5 Questions with Nina Allan on THE GATEWAY and the Shirley Jackson Award

[NOTE: This is part of a series of Q&As with the Shirley Jackson Award nominees.]

Nina Allan was born in Whitechapel, London, grew up in the Midlands and West Sussex, and studied Russian literature at the University of Exeter and Corpus Christi College, Oxford.

“I wrote my first short story at the age of six. Recurring obsessions include old clocks and rare insects, forgotten manuscripts and abandoned houses. Writers who have inspired and continue to inspire me include among many others Vladimir Nabokov, Iris Murdoch, Joyce Carol Oates, Paul Auster, J. G Ballard, Roberto Bolano, M. John Harrison, Shirley Jackson, Kelly Link, and of course Christopher Priest, my partner and first reader. We live and work in the historic seaside town of Hastings, East Sussex.

My stories have appeared regularly in premier British speculative fiction magazines Interzone, Black Static and Crimewave, and have featured in the anthologies Best Horror of the Year #2, The Year’s Best SF #28 and The Year’s Best Science Fiction and Fantasy 2012 and 2013. My story ‘Angelus’ won the Aeon Award in 2007, and short fiction of mine has shown up on BFS and BSFA shortlists on several occasions.

A first collection of my short fiction, A Thread of Truth, was published by Eibonvale Press in 2007, followed by my story cycle The Silver Wind in 2011. My most recent books are the story collection Microcosmos (NewCon Press March 2013) the novella Spin (TTA Press 2013) and Stardust: The Ruby Castle Stories (PS Publishing April 2013). My first novel, The Race, set in an alternate and near-future version of southeast England, will be published in summer 2014 by NewCon Press.”

Nina was kind enough to chat with me about her Shirley Jackson Award nominated novella, THE GATEWAY.


Kristin Centorcelli: Congrats on the Shirley Jackson Award nomination! Will you tell us about your story and what inspired you to write it?

Nina Allan: My novella The Gateway is a story about two friends, Andrew and Thomas, who form a friendship through books and who have that friendship tested to the limits through force of circumstance. Andrew is English, a studious, fairly conventional man whose life is thrust into chaos when he finds himself falling in love with Thomas’s wife Hermine. Thomas and Hermine face far greater chaos, first when their daughter Claudia goes missing and later when Hitler’s Nazi party comes to power in their native Germany. The elements of dark fantasy that form the engine of The Gateway are provided courtesy of the Gelb brothers, artisan cabinet makers who grew up in the Harz Mountains, home to the Grimm brothers and some very odd legends indeed. Some of the objects the Gelb brothers make are similarly strange…

You could say I fell into writing this story. I was supposed to be working on a contribution to a Gustav Meyrink tribute anthology, but the narrative just ran away with me. In the end it was too long for the Meyrink book, and didn’t contain much of anything to do with Meyrink either. But it seemed to have a logic all its own and I have to admit I loved writing it.

KC: What, or who, have been some of the biggest influences on your writing, and why did you first begin writing?

NA: The trigger for my first short story was a fable read out to us by our headmaster at a school assembly. I disagreed with the ending, and so decided I would write the story again and add a new one!

Writing is something I’ve practiced more or less continuously from the age of six. For a long time it was simply a way of fixing things in time, and even as a young child an experience didn’t feel complete to me until I’d written about it. I first started to write seriously for publication in the early 2000s.

Books have always been absolutely central to my life, and my influences are many and diverse. I go through phases of obsessively reading one writer – J. G. Ballard, Vladimir Nabokov, Roberto Bolano, Joyce Carol Oates – until it becomes a physical wrench to break off from them and spend time with someone else. Iris Murdoch is a writer I have an ongoing and central relationship with. She wrote about what she wanted to write about, and had an instinctive ability for portraying the wilful outsider, the obsessive, the failed artist, the radical thinker. Her books remain strange and deep and as a woman writer working in a literary climate that decisively favoured men, Murdoch’s ‘so stuff ‘em!’ attitude is one I hope I will emulate all my life.

Contemporary writers who continue to inspire me include (for language) Michael Swanwick, Jonathan Lethem, Nicola Barker, (for genius-level weirdness) Kelly Link, Jonathan Carroll, Steve Erickson (Zeroville), (for ways of unpicking the world) Christopher Priest, M. John Harrison, Andrew Crumey, (and for story) yes, the master, of course – Stephen King.

KC: If you could experience one book again for the very first time, which one would it be?

NA: What a wonderful question! One of the problems in answering it lies in the fact that a book’s importance to a reader stems as much from when it was first encountered as what it contains. When I first read William Golding’s Lord of the Flies as a young teenager, for example, I was at exactly the age where the issues of power, personality and dystopia explored in that great novel first begin to become apparent, and important. I think the story and Golding’s writing will always be powerful enough to captivate new readers, whatever their age, but Lord of the Flies remains special to me because of the almost obsessive relationship I first had with it. As a final answer though, I’m going to go for Arkady and Boris Strugatsky’s Roadside Picnic. Probably my favourite science fiction novel ever, I reread it every couple of years in any case and in a way, every time is like the first time, because I always find something new in it.

KC: What does it mean to you to be nominated for the Shirley Jackson Award?

NA: It’s an amazing accolade and of course I was thrilled. Every twelve months I look to the Shirley Jackson shortlists as the repository of the past year’s best horror and dark fantasy, and the first port of call for picking up on anything I might have missed. The jury clearly takes their task very seriously indeed, and their ongoing efforts in seeking out the most original, diverse and inspirational work – both from established writers and new voices – is a credit to them and of benefit to us all. To have my own work recognized in such a context was nothing short of mind-blowing.

KC: What’s next for you?

NA: My first novel The Race, a near-future science fiction story set in an alternate southeast England, is being launched by NewCon Press at this year’s Worldcon in London. I’m currently working on a pair of linked novellas set in 1920s London. The stories unfold against the backdrop of devastation caused by WW1, and contain some strong dark fantasy elements.