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Author Alison MacLeod Tries To Find Humor In Terrorism


OK, file this one under impossible assignments - write a really funny, like laugh-out-loud funny, short story about jihad. Yeah, terrorism and humor are uneasy bedfellows, to put it mildly. But the author Alison MacLeod takes on the challenge. One story in her new collection of short stories imagines three young men who head to Brighton Beach in England for - wait for it - a pre-jihad team building weekend.

ALISON MACLEOD: (Reading) Brothers, I tell you solemnly, it is not easy to become radicalized in a seaside resort. There are distractions. There are deck chairs. There is all that soft watery light. What can a brother do, but hope that the flame of his anger survives the refreshing sea breeze?

KELLY: Alison MacLeod reading from her new collection. It's titled "All The Beloved Ghosts." She says she got the idea for this short story reading about real life brothers who grew up in Brighton and went to fight in Syria.

MACLEOD: A place like Brighton is a seaside resort. It's a place of pleasure. It's a place of, you know, fun. It's where people come for their beach holidays and so on. And to try to imagine that strange combination of seaside pleasure and the idea of a kind of jihad, that became a puzzle and a mystery and something that was a little bit surreal that I really wanted to explore.

KELLY: And it struck me that one of the aspects of that puzzle you were trying to explore is your three boys - your three characters in this story are not entirely decided that jihad is going to be the way to go for them, and you have a little bit of fun playing with the temptations that any teenage boy might feel on the beach in Brighton.

MACLEOD: Yeah, exactly, because there is the absolute absurdity of being next to, you know, a pleasure pier or next to a carousel and talking about holy war. So humor is as good a way as any, I think, at getting the truth of who we are.

KELLY: Have you gotten pushback on this story from people who say, look, terrorism isn't funny? We shouldn't ever make it funny.

MACLEOD: Yeah. You know, and on that score, I'm entirely agreed. And I think these three lads are not so much contemplating terrorism. They're contemplating, you know, going in and, you know, digging bodies out of rubble and helping civilians.

However, that said, you know, I'm not Muslim. I grew up Catholic. There is always the question of what allows one to write a certain story when one is stepping outside of one's own biography.

KELLY: Well, exactly, exactly. Did you do special research in this case?

MACLEOD: I did. I gathered in all sorts of newspaper pieces, first-person accounts, interviews off the BBC and beyond and listened and listened and read and distilled down until I felt I was getting at something that wasn't to do with me, really, because it isn't do with me. And I think as when you're writing well, you become quite invisible in many cases, and that's certainly the priority in this kind of a story.

KELLY: I want to ask you about one of the other stories because so many of the stories in this collection seem to blur the line between fact and fiction. There's one about a professor, a cardiac specialist. And the story is told that he's lying on the operating table awaiting a heart transplant. The professor's name is Denis Noble. And then I noticed in your acknowledgments, you thanked your friend, Professor Denis Noble.

MACLEOD: Yes, yes. Most of the story stems from actual events. I was commissioned to write a story about his great breakthrough about the electrical dynamics within the heart. When I met Dennis, he had just had minor surgery, and he was getting his blood count up again. And we went for lunch, and he was having a big roast beef dinner and explained to me he didn't usually do that.

And because I knew I was interested already in, I suppose, the mysteries of the heart - and that's what that story is about - the mysteries of the heart. And so I took great liberties. The love relationship, for example, which he...

KELLY: Just to share with people, though, as he's lying - the fictional character is lying on the operating table waiting for his heart operation. He's remembering beautiful love scenes with a lover from 50 years ago.

MACLEOD: That's right. And funnily enough that felt like a greater gamble or greater possible imposition or intrusion than the heart operation did. And yet, I needed intimacy. I suppose I always look for that in every one of my stories. You know, the short story more than, perhaps, any other form is about what lies buried in the heart.

KELLY: I wonder if your friends are a bit wary now of sharing their stories with you (laughter).

MACLEOD: I know. Well, there is that. There is that. Although, in some ways, I wish I was the kind of writer who just didn't care and could be quite brazen about it. And I don't always say this in interviews, but every one of the stories in this collection is based on very much a real life story or a real life person. The collection deliberately works with other forms - memoir, autobiography, biography, historical records - because I do find true life stories - often, they're the best.

KELLY: I suppose the other lesson there is just that maybe in all of our lives there's enough mystery and grace and drama and humor to turn it into a short story. Maybe if we just all had lunch with you.


MACLEOD: Then I'm happy to oblige, but that is it. I just think that the ordinary life is extraordinary. That's the truth of it. That is the fundamental truth of literature. And as a writer, I think that's my job above all is to convey that.

KELLY: That's Alison MacLeod talking about her new book "All The Beloved Ghosts." So lovely to speak to you. Thank you.

MACLEOD: Thank you, Mary Louise. My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.