Second novel syndrome is a notoriously tricky ailment. For every Ulysses, there’s DBC Pierre’s Ludmilla’s Broken English. Where Charles Dickens dashed off Oliver Twist, Harper Lee agonised for decades about following To Kill a Mockingbird. Second novels even have their own prize, the nicely named Encore.
If there is any justice Alison Moore should be in the running for this year’s award. Her sophomore effort, He Wants, is a nuanced, haunting tale of desire and repressed longing, and a very creditable successor to her quietly stellar debut, The Lighthouse, which was shortlisted for the Man Booker.
When we meet in London, 43-year-old Moore seems anything but anxious, in part because she is about to start a three-week holiday in France with her husband, Dan, and young son, Arthur, but also because she tends to be a bright, upbeat, if careful conversationalist. Despite discussing her father at some length throughout the interview, she only mentions his recent death at the very end of our conversation.
Nevertheless, Moore confesses that the prospect of emulating The Lighthouse did give her pause. “I needed to keep it very private while I was writing. It’s always tricky to talk about works-in-progress but I kept it to myself until I had worked it as far as I could.” This need for privacy even extended to the noble decision to refuse a contract until the novel was all but completed.
Admirers of The Lighthouse will doubtless spot similarities with He Wants. Both are built around isolated, middle-aged men: Futh in The Lighthouse, Lewis Sullivan in He Wants. “I am interested in the world of the loner. Perhaps loneliness is a by-product of that. I like families but also the way people are separate within that unit. The family might have one story but each person throws up quite a different picture.”
A widower who is both smothered and neglected by his daughter Ruth, Lewis’s buried narratives of tragedy and missed opportunities run beneath his otherwise unexceptional existence. These mysteries are slowly revealed through a plot that insinuates itself through recurring memories and telling details. “I feel you can either write from inside the narrative and follow your characters along, or you can be outside and it’s more like directing. I do feel very much inside it, very close to what is happening.”
Moore acknowledges the repetitive strains in her imagination, but insists she didn’t know what they were until she published The Pre-War House, the collection of short stories that bisected her two novels. “I discovered those seams and issues that writers return to. We all have a handful of things we keep circling.” The biggy, as Moore herself puts it, was absent mothers. “I don’t know how I hadn’t noticed. Mothers become lost in one way or another.”
Moore herself draws the parallels between life and art. Her own mother died in 1995. Looking back, she sees it as a time of grief but also creativity. She began writing the first of the stories she would publish about five years later.
The loss of her mother forced Moore into a new relationship with her father, who died more recently. “We had to move together. I got to know him much better and I realised how much like him I was.” Something of his “private and proper” character can be glimpsed in both Futh and Lewis. Yet, Moore is careful to stress that her own personality is just as strong an influence. “Even when I was eight I was 40 inside. I think I am drawn to these middle-aged characters because that is basically how I have always felt.”
Born in Manchester in 1971, Moore grew up in Loughborough. “I still live in the East Midlands. One thing about the Midlands is it’s very far from the sea. There used to be a pub near junction 21 called The Sea Around Us. I always liked that. The sea is around us but as far from us as it could possibly be.” Her parents, who met while working at the University of Salford, created a tight-knit family: Moore has a twin sister and a brother who is older by 20 months.
The intense nature of Moore’s fictional relationships owes something to this real-life intimacy. “Both my mum and dad came from big families, but they were very much a unit. They didn’t really seek much outside the family. It is basically what I know – these private, self-contained people.”
Moore herself sounds like the perfect daughter. “I was a family girl. I was quite good at school, quite obedient.” I ask whether, like Lewis, this propriety hid a yearning for something beyond the everyday. “What that might echo is that feeling in yourself of something very important and powerful that you want to get a hold of. I was very young when I realised there was nothing that excited me, vocationally, as much as writing did. It was always about writing.”
This literary dream was powerful enough for Moore to write throughout school, and later in her free time between admin jobs. Balancing art and life in these years wasn’t always straightforward. “For whatever reason, during my most recent job [as a PA at an arts centre], I didn’t have a big urge to write. I think it was because I had some degree of satisfaction in the same need-centre in my brain.”
Given the creative outpouring after her mother’s death, I ask whether Moore’s imagination needs some degree of unhappiness to be productive. She accepts the hypothesis, to a point. “I think they were two different things. I probably needed to write out the family dynamics after Mum died.” The purple patch that produced The Lighthouse, by contrast, followed the birth of her son and was the result of happiness and a period off work. “All that happened was that bit of my brain stopped having enough to do, so I started writing. Initially when Arthur was asleep at night. When he went to pre-school at three, I would take my laptop and work in the car or in a café.”
Today, Moore writes full-time courtesy of that Man Booker shortlisting. She has a desk in her bedroom while her husband works downstairs. Despite the odd point of conflict – mainly the volume of her husband’s music – it has proved a harmonious and productive situation. Moore has recently completed her first script for a graphic comic: about the poet Mary Howitt, who wrote The Spider and the Fly.
Before she heads across the Channel, I ask whether writing has ever provided consolation for the themes she explores so deftly – grief, loneliness, disconnection. “I think it must help in some way,” she says slowly. “It’s odd isn’t it? I have always written. So whether it actually helps or actually changes something, it’s the way I always look at things.”