Witchcraft in the Harem – interview with Aliya Whiteley

Aliya Whiteley’s new collection, Witchcraft in the Harem, is being launched on Monday 13th May. It was published by Dog Horn Publishing. I have a chat with Aliya about the reasons behind its writing and what’s in store in the future.
1) This such a varied collection – from Penelope Napolitano and the Butterflies to Galatea, the opening piece. Were you aware of trying to create something with light and shade?
There is a lot of difference in tone between the very dark Galatea and the light touch of Penelope Napolitano, although I think they’re both stories that deal with the question of getting lost in your own dreams. I put together the collection with the intention of letting my comic side as well as my serious side show through. But I think even my lightest comedy falls on the black side, to be honest.
2) Galatea is quite a short (perhaps flash?) piece? (Or perhaps just short-short). The ending interested me in its suggestiveness. I wondered if you think that flash fiction particularly needs ambiguous endings?
I think ambiguity can be effective in flash fiction as it gives the piece scope and breath, into which the reader can put their own interpretations. I don’t think it’s absolutely necessary, but maybe I’ve seen more successful flash fiction that utilises that tool.
Galatea comes with a great mythical framework attached simply by using that word as a title, and I think that does a lot of the hard work of creating an atmosphere and expectations. We know this story already, in the many forms of Pygmalion, and so we’re looking for parallels regarding creation and manipulation. So I suppose what I’m saying is that any tool that makes space within the tight structure of flash fiction is worth using.
3) Though Galatea is clay she comes to life and what her ‘maker’ does is quite graphic. Some of your previous work has tackled difficult themes. Do you write with overarching themes in mind (ie the representation of women) or do you just write the story, whatever that might be?!
I like the surprising and the shocking, and I like to write about the issues that concern me. I made a decision a few years back not to limit my imagination, so stories go where they want to go, and I very rarely make an effort to control them in terms of theme. I did write romance and crime before deciding speculative fiction best suited my natural voice, and I found the fantastical and the dangerous always attempted to creep into those genres. From a commercial point of view that’s not great, but I never felt happy with the things I wrote that obeyed the rules of those genres.
4) How do you plan a collection and its structure and placement?
These are stories I’ve written over the past ten years, and I’ve written in many genres over that timespan. So when I decided I wanted to put together a collection of my fantasy stories, I looked through what I had written previously and tried to achieve some thematic similarities. Once Dog Horn Publishing became involved and the editing process began my thoughts became clearer on what I was trying to achieve and so some stories were replaced. The last story in the collection, Strands, was a late addition. I wouldn’t call it a fantasy story, but it has a dreamlike quality and I think it’s a great end to the book. But it’s only through working with the material, arranging and rearranging it, that I began to get a feeling of where the pieces belonged.
5) What happens after the first book? I know you’ve been publishing for a good while now (Mean Mode Median was 2004). Do you every wonder/worry about finding new themes or stories?
Not at all. I was surprised to find that Witchcraft in the Harem has a cohesive feel to it, and that I could choose fifteen or so stories from my catalogue that had thematic similarities. Each story feels very different to me when I’m writing it, and they never have the same starting point. I realised a lot of this collection is concerned with motherhood, and that’s because I have a young daughter, but really I’ve not seen that theme appear in the stories I’ve been writing over the last twelve months. Right now I’m all about the role of information access in society, and that’s producing some very different and interesting stories that I’m proud of. It’s strange in the business of publishing that you find yourself often talking about novels and stories that you left behind, emotionally speaking, months ago. But that’s healthy. I’d hate to be stuck in the same place, rewriting the same plot, over and over.
6) Who are you reading at the moment? And what short story writers do you particularly rate?
I look out for anything that Nik Perring writes. I loved his collection of flash fiction from Roastbooks, Not so Perfect. Also, there’s a great lyrical writer of short stories, Tom Saunders, that I very much admire. His collection, Brother, What Strange Place is This? is one of my favourites.
Right now I’m reading a lot of Muriel Spark. I know I’m really behind the times but I just discovered how brilliant she is, particularly Memento Mori. My favourite short story at the moment is Ursula Le Guin’s The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas. What a story.
7) Do you have any useful tips for students who are trying to make the leap from assignments to publishing?
I did find it quite helpful still to work within a structure sometimes. You get used to the false constraints of assignments – so many words, on a certain theme or using a certain character – and I still sometimes apply those sorts of constraints. I’m a member of a writing workshop and we set challenges for each other. Some of my best work has come out of the weirdest starting points. For instance, the story 1926 in Brazilian Football started out as an exercise in randomly visiting a Wikipedia page and using it as a title. I love that story because it overcomes the constraints of the title and that helps the writing to feel free and irreverent.
8) That dreaded question…what’s next?
I’ve just finished a literary fantasy novel that I’m very proud of, and I’m looking for a publisher for that now. There are short stories coming up in places like Kaleidotrope and Per Contra, as well as an anthology of the best of Smokelong, so it’s going to be an exciting year for me. And I’m writing new short stories all the time so there’s always something in the pipeline.
Thank you!