Earlier this year, Titan Publishing brought Aliya Whiteley’s 2014 novella The Beauty to the U.S. for the first time. I assume to get some pizza. Now, Titan are repeating the process with her 2016 novella,The Arrival Of Missives (paperback, Kindle). In the following email interview, Whiteley talks about the origins and influences of this new-ish story, as well as what’s been added to this new edition of it.
Photo Credit: © Sebastian Lister
To begin, what is The Arrival Of Missives about?
It’sabout a teenager called Shirley Fearn who comes from a farming family in Somerset, England, in the year 1920. She’s seen many members of her village go off to fight in the Great War and not return but her teacher, Mr. Tiller, has returned, but with an injury that nobody will speak honestly to her about. She has a magnificently desperate crush on Mr. Tiller, but when she finds the courage to tell him about it, she discovers that the injury affects his life, and the entire village and beyond, in very strange ways.
Where did you get the idea for The Arrival Of Missives and how did that idea evolve as you were writing the book?
I found Shirley’s voice by simply sitting down and writing, and I loved the character straight away, which is unusual for me. Usually I feel a bit more ambivalent about them. But she was so passionate and committed, and blinkered in her view of the world in a way I recognized from my own childhood, so then I found I wanted to write about her realization that she still had much to learn without being judgmental about her.
Pretty soon into trying to write that kind of story I reached the crux point early on when she discovers what Mr. Tiller’s secret injury is, and the book surprised me by taking a giant leap in a different direction. I didn’t know what his injury would be until I reached that chapter, and then I saw it very clearly as I wrote it. I like to surprise myself when I write, and that moment was a really good example of that! From then on, I couldn’t wait to write the rest of the book to find out what happened.
What kind of book is The Arrival Of Missives, genre-wise?
It has elements of quite a few genres, including historical fiction and science fiction. There’s a bit of fantasy and a bit of horror in there too, but the tone is more akin to literary fiction, perhaps. I really like to play around with genre, but if I was going to categories it I would probably call it either Speculative Fiction or Weird Fiction. It uses established elements of genres in unexpected ways.
Are there any writers, or specific stories, that had a big influence on The Arrival Of Missives but not on your other books?
Absolutely. This book owes a great debt to D.H. Lawrence. I read The Rainbow at age 16 — the age that Shirley is at the beginning of the book — and it has remained one of my favorite novels. But Lawrence has such a distinctive voice and rhythm that he’s not the kind of writer that you can emulate easily without writing within his kind of time and place.
Once I worked out that The Arrival Of Missives shared some aspects of setting and theme of The Rainbow, I knew I wanted to use a similar voice, particularly for one moment near the end of the book that deals very specifically with the difference between the male and female experience of growing up and discovering love. I had so much fun writing that chapter and knowing I was attempting to pay homage to one of my favorite writers throughout. Though I won’t tell you which one; see if you can spot it when you read the book.
How about movies, TV shows, or video games; did any of them have a particularly big impact on The Arrival Of Missives?
The element of the young woman having a crush on her teacher often brought to mind a David Lean film called Ryan’s Daughter. I remember first watching that decades ago and being really interested in the relationship between the characters played by Sarah Miles and a much older, and very weary, Robert Mitchum. In my novel Mr. Tiller isn’t that much older than Shirley, but the world of difference between their views and experiences was what I wanted to capture — and that dynamic can be found portrayed so beautifully in that film.
The Arrival Of Missives was originally published in 2016, but this is the first edition to come out here in the colonies. Aside from changing words like colour to color, did you make any significant changes to the story for this edition?
I made no changes at all, and my editors at Titan didn’t suggest any. I feel really happy with the book as it stands, and I wouldn’t like to change anything.
Earlier this year, when we did a similar interview about the new version of your 2014 novella The Beauty [which you can read here], we talked about how that new U.S. edition came with an added short story, “Peace, Pipe.” Will the U.S. version of The Arrival Of Missives also have a short story?
Yes, The Arrival Of Missives U.S. release comes with a short story called “The Last Voyage Of The Smiling Henry,” and it’s another piece of writing that might be called historical fiction but then heads off into much more unexpected territory, so it has that in common with Missives.
It’s the tale of a sea captain and crew who set out to discover a brand-new island, caused by volcanic eruption, in order to claim its virgin territory as their own. But the island holds many surprises. It was influenced by William Hope Hodgson’s writing, and also such stories as Conan Doyle’s The Lost World and The Land That Time Forgot by Edgar Rice Burroughs. I really wanted it to offer another perspective on the kind of historical adventure that is filled with romance and exploration.
Speaking of The Beauty, for those unfamiliar with it, what is it about?
The Beautycould be described as post-apocalyptic horror, which makes it sound very different from Missives. It’s about a time when all the women have died from a fungal disease, and there’s a small community of men living out their lives as the last generation in a rural area known as the Valley of the Rocks.
The community’s storyteller, a young man called Nathan, notices some strangely shaped mushrooms growing on the graves of the women, and then those mushrooms begin to take on a life of their own…
I’m guessing you think people who enjoy The Beauty will also like The Arrival Of Missives, and vice versa, but is there anything about The Arrival Of Missives that will surprise fans of The Beauty?
There are things that the two books have in common, but I think it’s really open to readers to interpret what those things might be. I think Missivesis less overtly tinged with horror, and the cadences and styles of the writing are really very different from The Beauty. But there’s a lot that the two books share, too. It’s an interesting question, but maybe it’s one that’s best answered by each reader for themselves after they’ve finished reading.
The people who originally published both The Beautyand The Arrival Of Missives in England, Unsung Stories, also published your book The Loosening Skin. Are there plans for that to be reissued in the U.S. as well?
Yes, The Loosening Skin will also be published by Titan in the U.S., although I don’t have a firm date for that yet. They’ll also be publishing my novel Skein Island in both the U.K. and the U.S. next year, so I’m very excited about that.
Cool. What’s that about?
Skein Island deals with strange happenings at a small island off the coast of Devon, U.K. It’s a woman-only retreat, set up by an aging female explorer who uncovered antiquities during World War Two. Tied into that is the story of a couple who are coming apart after a terrible event that puts pressure on their marriage, and the book ties together a number of different elements to look closely at how we are influenced by the stories we tell ourselves and each other.
And what is The Loosening Skin about?
The Loosening Skin also plays around with genre, but it owes a great debt to noir fiction in particular. It’s the story of Rose Allington, a woman who has been many things in her time, including a bodyguard, a soldier, a private investigator, and a charity worker. She finds it hard to settle to any one thing, but that’s because she lives in a world where everyone sheds their skin every seven years. People also lose certain emotions when they shed, such as the love they hold for another. When Rose sheds her skin, she feels the need to leave everything behind — ut when the man she once guarded, film star Max Black, comes back into her life she has to try to find a way to reconcile with her past while solving a mystery.
Going back to The Arrival Of Missives, has there been any interest in adapting it into a movie, TV show, or video game?
There’s been a bit of interest in adapting it and I do think it might work well as a movie, but I suppose that’s because one of the big influences on it was a movie — Ryan’s Daughter, as I mentioned earlier — so I can picture it in those terms. It’s early days but let’s wait and see. I’d love to see it as a movie. It has very visual elements.
If it happens, who would you like them to cast in the main roles?
I really don’t know who I would cast in it. For the schoolchildren, I find myself picturing the children who were in my classes at school, and who I grew up with; I suppose they provided my inspiration for the behavior in those sections even though they’re all grown up now, of course. I know the faces of Shirley and Mr. Tiller but they don’t look like anyone I already know, or any famous actors. They’re completely separate from that kind of world in my head, but if it ever did get made into a movie I’d happily try to imagine lots of actors in those roles.
Finally, if someone enjoys The Arrival Of Missives they should obviously buy The Beauty. But once they’ve read that, what book of someone else’s would you suggest they read and why that?
It would have to be anything by D.H. Lawrence, particularly The Rainbow, but I do understand that readers might prefer something more modern. There’s a great book called Pseudotooth by Verity Holloway that tells the story of a young girl coming to terms with a world of strange influences, and it’s not exactly historical fiction but not of this time either. That mixture of genre — portal fantasy and literary influence in this case — is similar to my own interests, and she makes it work beautifully. The result is a book filled with magic and intrigue. I think it’s only available in the U.K. right now but hopefully it’ll come to the U.S. at some point.