The evening started off with Ali (below right) in conversation with bookshop owner Mark, and he also read from the book and answered questions before signing and chatting with everyone.
Mark started by introducing Ali and his books and they talked briefly about his change of publisher (he’s now with Bloomsbury), and the gorgeous cover of the new book.
In common with all of Shaw’s work, The Trees is a kind of grown-up fairy-tale including some magical elements. It explores what happens when overnight, a forest grows, covering the entire world – no explanations – one moment life is normal, in the next, the trees have thrust up through anything that gets in their way, it’s not pretty! The tale is mostly told through the eyes of Adrien, ‘a perpetual man of crisis’ as Ali described him, and the other folk he teams up with in the new dark ages.
Ali was writing The Trees during the local floods a few years ago. Although living very close, he was lucky but realised how easily life can be torn during such events. We think of nature far too benignly, “our sense of nature as a restorative thing comes from a privileged viewpoint,” he said, whereas in reality the flood water was filthy. Adrien, whom Ali admitted was perhaps 50% based on an exaggerated version of himself, is totally “disconnected from his environment, he doesn’t like nature or modernity.” In contrast, Hannah, the woman he teams up with to travel westwards towards her brother and Adrien’s wife, is his complete counterpoint – a nature-lover – but a woman who ‘cherry-picks from the natural world’, so equally blinkered in a way.
Ali explained how his forest grew out of the dark European forests of the Brothers Grimm and medieval romances – the sort of place you could go into and when you come out find a 100 years have passed! With the forest come a whole host of magical creatures, including the leafy, twiggy little ‘whisperers’ which are a “personification of nature as inhuman, indifferent”.
Ali told us how he kept everything anonymous in the book; Adrien’s town is somewhere in the Midlands. Having a set piece like a vision of the Houses of Parliament uprooted by trees would be just too much, he didn’t want that, so there are no recognisable landmarks. Along the way, Adrien, Hannah and her son Seb will meet lots of different people who will test them in various ways allowing them to transform themselves in the process of overcoming all the obstacles set in their paths. (In this way, The Trees is a little like Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant.)
The floor was turned over to the audience and I asked a question about his vision of nature as genderless – there is no nurturing ‘Mother nature’ in this book, but plenty of elemental force. The final question was ‘What next?’ Ali replied cryptically – his fourth novel is nearly there now – “It’s about paper, and it’s magical,” he said.
Whether you’ve read his books or not, Ali is an incredibly natural speaker. It was fascinating to hear his views on the power of nature, the rules of magic and the myriad of influences on his work. If you get a chance to hear him, do go, and read his books – they’re brilliant!
Source: Publisher – Thank you!
Ali Shaw, The Trees (Bloomsbury, March 2016) Hardback, 496 pages.
Read my Shiny Review of The Trees here.