What's in a Page: Ailsa McFarlane on the charged moments of her debut Highway Blue
The road trip novel is a literary trope as old as time, but you've never read a road trip novel like Ailsa McFarlane's Highway Blue. The conceit is also one the author knows personally: She left school to drive around both the United States and Europe. Her roadside inspiration became her debut novel, which follows a formerly-married couple as they escape a violent accident in a beat-up car. Here, she details how she came into her craft and her favorite moments of Highway Blue.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What is the first thing — ever — that you remember writing?
AILSA MCFARLANE: Some time ago, when I was clearing out a box of old things at my parents' home in North Wales, I found a green school notebook containing a story I had written when I was about 7 years old. It was about a Viking longship whose crew were in the process of being battered by a brutal storm at sea, at which point a luminous blue ghost dog with flaming eyes appeared on the deck to lead them to safety. This was accompanied by some frenzied full-page crayon illustrations of fire and boats and things, and a few teachers' notes in red pen in the margin, somewhat hesitant in tone — what an interesting imagination you have, Ailsa….
I think it got a B+.
What is the last book that made you cry?
Ceremony by Leslie Marmon Silko. The novel follows the experiences of Tayo, a half-Pueblo-heritage, half-white man, as he returns from World War II, suffering from what would today be recognized as PTSD. It's so beautifully written throughout, especially when handling Tayo's experiences as a mixed-race Pueblo man. For me the Pueblo mythologies that weave in and out of the narrative are so delicate, and so powerful, always heart-wrenchingly placed.
Which book is at the top of your current To-Read list?
Perfume, by Patrick Suskind. It's been sitting on my shelf for a while now, and I can't wait to get into it. Suskind's writing is stylistically very different from the kind of prose I would normally gravitate towards, which is another draw for me at the moment. I've read the first chapter or two, and I'm already hooked on the lush, fleshy, skin-crawling imagery that permeates the novel. Scent, and our perception of it, is also such an interesting concept to be digging into, so I'm looking forward to seeing where that goes. I think it's going to be a very interesting deviation from my normal reading fare, and I can't wait.
Where do you write?
Sitting at the kitchen table with a cup of coffee, usually at night. I do find it much easier to write when it's dark, although maybe at this point that's just through habit because I used to write into the early hours of the morning after getting home from work or whatever else I had to do during the day.
Having said that, I do genuinely find it difficult to write during daylight hours when there are external distractions, like birdsong and the sound of building works and people coming and going and my dog barking obsessively at the neighbors. When I'm writing, I like to be completely immersed in it and I just find that much easier to do in the dark. And I like the idea of being alone; the idea that the people in the buildings and streets around me are asleep.
Which book made you a forever reader?
I couldn't choose only one book for this, but there are a few writers whose work has impacted and influenced me since the first time I encountered them. Jean Rhys is one of them. I first came into contact with her work in the form of Tigers Are Better Looking, a collection of her short stories, which I read as a teenager. At the time, I had never come across that kind of female voice writing in that way before, so acerbic and funny and sad. And I loved her clean, nuanced prose.
Another writer whose work I can return to again and again is Kurt Vonnegut. I first read Galapagos when I was about 15, and fell in love with the pitch-dark humor and the brutally crisp prose, and the mishmash of scraps of ideas and sly punchlines and sketchy little sections. I went away and spent most of the next year reading anything of Vonnegut's that I could get my hands on.
And last, my favorite — Hunter Thompson. Everything about the way he writes makes me want to write myself, more prolifically and better and cleaner yet with more roughness, with those carefully cultivated harsh edges that he gets so right. Nothing with him is overwritten, nothing is over-floral, everything is spare, wry, punchy.
Those three are writers whose work I can always come back to, writers who made me want to write something myself, to make something like they did. I have loved their work for many years and will continue to do so.
What is a snack you couldn't write without?
I'm not much of a snacker when I write because I tend to find it a little distracting.
But I do feel like I need coffee. In general, I try to stay away from cultivating habits on which I depend to write, but there are a few small routines that I think it's good to stick to, and for me coffee is one of them; get myself a little cup of coffee, black with a bit of sugar, and listen to a bit of an album, and then switch off the music and anything else that's happening and type until eventually something that I like comes out.
If you could change one thing about any of your books what would it be?
I'm a perfectionist when it comes to my own work, and never feel completely finished with any of my writing. And I like sparse prose that doesn't tell people that two and two is four, so for me the temptation is always to try to trim down, trim down. I am terrible at knowing when is the right time to sit back from something and let it go out to be seen by other people.
There's also a certain type of imperfection that I love. Unevenness or syncopation within a piece of prose or a work of art or a piece of music are, for me, what bring that thing closer to the real rhythms of a person's mind. I enjoy cultivating a raggedness, a rawness in what I do — I don't think in perfectly curated sentences, or in very explicit sentences, so to me it seems counterintuitive to attempt to write in that way. I would like my writing to be as close as it possibly can to the rhythms of my own thoughts — to get as close as possible to cutting out the "middle man" of the actual medium of the book itself.
So I wouldn't change anything about Highway Blue — and as for what I'm working on at the moment, I change and cut it down daily, and will keep doing that until I'm approaching feeling satisfied with it.
What is your favorite part of Highway Blue?
I loved writing one very specific section towards the end of Highway Blue — I won't go too far into it to avoid too many spoilers for the ending, but there's a section where the protagonist is walking down a street at night and there's a very murky, fatigued feel to it, but also the hint of possibility. I found that very interesting to write.
In general, I loved writing the landscapes of the novel, trying to get a very saturated, fever-dream feel to them. It was really important to me to achieve that dreamlike, hallucinatory feel to the book, for the characters to move through this landscape that felt surreal and changeable and unreliable.
What was the hardest plot point or character to write?
There were several moments between Anne Marie and Cal that I felt like I had to get right because in so many places, the temptation was to have them be more frank with each other, when in reality people so seldom get to be that way. It was important to me that they talk to each other as people really do, and not as my idea of people talking to each other would go, so I ran through their dialogue and interactions with each other over and over. I also wanted a few moments of cutting honesty between them when they are too tired to play games with each other any more, so for me those points felt like they had to be handled carefully. But they're also the parts that I love to write, those charged moments between people with things unsaid or half-said.
Write a movie poster tag line:
'In front of me the long length of the road wound out and wound on under hot sky…'
That's a little paraphrased line from the book, but I feel like it could work on a poster.