Alison Littlewood is the personification of an overnight success that’s taken years to achieve.
Having already gained a worthwhile reputation as a short story writer with stories published in magazines such as Black Static, it was only a matter of time before her readers were picking up her debut novel. And ironically, time was a factor in its writing. When the UK found itself suffering its worst winter in years, Alison was driving to a from work through snow and ice the likes of which few had ever seen before. With her car tyres struggling to grip the tretcherous surface her fears during those journeys were understandable – though her reaction to them is only understandable to writers: sitting at her safe, warm, dry desk she did what all good writers do (and normal folk don’t): she sat down and wrote a tale based on her fears.
That tale has gone on to become one of the most successful British horror novels in a generation.
Picked up by Jo Fletcher and sent to the infamous Richard and Judy bookclub, A COLD SEASON has achieved critical success that, unusually for a horror novel, has accumulated sales to match. No doubt you’ve all seen that haunting cover art staring down at you from the shelves in your local WH Smiths and Waterstones. It’s impossible to miss – it’s the one amongst R&J’s other titles that actually has something about it! If you had had any sense you’ll have picked it up and added to the number of readers. If sense was on vacation for you that day, I’m pretty sure you’ll be back in the shops again after reading our interview.
With such success it would be almost understandable (I repeat, almost!) for Alison to change – to have ideas above her station – but as you’re about to discover, she’s still as grounded as ever. Genial, supremely talented and damn scary, Alison is about to take you on a journey around her mind…
Sum yourself up in 10 words
Living in my own little world, head full of dreams . . .
Firstly, congratulations on the phenomenal triumph that is A COLD SEASON – however I’m sure that not even in your wildest dreams could you have foreseen such a reaction. Has it been a difficult thing to handle – the moving around the country, partaking in interviews (remote, radio and before a camera) doing readings etc.? Are you someone who finds it easy to stand up and put yourself on display or do you prefer to hang around in the background – thus making this front-of-the-shop aspect of your success pretty difficult?
Thank you – and ha, you’re right, I never saw it coming! I always imagined if I ever managed to get a novel out there, I’d have to beat down doors to try and get anyone interested. I’ve been amazingly lucky to have the support I’ve been given. At the same time, it has been weird. I’m not one to want to be in the limelight or stick my mug in front of a camera – for me, it’s all about the book. It still seems surreal when I think about it now. Actually, it’s funny, because I saw a video of Stephen King recently where he was talking in front of 2000 people and he walked out and said something like, ‘you know, a writer is someone in a room on their own with a computer. This is just weird.’ And that’s pretty much how I feel, though I was surprised to hear King saying it – so maybe it’s something no one ever does get used to!
For those whose heads have been in the sand (or their own backsides), A COLD SEASON has given the Richard and Judy Book Club the credibility it’s been craving for all these years. Not only is it great to see a beautifully written horror novel staring back at us from the shelves in WH Smiths, but to see it given gravitas by their famous mugs feels like a big moment in the UK horror writing scene. Would you agree with this? As well as giving their club integrity isn’t A COLD SEASON also doing the same with UK horror writing? After all, there will be those who have bought your novel who will now search their bookshops for something similar, thus proving to the world that not all horror fiction is Stephen King, pulp gore or Victorian ghost stories.
I wouldn’t say the Book Club needed my novel to give it credibility, or indeed the UK horror scene. There are some terrific writers out there at the moment, and I feel privileged to be on the same shelf! And any organisation that encourages people to read and discuss books is to be applauded, whichever genre it’s aimed at. I do think it’s fantastic they’ve included a horror novel, though (and very grateful it was mine!) – especially when it’s outside some of their regular readers’ comfort zone. Some have reacted quite strongly against the choice as a result, but I’ve also had lovely letters and emails saying ‘this isn’t the kind of book I’d normally read but I loved it – more please.’ So it would be great obviously if it did have a knock-on effect. We can only hope!
The success of A COLD SEASON has been wonderful but I wonder about the pressure this creates. For instance, how will you deal with the expectations associated with the follow-up? Has the book you’ve already written come under extra scrutiny just because of its brilliant predecessor or are you trying to treat it exactly as you did A COLD SEASON?
I was certainly glad I’d already started on the next novel, Path of Needles, when I found out I’d got a book deal with Jo Fletcher. If I hadn’t, I think I might have ground to a halt. Even so, there have been weeks where I’ve felt stymied, just because I’ve started thinking people might not like this bit, or might not like that character, or might think that bit’s too much. I’ve just had to quell that inner critic in my head all over again. I’m trying not to think about it – still, I keep telling myself it’s a nice problem to have!
There are three aspects that make the novel so memorable:
- The location
- The mother / son relationship
- The isolation.
Dealing with the location first:
It seems to me that you managed to make Darnshaw as important a character as Cass and Ben. Was this done on purpose or was it something that came with the novel’s development?
I didn’t do that on purpose, but it doesn’t altogether surprise me because the book would never have been written without the Saddleworth setting – or if it did, it would be a very different story. When I wrote it I was commuting across the Pennines every day, and there had just been a very bad winter. Crossing the tops in snow was an adventure, and I’d be sliding around in the car and worrying about whether I’d make it over the next hill. That anxiety, coupled with a landscape that’s beautiful but wild and a little eerie, definitely went into the book.
Cass and Ben’s relationship:
Why did you choose mother and son? Why not mother and daughter or father? Or father and son? father and daughter? Would the novel not work as well if you’d decided to make both characters adults so that it was partners or husband and wife?
I don’t remember ever deliberating over whether the book should be about a mother and son, it just seemed natural to write it that way. I definitely wanted there to be a child in it, though, and that became important in the book. An adult couldn’t be manipulated as Ben is, and there’s the imperative for the mother to protect her child. Also, Cass often has to piece together what’s happening by seeing events through a young child’s eyes, so it makes it more difficult for her. She has no partner to support her, either – she has to learn to be strong and face things herself.
It’s perfectly acceptable to believe the isolation in the novel is Cass’s with the outside world. She has no landline, no mobile phone or internet connection and she cannot drive or walk anywhere. This severing with the outside world makes a war window’s loneliness all the more prevalent. However there is another feeling of isolation and that is between Cass and Ben. Ben’s insistence on playing computer games or being with friends – on doing things without his mother’s presence – is a far more painful. It is something all mothers will have to deal with at one time as their children grow up but you managed to make it seem far more sinister. Was this an easy thing to write? Did you need to draw on your own or the experience of others to really instil that true sense of worthlessness that Cass experiences whenever Ben turns away from her?
Hmm – would it be wrong to say I actually found it great fun to write? I suppose it’s the horror writer in me! I did draw on my own fears in the book, though, and one of those is being left alone when I’m older, or just feeling lonely. And I’m fascinated by the idea of lifelines being removed. We always tend to think someone will be at the end of a phone call who can come and help us, dig us out of a hole – it’s interesting to explore what happens when that’s gone. Cass is in a situation where the things that support her emotionally are being removed too, so she really needs to find new reserves within herself.
In my review of A COLD SEASON, I stated that during my reading of the novel I pictured the Hammer Horror movie The Witches in my head. Like the movie and Peter Curtis’s novel, the use of witchcraft and devilment hinted throughout all seems very real because you have not over emphasized it. It ensures the reader finds it difficult to trust characters – there are even occasions when we distrust Cass, wondering if her experiences are actually due to her grief. However it’s noticeable that we never distrust Ben, we just pity him. As adults and parents, we want to help him. Was it your intention to make the reader question the integrity of all your adult characters? Did you intend for us to get angry at those manipulating a child for their own intentions – whether that’s Cass who wants her son to stay away from the village or Theo whose intentions do not become clear until much later?
Absolutely – I wanted Cass to be in a position where she doesn’t know who to trust. And there’s the issue of how far we can trust ourselves, our own perceptions and judgment – no one’s perfect, we’re faulty creatures. I guess it comes down to a question of whose motives are good and about sympathy for human failings, but yes, there is definite anger at those who will use and manipulate others for their own ends, particularly when that someone is a child.
I read that you’d researched local legends and superstitions prior to the writing and I’m wondering which stories you took most from to instil such dread mistrust. Other that The Orphanage and The Children, which other movies do you feel the influence of in the book?
I did do some research into local legends, but while I think they were there somewhere in the back of my mind influencing the tone and mood, I didn’t really put any of them into the story. I do love creepy children in films, though, and that fed into Ben’s behaviour when he starts to turn against his mother. The Orphanage is excellent but another great favourite of mine is Orphan, directed by Jaume Collet-Serra. And there’s no getting away from The Omen in that context, is there! The book has also been compared to The Wicker Man, and I can see why, although it wasn’t a conscious influence when I was writing.
The scenes on the moors, with the ‘snow creatures’: brilliant. Did this come from a personal fear? Of digging your hand into a snowman’s abdomen and touching something that shouldn’t be there?
Ha, no, it was just my twisted imagination taking something that’s fun and nice and turning it into something else! On the other hand, my snowmen always end up looking like something out of a horror movie, so perhaps somewhere in the back of my mind they’re still looking in through the window at me. Oh, they could be there now . . . erk!
You said you got the idea of the novel during the harsh winter of 2010 when the whole country was covered in snow. Weather reports showed satellite pictures of a white UK and news reports had images of people digging their cars out of drifts on a loop. I can see how this would introduce the extreme isolation into the novel but why did you feel it best coupled with witchcraft? Did you ever consider taking the plot down a different direction, such as a missing persons or a murderer on the loose type scenario? (As a side, were you one of those in the snow whose car seemed to only go backwards or sideways?)
I didn’t really consider alternatives, no – I had an idea of the main turns the story would take, and pretty much stuck with that and followed where it led. I tend to be fascinated by things we can’t explain, so having a supernatural element was the natural way to go for me. I’m not sure why that is . . . a straightforward murder plot just wouldn’t have seemed as interesting to write.
And my little motor (I’m a Mini fan) was positively heroic considering the roads, but it did have its moments! There were some scary hills whichever route I took out of Saddleworth, and there were a few times I was going every direction but forwards. If I’d been in some heavy beastie with big slidey wheels, though, I think I’d have been kipping in the car.
Those of us already familiar with your work in publications such as Black Static will know how well your success is deserved. Of your short stories, you have said the biggest stumbling block when switching from writing short to long was the psychology: of realising that you weren’t going to have everything wrapped up within a couple of thousand words. I’ve often heard authors describe their chapters as a series of stories loosely joined by characters and plot. Did you ever think of A COLD SEASON this way or were you able to turn the writing process a completely different monster?
I’ve really, really tried to think of every novel I’ve drafted in that way because it would put them on more familiar ground, but really, they’ve defied me in that respect. I can’t help seeing them as something different. I suspect it might work better for writers who plan everything out before they begin but I’m more of a jump in with both feet and see where this leads type of person. I generally have a good idea of where the story’s going to begin and end, but in between – anything can happen!
Which do you now prefer to write? Long or short fiction?
Oh, when the latest novel’s at a tricky stage – definitely shorts. When the novel’s racing ahead or, indeed, just finished – no, novels. Definitely. Erm, the thing is, short stories are like Pick n’ Mix – you can blow off steam, have some fun, write on different subjects and themes and characters. Novels give more depth and need greater commitment and can surprise you, and they feel like a bigger achievement when they’re done. I love writing both, really, though when I’m working on the first draft of a novel I’m better laying off the shorts because they can put me off for ages, pulling my head into a different world. Shorts are great to have some actual creating-new-stuff time while ploughing through novel edits though.
You’ve achieved critical and commercial success but I wonder about those critics. Do you read all of your reviews? How do you deal with the bad ones?
Well, some readers really didn’t take to the idea of a novel like A Cold Season being in the Book Club – one even wrote at length about how they didn’t think it would make a very good beach read! But the thing is, at least they’ve taken the time to read and comment. And if we all liked the same thing, there’d be even fewer opportunities out there for writers than there are now. So vive la difference, I say – although, as another writer warned me, you can have ten great reviews, but it’s the one bad one that will stick in your head word for word, so probably best just not to read them. I think he’s a very wise individual, but at the same time, it’s wonderful when you hear from people who enjoyed your book.
A COLD SEASON was written whilst you still had a day job – which is exactly how most wannabe writers are trying to write their masterpieces! Could you describe your regime? Were you writing before work or afterwards? Spending hours at the weekend and during lunchtime? Writing every day or whenever you felt in the mood?
I wasn’t all that regimented in that I didn’t have set times to work, but I did push myself to keep getting the words down. I aimed for 1000 words a day as a minimum, and I’d sometimes do more, sometimes less. As long as it worked out at about that level, I was happy. I tended to work in the evenings with some big writing sessions at weekends when all was quiet, though I used my lunchtimes for researching markets, sending out short story subs etc. I’d have loved in theory to be one of those people who gets up at 5 and writes before work every day, but in practice I wasn’t that disciplined!
Do you write to music or do you prefer having a film on the background, picking up inspirations as you write?
Ooh no. Peace and quiet for me. I keep thinking I must try writing with a CD on in the background, but somehow never do get round to it. I think having something with words and a plot I had to follow going on in the same room would be a nightmare. I vanish into a different world when I’m writing, so any distractions can feel like a real jolt.
If there were no consequences, what would you like to do to the person continually interrupting you when you’re in the zone?
Oh, well there is the guy next door who likes playing ball against the fence and the garage door and the walls . . . now I’m wondering if I could get away with stringing himself up by the feet from his basketball hoop. Which I know isn’t all that horrifically horrifying, or at least not until the local ants get hungry . . . mwa ha ha!
A lot of authors like to use social media as a selling tool – whether it’s their work, their attitude or themselves – yet you seem far more muted. Is it because you find the whole self-promotion thing awkward as I know others do? Or do you prefer to use sites such as Facebook for you and your friends and keep your job completely separate?
I tend to use Facebook to network with fellow writers as well as to keep in touch with friends. Writing can be pretty lonely at times, so it’s a brilliant tool for that. Yes there is a promotional side, but mainly it’s about sharing our successes, trials, etc etc! I used to work in marketing, but self-promotion makes me cringe a bit – now I tend to think marketing is what happens by accident along the way. I’m not sure that’s a good thing or a bad thing, but I do know I don’t go on Facebook for the hard sell, either to be on the giving or receiving end.
What advice would you give to someone wanting to become a writer – specifically someone wanting to write horror?
Keep going, don’t be put off, enjoy doing what you do! Don’t listen to all the scary things about how hard it is to find a publisher or how tough the markets are or the critics. If you love the writing, that’s what counts, and that’s the thing to focus your time and energies on. You’ll always get something out of it, no matter where it leads you.
Have you ever written a story – or even a scene – that upon reading have found yourself wondering whether it would be better left unpublished? Not because it’s badly written because it has scared you so much that you’re not comfortable with letting it see the light of day?
I have written a couple of short stories touching on difficult subjects that I have shelved because I’m not sure I pitched them quite right. I didn’t want them to be misinterpreted. Apart from that, the scarier the better . . .
Who are your role models? Which six figures – living or dead, real or fictional – would you like to have round for dinner?
I feel like I should pick people who’ve gone out and led countries or made great strides in science or changed the world, but sod it, it’s my party. I’d have my favourite writers round – Stephen King and Neil Gaiman, definitely. Guillermo Del Toro, so I could witter on to him about Pan’s Labyrinth. Mark Gatiss would be lovely. Writer and friend Allyson Bird, as I could magic her back from New Zealand for one more fun evening. Ooh! And Daniel Craig. Hey, I did say it was my party, didn’t I?
Of today’s authors, whose work gets you most excited? Who should people be looking out for?
I always rush out and buy anything new from Neil Gaiman, Joe Hill, John Ajvide Lindqvist, Graham Joyce or indeed Stephen King. Gary McMahon is going from strength to strength – his Concrete Grove series is excellent. Sarah Langan novels are always a great read, gritty and scary. I love Conrad Williams’ descriptive powers and Dan Simmons’ sense of place. There are also some terrific writers coming up through the indie presses, building a name for themselves with their short stories – I’m sure we’ll be seeing a lot more of people like Simon Kurt Unsworth, Carole Johnstone and Ray Cluley in future.
What are you reading?
I’ve just been lucky enough to have a sneak preview of Adam Christopher’s new book, Seven Wonders. It’s brilliant.
What are your 5 desert island books?
The Road by Cormac McCarthy.
American Gods by Neil Gaiman.
A nice fat short story collection – A Book of Horrors edited by Stephen Jones should fit the bill nicely.
A collection of Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tales – I adored them when I was a kid.
Skulduggery Pleasant by Derek Landy – hey, we all need a good giggle sometimes!
Finally, what are you working on right now and what do you think you will be doing in 12 months’ time?
I’m in the final stages of editing Path of Needles before handing it in. Well, actually, I’m skiving off answering these questions, but don’t tell anyone! I’m also about to start editing a short story to read out in an event at the Humber Mouth Literature Festival in June, which should be a lot of fun. Next year . . . who knows? I hope I’ll be editing the next novel and panicking about the deadline all over again.