Interview with Ali Shaw
The Girl with Glass Feet is a wonderfully inventive, magical novel. What was the inspiration behind it?
My writing almost always begins with an image, which normally just arrives in my head unprompted. I remember being on an escalator in a railway station when I suddenly saw in my mind a girl with feet made of glass. I couldn’t tell you whether something prompted it – the image is the most vivid thing I can remember about that railway station. I got home and started exploring it, asking what kind of person had feet made of glass, and how on earth would she cope? And I loved the idea that she hadn’t always had feet of glass, but that slowly they had transformed into it. Which of course meant the rest of her body was in danger of turning into glass as well. Coupled with this, I had the idea for another character I wanted to write about. Midas Crook, a man so over-sensitive and unsure of himself that he needed to filter the experiences of his life through a camera. Photography would be his way of putting distance between himself and the rest of the world. He would take more pleasure in reflecting on photographs than he would in actually living day-by-day.
You worked as a bookseller in Oxford for several years. What was that experience like?
I worked as a bookseller at Blackwell Broad Street, a bookshop in Oxford that’s been running since 1879. I was writing the novel during that time, and when the UK edition of The Girl with Glass Feet was released, in May of this year, I went into the shop and had the privilege of seeing the finished novel on sale. It was amazing to think that inside that book were words I had written on my lunch break in that very shop.
One of the perks of bookselling is being able to access so easily books that you love. Among the ones I read or revisited at that time were the works of authors like Borges and Kafka, as well as the original fairytales of Hans Christian Anderson and the Brothers Grimm. These latter in particular had a great influence as I developed the setting for The Girl with Glass Feet.
Tell us more about those favorite books.
My favourite fairy story is called "Hans My Hedgehog," one of the ones collected by the Brothers Grimm. It’s about a boy who’s born half-man, half-hedgehog and the story is full of all the elements of fairy tales that I love: strange non-existent animals, magical transformations and endless woodland. I also love Hans Christian Anderson’s The Little Mermaid, which is painfully sad and beautiful in its original form.
These sorts of stories have had an obvious influence on The Girl with Glass Feet, but it’s not always the writing that is obviously similar that influences you as a writer. A lot of my favourite books are nothing like the one I’ve written. If I could only keep one book from all the ones I’ve read, it would be a little volume of poetry which constitutes the complete works of Keith Douglas, a Second World War poet who took part in the D-Day landings but died soon after in France, aged only twenty four. His work is less about war and more about trying to stay human – stay in love – as you experience it. At the time of his death he was writing some of the most moving and elegantly constructed stuff I’ve ever read. I’m a massive fan.
Have you always wanted to be a writer?
I used to want to be a painter when I was a kid, but I always found myself better suited to small drawings in pencil. Sketching is now a useful counterpart to my writing. The sketches aren’t illustrations of the stuff I’m writing - often they’re completely unrelated or unfinished - but the two things seem to find a natural overlap. The moth-winged bulls in The Girl with Glass Feet, for example, were something I thought I’d invented when I first wrote about them, but going back through an old sketchbook I found a picture I’d drawn of one a year or two before.
What do you hope people take away from your novel?
The Girl with Glass Feet takes place on a tiny chain of islands in the grip of winter, with seas surrounding them and strange wildlife inhabiting their woods. There are a good many cold, brittle and unfeeling things sharing this world with the two main characters. Set against this, when their romance kindles, it feels like something small and warm and worth protecting, but also something that could be snuffed out with ease. I think those early, tentative steps of a romance can feel like that, and this book is about hanging on to that little bit of love no matter how hard it seems. I hope readers will see that in this novel.