How did you become a writer?
The short answer is, I don’t know! I began writing my own stories and poems more or less as soon as I could read, and never really stopped. Writing things down came naturally to me as a way of recording my experiences, feelings and thoughts – a way of confirming to myself that something had actually happened. I took my writing for granted in a way, as an internal extension of my exterior self, which might be part of the reason it took me a relatively long time to begin my career as a writer. My first published story appeared in 2002, in a UK fantasy magazine called Dark Horizons.
Name your writing influences (writers, books, teachers, etc.).
Always other writers. Older writers – often dead writers – who set out on this path long before me, the real trailblazers. As I began to attain maturity as a reader, the Brontë sisters and their works became increasingly important to me as examples of what the power of the imagination could achieve. A little later I became obsessed with the novels of John Wyndham and Iris Murdoch. I wrote my Masters thesis on the fiction of Vladimir Nabokov, whose work perhaps remains the ultimate demonstration of what can be accomplished by words on a page. In terms of books aboutwriting, there are two that stand out for me. Firstly, John Gardner’s On Becoming a Novelist, which I discovered almost by accident soon after I began writing for publication, and Stephen King’s On Writing, which I recommend to everyone even remotely interested in writing, or simply as a reading experience. Both these guys take very different approaches – sure proof that in writing there really are no rules – but what unites them is their passion, the seriousness with which they approach their subject matter. For Gardner as for King, writing is not just a craft or even an art, it is a vocation. It is this sense of commitment, more than anything, that sets the seal on whether someone will ultimately succeed in their desire to write.
When and where do you write?
I write every day, unless I’m travelling. I am one of those writers who thrives on routine, so you’ll normally find me at my desk, in my office, looking out on the Firth of Clyde and progressing at a slower pace than I would ideally like.
What are you working on now?
I’m working on a new novel, set here in Scotland, on the Isle of Bute. A photographer returns to her childhood home to confront the truth of what happened to her best friend, who was murdered. It starts out reading like a murder mystery but becomes increasingly weird the further you get into it.
Have you ever suffered from writer’s block?
I don’t normally find trouble in writing or even in finding ideas – there are always too many ideas to choose from, which can be a problem in itself. My own peculiar version of writer’s block is changing my mind about a project half way through. The book I plan to write is never the book I end up writing, which inevitably means I end up scrapping a lot of material. I had already written 60,000 words of draft for my 2017 novel The Rift before I realised I had started in the wrong place – I trashed everything and began again. It sounds frustrating, terrifying even, but I have learned to accept this process of revisionism as a normal part of my working process. And no writing is ever wasted – even the stuff you throw away is stuff you have learned from.
What’s the best writing advice you’ve ever received?
‘Write a proper second draft’. This piece of advice was given to me by my partner, Christopher Priest, soon after we met. He described his own method to me, which was to print out his first draft, then begin typing it out again, from the beginning, making necessary changes as he went. It sounded like hell to me and I privately swore I’d keep to my own method, which was to edit on the page, going over and over the draft as it existed until it felt right. Several months later I was having problems with a short story, and so I decided to give Chris’s method a try, experimenting with just the first page. The results were so instantaneous, and so dramatic, that I switched over to his method immediately and never looked back.
What’s your advice to new writers?
The only piece of advice I feel confident in giving – because I know it is essential – is to read, read, read above your level. It is tempting to keep looking over your shoulder at what your coevals are up to, but ultimately the only way to learn and to progress and to put fire in your belly is to read works by writers who are above and beyond you, so far ahead of you that you feel you’ll never be able to achieve what they have achieved. Discover your own literary heroes, your own personal canon. Set the bar high, and remember, there are no rules.
Nina Allan was born in East London. She studied German and Russian at Exeter University and Corpus Christi College, Oxford, where she completed an MLitt and monograph on madness, death and disease in the fiction of Vladimir Nabokov. With her short fiction appearing in many magazines and anthologies, Nina’s story collection THE SILVER WIND, a meditation on time, memory and the nature of reality was awarded the Grand Prix de L’Imaginaire (France) in 2014. Her debut novel THE RACE, set in an alternate Britain and dealing with themes of identity and loss, was shortlisted for the Kitschies Red Tentacle and the John W. Campbell Memorial Award in 2015. She also won The Novella Award for THE HARLEQUIN. THE RIFT, a tale of two sisters separated as teenagers and reunited in mysterious circumstances twenty years later, was published in July 2017 by Titan Books and won the British Science Fiction Award and The Kitschies Red Tentacle. Nina lives and works on the Isle of Bute, together with her partner the writer Christopher Priest. Nina's new novel, THE DOLLMAKER, will be published in spring 2019 by riverrun (UK) and Other Press (US).