I'm thrilled to interview horror/thriller writer Alison Littlewood, author of A Cold Season and Path of Needles as well as numerous short stories published in various collections. Alison took time out from her writing and puppy training to answer my questions so over to the interview.
LW. Let’s start with introductions. Tell us a bit about yourself and your work.
AL. I’m a Yorkshire lass who has always loved books, and I’ve actually been lucky enough to have two novels published over the last couple of years. I write horror and dark fantasy, and produced short stories for indie magazines and anthologies for some time before starting on novels. I’m fascinated by the mythical and folkloric, and places where the very landscape seems imbued with story.
LW. You’ve had numerous short stories published and your second novel, Path of Needles, was recently released. Do you have a preference for writing short pieces versus novels?
AL. I wouldn’t say a preference, but short stories do allow for jumping around genres and ideas and characters, which can really recharge the batteries after a long novel project. On the other hand when I’m between novels I really miss being so immersed in the journey. I’d say the two complement each other, though the one thing I don’t seem to be able to do is write both at the same time. If I do, my head just gets yanked from one world to another, which really doesn’t help when ploughing through a first novel draft.
LW. Your first novel, A Cold Season, was more of a supernatural horror story than Path of Needles (which is more a crime thriller with spooky elements). Was this difference intentional or simply the way the story developed? Spinning off that, how much do you outline your stories?
AL. It wasn’t so much intentional as what the story demanded. I was just following the idea, and I began it in the days before I got a book deal, so it didn’t really seem like a needed a strategy – fortunately, when A Cold Season was picked up by Jo Fletcher Books, they really liked the concept. I put a lot of things that scared me into A Cold Season and thought it would be fun to put a lot of things that I love into Path of Needles – mysterious forests, a hint of the magical, and some very dark and twisted fairy tales.
The answer to how much I outline stories is probably ‘not enough’! I tend to have a good idea of the opening 10,000 words or so, and I know roughly where I’m going in the end, but I discover the big bit-in-the-middle as I go along. I’m trying to get a bit better at plotting before I jump in! I’d like to think I’ll always leave room to be surprised along the way, though, as it’s great when that happens.
LW. Was being a writer always your plan for a career?
AL. I’d say it was a daydream rather than a plan. If someone had told my younger self I’d be a writer now, I think my brain would have imploded! I used to see writing as a big scary thing that other people did, and it took a long time to force myself to try it. I was in my thirties when I signed up for a local class, and if they’d been less supportive of newbies, I probably wouldn’t have been here now. On the other hand I’ve always loved books, so perhaps I’d have got there in the end.
LW. What are you working on at the moment?
AL. I’m about to get stuck into edits for book three, which will be out in June 2014. The title isn’t definite as yet but it’s a ghost story told across the generations of a family living at a rather dour Yorkshire house. It’s been a good challenge to write the sections set in the past, as I haven’t done much historical fiction before. I’ve also been working on some short stories for different anthologies, though I don’t think I’m allowed to say which ones! It’s the first time for a while that I’ve fitted in some shorts, so that’s been a lot of fun too. I’m having a really good time with the work at the moment, which is great as the words don’t always come so easily. I’m also piecing together ideas for book four, and excited about the prospect of starting on that.
LW. What’s your average working day like?
AL. I got made redundant in the same week I got a book deal, so I’ve been a full time writer since then. I used to be free to write on and off all day, though we got a puppy a couple of months ago and now I’ll go out for a good walk in the mornings and get some exercise and fresh air. The rest of the time, as often as not, I’ll be working on my laptop while the dog tries to sleep with his head on the keyboard – not so easy as he’s getting bigger, but it’s too cute to throw him off! It hasn’t done my typo rate much good though.
LW. Location and landscape features quite a bit in your fiction – what do you think setting your stories in Yorkshire adds to them in terms of atmosphere?
AL. I started on A Cold Season when I was commuting across the moors to Saddleworth, and that landscape – bleak, beautiful and forbidding – definitely began to shape events in the book. Path of Needles is set closer to home and uses some of the kinds of places I love, particularly the deep dark woods! I never really thought about setting each of the books anywhere else. I like to use places I know, and I often try to set short stories in places I visit. When you can experience a place and soak up its atmosphere and find out about its stories, the myths and legends that have arisen there, I hope it adds a richness and depth to the work.
LW. How important do you think it is for a new writer to have an agent?
AL. I recently signed with A.M. Heath, and it’s good to know that someone’s going to be navigating the business side of things for me. I didn’t have an agent when I got the book deal, but things get complicated quite quickly! I was fortunate in that someone at TTA Press, who knew my short stories, recommended that my publisher looked at my novel, and so things just fell into place. I imagine that was pretty unusual though, and I’d been immersed in the short story markets for a few years before then and gone out and met people at cons and so on. A lot of the big publishers won’t look at unagented submissions, so they would be pretty essential in that scenario. Every writer seems to come at it from a different route, though, so it isn’t a case of having to do things a certain way.
LW. What do you do in your free time?
AL. I like photography, and I’d love to take the time to develop my technical knowledge and skills, though it’s having to take a back seat at the moment. I do try and set the time aside to read, too. Other than that, just at the moment it’s all puppy training, puppy cuddles, and trying to stop him eating the house!
LW. Which writers do you particularly admire? And are there any books you wish you’d written?
AL. I love Neil Gaiman’s work, and adore Neverwhere, Stardust, American Gods – well, all his novels, really. Joe Hill’s work is terrific too; I loved NOS4R2 and Horns. Stephen King is – well, the king. Graham Joyce is wonderful, and Sarah Langan’s novels are dark, gritty and chilling. As for books I wish I’d written – one of the early ones I really admired, though it isn’t a genre novel, is Peter Carey’s Oscar and Lucinda. It’s so touching and meticulously researched and incredibly clever. Little Hands Clapping by Dan Rhodes is great – I love books that give the impression the writer is having an absolute ball writing them! I recently read Westlake Soul by Rio Youers, and that’s absolutely terrific.
Alison's site is over here and she's on Twitter at Ali__L. And while you're at it, check out the anthologies she's featured in here.