It’s been an unusual week for me. Since the publication of my first short story in a local journal in 2000, I’ve reached a few shortlists and won a few small writing competitions but the Man Booker Prize is a different creature altogether. In 2009 I had a baby, left my PA job in Nottingham and moved with my husband and child to a nearby village. In our new house, next but one to a sheep field, I started to write while my son, Arthur, napped – a short story first and then a novel about a man going on a walking holiday in Germany.
I finished my novel and it was accepted by Salt, an independent publisher. At the time, simply having a novel published was a big deal for me. Notes-to-self involved seeing if local libraries and bookshops might take a copy or two. So when my husband came to find me in the local park to tell me The Lighthouse was on the Man Booker Prize longlist, it was quite unreal. Six weeks later we were on our way to London for the Man Booker Prize party when my brother-in-law called to say that the shortlist had been announced and I was on it. Life’s been rather different since then. The nomination has led to reviews, sales and opportunities I could never have dreamt of before. My second novel’s had to go on the back burner but it couldn’t be for a better reason.
After travelling home from the Man Booker Prize party last week, I spent Wednesday afternoon agreeing to headline a small literature festival in Birmingham, arranging readings and signings in Nottingham, Manchester and London, scheduling phone interviews with journalists in France and Singapore, accepting foreign rights offers from Canada, Australia and New Zealand, declining a New York agent, discussing film options, and rolling out playdough.
In the evening I went into Nottingham for a joint event hosted by World Event Young Artists and the Nottingham Festival of Words (which fully launches in February 2013). WEYA has brought together 1,000 young artists from 100 countries for 10 creative days. The evening featured a talk called “Towards a Global Brain” by Paul Anderson, author of Web 2.0 and Beyond. He showed us visualisations of internet activity which resembled astronomers’ charts and maps of the synapses. The images were like depictions of WEYA’s arrival on Nottingham’s arts scene – hundreds of busy pathways of activity and bright moments of interconnection.
Driving into Nottingham on Saturday for our son’s weekly swimming lesson, we had the radio on. The actor Charlie Higson was talking about The Enemy, his series of zombie novels for young adults, and about how horror stories can act as a safe means for children to confront real fears of adults, change, sickness and death. The Enemy is for teenagers but my three-year-old loves to practise being “frightened”. One of his favourite games is for me to be a monster and to chase him. Often I can be seen doing either a classic lumbering zombie or the faster sort in Charlie Brooker’s Dead Set. I have to almost catch him but when he is cornered it turns out that my monster is only trying to give him cake. Where stories of mine culminate in suggested brutality, I now like to think there is always an alternative ending in which the protagonist receives cake.
After swimming, we drove to Oxford, where my side of the family was meeting up for the rest of the weekend, for my dad’s 80th birthday. The Hillsborough disaster report was in the news. My brother was at the 1989 FA Cup semi-final match between Nottingham Forest and Liverpool, watching from the Forest end. He told me about the lack of communication within the stadium that day. When the Forest fans were ejected from the ground minutes after kick-off, they had heard no explanatory tannoy announcement. It appeared as if there had been a pitch invasion and it was only when they reached the train station that they began to hear news of deaths.
The report, of course, reveals an extensive covering-up of the truth, with senior police officers changing the statements of junior officers. Thinking about not knowing what has happened, and about not being able to say what has happened, I recalled Jon McGregor’s quietly powerful short story “If It Keeps On Raining” (2010). It is only by reading between the lines that we come to understand that this is the story of a man damaged by the Hillsborough disaster, a police officer traumatised by his inability to help. Living alone by the river now, the protagonist dwells on the excess of rain which causes debris to be “swept along like small children in a crowd, like what happens in a football match if there are too many people in not enough space and something happens to make everyone rush.” Fiction is one way of speaking about the unspeakable.
Prompted by my publisher, I popped into Blackwell’s and Waterstones and offered to sign copies of The Lighthouse. I found myself in line behind a lady who was buying all the books on the Man Booker shortlist in order to make up her own mind before the mid-October announcement of the winner. I signed her copy of my book and the staff brought out some more. I was halfway through signing them when my brother pointed out that no one had asked me for ID. On the other hand, my dad was off browsing the bookshelves and was wondering if, while he was there, he should offer to sign their stock of Brian Moore titles. If asked for ID, he would have been able to provide it.
Alison Moore is the author of ‘The Lighthouse’ (Salt)