Writers Chat 53: Lia Mills on “Another Alice” (Arlen Classic Literature, Dublin: 2022)

Lia, You are very welcome to my Writers Chat series and I’m delighted to be talking to you about your novel Another Alice first published by Poolbeg in 1996, and reissued this year (2022) as part of the Arlen House Classic Literature Series. I spent much of the early to mid 1990s outside of Ireland so missed out on this important and impactful novel when it was first published.

Cover of Another Alice by Lia Mills (title in yellow font, author name in white font): showing a dark leafless tree against a contrasting background of green, on a shadow of a hill with the figure of a child in black silhouette in the foreground. Image is art by Carmel Benson.

SG: Let’s begin with the beautiful cover (by Carmel Benson) which captures both a loneliness and melancholy that is echoed in how Alice experiences life (internally and externally) in Another Alice. Did you have an input into the cover image and how does this new edition speak to the Ireland of 2022 just as the cover of 1996 spoke to Ireland then?

LM: I chose that image! Carmel is a friend, I love her work and this print has hung in our kitchen for years. I was very happy that she gave me permission to use it. And I have to say, Arlen House do beautiful covers. Alan Hayes, the publisher, is exceptional in the level of choice he gives to writers with regard to covers and the results work very well.

As for the 1996 cover, I’ve always disliked it. The woman whose face is depicted on the cover wears frosted lipstick. Alice is not a frosted lipstick kind of person.

SG: I love how Arlen House covers often use contemporary art to grace their covers. With regards the original, I’d agree with you about the lipstick but I do like the sea-scape as this speaks to Alice’s relationship with the coast. So, you’ve outlined in your interview with Catherine Dunne why Another Alice is being issued now – especially in relation to the central theme of gender-based violence and how Alice’s story is still relevant to today’s Ireland. I liked how you expressed that learning to see is what the novel is about. So just as

She practised forgetting what she knew, because if she didn’t know, she couldn’t tell

then as the story evolves, Alice unlearns all these practices.

Could you talk a little about how this forms the arc for Alice as a character – learning to see into herself and know that beyond the stories she has told herself, and those told about her, is where the real Alice lies?

LM: I should say at the outset thatmost of my understanding of how (I think) Another Alice works has come to me since I wrote the novel. The actual process of writing it was a long process of trial and error and feeling my way through a very murky series of confusions and reluctance.

As I mentioned in that interview with Catherine, Alice has never been able to claim childhood experiences as hers because they have been denied by everyone around her, renamed even as they happen, while she is blamed for any damage, any harm that comes to her. This is apparent to a reader from early on in the novel but it’s not clear whether Alice herself is aware of it. Later on, however, a different narrative voice surfaces, describing and expressing the process of splitting, which was Alice’s defence mechanism as a child. This new voice tells us what happened and how Alice escaped what happened. If she wants to be a fully autonomous (literally a self-naming) person, the adult woman has to rediscover, recognise and reclaim the lost parts of herself revealed by that voice and learn to trust her own perceptions. She needs to remember herself, as in: putting a shattered self back together, and become a conscious individual.

What’s important to Alice as Holly’s mother (as opposed to as an individual person) is that she learns to recognise the ways in which she was shut down when she was a child. She sees the patterns in her own reactions to Holly when she does things she regrets, and slowly learns to correct those urges to protect herself at Holly’s expense.  So, she becomes both a more integrated person, which is to her own benefit, and a better, stronger mother for Holly.

SG: You really showed this process of Alice’s change really well – as a reader it felt like I was experiencing what she was going through! Another element that made for a very emotional read was the tone in which much of the story is told.

We meet Alice through an omniscient third-person narrator and we’re told a version of her early life but beneath this is an underlying tone that both propels us to read on with a sort of subliminal knowledge of what may happen, that is felt more than known. This seems to echo Alice’s own first person voice and makes, at times, for an uncomfortable read, I think because Alice is so disassociated from her body and memory. Was this intentional or did it emerge instinctively through the writing?

LM: It took time for me to find the right voices for this story. The key, really was finding a way to write it where the reader would recognise the dysfunction in Alice’s world while also leaving room for potential ambiguity. I was interested in the mechanisms of denial, and there are scenes where I wanted to show incidents that many people might be happy to shrug off or overlook, but in the context of Alice’s overall story and the power relations within her family, it becomes clear (I hope) how destructive they are. For example, we’ve all seen – and some people may have experienced – a child being tickled when they don’t want it, begging for mercy. As the younger Alice tells it, that experience is clearly abusive. The issues here are about power (psychological and physical), consent, relative strength. As so many abusive situations are. I have to tell you that when a friend of mine read the novel back in the 1990s, she told me the character she identified with the most was Alice’s mother. Which is a whole other conversation.

In retrospect the use of a third-person, past tense narrative voice for the main story was a fairly straightforward decision but this was my first novel and I tried it in different ways.  Having decided on that, I still had to learn how to tell the story without killing it with detail. And all the time, I was being pulled into this other voice, first person, present tense, chaotic and emotional. It seems obvious now, but it took me a while to recognise that I had to make room in the narrative for that voice – and she solved a lot of problems for me when I just decided to let her get on with it.

SG: Voice is also so central to a novel, and I think using these voices, you’ve captured the power/consent/strength issues in a very subtle and unsettling way. And on Alice’s mother, well, that is another conversation as there was the definite impression of a whole backstory to her behaviour and denial.

I really enjoyed the movement – and change – in Alice’s friendships, in particular Nell, but also Kate. You show these women’s growth and struggles in terms of conformity, societal expectations and emergent motherhood. And the thing is that those challenges are still faced by women in Ireland today. There is no “dating” these themes, despite the theoretical changes in this country. Could you comment on this?

LM: I don’t think the core experiences of human life change very much over time. Becoming a mother is a prime example. It’s such a seismic shift in perspective and awareness, and so many of us are utterly unprepared for it – I know I was. Everyone’s circumstances are different, so we each have our own adjustments and negotiations to navigate, each within our own lives and whatever context we find ourselves in. It’s the contexts (social, physical, financial, historical cultural) that change and obviously they affect the nature of the emotional and physiological experience. It’s a rich seam, for fiction, because we can all find elements we recognise in a fictional mother’s story at the same time as we see issues that are foreign to us. So there’s a balance of recognition and surprise that allows us to empathise while also wondering what we might do or feel in similar circumstances.

Friendship is friendship. It’s such an immense part of our lives and I don’t think it gets enough attention in fiction. Over a lifetime our relationships with friends change, we can get closer and more distant and then closer again, we might have dramatic break-ups, reconciliations, reunion after long separations … it’s a fascinating dynamic, every bit as interesting as other relationships, with a whole spectrum of emotions running through it.

SG: I love how you express that – “a rich seam for fiction”. It was emotional seeing Alice as a young mother struggling with her own self (literally), what it means to be a mother, and how to be with her daughter, Holly. “She watched herself mothering…” I cried at two scenes – the one with car – and the one where she slaps Holly. Both of these acts – rooted in a desperation to control – end up as acts as freedom because Alice is able to name what she has done and acknowledge this anger. They also echo some of the disconnection that Alice felt with her own mother, for example, when Elaine breaks down, “She watched herself watch her mother crying at the kitchen table.” These were incredible scenes and opposite to the oppressive and stifling scenes of her younger self. I’d imagine these parts of the narrative were difficult decisions to make a writer – which way does Alice go? – and also tricky to write?

LM: These were tricky scenes to write, yes, because I think our instincts drive us to protect our characters and sometimes we just have to put them in danger, or make them do things we’d rather they wouldn’t do. But isn’t that the whole point of writing? To explore the more painful, difficult truths of human experience. If all our characters stayed on the straight and narrow path all the time and made all the right choices, there’d be no story.

Who was it who said that ‘writers write what other people think/know but can’t say’? In this novel, Alice is in trouble not just because of her childhood but because she is out of control in many ways. There’s no point in pretending that she never does anything wrong, or that she’s somehow not responsible for what she does (which is actually what her denials are all about: transferring blame to Holly, as her parents transferred blame to her). Her task is to learn how to understand and correct the mistakes she makes. Like life, for all of us. Like writing. As Beckett has it: Failing, then failing better.

SG: You’ve expressed the point of writing so succinctly, Lia “to explore more painful, difficult truths of human experience.”

LM: Of course, writing is about imagining and expressing other things too: beauty, hope, alternative worlds … yet another conversation!

SG: Yes, of course, writing is also about re-imagining…So let’s finish up with some light-hearted questions:

  • Tea or Coffee? I’m a Libran – it depends what time of day, what mood I’m in. Coffee usually comes first, tea later
  • Music or silence when writing? Silence
  • Cats or dogs? Both!
  • Sea or Mountains? Sea
  • What are the next three books on your reading pile? Thin Places by Kerri Ní Dochartaigh; Susan McKay’s Northern Protestants: An Unsettled People; and Walk Through Walls: A Memoir by Marina Abramovic.

SG: Oh you’ll love Thin Places and I have McKay’s on my tbr pile. I must look up Abramovic. Thanks for the recommendations. Thanks, Lia for such open, generous answers. I wish you many new and re-readers of Another Alice.

Follow Lia on her blog

Buy Another Alice here

One thought on “Writers Chat 53: Lia Mills on “Another Alice” (Arlen Classic Literature, Dublin: 2022)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s