Total Human Life Transformation in The Loosening Skin

Human beings shed their skin every seven years in Aliya Whiteley’s fascinating new work of fiction. Each time she moults, celebrity bodyguard Rose Allington changes everything about her life, including who she loves.

Total Human Life Transformation in The Loosening Skin

A conversation with Aliya Whiteley about story, change, and the written word.

Human beings shed their skin every seven years in Aliya Whiteley’s fascinating new work of fiction. Each time she moults, celebrity bodyguard Rose Allington changes everything about her life, including who she loves. The Loosening Skin showcases Whiteley’s philosophical mind, emotional depth, and effortless prose. This instant classic received glowing reviews and made every fantasy book award shortlist. One review opened with the words “Wow. Just wow.”

What inspired you to write The Loosening Skin?

The first chapter of The Loosening Skin came from one idea: Could I write a short story in which the main character was completely, undeniably in love at the beginning and totally, unalterably out of love by the end? That tied into a documentary I’d watched about all the cells of the body being replaced roughly every seven years. This is the Ship of Theseus paradox. It’s a really old philosophical question – if you replace all the parts of a boat over time, is it still the same boat? – but I wanted to revisit it in a world where concepts such as love and change had become material, quantifiable.

Some characters keep their old skins. Others, called “burners,” incinerate them. What distinguishes one group from the other?

I think it’s a bit like asking why somebody keeps a diary, or somebody else cuts up the photos of their ex-partner once the relationship has ended. It’s to do with how a person defines their relationship to the past, perhaps. That’s a complex thing. Emotional baggage. Containers filled with both truth and lies, jostling, rubbing against each other.

You wrote: “A story is not simply science fiction because it contains a robot.” How much do you think about genre?

I don’t think about genre at all when I’m writing, but it comes into play afterwards when I have to start thinking about how to define it! I don’t plan in advance, apart from maybe having a few key scenes in my head that I’m working towards. I like the freedom of not searching out the fantasy, science fiction, crime or literary aspects of the book as I write.

Who would play Rose in the movie, and why? 

I could see Amy Adams as Rose, I think. I absolutely loved her in the television series of Sharp Objects, and in the movie Arrival. Those are both brilliant adaptations of written stories that translate time into fluid states, and she handles that so well. You can see the past in her eyes.

A character states, “You can’t get to know someone through the written word.” How and why does writing fail?

I think you can get to know someone quite well through the words they write, but it will always only be a version of them. People I’ve known for years through all sorts of mediums still manage to take me by surprise! I particularly like the gaps that are left by the written word. So much can be hidden while other things are revealed in word choice, structure, subject, like crumbs dropped on a path through a dark forest.

Between screens and pages, how many hours per week do you spend consuming narrative?

I’m aware it would be a lot if I worked it out, but I find I really don’t want to do that! It’s not only other people’s stories. I’m telling myself tales all the time, too, so the truthful answer might well be all the hours of the week. Thinking about it, when are we not consuming narrative? From news, from relationships, in work and at home. And everyone’s part of the story of themselves, too. We frame everything in terms of narrative to explain/justify our life choices. Stories sprang from human nature – I tend to frame it in terms of a survival technique – so the impact is not new. It’s old and it’s innate.

A character states, “Every piece of art made before 2020 is a historical record.” How will COVID-19 change our civilization? 

I can only tell you that it’s already changed us and is continuing to change us. On an individual level, we will deal with these emotions, and many more: fear, and grief, and loss. Boredom. Anger. Gratitude. Disbelief. We deal with them, and then they will become part of our collective record of this time, and we will move on. We’re all changing, and we’re all never quite the same again.

 

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