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

The Creative Identity

If you’re interested in the creative process at all, you’ve probably come across a blog called The Creative Identity, run by Stephanella Walsh. It comprises great essays on the issues involved in writing. Stephanella also conducts interviews. This morning, there’s one featuring me.

Almost a year ago exactly, in my second Creative Times, I linked to a fabulous, if slightly perturbing, post by writer Ian Hocking. In it, he talked about giving up writing.

Later on:

Q: What is the writing tendency you most deplore in yourself?

A: I haven’t learned to fully switch off the Evil Editor on the shoulder. This is probably because I spent so long switching him on.