Alan McCluskey lives in a quaint Swiss village known for its wine and waterwheels. After making my way up from the lakeside along a winding path by a noisy stream dotted with tiny waterwheels, I met him in what used to be a girls’ finishing school. As a residence, it seemed particularly appropriate for an author who has often written from the perspective of teenage girls. When I enquired if living in such a school inspired him, he replied with a chuckle that he’d always wanted to go to a girls’ school. I would have pursued the subject, but he was unwilling to be more explicit.
Each room in the house had shelves full of books. His office was no exception. However, one wall had been freed up for a display of cover art from his published books, of which there have been ten. It acted as a reminder of what he’d achieved, he told me. Having discussed a meandering career from mathematician to video artist and photographer, from researcher to novelist, our conversation finally turned to his latest book.
Harold Smith: I gather you plan to write a novel about a boy trapped in a book.
Alan McCluskey: True. Although saying the boy was ‘trapped’ seems to imply he was free before he got caught in the book. That’s not the case. He’s an integral part of the book. He’s a character in the story. Being in the book is the normal state of affairs. Wanting to go beyond it is unheard of.
HS: Okay. Point taken. But why write a book about such a subject?
AMc: I find the idea fascinating. Just think of it. You’re inside a book, inside a story, and that’s where you belong. That’s the familiar order of things. But for some reason you get it into your head not only to break free of the story, but from the book itself. Think of the frustration if not desperation as you struggle to do the impossible. All your hopes are banked on the relationships you can forge with those who plunge into your book as readers, although you have no control over who they are. And even there, they are immersed in your world but your communication with them is limited by the story you are bound to. How on earth can you possibly know what life is like beyond the book?
HS: How does such a tortured existence relate to the life of your readers?
AMc: We are all subject to stories, our own and those of the people around us, with all the frustration that entails. Most people are unaware that they are living out a series of stories, few of which are dictated by themselves. Being aware of that constraint sets us in an uncomfortable position, making us feel misplaced, almost alien, as if we already had one foot outside. But if we do try to break free, that is likely to cause an uproar. People are very attached to the stories they tell . Imagine the annoyance of the other characters in the story when one of their number decides to go his own way.
HS: So your new novel is about the frustration of being part of a story?
AMc: It could be seen as that. But we need to be cautious. Remember, I haven’t yet written the novel, so anything could happen. But I suspect the book will be more about the fundamental difficulty of establishing a relationship with someone else. Will the boy be able to relate to the girl reading the book such that he can transcend the story he’s caught up in?