Alison Armstrong is a writer of prose and plays. She grew up in Leeds and East Yorkshire and has worked as a cleaner, waitress, painter and teacher, as well as developing her writing career. She won a Northern Writers’ Award for short fiction in 2017, a Literature Matters Award from the Royal Society of Literature in 2020 and a Project Grant from Arts Council England in 2021. Her poems, essays and short stories have been published in magazines and journals. She now makes her home in Lancashire, and Fossils is her first book.
Firsty, please could you tell us a bit about what your debut novel, Fossils, is about, and the process of writing it.
Fossils is about a twelve-year-old girl attempting to make sense of the world and find a place for herself in that world, a sense of belonging and connection. Her existence is quite precarious, and many of the encounters she experiences are random, arbitrary and short-lived, and so she has developed two ways of connecting with the world. One is through telling stories to others and to herself, to order her world and those in it. The other is by connecting to the natural world, learning its stories and the stories of the different species and how to defend them from forces that are indifferent to ecological concerns.
But Fossils is also a story about an unusual friendship and how we relate to each other. I set out to write a frame story which would deal in some way with the extinction crisis and played with various ideas before the character of Sherrie-Lee came along, and once she arrived she pulled the story along in all sorts of directions. It was really quite a different writing experience for me. I am used to working on short stories, which are crafted in a tight, controlled way. Instead, I went with the flow of the novel, to paraphrase Kundera, ‘to listen to the greater wisdom of the novel,’ following where it led. This worked out well because it led to its present structure, which is quite significant in its form, following the specific structure of a consequential plot outcome with the traditional told tale, which is an important element of the novel.
The protagonist Sherrie-Lee is an enormously compelling character who makes me think of the young generation fighting for climate justice, when adults have so far failed. Where did the inspiration for this character come from?
When I first started to work on this novel I wanted to fix it in the messy, incoherent experience of real life, with the social and environmental problems we see every day. I tried out various scenarios before Sherrie-Lee arrived on the scene (her names Sherrie-Lee and Zadie refer to Sheherezade in the original frame story, One Thousand and One Arabian Nights). Once Sherrie-Lee arrived – and she arrived fully fledged in her scruffy grey jacket and unbrushed hair, fluffed up at the back, and her trainer with the hole that was always picking up stray stones – she took over the narrative. She was entirely fictional, but the more I wrote of her character, the more I realised that she reminded me both of a girl I grew up with and another girl I taught when I first started teaching. Each of these girls had difficult home lives and spirited characters, so perhaps on a subconscious level, they are part of the inspiration for Sherrie-Lee. Her sense of humour is characteristic of the community I grew up in, so that came quite naturally. Humour is an important part of her resilience. And she needs it as protection from the indifference of the adult world, whether to people’s welfare or to the state of the world that young people will inherit. It is on my mind increasingly that younger generations are left to take responsibility for the destruction caused by older generations: they are inheriting a planet depleted of nature. So Sherrie-Lee took on that role of trying to galvanise people to protect the environment, and she suffers from the extinction grief of her fellow young people – a kind of existential sorrow that is impossible to solve.
What do you think readers can learn from Sherrie-Lee?
I like to think we can all learn from a character like Sherrie-Lee, from her essential optimism and the practical attitude she has for dealing with what life throws her way. And, in particular, I hope her compassion for people and concern for the environment are characteristics that we can all find a bit more space for. I have grown fond of her, the different way she looks at things and reacts to things, and I find myself thinking, ‘What would Sherrie-Lee think of that?’ I feel that people who live on the margins often have an interesting take on things. Sherrie-Lee is no exception, and I had a lot of sympathy for her insights while writing the book.
What does the title, Fossils, mean to you?
I have always been fascinated by fossils, how these natural forms can persist for millions of years, preserving long-dead life forms, almost like messengers from another time revealing aspects of how the Earth might have been in pre-human epochs. The title Fossils attached itself to the book from very early on, without me really having to work consciously on a title. It seems particularly apt for the story as it is also a metaphor for alienation – fossils having little relation to the world – and a symbol of extinction. These are both major themes of the book.
Many different stories are threaded through this novel: Sherrie-Lee’s own stories, her deceptions, and the lies she has told other people. What role does storytelling play in Sherrie-Lee’s universe, and what role do stories play in our own?
Storytelling is essential in Sherrie-Lee's universe. It's how she makes sense of the world and how she tries to control chaotic elements in her life, as well as how she tries to control other people. Channelling thoughts and feelings through stories is a defence mechanism for her. She reaches for them, in all their manifestations, when things are going wrong, and she tries to reorder her world by ordering narratives and stories. She sees many of the problems around her as consequences of the lack of 'proper' stories. Perhaps she is recognising something in the human condition itself: that human beings are storytelling creatures, and that we live by meanings. Almost everything we encounter is ascribed meaning on some level, and we often do this through the ongoing narratives we construct in our daily lives. We cannot exist without meanings. Stories are connected to this, in the way that all these meanings coexist and come to being in the little narratives we constantly make up.
The tradition of storytelling is a manifestation of this. There is a political function in the way that stories accumulate through connection. People share stories that have the potential to communicate meanings but also to unpack myths (such as origin myths) which generally support the status quo. For instance, fairy stories often operate to deliver self-reliance (both in their narratives and in their function for the reader). This is where we encounter and overcome our fears and demons, where we reach a state of self-possession, ready to take on the world. All cultures have these storytelling traditions.
For Sherrie-Lee, telling stories is one of the fundamental ways she overcomes her sense of alienation. For example, when she learns the stories (habits, particularities) of different birds, she recognises it as 'finding a way in' to connect to the natural world, the first step towards caring about wild things. This represents a general alienation that is part of modern life, and in many ways Fossils is an allegory of alienation and a yearning to connect.
Finally, as a writer from the North, publishing with a northern, independent publisher, what excites you most about being part of this community and the future of northern writing?
I am very pleased about being published by an independent Northern publisher, particularly Saraband, because of the way that they celebrate the landscapes of the North, as well as northern stories. They seek out different perspectives, which is always attractive in a publisher. Independent publishers are more willing to take risks than the bigger publishing houses, and as a result their books are more innovative and diverse. There is a lot of great writing coming from the north, and I am always excited about work with a northern flavour – writing that champions northern stories and histories and places. It feels good to be part of a community of northern writers and see what is coming out of the North. I am particularly looking forward to Adam Farrer’s Cold Fish Soup, (also from Saraband), written about Withernsea in East Yorkshire where I grew up.
Thank you to Alison for this fascinating Q&A. You can buy Fossils here.