An Interview with Aliya Whiteley, Author of ‘The Beauty’

Unsung Stories, a new imprint headed by the up-and-com­ing George Sandison, is pub­lish­ing not only the quint­es­sen­tial Déjà Vu but also a novella by Aliya Whiteley called The Beauty. Both are due to land around the end of this month, and to cel­eb­rate The Beauty, I asked Aliya for an inter­view.

Before we begin, let me say that The Beauty is a great novella. It has sharp char­ac­ter­isa­tion, story, pace and has all the genre-bend­ing prop­er­ties of a lit­er­ary work. It’s the kind of book that should win prizes.

Aliya Whiteley
Aliya Whiteley
  • Can you tell us a little about where the idea for the book came from?

I think the novella star­ted with Nathan’s voice. I wrote the open­ing sec­tion without any plan­ning or fore­thought, and with­in a day the entire thing had formed in my head, which is very unusu­al for me. Usually it evolves as I write.

  • How hard was it to write the book?

It was an abso­lute gift to write. It really flowed. Usually I try to con­trol my more lyr­ic­al tend­en­cies, and I’d just fin­ished writ­ing a very demand­ing nov­el where the lead char­ac­ter is sup­pressed in many ways. So to just let go and put that explo­sion of lan­guage on the page was won­der­ful. And I loved Nathan, and his involve­ment with the earth, the sea­sons. It’s the way he sees lan­guage as a part of that nat­ur­al real­ity.

  • The book is a novella, which is a form of fic­tion even rarer than the nov­el! Did you set out to write a novella? Were you temp­ted to extend it some­how, to make it more mar­ket­able?

I knew it needed to be short. I was expect­ing about 30,000 words. And then I thought, well maybe I could stretch it out to make it com­mer­cial, or I could write what hap­pens after what I saw as the end point. But the moment I star­ted to try I knew it wouldn’t work; I had said everything I wanted to say. I would love to be a com­mer­cial writer, but I think my nat­ur­al tend­en­cies are on the sub­vers­ive side, and so I’ve decided to go with that, and to be happy with the books I write.

  • There’s a lot of mater­i­al in the story that might be described as ‘hor­rif­ic’ in the lit­er­ary clas­si­fic­a­tion sense. And yet there’s also a strong sense of sci­ence fic­tion. Do you see the book as fall­ing into a par­tic­u­lar genre?

As soon as I worked out it was post-apo­ca­lyptic I was so excited, because I’ve always wanted to write some­thing in that cat­egory. Is that tra­di­tion­ally sci­ence fic­tion? The Beauty def­in­itely has hor­rif­ic moments, and fant­ast­ic­al ele­ments. Let’s call post-apo­ca­lyptic a genre, and settle for that.

  • I got the sense that The Beauty was stand­ing on the shoulders of some giants of the literature–in a good way! Are there any par­tic­u­lar clas­sic stor­ies that you had in mind when you were writ­ing it? I was reminded of Riddley Walker and Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

Riddley Walker and Body Snatchers, abso­lutely. Octavian Butler’s tri­logy, Lilith’s Brood, was a really big inspir­a­tion. Jack London’s The Scarlet Plague. Having loved that kind of fic­tion for years, it all went in and stirred around in the ima­gin­a­tion, so The Beauty def­in­itely builds on it all. I think it goes off in unex­pec­ted dir­ec­tions as a reac­tion to those great books, though, so maybe you get more out of it as a read­er if you enjoy the genre to start with.

  • The idea of ‘story’ is very import­ant in the nov­el. What to you think about the role of story in cre­at­ing mean­ings, and propagat­ing ideas?

The oral tra­di­tion of story telling, and the way stor­ies change and grow, is a huge part of the book. The power of stor­ies to shape real­ity, too. I think it’s a theme that stretches back to my first novella, Mean Mode Median, for me. But since writers are all about shap­ing real­ity with story I don’t think it’s too sur­pris­ing! I like how there’s a very dark side to those com­fort­ing stor­ies Nathan tells in The Beauty. They have a strength in them that he doesn’t really under­stand. Our world is shaped by stor­ies: as books, as adverts, as the anec­dotes we tell, but maybe we’ve become less adept at reach­ing to the mean­ing of these stor­ies. We let them all wash over us in slick, shiny forms and don’t look at what’s under­neath.

  • Another idea import­ant to the nov­el is reversal; from dead to alive, male to female, ugli­ness to beauty. Do you think that, in some sense, these oppos­ites are closer than they might oth­er­wise appear?

It’s cer­tainly all about those oppos­ites, and how the dis­tance between them depends entirely on where you’re stand­ing. Perspective is everything, isn’t it? In life, in story, in mean­ing. And in wheth­er you’re a vic­tim or a hero, a saviour or a des­troy­er. I like the fact that you have to choose the place from which you view the terrible/beautiful events as a read­er in The Beauty. I’m really proud of that aspect.

If I wrote The Beauty, I’d be proud of the whole thing. You can pre-order a copy from the Unsung Stories store.

Aliya Whiteley's new book
Aliya Whiteley’s new book

Author: Ian Hocking

Writer and psychologist.

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