Alison Moore: Writing short stories

It’s great to have Alison Moore back on the blog today talking about short stories. Alison’s first novel, The Lighthouse, was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and the National Book Awards (New Writer of the Year), winning the McKitterick Prize. Both The Lighthouse and her second novel, He Wants, were Observer Books of the Year. A third novel, Death and the Seaside, is out now. You can read our interview with her about this book here. Her short fiction has been included in Best British Short Stories and​ Best British Horror anthologies, broadcast on BBC Radio 4 Extra and collected in The Pre-War House and Other Stories​. Her first book for children, Sunny and the Ghosts, will be published in 2018.

Alison is also the judge for the 2017 RW Short Story Prize.

Alison, one of the things that struck me when reading Pre-War House was how very different your characters, settings and POVs are in all of the stories. How does your short story writing process usually work – is it the situation, the premise or the character that arrives first; and how do you then develop it?

My stories have various origins although I would say that character and situation often arrive together, one informing the other, e.g. the woman in The Pre-War House, who is pregnant when she returns to her childhood home, and the elderly husband in Static who is mending a radio. Stories have been prompted by things heard or seen or experienced or by exploring my anxieties, or in one case by a title coming to mind, requiring me to find the story attached to it. I develop a story by feeling my way through it, trying to discover it. I love Michelangelo’s idea of chipping away at a lump of rock to find the sculpture within it.

What have been some of the most memorable characters that you’ve come across in short stories and why have they struck a chord with you?

Flannery O’Connor agonises me with her characters – the grandmother in A Good Man is Hard to Find, the men in The Geranium and The Barber. Although the nature and scale of their fall or loss differs greatly, each one haunts me.

When reading the shortlisted entries in the RW Short Story Prize, what will make a story really stand out for you?

I want to be immersed in the world of the story, to see it vividly, to feel that I’ve experienced something. The most effective stories resonate beyond the reading; you keep thinking about them.

What advice can you give to writers looking to improve their short story writing?

It’s a cliche for a reason: read. When people are interested in writing short stories but aren’t yet reading them, I recommend Salt’s Best British Short Stories. When you’ve written your story, read it through very carefully; put it away so that you can read it again with a fresh eye – poor grammar and typos jolt the reader out of the world of the story but they’re easy to fix.


Many thanks, Alison, for your insights into reading and writing short stories.

The 2017 RW Short Story Prize closes for entries on 29th October. You can see the results of the 2016 prizes here and the anthology of winning stories will be published in September.

There are also Quarterly Themed Flash competitions running with cash prizes and online publication for the winner and two runners-up. Get the info on that here.

Author interview: Alison Moore on Death and the Seaside

If you’ve been reading the Retreat West blog for a while, or been on a retreat with me, you’ll know that I am a big fan of Alison Moore’s work and especially loved her debut novel, The Lighthouse. Recently, I was lucky enough to read an advance copy of her latest novel, Death and the Seaside, which comes out with Salt Publishing on 1st August 2016, and then got to ask her some questions about it…


Alison, I found the whole novel to have a very surreal and dreamlike quality – is this dreamy heading into nightmarish atmosphere you’ve created a direct reflection of Bonnie’s state of mind?
Throughout the novel, there’s a question of what can be trusted, what is real: there’s a story within Bonnie’s story, which in a sense is a story within the ‘real’ story, but they’re both stories; there’s the question of what is real within these storyworlds; there are references to dreams, whose worlds can feel completely real while we’re in them, and in a sense dreams are real experiences. So there’s this rather blurred boundary between what is ‘real’ and what is not, and I think that’s where that surreal/dreamlike/nightmarish atmosphere comes from.


The stories that Bonnie starts but never finishes all seem to be about her about her but she doesn’t seem to notice this, or accept it when Sylvia points it out. Do you think subconsciously she was trying to write a life story that she would really want to have, which is why she didn’t know how to end them as she didn’t know what she wanted?
I think Bonnie’s stories, like her dreams, are a strange translation and exploration of experiences and possibilities, and the inclusion of autobiography in fiction can be a subconscious process – I know I’ve had moments where a piece of writing has been completed and even published before I’ve realised the connection between what I’ve written and something in my own life. Bonnie is so defensive about the parallels between herself and her protagonist that in fact I think this shows us how dangerously close she is to being this ‘fictional’ character.


For me, the strong themes of suggestibility, mind control and alienation also worked as a metaphor for what modern life in Britain is like. Is that something you intended?
I have drawn on aspects of the contemporary world with respect to influence, which is a key theme in the book and includes the influence of advertising etc, which is related to suggestibility and so on, and Bonnie is deliberately written to be particularly responsive to the various messages with which she is bombarded.


Just like Futh and Lewis before her, Bonnie is a character that has no real friends to speak of. What draws you to write about people like this?
What interests me is the dynamic between this quiet personality type – someone who is pootling through life – and what I call a disrupter, e.g. Sydney in He Wants, and Sylvia in Death and the Seaside. The story lies in the crossing of their paths.


Many thanks for coming along, Alison, and to you and Salt for the advance copy of Death and the Seaside. It is a great read.

You can get a copy of Death and the Seaside here and keep up to date with Alison’s writing news on her website.