Aliya is a firm favourite here at BtGS headquarters. We recorded a wonderful episode about layers and landscapes in her writing and now we’re delighted to have her back to introduce her recently-published novel Greensmith to you all.
Greensmith follows the decisions of Penelope Greensmith, a custodian of a remarkable seed bank who is whisked off on an adventure by the mysterious Horticulturalist. Is her character a nod to the mythological figure of Penelope, wife of Odysseus, who – this time – gets to travel on her own vast journey, away from home and hearth? (Although, of course, it’s never quite that simple…)
There are so many nods to so many things in Greensmith that I’m interested to see what connections readers make! The way we interpret events to fit patterns that we find in stories we know well is a huge part of the book. And there are strange, coincidental crossovers as well, so I can say that my Penelope (Greensmith) isn’t named after the wife of Odysseus, but it does work well as another connection. So I’m going to enjoy that coincidence without taking credit for it.
Your previous novel, The Beauty, focused on fungi in a devastatingly original way. This month you also have a non-fiction book out on the subject, The Secret Life of Fungi. Where or how did your fascination with these strange organisms begin?
I can remember being at school and the teacher bringing in an enormous mushroom to show us. I think it was a field mushroom. I said it couldn’t possibly be a mushroom – surely there was a different word for this dinner plate of a fungus? It was nothing like the little buttons in the fridge. I had an argument with my friend about it, and we didn’t speak for a few days about it. After that I started looking at the ground every time we went out for a walk, and searching for words for the things that sprang up there. Really it’s a love of words, the limits of description that I reach when I look at fungus, at its heart, I think. That applies to plants, too, and Greensmith is all about that – the expansive possibilities of the words tied to the organic.
Greensmith has themes of growing, unfurling, dying, the power of a tiny seed among the vastness of the cosmos… What was the original kernel for the novel, even if the finished book grew in a different direction?
Quite often my stories spring from writing exercises I’ve set myself and this one was an attempt to go from a very small story to an enormous one, a cosmic one, without losing both the importance and the ultimate irrelevance of the protagonist. It couldn’t be one of those stories in which the hero turns out to be a saviour of the universe, in a conventional way. What, then, makes them important on a grand scale, against a backdrop of stars and planets and billions of souls?
Why are we both big and small at the same time? I searched for the answer to that question by writing Greensmith.
Can you tell us a little about what you’re working on next, or what themes you feel yourself drawn to?
I’m a bit plant-exhausted! And fungi, too, for that matter. And writing-exhausted, to be honest. I haven’t really written since Covid came along. I realized recently my last two novels both contained viruses, which put me off a bit. I’ve been trying to articulate issues that are only getting more and more urgent. I suppose I’m casting around for new things to say, or new ways to say it. It’ll take a while to find that, maybe.
Pitch us Greensmith! Why should we be reading it?
I’d be delighted to! I’m very proud of this one, perhaps because it was so difficult to write.
Greensmith is about a middle-aged woman who collects seeds and ends up travelling very far outside of her comfort zone to stop a universe-killing virus. It’s about how everything on the outside depends on how you feel on the inside, and it’s about the way that words can bridge the gap between the two. It’s also about plants and planets, and how love binds them together. That, and orange string.
It’ll make you laugh, for unexpected reasons. I think we could all use a good laugh.
Greensmith is out now from Unsung Stories.
Aliya Whiteley writes across many different genres and lengths. Her first published full-length novels, Three Things About Me and Light Reading, were comic crime adventures. Her 2014 SF-horror novella The Beauty was shortlisted for the James Tiptree and Shirley Jackson awards. The following historical-SF novella, The Arrival of Missives, was a finalist for the Campbell Memorial Award, and her noir novel The Loosening Skin was shortlisted for the Arthur C Clarke Award.
She has written over one hundred published short stories that have appeared in Interzone, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Black Static, Strange Horizons, The Dark, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency and The Guardian, as well as in anthologies such as Unsung Stories’ 2084 and Lonely Planet’s Better than Fiction.
She also writes a regular non-fiction column for Interzone.