like dark fiction now, because fairy tales can be really very dark, and are no stranger to the mysterious and unexpected! The novel looks at some of the more brutal aspects of the fairy stories we think we know. I have a few short stories coming out soon too, in the Where Are We Going? Anthology from Eibonvale, a steampunk antho from Snowbooks called Resurrection Engines, and a new project from Solaris which is all about magic.
Many many thanks for stopping over for a chat. I hope the book does extremely well, and we will see another Alison Littlewood book taking over the shelves.
You can learn more about Alison at her website
And you can purchase her books from all good book shops, and from the usual online suspects