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Alison MacLeod
What made you want to write UNEXPLODED?
Any big piece of work, like a novel, springs from at least a few different impulses and preoccupations. On the one hand, I wanted to explore the profound puzzle of war, and the death-grip of cycles of violence and mistrust. Late in the writing process, the story of Bathsheba, Uriah and David suggested itself to me and allowed me to move my story into one that, for me, was always about more than one particular war, even if that war was one as cataclysmic as the Second World War. Like many of us, I’d been deeply unsettled by the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, of Iraq in 2003, and the images on our screens. The horror of roadside bombs is one image I found especially haunting, and that image has translated itself into an important strand of the story of UNEXPLODED.

I also wanted to explore the tensions and intimacies of a love triangle. Love is eternally fascinating of course: who do we love and why? I wanted to take the reader into the inner lives of the novel’s three main characters – Evelyn, Geoffrey and Otto - and to ask if war is purely a force outside our homes, or is it there too, even in our most private and even intimate moments. Does a sense of threat and public chaos bring us closer together? Or does it distort the fabric of our most familiar worlds? There isn’t one answer but the novel is a great form in that it allows for contradiction and a flux of meaning, rather than rigid truth.
The overarching emotion in the novel is of fear - fear of invasion, fear of risk, fear of criticism, fear of other people. Did you choose the setting - a British town in World War 11 - in order to explore the theme or did it develop out of the story?
Brighton itself was an inspiration. For me, it’s almost a character in the book in its own right. The story of the fear on the south coast, particularly in that 1940-41 year, let me retrieve a true (and, I felt, hugely important) story, a story that was in danger of being lost – to time, to the comfort of hindsight, and to the cosiness of nostalgia. I live just ten minutes from the seafront, and the thought of an enemy nation marching up the beach now seems almost surreal. I’m drawn to that sort of ‘surreality’ in my writing; to those moments when reality seems to bend. I loved, too, the image that came from a rumour, in the early part of the War, that Hitler had chosen Brighton’s Royal Pavilion to be his official English HQ. The thought of him in an exotic pleasure palace struck me as something I had to have. I loved the absurdity of it.

But to return to your question, yes, I knew from the very beginning – before I knew the year or the setting for the novel – that I wanted to explore fear as a force, particularly in relation to prejudice and racism. (The latter seems to be a preoccupation that runs through much of my work.) Like many of us in this century, I’m particularly troubled by ‘terror’ – the strategies, the impulses and the aftermath. But I don’t have anything like the experience I would need to write a novel set in Iraq or Afghanistan. Nor, in my view, do I have a right to that material – not from this distance at least. But the more I began to read about Brighton in 1940, the more I realised it wasn’t all ‘pulling together’ in a jolly way. It wasn’t all ‘Land of Hope and Glory’. There was great courage of course, but it was a year of dread, too – local diaries of the time are filled with it – and the contrast of that fear with Brighton, a place of seaside amusements, fascinated me.
The lovely scene where Evelyn goes to Virginia Woolf's lecture seems designed to make us, the readers, reflect, with Evelyn, on the writer's response to war. Do you feel there is a role for fiction in response to the wars of the twenty first century?
I do. That’s what I was I after, although, as I say, I don’t have the authority or the right to try to evoke a war I can only know through the papers or my television screen. A line from Woolf’s diary in 1940 rang absolutely true for me early on in the writing of this novel: ‘ Nobody in their senses can believe it. Yet nobody must tell the truth. So one forgets. Meanwhile the aeroplanes are on the prowl, crossing the downs.’ I found those words ‘So one forgets’ troublingly sharp. Woolf of course didn’t forget. Her essay ‘The Leaning Tower’, based on the lecture she gave in Brighton, is testament to her efforts not to forget. As Harold Pinter once said, also in a lecture in Brighton, it’s our responsibility as human beings to stay alert, to attend to the facts, even if that’s all we can do. Writers, especially, have to stay sharp-eyed. That’s the job, I feel. It doesn’t mean you write to impart a political message at the end of the story. It means you write as honestly as you can about subjects that matter. As Nadine Gordimer once said of apartheid, if you write it well and with honesty, no explicit message is needed; it damns itself.
Geoffrey or Otto? Who would you choose?
Otto, no contest. He has sides – who wouldn’t after what he’s been through? -- but he’s honest, and has passion and depth. I was a little in love with him as I wrote him.
You are one of the few contemporary writers who are as well known for their short stories as their novels. Do you consciously adapt your writing to suit the form?
Yes and no. A story might be long (with plot and sub-plot) or short. Either way, you’re trying to create the illusion of an entire world across how ever many pages. I’m simply interested in stories.

This said, you have to change creative gears when moving between the two forms. The pitch of the prose has to change; the density or ‘charge’ one finds in many great short stories would tire a reader over the course of three hundred pages. As a novelist, you have to learn the art of exploring ‘consciousness’ in a way that is very different from short story characterisation. You also need a greater sense of the architecture’ of a novel before you write. With a short story, you can discover much of the shape of things as you write.
Who or what are your literary influences? (Apart from Virginia Woolf!)
Gosh, they’re endless, and they change probably with every book. I think Woolf was an influence as a writer and as a thinker, but I’m not sure the stylistic influences are there… I read and re-read Graham Greene (some of the novels and stories) before beginning to write UNEXPLODED. Also, Chekhov seems to grow as an influence the older I get. But perhaps the author of any given book is the least reliable person to answer this question. I’m quite an instinctive writer and always have been I think – so I’m less aware in this sense than others might be. But of course, everyone is working within certain traditions and trying to extend or innovate upon them. Literature has to be new. A certain boldness is needed. I was very conscious with this book that I was working within the tradition of ‘the English novel’ and within the genre of ‘WWII fiction’; I wanted to do justice to both, but equally, I wanted to subvert the form of each and to offer fresh, unexpected views.
Who would you invite to your fantasy bookgroup?
Ha! Woolf - such a keen observer and kaleidoscopic mind. Katherine Mansfield – because she’s a wonder, hilarious as well, and it would be interesting to watch her and VW both admire and compete with one another. Chekhov – because he’s Chekhov and extraordinary. Charlotte Bronte – my first big literary revelation and crush. (Emily would squirm in a group activity). And let’s say John Fowles – with all that rich intelligence – to help make up the male numbers.
Alison MacLeod

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