Man Booker Prize-nominated author’s new collection reveals her preoccupation with Brighton and Charleston. 

"IT SOUNDS a bit naff to say Charleston is a spiritual destination for me” says Alison MacLeod of the former base of the Bloomsbury Group. “But it’s certainly a very special place, and anybody who is special in my life has visited it with me. I love to imagine those intellectual and artistic lives floating around.”

That last line is pertinent to the Canadian-born author’s new series of short stories, which culminates in a Charleston-based tale called All The Beloved Ghosts (also the title of the collection). Its narrative is told from the perspective of Angelica Garnett, the daughter of two towering figures in British art – Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant. A writer and painter herself, Garnett was born and grew up on the Charleston farmhouse. MacLeod’s story concerns itself with Garnett’s sometimes conflicted relationship with her childhood home; as the author says, “it must be strange to have tents and festivals in the grounds in which you grew up in”.

She is referring to Charleston Festival and Small Wonder, the two high-profile cultural events that occur every year. Garnett has been interviewed a few times there about her own work and, inevitably, the experience of living within such a famous artistic set. MacLeod was present on these occasions, furiously scribbling down Garnett’s answers like a true journalist (her parents were reporters in Canada). These interviews are at the core of All the Beloved Ghosts.

Without giving the emotional denouement of the story away, the tale sees Garnett “come to terms with the gift of the past and acknowledged the great privilege of what she had”, in MacLeod’s words. “From reading her memoirs and hearing her talk, I was aware of this tension in her memoir of being around all these remarkable figures but also the damage that having a very free childhood seemed to bring about.”

When Garnett was interviewed once, she was accidentally called a “museum” rather than a musician – a fitting slip of the tongue that Garnett saw the funny side of. While MacLeod’s fascination with Charleston existed even before she moved to Brighton in 2000 (from Chichester, where she still teaches contemporary fiction at the university), hence her desire to explore its legacy in fiction, All the Beloved Ghosts was actually informed by an incident involving the author’s father during his battle with alzheimer’s.

“Having been a highly articulate man he could no longer string a sentence together,” says MacLeod. “One day I was walking with him and suddenly he said, with a clarity he hadn’t had for years, ‘I saw my father standing over there yesterday’. He died two months later. I knew that would be too personal for me to write about, but when I saw Angelic Garnett speak I realised I could work it into her story”.

Indeed there is a moment in All the Beloved Ghosts where Garnett sees her mother Vanessa on the Charleston premises. It’s a poignant moment to read without the knowledge MacLeod’s context, let alone with it. The writer’s emotional scope and range is apparent throughout the collection, whether she’s focusing on the vivid story of a grieving great aunt (The Thaw), the 2011 London riots (Solo, A Cappella) or three “reluctant jihadists” on a daytrip to Brighton (In Praise of Radical Fish – more on that later).

It is no surprise to hear that MacLeod casts the net wide in her thematic matter. “I’m interested in living, ageing, love and death – all the profound things that preoccupy us throughout life.” Some of her stories are autobiographical, albeit with a hint of creative licence. Does she, or did she ever, have any reservations about giving elements of her life away for the cause of fiction?

“I used to be more private but I don’t mind being personal now because I think we all have life stories,” she replies. “They’re just stories. I’m less guarded than I was once but I’m still a fairly private person. My work is very close to the actual, but when there are gaps it allows you to imagine, I’m never slavish to fact – the art comes first.”

MacLeod grew up “surrounded by news” due to her parents’ profession and she has carried this interest with her throughout her life. In some places news drives her work, such as her tale of the London riots. She wasn’t the only person glued to the television on that lurid night in 2011, but she was one of the few that were inspired to turn the unfolding events into art. Solo, A Cappella, is told through the eyes of a teenage British-African couple. As word of the ensuing conflict buzzes around on Blackberries (which in itself dates the story, bizarrely), the two youngsters find themselves at the centre of it.

“I spent weeks with hundreds of pages of first-hand transcripts of accounts from that night,” says the author. “In general I do a lot of research, but above that I’m interested in what reality actually is to different people.” Then there’s The Thaw, another story with a powerful conclusion. This is narrated from MacLeod herself, pretty much, going on what she discovered about her great aunt through scrapbooks and family knowledge.

One Sunday evening her father was sitting “pensively with a glass of whisky” when he suddenly mentioned his aunt who MacLeod had no idea had ever existed. “It was bizarre to suddenly discover this person who had been covered over by history and by her family.” Again, fact meets fiction in the story. MacLeod consciously plays up to the impossibility of an entirely truthful account in her first line of the collection: “Wisdom after the event is cheap” – a line taken from a newspaper report in the Nova Scotia newspaper. MacLeod’s family hail from this Canadian Maritime province, and the author says it shares qualities with Brighton. “Both places are very creative and relaxed.

“They’re by the sea, university cities and have an alternative edge.” It’s no wonder she sees Brighton as an “adopted home”. The city is host to one of the most bizarre stories in All the Beloved Ghosts. three young men travel to Brighton to test their commitment to the jihadi cause: “It is not easy to become radicalised in a seaside report” as one of the men says.

As MacLeod suggests, the mere thought of jihadists playing the attractions on the pier or visiting the Sea Life Centre. Her motivation In Praise of Radical Fish came from the four Brighton boys who went to Syria and a radical Islamist militia. “Like everyone I was horrified when I heard the news,” says MacLeod. “I wondered how they grew up in such an easygoing place as Brighton and made that choice. In my story, I wanted Brighton to be that absurd and joyous thing that made them think about that decision.”

Like her modernist inspirations, MacLeod is keen to avoid “massive revelations” in her work, instead focusing on the beauty of the everyday. In Praise of Radical Fish features a “rare and meaningful moment” but, true to her sensibility, it arrives in an unexpected place. If there’s anything that ties MacLeod’s diverse work together, it is, without wanting to sound too broad, the weirdness and wonder of human existence.

“I suppose I’m trying to get across that life is mysterious and strange,” she says.“Sometimes even too strange for words.”

Events with Alison MacLeod

Bishop Otter Campus, College Lane, University of Chichester, Tuesday, March 28, 6.30pm, 01243 816000

MacLeod hosts a celebration of the short story form and launches All the Beloved Ghosts at the university she teaches at. Joining her at the event will be fellow writers Dr Katherine Orr, Melanie Whipman, and Zoe Gilbert – all postgraduates of the university – and winners of a range of prestigious literary prizes.

The celebration, which is free for the public as well as university students and staff, is to be chaired by senior lecturer Karen Stevens of the Department of English and Creative Writing where all the writers have either worked or studied. MacLeod said: “My aim is to create an event which throws a spotlight on the short story and on the amazing writing that is pouring from staff and students at Chichester. For me, short fiction is a voice in our ear. It’s intimate. A private world. It’s also a world on a cusp.”

“Stories might be grim or poignant, lyrical or hilarious, but the good ones always leave me changed. The making of a short story is incredibly intimate, frustrating and, at times, joyful. You can look at your story, test every seam of its world, and see that you’ve made a beautiful thing.”

The book is MacLeod’s second short story collection and follows hard on the heels of the novel Unexploded, by Hamish Hamilton, which was long-listed for the 2013 Man Booker Prize for Fiction.

The Gluck Studio, Steyning, Thursday, March 30, 7.30pm, info@

MacLeod will be interviewed by author Zoe Gilbert, the winner of the 2014 Costa Short Story Award. Tickets include a glass of wine and a £5 voucher off a copy of All the Beloved Ghosts.

Waterstones, Brighton, Tuesday, April 25, 7.30pm, 01273 206017

MacLeod is in conversation with Sarah Hutchings, artistic director of City Reads and director of Collected Works.