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Ali Shaw: ‘It is the writer’s duty to care, to stay engaged, to absorb all they can about the big and small of life’

BY Katie Smart
26th Jul 2022

Ali Shaw is an award-winning novelist, short story writer and creative writing teacher. His novels are The Trees, The Man who Rained, and The Girl with Glass Feet, which won the Desmond Elliott Prize, was shortlisted for the Costa First Novel Award and longlisted for the Guardian First Book Award. His books have been translated into fifteen different languages, and his short fiction has appeared in multiple newspapers, magazines, and on BBC Radio 4.

Ali is also one of the tutors of our upcoming Writing Your Novel – Six Months course in London. Ali will teach the first half of the course and the second will be taught by author Laura Barnett. Apply by 31 Jul.

We spoke to Ali about the fairy tale influences found in his novels, how he incorporates fantastical elements into fiction and his advice for aspiring authors…

We’re delighted to welcome you to the CBC tutor team! What's the most rewarding part of teaching creative writing?

It’s always really energising to sit down and talk about our writing, to get into the nuts and bolts of how it works. When we force ourselves to articulate to others the problems that we might be facing, and when we take on board their feedback and consider how it might be applied, our eyes start to open to new possibilities we couldn’t see before. I love being present for those eureka moments when someone in a creative writing workshop figures out how to push past the obstacles they have been struggling against.

Your novels have a fairy-tale quality to them. What is it about folk lore that inspires you? And where else do you like to look for inspiration?

When you get past all the magic kingdom nonsense, the ballgowns and the dashing princes, you find in fairy tales these strange opaque stories about ordinary people undergoing rites of passage. Maybe that’s why fairy tales have become so associated with children’s literature and growing up. But adult life, at least in my experience, is a constant rite of passage. There’s always something new to learn, mess up or overcome. And so I return to these peculiar old tales.

Fairy stories can be a bit on the nose at times, but for the most part there are fewer morals at the ends of them than people tend to think. At their best, they present ordinary human challenges in ways that are transformative and magical and unique (often involving literal transformations into swans or hedgehogs). That’s the thing I try to take from them, to use in my own writing. That sense of magic as a kind of expressionism, demonstrating in new imaginative ways what is marvellous and mysterious about common human experiences.

Which ‘traditional’ fairy tale has had the biggest influence on your writing?

Probably The Little Mermaid by Hans Christian Andersen. It has this beautiful melancholic atmosphere which gets immediately ditched by almost every adaptation going. But that’s precisely because it’s a story about unrequited love, and it does all of those things with magic that I just described – using the strange and beautiful imagery of the undersea world to describe what it’s like to have a broken heart.

Your latest novel The Trees takes place in an apocalyptic future overrun by trees. Was the climate crisis a part of the motivation behind the narrative? Do you think authors have a duty to explore current issues in their work?

What’s happening to the climate is so colossally important that it’s hard not to want to respond to it as a writer. I’m not sure that enough people yet realise the enormity of the situation or the brevity of the timeframes in which we need to act. This is a question for editors and agents as well as for authors: how do they curate a literary response to the crisis? How do they elevate the right voices and take risks to ensure that these issues don’t stay in some niche section of the bookshelves?

I don’t know how much power fiction really has to change things like political inaction. I think the role it’s better suited to is more therapeutic. It can help us to cope with the anger and loss and sense of powerlessness we might feel, as well as motivate us to continue to take what personal action we can, to find worth in the parts that we still can play, to hope against the odds.

That said, I wouldn’t want to be so direct as to call it a duty for writers to explore the climate crisis, or any other issue. If you were a journalist you might decide to write about x or y topic, do your research and begin to tell the story, but in my experience fictional storytelling works more obliquely. Fiction arises from the passions, histories and curiosities of its authors, all put through the blender of the imagination. And those forces don’t always push in the direction you first anticipated. You might want to write about climate, but the part of you your stories come from decides it wants to talk about something that happened in your childhood. This is all good and fine. I suppose I would just say that it is the writer’s duty to care, to stay engaged, to absorb all they can about the big and small of life, the weighty questions and the silly boring stuff like doing the dishes, and then to let their creative juices flow. If they care about the environment, the chances are it will show up somehow in their work.

Do you have any tips for writers looking to weave fantastical elements into their work?

People are put off by the fantastical when it feels like it’s taking storytelling shortcuts – when any of life’s problems can be solved by the flick of a magic wand. Magic works better when readers have a sense not only of its wonders and possibilities but of its downsides and limitations. Yes, magic breaks reality’s rules as we know them, but what new rules does it establish in their place? What toll does it take? What price does it demand gets paid? If you as a writer can develop a very clear understanding of the laws by which your fantastical elements abide, you’ll help your readers to relax and accept them. You don’t have to squeeze every single mechanism and background detail you invent into the actual text of your novel – you don’t want to dispel the sense of mystery, after all – but when you possess that understanding it will show through in the ways you integrate the magic with the story.

It’s also important to understand what role your fantastical elements are playing in the emotional palette of your work. Ask yourself where they have come from inside you, why you have chosen these particular magical pieces from all the endless possibilities you could have devised in their place. Are they expressions of something, like Hans Christian Anderson’s sorrowful mermaids and their unrequited love? Do they resonate in some way with something that you feel, or something that your characters feel? Investigate this as much as you can, because even though you might never have consciously designed your magic to work like a kind of amplified emotion, often that’s what you’ll find the magic to be doing all the same. And if you can get to grips with why you’ve felt drawn to these specific fantastical things, occurring in this specific way, you can leverage them for maximum storytelling impact.

Who is your favourite fictional character of all time?

This is one of those questions to which the answer could change every day, but I love Gregor Samsa in Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis. The matter-of-fact fashion in which he reacts to his transformation into a giant bug, the way that his most pressing worry is how he’ll report to work that day, is so funny and sad simultaneously. It’s that expressive magic at work once again.

I am also a proud, card-carrying member of the Long John Silver fan club.

What advice would you like to share with the aspiring authors reading this?

Understand that although you should maintain a disciplined work ethic, time spent away from your writing can also be writing work. Daydreaming, toying with ideas, letting scenes play out in the quiet of your imagination: sometimes our brains need space to explore these things without the pressure of having to formalise them into sentences.

Be sure to stay in touch with what makes you want to write. You are as close to that when you start out as you will ever be. Be open to advice and editorial feedback, of course, realising that you can always improve as a writer. But every now and then remind yourself of your own vision, because those things that move you and compel you are what will give your writing heart and soul.

Do you want to learn more from Ali Shaw? Applications are open for our upcoming six-month Writing Your Novel course in London. Deadline 31 Jul.