Review: The Retreat, Alison Moore

SALT Publishing, 2021

Since childhood, Sandra Peters has been fascinated by the small, private island of Lieloh, home to the reclusive silent-film star Valerie Swanson. Having dreamed of going to art college, Sandra is now in her forties and working as a receptionist, but she still harbours artistic ambitions. When she sees an advert for a two-week artists’ retreat on Lieloh, Sandra sets out on what might be a life-changing journey. 

Since reading Alison Moore’s Man Booker shortlisted novel, The Lighthouse, and subsequently her collection, The Pre-War House and Other Stories, her work has drawn me in with its tight prose and an unnerving sense of foreboding. She has a gift for honing in on fine detail, memory and doubt, creating a sinister unease. There is tension even in the simplest of details and a layered story, where realities shift and doubt creeps in. An other worldliness fills her writing in a way that leaves you questioning and searching for what might be and what might not.

“Sandra wants to be inspired, just like Angie was inspired by the chapel and wrote that poem that everyone said was beautiful. She wants to paint something that she can be proud of, something the others will admire, something she could bear to hand on a wall.”

A sense of isolation is created so well in the mind of Sandra, a thread that runs through many of her characters and books. In The Retreat, this is thrown into the fore as the chapters alternate between what is going on in the mind of Sandra against a narrative that weaves in the actions of the other characters, some of whom the reader will begin to detest. She writes with subtlety, each sentence punching with the weight of a skilled storyteller.

“Carol had understood that the students had arranged to shoot the whole film on the island, sleeping in the house, which had running water and electricity and so on – but something had not worked out, although Carol is not clear what that something was.”

As the chapters shift between Carol, who is alone in a seemingly haunted house on another island and trying to write a novel, and Sandra, who becomes increasingly ostracised by the other artists in the sparse house that they are staying in for an artists’ retreat, many of Carol and Sandra’s thoughts repeat and expand, reflecting the minds of introverts that Moore cleverly creates. You feel an increasing sense of disconnect and longing in Sandra, as she walks to a spot each day to paint the island where Carol is staying, at one point finding someone else in her spot. You expect, and almost hope, the two will meet.

“She wonders what the hell she is doing here, naked at night on the rocks; she is no longer sure that she wants to jump, but she is here now, and she will do it.”

So much of the power of this novella lies in the details: the missing glove, the disregard of Sandra’s needs by her fellow artists, the sounds that Carol hears in the night, the misplaced objects in both of their realities. It’s a gripping book that I read in one sitting on the day that it arrived! Moore creates something that leaves you trying to grasp what is just out of reach. The weight of the story will resonate with you far beyond the end of the pages.

Alison Moore’s short stories have been published in various magazines, journals and anthologies, including Best British Short Stories and Best British Horror, and broadcast on BBC Radio. The title story of her first collection, The Pre-War House, won the New Writer Novella Prize; her second collection, Eastmouth and Other Stories, will be published in autumn 2022.

Her first novel, The Lighthouse, was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and the National Book Awards, winning the McKitterick Prize. Both The Lighthouse and her second novel, He Wants, were Observer Books of the Year. She recently published her fifth novel, The Retreat, and a trilogy for children, beginning with Sunny and the Ghosts.

Born in Manchester in 1971, she lives in a village on the Leicestershire-Nottinghamshire border with her husband, son and cat. She is an honorary lecturer in the School of English at the University of Nottingham and a member of the National Association of Writers in Education.

Find her at

Author Interview with Nicholas Royle

I first discovered Nicholas Royle when I began reading Best of British Short Stories, which he edited, published by SALT. I began with Best of British Short Stories 2011, and was hooked. I have a deep love of second-hand bookshops, and when I wrote a recent blog post on how people arrange their bookshelves, and he responded with a photo of his white-spined Picador books, I knew it was time for an interview.

White Spines: Confessions of a Book Collector (Paperback – 15 July 2021)

A mix of memoir and narrative non-fiction, White Spines is a book about Nicholas Royle’s passion for Picador’s fiction and non-fiction publishing from the 1970s to the end of the 1990s. It explores the bookshops and charity shops, the books themselves, and the way a unique collection grew and became a literary obsession. Above all a love song to books, writers and writing.

Your latest book, White Spines: Confessions of a Book Collector, has just been released. Can you tell us about your passion for second-hand books, notably, white-spined Picador books, and the inspiration behind White Spines? 

It goes back to my late teenage years. A surrealist painting on the sleeve of a single by Bauhaus. A painting by the same artist – Paul Delvaux – being used on the cover of a novel, Ice, by Anna Kavan, which was published by Picador. A wall of white-spined books – all Picadors – in a second-hand bookshop, Skoob Books, in London, where I’d moved to go to university. A Christmas present from my parents, Alberto Manguel’s Black Water: The Anthology of Fantastic Literature. That was it. I was hooked.

Do you have any favourite second-hand bookshops or charity shops? 

Skoob has to feature in that list, since they’re partly responsible. Some of my favourites are closing, or have switched to online only, which is little better than closing, like Sharston Books in Manchester. But, in or near to Manchester, we still have Greenhouse Books, Didsbury Village Bookshop, George Kelsall, Lyall’s. Barter Books in Alnwick is amazing; Leakey’s in Inverness is incredible. Church Street Bookshop in Stoke Newington, north London. Loads of great branches of Oxfam Bookshop and Oxfam Books & Music, in particular Islington, Crouch End, Herne Hill, Bold Street in Liverpool, Leeds (at Headingley). I could go on. I could fill the internet.

Having written several volumes of short fiction and edited many anthologies, I have to ask, short fiction or novels?

Short stories. Then novels. Short novels ideally.

What’s your best editing advice for authors editing their work before it reaches a professional editor? 

Read it out loud. If you wince at a word or phrase, if you just feel the tiniest doubt, whip it out, because otherwise you’ll wish you had done when it’s published. If publication is not necessarily on offer, bear in mind that editors (and agents) are not only looking for something that makes them sit up; they’re also looking for a reason to reject your work as soon as possible and move on to the next thing. So don’t give them an excuse.

What led you to set up Nightjar Press, is there a freedom in being able to hone in on one story at a time, and how do you discover stories for chapbook publication?

For many years I’ve believed that short stories are so special – the really good ones, I mean – that they need their own cover, their own artwork, maybe even their own ISBN. Short stories are worth making a fuss of, worth cherishing and treasuring, and collecting. I invite submissions, from writers who get what we’re doing, and I’m open to submissions, ideally from writers who get what we’re doing. I’m not massively keen on those submissions that come in with an email from someone, who has never ordered a Nightjar, saying, I think my 25,000-word historical fantasy set on Venus would be perfect for Nightjar.

What have you learned from being head judge of the Manchester Fiction Prize and and Reader at MMU, and how quickly can you tell whether or not you will like a story?

I can tell on the first page if the writer can write. It takes longer to work out if they’ve written a good story. That’s what I’ve learned from being head judge of the Manchester Fiction Prize and it’s also the answer to the final question. What I’ve learned from working with MA and MFA students at Manchester Met is that anyone can improve their writing if they want to, if they listen to feedback from peers and tutors. Obviously you have to make a judgment about what advice to take and what to ignore. Very occasionally you get someone who doesn’t listen – and they tend not to give either, in terms of generous, intelligent feedback. We try to weed these writers out at application stage, maybe in interview, and usually succeed.

What should writers look for in a good mentor and how do they go about finding the right one?

A mentor should get what you’re trying to do and be able to help you do it better, much like both a creative writing tutor and an editor. The three roles are very similar. How do you find a mentor? There are some schemes. Arvon run one. I was lucky enough to be one of their mentors and work for a year with three excellent writers – Sonia Hope, Nicola Freeman and Adam Welch – who I was able to help select. Otherwise, I think it’s probably a good idea to try to get personal recommendations.

Your impersonation of Dominic Cummings during lockdown, followed by many other well-known people, was highly entertaining. I think the highlights were Adele and Moby. Who’s next? 

Thank you. I’m doing some Picador authors at the moment. Someone requested Picasso. Shouldn’t be too much of a stretch.

You are stuck in a bookshop with four authors or public figures, who would they be, and why?

Anna Kavan, Giles Gordon, Elizabeth Young, Joel Lane. You didn’t say they had to be alive. It’s a second-hand bookshop, of course, given that that’s the only place where we might find books by all four of these writers. Some of Anna Kavan’s work is in print with Peter Owen, and Joel Lane’s back catalogue is being reissued by Influx Press in beautiful editions, but you’ll struggle to find anything by Liz Young or Giles Gordon in a new bookshop. For now. I imagine a reading. Each of the four reads one of their stories and, as long as we are stuck there, they keep on reading. Bliss.        

What are you currently reading?

I’m reading DM Thomas’s The White Hotel, which celebrates its 40th anniversary this year. I last read it 30-odd years ago. I’m reading the 1981 King Penguin paperback edition with cover illustration by Peter Till, which I regard as the edition against which all other editions should be judged. I’m also reading Ben Lerner’s The Hatred of Poetry (Fitzcarraldo Editions), which I found recently in the Oxfam Bookshop Shrewsbury. I wouldn’t have bought this new, as I’m not a fan of Lerner, but I’m not a fan of poetry either, so thought this might be interesting. Thirty pages in, I’m on the fence. I’m also reading a novel published in the last few years that’s supposed to be hilarious, with laughs on almost every page, one reviewer suggested. I’m on page 96 and have had four LOLs and one half-smile.

Nicholas Royle is the author of seven novels, including Antwerp (Serpent’s Tail) and First Novel (Vintage), and four short story collections, most recently London Gothic (Confingo Publishing). He translated Vincent de Swarte’s novel Pharricide for Confingo and is series editor of Best British Short Stories for Salt Publishing, who also published his latest book, White Spines: Confessions of a Book Collector. He is Reader in Creative Writing at Manchester Metropolitan University, head judge of the Manchester Fiction Prize and founder-editor of Nightjar Press. You can find him on Twitter or his website.

An Interview with Vanessa Gebbie, Editor of Short Circuit: A Guide to the Art of the Short Story

short circuit

Written by 24 prizewinning writers and teachers of writing, Short Circuit is intensely practical. Each expert discusses necessary craft issues: their own writing processes, sharing tried and tested writing exercises and lists of published work they find inspirational. Endorsed by The National Association of Writers in Education, it became recommended or required reading for Creative Writing courses in the UK and beyond.

I really enjoyed Short Circuit and can, without hesitation, recommend it to short story authors, whether a beginner or experienced. There is something for every level. While I gained great insight into the workings of the short story from each chapter, it would be difficult to look at each chapter and their author in this interview. I will endeavour to focus on the ones which had a particular impact on me and try to raise some key themes from the collection as a whole. Thank you so much, Vanessa, for taking the time to answers these questions. 

My pleasure.  I am so glad you enjoyed the book. 

Short Circuit is a wonderful collection of thoughts and ideas on the short story from a range of practitioners and experts, how did you go about selecting the contributors and themes?

I was very lucky – between 2006 and 2009 I’d met many wonderful short story writers at competition events, festivals, on the circuit –  and it struck me then that many who do well in the good competitions are well published (quality not quantity), and many also happened to be well-regarded teachers of writing. I knew the book I wanted to create – the book I’d have liked myself when I was starting out. I wanted each writer to share what fired them up most, craftwise, processwise. I had no intention of standardising the voice of the book – it was important that each writer should speak to the reader in their own voice, in their own way, after all voice is so important in short stories too.  I approached the writers I wanted, and they all said yes. They suggested the topics in the main, and there was hardly any duplication. If there were any gaps, I filled that when all the others had finished their chapters. 

In the introduction to the book, you share Tania Hershman’s words that the story will linger in your mind for much longer than it took to read it. This is so true of powerful short fiction. How does the impact that a short story makes on the reader’s mind differ from the longer novel or novella form?

Hard to answer that one in general, as it must differ reader to reader – I can only answer for myself. I think the impact of the strong short story for me (and it only applies to a really good one, I hasten to add) is something to do with the intensity of the whole experience. The compression of the form renders it deeply resonant, if I, the reader, am complicit. I have to be open to the experience, or the story will slide past and won’t do its work. Perhaps the power of story in a novel-length piece of work can lose its physical impact – as the reader has such a long time to get used to the whole world, the journey. It would not be possible to sustain the intensity of a great short story in a novel – either for the writer or reader, would it?  People are always seeking analogies for the experience of short story versus novel – the comparisons I’ve seen most often are physical. A brief intense affair versus a long-standing relationship. I’ll ask a question: Which makes the most lasting impression – which would you retain a specific memory of – experiencing a starlit sky for hours, or seeing a single shooting star? Simple, really. Both are lovely. One burns itself deeper onto the memory than the other.

Absolutely. I like the comparison between the starlit sky and a shooting star. Alison Macleod’s chapter on Writing and Risk-Taking encourages writers to take on a little more than they think they can manage artistically. She likens it to driving off-road without a map and suggests writers should never feel sure that they can pull off a short story. I liked this analogy because it is often how you feel when writing a short story, the sense that there are no signposts. How do you handle the risk-taking as you write?

I don’t – I mean, if it is being ‘handled’ then it isn’t risk, really. I think it is that sense of being on the edge, of the possibility of failing badly – which is the spur. Not having signposts is very important – I always wonder how I would write if I knew the story before I started – it’s rather as if I am telling myself the story as I write – if I know it already, why would I bother? I remember feeling ‘this is impossible’ as I was writing ‘Wei Ch’i’ – a very short surreal story in which I was just following an older Japanese man as he returns home at the end of the day to the flat he shares with his wife. He begins to find his wife in pieces, literally in pieces… but it is not horrific at all – rather tender, poignant, matter of fact. Had I stopped because ‘it was impossible’ – a really decent little story would not have arrived. I just had to trust that the story was going somewhere good and arrive there at the same time as the story itself.

Time is a theme which is woven through the book. In your chapter on Leaving the Door Ajar you refer to Dorothea Brande in suggesting that stories are formed in the unconscious mind, and that it is a question of trusting the process. You revisited one of your stories a year later, after a visit to Ireland, and called this a ‘gestation period’ for your story. How important do you think it is to let stories rest a while to enable character to form?

For this writer, it varies story to story, no matter what its length. Sometimes, a story will appear almost fully formed, complete with layers – and others will take a long while. It’s not only a question of character, it’s a question of what the story is really ‘about’ as opposed to the surface events. Perhaps uncomfortable themes take a while to emerge, while easy, uncontentious ones flow in a simpler, faster way. The story which is the subject of my essay in Short Circuit took a while, certainly. Maybe I was avoiding tackling a difficult theme, subconsciously? Who knows. But when I was ready, and it was ready, it came right.

I do know I used to grab hold of a story thought too fast – get it down before I forgot it, or I even shared the idea with another writer – ‘Listen, isn’t this a great idea?’ – and in both instances something was taken away from the work before I let it allowed to develop naturally. Time is probably one of my greatest allies – and at my age, one of my greatest enemies!

Graham Mort discusses the influence of the biblical parables, in terms of their difficult moral codes, and of African stories and oral tradition in his work. He relates the parables to some of the key building blocks in poetry; specifically, metaphor and allegory. How important do you think these influences are on a writer’s ability to develop form in their work, and do you see a link between short stories and poetry?

Well, they were patently very important to Graham in developing his work in all kinds of ways, his development of form being just one. (I know his chapter is about form, but it is so hard to winkle out one element and say what influenced its development to the exclusion of all others, really). For the writer in me,  influences such as the parables are also important and I’m now trying to articulate why. I think its because they are ancient, firstly, and I get a sense of tapping into a stream which underpins the development of the culture in which I exist. Their use of allegory is magical – very potent. Their use of metaphor taught me about metaphor very early on, practically, before it was named for me. Don’t we learn from everything that surrounds us? Surely. 

Do I see a link between short stories and poetry? Yeees, said with all kinds of caveats. It’s trotted out so often, isn’t it – every word counts in both, so there must be a link. Both can be short – therefore there is a link. Hmm. Perhaps the link really lies in the use of metaphor to explore an underlying theme in a short story, and use of metaphor to paint something that might/also means something else, in a poem?  Discuss! 

Great idea. Anyone? Strunk and White’s book, Elements of Style, provides useful advice for writers on grammar and sentence structure. Nuala Ní Chonchúir’s chapter on Language and Style refers to their work and supports the advice on avoiding the elaborate and the pretentious, with the idea of using normal language. She suggests using short, more appropriate wording, according to the piece you are writing. Which books or authors helped you when you began writing?  

I’ve never read Strunk and White, I must admit. Are they right all the time? I think I’d be much too ‘aware’ of what they say is right and wrong when I’m writing, and I don’t want that. I want what is right for the piece of work I’m struggling with at the time – it may well not need grammatically perfect prose (if that’s what they advocate…). For me, the story needs to take over – if it all needs to be  in carefully constructed  perfect prose, then so be it – but if it doesn’t,  and has nevertheless been written to abide by all the so-called ‘rules’,  then the prose might stand in the way of the story. I don’t want that. For example – say a piece is written in first person, and the narrator is a young, hardly-educated lad from the wrong side of town. He wouldn’t use perfect constructs in his speech in truth, and if he did in the story, the vocab and grammar would render the character flawed, for this reader.  

I agree absolutely with the advice not to use pretentious words.  How often do I see new writers littering work with writerly constructs, thinking it makes the piece better – when all it does is wave a flag that says “beginner!”

Short or long sentences? Doesn’t really matter – the word that means the most is ‘appropriate’, in Nuala’s advice. Would your character use this group of words, would she think like this? If she invented a simile, what experience in her own life would she draw on?  How would she phrase it – not you, the writer…?

All writers help me. The poor ones make me want to write more appropriately. The ones who create work that makes me forget I am reading help me to try to reach those heights.  William Golding. W G Sebald. And a hundred others. 

vanessa Vanessa is an award-winning author and a freelance creative writing teacher. Her novel, The Coward’s Tale, was a UK Financial Times Book of the Year and Guardian readers’ book of the year. Her stories have been commissioned by the British Council, BBC Radio 3, BBC Radio 4 and are widely anthologised. She also has two collections: Words from a Glass Bubble and Storm Warning. Vanessa’s debut poetry publication, The Half-life of Fathers, includes a poem which won the 2013 Troubadour International Poetry prize.