The Lighthouse author Alison Moore on the Man Booker Prize and lots more...
Writer Alison Moore's debut novel, The Lighthouse, was shortlisted for the prestigious Man Booker Prize 2012. Gemma Peplow found out how she was feeling ahead of one of the biggest nights of her life.
It started with a man, sitting in a kitchen. Just that one, simple image. He didn’t have a name, this man, when he first popped into Alison Moore’s head, and she wasn’t entirely sure why he was there or where he was going.
But she knew there was a man, sitting in a kitchen, and that she wanted to tell his story. This image, of Futh, as she later christened him, was the start of Alison’s debut novel, The Lighthouse.
Published by the small, independent Norfolk company Salt, it is a 50,000-word story which, in just three days, has a one in six chance of being named the Man Booker Prize winner for 2012.
Anyone who knows anything about literature, and even most who don’t, will know this is rather A Big Deal.
It puts Alison up there with the likes of TV personality and journalist Will Self and former Booker winner Hilary Mantel, who are also shortlisted.
And all of this with her debut novel; a book she hoped would sell modestly in local book stores.
“When it was accepted for publication, I wouldn’t have thought any of this was possible in my wildest dreams,” says Alison, who is curled up on the sofa of her home in Wymeswold, talking to More during a week of interviews and literary readings ahead of the ceremony on Tuesday. “When I learned that Salt had put me up for the prize, that was kind of the first in this series of... well, series of wonderful surprises, I suppose. That in itself was amazing, because it meant they felt that it was of a high enough standard.
“It just seemed like such a long shot but I felt there was a chance it could be possible; it was in the running, after all.”
The series of wonderful surprises continued when, in August, Alison found out The Lighthouse had made the longlist for the prestigious prize. Just a few weeks later, she was named as one of six authors on the shortlist.
“All of a sudden, I found myself in such an unexpected place... I was being spoken about in the same sentence as all these huge names, such as Will Self, Hilary Mantel and Deborah Levy.
“It’s just so fantastic and all a bit surreal.
“We were watching The Culture Show the other night because there was a piece on it and I suddenly realised they were going to say my name. I got quite excited about that. I still don’t think I’ve fully taken it all on board.”
Alison, 41, who lives with her husband, Dan, 38, and their three-year-old son, Arthur, unsurprisingly loved writing and books from an early age.
Born in Manchester, she moved to Leicestershire when she was young, studying at Holywell Primary,High and Burleigh Community College, all in Loughborough.
“When I was eight, my mum saw something I’d written at school and said I should send it off for a Charnwood Writers competition. It was a poem called Why, and it was typical of the way you write when you’re that age, very melodramatic.
“But it was shortlisted and published in an anthology alongside other pieces written by adults. I remember going to Loughborough library to do a reading.
“I was nervous and shaky – it’s a big thing to do when you’re that age – but it gave me a really good feeling and maybe gave me the bug then.”
Alison continued to write, submitting pieces to magazines and getting bits published here and there.
After school, she studied English literature at Liverpool John Moores University, moving back to Leicestershire with a 2:1 and a continued passion for writing.
But it remained nothing more than a hobby for several years, something she would do in her own time while working for Charnwood Arts and, later on, the Lakeside Arts Centre in Nottingham. Her first short story was published when she was 28.
“I was working at Charnwood Arts and Loughborough writer Deborah Tyler-Bennett was editing a new journal, and I was invited to submit something,” she says.
“In the same year I had some competition wins and then I went on to work at the Lakeside Arts Centre.
“I wasn’t writing as much but I did have a short story shortlisted for the Bridport Prize. That was my biggest success at that time. In 2009, I left work to have Arthur.”
It was around that time that the idea for The Lighthouse began to take shape. The first few months of motherhood inevitably put the book on the back-burner, but Alison did have time to write a short story. This time, her work was shortlisted for the Manchester Fiction Prize.
“I went to the prize-giving and met (novelist) Nicholas Royle, who said he really liked the way I wrote. He publishes individual short stories,although they’re darker than my usual style. He asked me if I had something, so I wrote a story specially for him, and he liked it.”
Their working relationship continued and Nicholas became Alison’s agent. When he asked if she had considered writing anything longer, The Lighthouse resurfaced.
“I didn’t know quite what the story would be at that point, but I knew it couldn’t be a short story, it had to be a novella or a novel. He invited me to write it and send a few chapters at a time. I just followed it and let it play out.”
It’s hard to imagine there being no real planning for a 50,000-word novel, that it can all stem from an image of a man, just sitting in a kitchen. But it is the way Alison likes to work.
“I often start with just a visual image. This was of a man, sitting in a kitchen on his own, with a woman upstairs. It turns out, it’s not his kitchen – so why is he there?
“Many writers say they know what they are going to write, but I don’t work like that. The process for me is trying to work out what’s going on with the character.
“It was just one of those things that bubbles up in you and you respond to it. It’s only really as you write it that you know what the story is about.
“I had a clear image of where he was sitting and knew roughly what was going to happen.
“I knew that in the final chapter he... well, actually, I won’t say, because that’s a spoiler. But I knew roughly what I wanted. It was the arc of the story I had to work out, which was fun to do.
“The setting, though, I can be really clear about. I thought about a circular walking holiday in Germany that Dan and I had been on a few years before, and thought it would match the themes I was thinking of for the story. So I put this character on a ferry and off he went.”
Work on the first draft of the novel started properly in January, 2010, and was completed in six months. The second took another six months, followed by a period of tweaking and perfecting.
This was all juggled around looking after her newborn son.
“I’ve been asked quite a lot about how I managed to write it with a young baby to look after, but I did it all when he was asleep.
“Once they’re asleep you can do what you feel like doing, and I wanted to write. It was a fairly peaceful, ordered time, relatively speaking.
“When he was awake it was his time, when he was asleep it was writing time.
“I suppose, with a new baby, what you really want to be doing is trying to get as much as sleep as you can, but the story came to me. If something comes to you that strongly, you just want to write it, in whatever chunks of time you can find.
“I made a point of reading when he was napping in the day and writing when he was sleeping at night.”
Nicholas arranged the deal with Salt and the book was due to be published in September this year. The Man Booker longlist was announced before it was even on the shelves, and publication was brought forward.
Life for Alison has been rather busy, to put it mildly, ever since.
“I’ve had interviews with French radio shows and newspapers in Singapore and Dubai, as well as all across the UK.
“I’m doing lots of readings as well and I now have things in my diary until June next year. I’m trying to say yes to everything because I know this moment will pass. It’s manic, but all for the best possible reasons.”
The Lighthouse has earned good reviews in the national press, with Boyd Tonkin, of The Independent, calling it “a masterclass in slow-burn storytelling’’ and Hephzibah Anderson, of The Daily Mail, describing it as “quietly startling’’.
Alison says she has been pleased with the response.
“It’s been a real boost to read so many positive reviews in the press and on blogs,” she says. “I suppose I knew it wouldn’t be everyone’s cup of tea, so I had to go at it with a slightly thick skin, but, in fact, it’s been fantastic and the majority have been positive.
“Even when people have said what they didn’t like about it, it’s been in a friendly way.
“One said they didn’t like the characters. That’s never been a criteria for me when I’m reading, I’m quite happy to read books full of horrible characters.
“So I guess it all depends what you’re looking for in a novel. If I read reviews by people who don’t like it and they’ve got their reasons, then that’s fine.”
As for tonight, Alison says she isn’t focusing too much on the competition aspect.
The outfit has been chosen – a “fancy, but not too fancy” dress – and she has read some of the other books on the shortlist. Not so much to suss out the competition, but simply as a fan of great literature.
“I’m not thinking about what might happen, I just think it’s very exciting to be going to this big event. That in itself is amazing.
“Practically, winning would make an enormous difference because it’s my first novel and I’m a relative unknown.
“But, to be honest, reaching the shortlist has already made the hugest difference. I don’t want to be fixated on the end point, I just want to enjoy it.
“I’ve been working my way through the other books and there’s a wonderful range of stories, so it’s been an interesting experience for me as a reader as well.
“It must be quite a job to have to decide the winner.”
That winner will receive £50,000 and, undoubtedly, a dramatic increase in book sales.
Should Alison win, she will become the second Leicestershire writer in as many years to take the title, following in the footsteps of Coalville-born Julian Barnes.
She won’t be drawn into her thoughts on the chances of winning. But she will say why she thinks The Lighthouse was chosen for the shortlist.
“One thing they have said is that they’re looking for books that you can re-read and get something more each time you do, and I do write that way.
“They’re also looking very much at the quality of language and I focus on that a lot. I edit a lot and like to feel that every word has earned its place.”
Whether she wins or not, making the shortlist has already changed Alison’s life.
“I’m not planning on going back to work soon, shall we say, but then again, I perhaps wouldn’t have done before Arthur started school anyway.
“Certainly, what’s happening now means I don’t need to go back in the near future.
“I can now look at this as a potential real job – that’s the biggest difference this has made.
“It’s just fantastic. When I was little, there was nothing else I wanted to do other than write. I didn’t have any romantic notions about it. I always knew I would need to get a ‘proper’ job, at least at some point.
“But I never wanted to do anything else, there was nothing else I could imagine myself doing.
“So, there we go, here I am now. It’s wonderful.”
While Alison soaks up everything that comes with being shortlisted for one of the biggest literary prizes in the world, an idea for her second novel is also taking shape.
“I have got some thoughts for a second one but I’m still feeling my way through. I’ve got a feel for a possible character, a possible protagonist, but it’s very much on the back-burner at the minute.
“There’ll be time for that after all of this.”