While people joke about how prolific Stephen King can be, Maine’s scariest son would be impressed with how many books Aliya Whiteley has either just put out has coming out. Especially if he read them. Not only was her noir sci-fi story The Loosening Skin (paperback, Kindle) just released in the U.S. for the first time, and her military sci-fi novel Skyward Inn (hardcover, Kindle, audiobook) being released everywhere, but she put out a short story collection called Fearsome Creatures (paperback, Kindle) in October, and has a second, From The Neck Up (paperback, Kindle), due out September 14. And that’s not even all of it. In the following email interview, Whiteley discusses what inspired and influenced The Loosening Skin and Skyward Inn, as well as those collections of shorter works.
Let’s start with The Loosening Skin, since that comes out first. Plot-wise, what is that book about, and when and where is it set?
It’s set in a world very much like our own, but with one major difference: Humans shed their skins every seven years or so, and when they do, they lose certain emotions such as love. The novel follows one woman, Rose Allington, through the skins she sheds. She moves around the UK, taking different jobs as her emotions change, but her roles as a bodyguard and a private investigator have a huge impact on her. She’s asked to investigate a case that leads to the darkest crimes, and reopens old memories.
Where did you get the idea for this story?
A lot of my novels start out as writing exercises. The Loosening Skin began as an attempt to create a character who was totally in love at the start of the first chapter, and irrevocably, undeniably out of love at the end of that chapter. I needed to create a catalyst to make that work, though I have no idea where using the concept of shedding skin for that catalyst came from. It might be down to a documentary I saw about how all the cells in the human body are replaced every seven years. Plus, when I look back on it, I’ve always been interested in skin-shedding. I found the molted skin of an adder, a small snake, when I was young. I kept it, and was fascinated by it. So maybe that’s in there, too.
The Loosening Skin sounds like it might be scary sci-fi story. Is that how you’d describe it?
There are definite moments of horror and high tension. I like the idea that people find all sorts of genres in my books, but personally I’d say I tend to think of this one as noir. There’s a detective story, a hardboiled private investigator as a lead character, and some horrible crimes are committed.
Are there stories — either written or in movies or TV shows — that had a big influence on The Loosening Skin? And I mean just on this story, not on your style as a whole.
Following on from the answer above, a lot of those black and white crime thrillers featuring Robert Mitchum or Humphrey Bogart, were hanging around in my mind. The twistiness of those plots, and the loneliness of the leads. They were so disaffected, iconic. I haven’t really explored that before, but I love those films. I’d say Out Of The Past is my favorite. It’s definitely an influence just on this book.
Now, the U.S. version of The Loosening Skin comes almost two-and-a-half years after the book came out in Britain. Aside from changing “colour” to “color,” did you make any other changes to the text?
No, the text is the same. It was interesting to look back over it, but I found I didn’t want to change anything. I rarely want to start poking around in things I’ve written before.
The U.S. version of The Loosening Skin also comes with a related short story called “Envelope.” What is that story about, and how does it connect to The Loosening Skin?
“Envelope” focuses on one of the minor characters, set in the weeks after the end of the novel. It’s about the molted skin of a much-loved celebrity who has just died, and the way that’s packaged and sold for profit. A man buys a small swatch of that skin to try to come to terms with his feelings about fame, and love that’s ending.
Was that story included in the original British version?
It’s new for the US release, written a year or so after UK publication. When my editor suggested writing a companion piece for the book I wasn’t immediately keen on the idea, but as soon as I began writing I found it allowed me to explore another angle on that world that really appealed to me.
I think my own feelings about the novel had changed since writing it, and I had new thoughts to explore about the world I created. That’s unusual for me; I don’t often like to go back over the things I’ve written. But in this case there was more to say. I think that’s still, true, actually. If there was any world of mine I’d revisit again, it might be this one.
Moving on to Skyward Inn, what is that book about, and when and where does it take place?
Skyward Inn is set in the near future of Earth, after a wormhole has been found that leads to contact with an alien planet called Qita. Earth is certainly not united in its approach to Qita, and a coalition of countries set out to conquer it. The UK has broken up, and an area committed to living only rural lives without modern technology, called The Protectorate, has vowed to stay out of that war.
The novel follows a veteran of that war called Jem and her close friend Isley, a Qitan. They have set up an inn together in the middle of the moors of the Protectorate. But their decision to stay separate from world events is tested when a desperate visitor from Isley’s past arrives one night.
Where did you get the idea for Skyward Inn, and how, if at all, did that idea change as you wrote it?
I was driving back from a brief visit to Devon (basically the setting for The Protectorate in the novel), listening to a radio documentary that just happened to be playing. It was about a Japanese man who settled in Scotland to sell his whisky, and he talked about the difficulties of leaving everything behind to create a new life, linked to this country only by a love of a certain commodity: whisky. I was so interested in that idea. By the time I got home I had the first chapter in my head, and an idea of where the book might go, but I left it up to my imagination as I went along. I usually like the storyline to develop as I write.
In deciding how the aliens would look and act, did you base them on ones you’d seen in any movies or TV show?
No, not at all. There’s a really good reason for them being a bit like many of the created aliens we’ve seen and read about before, and also different again. I can’t go into why, because it would give away an important part of the book.
Speaking of movies and TV shows, did any of them have a big influence on the rest of Skyward Inn?
Some of the wide-open spaces of Qita owe a debt to John Ford’s Westerns, thinking about it. So when it comes to landscape, yes. Vast plains that the hero must traverse… It’s quite epic, at times.
And what about books. Was Skyward Inn influenced by any writers or specific stories that didn’t also have a big influence on The Loosening Skin or anything else you’ve written?
The title and some of the ideas definitely spring from Daphne Du Maurier’s novels. She wrote about the Westcountry too — about moorlands and deserted inns in the middle of nowhere. And her last novel, called Rule Britannia, was set in a near future where the UK had broken up. So her influence is really all over Skyward Inn, particularly in the first half of the book.
Later on, as I wrote, I felt a connection to Ursula K. Le Guin’s writing, and her commitment to honestly exploring ideas of communication and togetherness, particularly in novels such as The Left Hand Of Darkness and The Dispossessed. What amazing books those are.
Skyward Inn sounds like it might be a military sci-fi space opera story, but one that’s more about the people in conflict than the conflict itself. How do you describe it, genre-wise?
Again, happy for readers to take away whatever they find in the book, but I think your description sounds much like what I’d say. It’s definitely about the way we interact and come together, or break apart, as people, as communities of all sizes. Thoughtful science fiction, hopefully.
Earlier we talked about how The Loosening Skin comes with a bonus short story. Does Skyward Inn have one as well?
There are a few extras for Skyward Inn but not an additional short story at this point. It’s being published by Solaris and they’ve put together a beautiful edition to the novel. I’ve continued to have thoughts about what might happen after the end of the story but they haven’t come together to form a short story yet. Maybe, if that happens in the future, I’ll add it to the book or publish it somewhere.
Speaking of short stories, you released a collection of them called Fearsome Creatures this past October [which you can learn more about by clicking here], and have a second, From The Neck Up due out September 14 [again click here for more]. First, is the story in The Loosening Skin in either of these collections?
No, the only place you can read “Envelope” is in the US edition of The Loosening Skin. It’s very particular to the story and characters of that world, so that’s the best place for it.
Second, are there any stories in either Fearsome Creatures or From The Neck Up that connect to either The Loosening Skin or Skyward Inn?
Both Fearsome Creatures and From the Neck Up have quite specific concepts — Fearsome Creatures features stories about the monsters that scared me when I was little, and From the Neck Up deals with plant life and science fiction, and how those ideas go together — so there really wasn’t any place for stories set in the worlds of my novels. Some of the stories in the anthologies have been published elsewhere, but there’s brand new material, too.
Do you think either of those story collections would appeal more to readers of one of these new novels? Like, do you think people who enjoy Skyward Inn will also like From The Neck Up but not Fearsome Creatures or the other way around?
That’s really tricky to answer. I don’t think there are obvious connections between the writing. Fearsome Creatures is more horror-orientated and The Loosening Skin has some horrific moments — but then, so too does Skyward Inn. From The Neck Up can be fantastical in places, and Skyward Inn really contains some challenging stuff.
What I’d say is that if you like the elements of my writing, such as not really being sure what’s going to happen next, being taken by surprise, and getting really involved with characters in strange situations, then the short stories from either collection would appeal to you, too.
Along with the four books we’ve already mentioned, you also had a story in the anthology Great British Horror 5: Midsummer Eve; had a mass market paperback edition of your 2019 novel, Skein Island, come out; published a non-fiction book called The Secret Life Of Fungi: Discoveries From A Hidden World; and released a novella called Greensmith. Did I miss anything? Do you have any other books coming out?
I think you’ve covered it. No, wait: I had a story in an anthology called London Centric from NewCon press, in which a number of great writers wrote about what London might look like in the future. My story in that anthology, “Fog And Pearls At The King’s Cross Junction,” is currently longlisted for a BSFA award, so that’s exciting.
After all that, I’m having a bit of time off from writing right now. I’m pretty tired…!
Oh, are there any plans to release Greensmith in the U.S.?
Not at present, I think, but I’d be delighted if it did find a US publisher. Even though it was difficult to write I’ve become very fond of it. Perhaps that’s because it was so difficult to write? Hmmm.
Photo Credit: © Sebastian Lister
Finally, if someone enjoys The Loosening Skin and Skyward Inn, they will undoubtedly read everything else you’ve published over the last couple years. But once they’ve done that, what book of someone else’s would you recommend fans of The Loosening Skin check out and, if it’s different, same question for people into Skyward Inn?
For The Loosening Skin, I’d say Temple Drake’s NVK, which is a vampire story told almost as a noir detective tale. It’s really atmospheric and surprising.
And for Skyward Inn, it has to be Michel Faber’s The Book Of Strange New Things, which is about traveling to another planet and trying to find a way to understand the behaviors and emotions of the creatures who live there. It’s involving and very moving.