December 30, 2009 / 6:08 AM / 9 years ago

Book Talk: Ali Shaw makes magic with debut novel

SYDNEY (Reuters) - British writer Ali Shaw drew inspiration from fairy tales for his debut novel and to magical effect, with “The Girl With Glass Feet” published to great acclaim.

British writer Ali Shaw poses for a portrait in this undated handout photo. Shaw drew inspiration from fairy tales for his debut novel and to magical effect, with "The Girl With Glass Feet" published to great acclaim. REUTERS/Iona Mileham/Handout

The novel, which has been short-listed for the Costa First Book Award, is a set in a snowbound, remote land where winged creatures and albino animals live and Ida MacLaird is slowly turning into glass when she falls in love.

The novel will be published in the United States in January.

Shaw, who was born in 1982 and has worked as a bookseller at Oxford’s Bodleian Library since graduating with a first class degree in English Literature, spoke to Reuters about his writing:

Q: Were you surprised by the reaction to your book?

A: “Yes, very, and delighted obviously. So many books are published every year and your hope is only that a few people will read it and enjoy it but it seems to have touched a nerve with people and that is fantastic.”

Q: Was it hard to be published?

A: “I went down the traditional route of getting an agent who was fantastic and we worked a bit on the book together. She tracked down (publisher) Grove Atlantic and the editor there was really helpful and helped improve the book no end. I feel I am lucky as you hear horror stories but everyone got the gist of what the book was trying to be. I feel I have got through it all with a reasonable amount of bones intact really.”

Q: Have you always written?

A: “Yes but I think I found my voice when I was about 18 or 19. It just kind of clicked. I read Kafka’s “Metamorphosis” and it showed me what could be done with magical or fantastical elements within fiction — the way they could be used as one expressive medium of human emotion, of thought and feeling. In “Metamorphosis” the guy wakes up and he is an insect and it is not a metaphor but an expression of what he is and how his life is. That kind of sparked me off on this chain of working out how I could write in such a way that I could use my imagination to express emotion rather that create escapism which is often the accusation against more genre fantasy. That led me into fairy stories and folklore and these wizened forms of writing that seemed to me to be expressing what is it like to be person and what it is like to be alive.”

Q: You did an MA in creative writing. Was that useful?

A: “It helped a lot. I started on the idea for the book at the same time. People have different opinions about the value of those courses but I think it helps you develop your style and the way you want to write. But it is not a hit-making machine where you put in your ideas in at the start of the course and come out with a novel.”

Q: How long did the novel take?

A: “All up about four or five years. I’d be hammering away late into the night and also getting up sometimes at 4 or 5 am to do an hour or so before going off to work. The conscience seems to be more at ease with itself at that time in the morning. But I am a perfectionist and thankfully I had some good people on the editorial side of things who were able to tell him that this is done now and stop it. Toward the final stages of the novel you are obsessing over everything and have so long that you start to almost hate the thing. You are spending so much time on it because you want to get it right but you are desperate to finish it and it becomes this obsessive, compulsive thing.”

Q: Have you started your second novel?

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A: “I am well under way on my next novel but it is still some way to go. One of my writing processes seems to be that I start with a frenzy of different ideas and they almost have to audition for a role in the piece and in the end you get a cast of ideas. They have to fit and work together. Some you have to discard because they don’t fit into the whole ensemble. I think I have finished casting but I’m not at the dress rehearsal stage yet.”

Q: Any pieces of advice for aspiring writers?

A: “The first is not to mimic anyone or to aspire to write like anybody but to look at what you want to try to express and find a medium to explore. The second is to be disciplined and to make time to do it because it will take a lot more than you expect when you set off on the process.”

Editing by Miral Fahmy

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