Ali Shaw was Litro’s resident blogger for a short time sometime back in 2009, so we thought it was high time we caught up with him again. He is now the author of two novels—The Man who Rained and The Girl with Glass Feet, which won the Desmond Elliot Prize and was shortlisted for the Costa First Book Award—and is currently at work on his third. Follow him at www.alishaw.co.uk and @Ali_Shaw.
Describe your earliest memory.
Difficult to know if it’s really the very first, but I remember my mum towing me back from nursery school in a sleigh. It didn’t snow very often where I grew up, and that experience really set the tone for winter wonderlands to come.
What was the first book you ever loved? Why?
A Ladybird book for little kids, called The Magic Paintbrush. It’s based on a Chinese fairy story about a brush that brings to life everything it paints. I wanted that brush really badly.
Describe the first time you realised that the world may not be as it seems.
This happens to me most days of the week, so it’s hard to get back to the first time. I grew up in a religious family, so I had various epiphanies throughout my childhood when I thought God was doing this or that. Then I stopped believing in God, which was harder than it sounds, and saw the world differently. Then, for a time, I believed again in a hesitant sort of way, before eventually giving up on any notion of absolute belief. I’m now very wary of anyone’s concrete claims. I think we’re muddled creatures by nature, and the universe is as indecipherable as it is vast. And that’s a good thing.
What has been the most formative place in your life? Why?
Probably the piece of coast where I got together with my wife. We go back there when we can, and have its name written on the insides of our wedding rings.
Which literary or historical character do you most identify with? Why?
I’d love to say it was some dashing hero or flamboyant artist, but I don’t really enjoy reading about people like that. I like stories about vulnerable people or people who are their own worst enemies. If I’m honest, the characters I most readily relate to are the ones who worry too much, or are ill-equipped to deal with the subtleties of human interaction. The first time I read Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis I couldn’t stop laughing. I found Gregor Samsa absolutely delightful, not because I felt myself to be as powerless as an insect but because his story dealt so honestly and lucidly with the powerlessness so many of us so often feel.
Which literary character do you have a crush on and why? How would you win him/her over?
Does it sound prudish to say I’ve never had a crush on a literary character? I mean, they only exist inside your head, so that’s like having a crush on yourself. Or perhaps like having a crush on yourself and the character’s author at the same time. I think about the details of this sort of thing way too much.
If you could time-travel and teleport, which literary world would you want to visit? Why?
I’d cheat on this one, and go back with a professional interest. I’d want to get inside the poems of Ted Hughes and excavate his landscapes. I’d be like a geologist in there, studying the strata of his verbs.
What do you do when you’re not reading or writing?
I try to do a bit of drawing, and get outdoors.
Describe the worst job you’ve ever had.
I was a cleaner in a seaside hospital that was being demolished. The wing I was in was the last one standing, and all of the windows had to be closed to stop brick dust from getting in. After cleaning up some hospital mess (it’s best if I don’t describe that gunge in any more detail) and becoming somewhat covered in it, I was informed that the water supply had been turned off for an hour by the builders. I ended up washing myself clean in the sea, and feeling very sorry for myself. That was my first and last day.
Describe your most defining experience with money.
Bad maths and terror.
Being a writer is a strange brand of “celebrity”. Tell us about your most memorable encounter.
It seems to me that most writers would rather be writing or talking to readers than getting anywhere near anything like celebrity. Occasionally a glamorous occasion comes along, but you can spot the writers in attendance because they’re generally hunting for free booze. I have been to a handful of events where legitimately famous people were present, but complimentary champagne distracted me.
What’s the most extreme thing you’ve done in pursuit of your writing?
Quitting my job to make time for it, probably. It was elating to begin with, but not long after that I was chewing on my fingernails.
If you were to write yourself as a character, what would be your most defining characteristic?
I think writers are doing this all the time: every character is in some respect an incarnation of its author. When all’s said and done, every writer has to draw on their own emotions and experiences to try to make a character believable, regardless of whether that person is likeable or a villain. When I started writing The Girl with Glass Feet, I was channelling a lot of myself into the main character. I was trying to exaggerate some things about myself in order to write about them. On the other hand, it took me about four years to write that book, in which time I changed as a person and the character I was writing had to stay the same. If you update your characters in time with yourself, you never finish anything.
If you were to write a novel about an anti-hero/-heroine, what would his/her central flaw be?
Reluctance. All of the best of them have it.
If you could have a superpower, what would it be? Why?
It would need to be some sort of teleportation, since you could see the world that way. I’ve always been a bit jealous of Nightcrawler’s shadow-stepping superpower, leaving as it does a cloud of purple brimstone smoke behind him.
What is the most important piece of life advice you would give a young person?
This I took from the late Ray Bradbury: The things that you love should be the things that you do, and the things that you do should be the things that you love.
What’s next for you (work- and life-wise)?
I’ve reached the final stages of work on my third novel. Once that’s finished I’m going to try to pick up on some art projects I’ve had in mind for a while, but not had enough time to get started on.
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We find new ways of looking at the world through stories, seeking out the compelling and the controversial, the funny and the fantastic, the sad and the strange.
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