Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Q&A with Ali Shaw

Ali Shaw is the author of the new novel The Trees. He also has written the novels The Girl with Glass Feet and The Man Who Rained. He lives in Oxford, England.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for The Trees, and for the world you describe in the novel?

A: The idea struck in an unguarded instant, much like the trees do in the story. I can’t quite remember what I was doing at the time – walking to the corner shop, probably, or walking back – but I can remember that the idea arrived with a feeling of upward force.

At that stage it was just an image: a forest thundering up from the ground fully formed.  From there I had to sit down and imagine what sort of forest it would be, and what sort of people I wanted to follow through it.

Q: How would you describe your main character, Adrien, and his view of the world, both before and after the trees take over?

A: He’s a struggler. He struggles with everything. He doesn’t like modernity or urban life but he doesn’t much like nature either. His anxieties have twisted him up into someone who’s become quite unbearable, although I hope he’s funny at times too.

After the forest arrives he’s even more lost than he was beforehand. It takes faith in him from others – other people and other things – to make him change.

Q: The book cover pictures a fox. What role do you see the fox playing in the novel?

A: Foxes are limbo animals, and people have always had such wonderfully complicated relationships with them. On the one hand they’re pests, on the other they’re incredibly beautiful.

If you see a fox crossing a city street at night you’re reminded of the natural world beyond the reach of your concrete. If you wake up in the morning and find it’s torn your bins open for the umpteenth time, you feel less romantic.

In Britain foxes are a socially divisive animal because of the bloodsport of foxhunting (which is a dozen or more people on horseback chasing one fox through the woods with a pack of braying dogs), but the red fox has made its home all over the world and exists in so many countries that it’s become almost a universal element of human culture.

In The Trees, I thought of foxes as a kind of intermediary between people and nature. The fox on the cover is made out of leaves, which I think represents that perfectly.

Q: Which authors do you feel have influenced your own work?

A: Fairy stories have had a massive influence on me, be they the spooky forest stories of the Brothers Grimm or the wonderfully melancholy tales of Hans Christian Andersen. That’s surely why the forest in The Trees ended up being more like something from a fairy story than, say, a national park.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’m writing an adventure story. It’s a bit too early to go into the details, but I’m trying to push my imagination as far as it will travel and see what it invents along the way.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: This is about foxes again. But first you need to know that halfway through writing the novel, my wife and I had a little girl, who I became the main carer for when my wife went back to work.

That meant that a lot of my writing got done very late at night when my daughter was asleep, at which hour I would often hearing a vixen shrieking outside.

We live in a flat overlooking a stream, and sometimes the vixen would come and catch ducks around midnight (provoking a good deal more shrieking). If she wasn’t doing that she was barking every twenty seconds for an hour or so, and thus became the soundtrack to much of my work on the novel.

Maybe that best explains why there’s a fox in this story...

On the night before the book was published here in the UK, I went out for a drink with a friend.  Coming back from the pub around midnight, I saw the vixen standing in the road outside my front door.

I wish I could say she was staring at me enigmatically, but I think her attention was firmly on the ducks. Nevertheless, it was the first and only time I’ve ever actually seen her – and I was very glad to do so.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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