UNLIKE any number of adults and the kind of kids who appear in low-budget horror movies, Nina Allan doesn’t find dolls intrinsically frightening. For her glass eyes and blank stares are not, inevitably, unheimlich.

“There are wonderful Joyce Carol Oates stories all about the uncanniness of dolls, the inherent scariness of dolls,” she does concede. “I just haven’t found them scary. They’re just a little race apart, slightly off to one side. Fascinating? Yes. Scary? No.”

We are sitting in a bar just off Sauchiehall Street. Allan, very human, warm and chatty, has travelled up today from her home in Rothesay to talk to me about dolls and stories and lives on the margins.

Does that include her life? Sort of. But maybe less so right now. At 53 Allan is something of the coming woman. Last year she was named as one of the Guardian’s Fresh Voices of 2018. Her new book, The Dollmaker, comes with an endorsement from Andrew O’Hagan and, according to her publisher, marks her breakthrough from fantasy to literary fiction.

You can kind of see their point. Her previous novels were marketed as science fiction, but The Dollmaker occupies a slightly different space. It is the story of an epistolary romance between the dollmaker of the title, Andrew, and the mysterious Bramber Winters, which begins after Andrew responds to an advert in a collector’s magazine. He then sets off on a bus journey across the south-west of England to visit Bramber. The only thing is he hadn’t told her he is visiting. Nor that he has dwarfism.

Interspersed with Andrew and Bramber’s story are fairy stories about dolls and dwarfism and disfigurement by an author and dollmaker Ewa Chaplin, herself something of a mystery. Chaplin’s stories of Elf Queens and dwarfs just add to the Gothic tone of the novel and end up reflecting and refracting what is happening in Andrew and Bramber’s story.

The result is a box of stories that fold into each other. Imagine Scheherazade on a National Express bus to Exeter and you’re roughly on the right page (OK, very roughly, but go with me.)

It’s a novel about storytelling and lives lived at the edge of things. An outsider narrative, Allan says. That’s embodied in the character of Andrew, who, she says, is the book’s heart.

“He has had to fight many battles throughout the course of his life – for independence, for self-expression, for love – but he remains undaunted, and draws people to him as a result. Like many of the characters in the Ewa Chaplin fairy tales, Andrew is important to me because he subverts the way so many characters like him have been portrayed in the past.”

This is what most interests Allan as a writer – characters who don’t go with the flow, “the often brutal, dismissive way they are treated by society and the emotional resources they have had to accrue to deal with that. It’s important to me.”

Allan’s own life story might qualify as an outsider narrative too. After a life in academia and minimum-wage jobs, Allan, 53, is now doing the thing she always wanted to do. There’s a line in The Dollmaker in which Andrew talks about how, for him, dollmaking is, “The thing you sense in your bones that you were born to do.” It’s a line that Allan could apply equally to herself.

Can she remember her own first doll? “I can. Her name was Grace. I was about four, five years old. I was given her for Christmas, and she was about a foot high and she had blonde hair.

“The weird thing for me is that dolls were always a vehicle for storytelling. I made up stories for my dolls. They became characters. I even wrote and drew my dolls. They weren’t just to play with. They acted out. I imagined worlds and stories for them from a very young age, so they were part of my imaginative landscape. They were little people.”

The Dollmaker is, I suggest, a very bookish book, a novel as a nest of stories. That waywardness is very typical of her approach to storytelling.

“I guess there are so many forms of narrative now. Long-form TV narratives, film narratives, game narratives, many ways of telling stories and I feel with a novel I like to take advantage of doing things you can only do in the novel, which means language and it means form on the page. And as a reader I love books that interfere with the narrative. I like these little tangents. I like narratives set at right angles to each other.”

Stories, too, that exist at the edge of things. Allan’s are a kind of inversion of Larkin’s famous line: 'Nothing, like something, happens anywhere.' For Allan something often happen nowhere. Her novel The Race is set partly on Romney Marsh. The Dollmaker visits places like Bodmin. She sets her stories on the margins, both psychologically and geographically.

“I have written London stories,” Allan says, “but then again, it’s odd parts. It’s Shooters Hill, Blackheath.”

I don’t know where Shooters Hill is, Nina. “Nobody knows. You can only get there by bus. A good friend of mine, another writer, said to me recently, ‘You write really well about nothing places.’ And I think for me the secret is that nowhere is a nothing place. Where places and people meet, things happen. And I like undramatic drama. I really love that. There are quiet apocalypses happening everywhere in people’s lives and it can be anywhere. It can be down the laundrette. That compels me.”

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It’s possibly a reflection, too, of her own peripatetic life. Her father was a sales rep and so the family moved around a lot when she was a child, from London, where she was born, to the Midlands, then Sussex. She went to university in Reading, then moved to Oxford, then Exeter, then London, then Hastings, then Devon.

With her partner, the writer Christopher Priest, she moved to the isle of Bute just over two years ago. She first visited Rothesay in the early 2000s, inspired by Andrew O’Hagan’s book Personality which she read and loved while living in Exeter.

But it wasn’t until Brexit happened and she and Priest realised that they were probably the only two voting remain in their Devon village that they felt they wanted a change.

“We just thought, ‘well, we know we’ve got to move at some point, let’s go somewhere where the political climate is more bearable.’ Within six months of making that decision we were here.”

Books had always been a central part of her life, but, she says, she got diverted into academic life in her twenties. It wasn’t until she was in her mid-to-late thirties that she returned to writing seriously. “I’d been doing creative things. Painting. Music. Meanwhile, I was working s*** jobs because I’ve always worked s*** jobs.”

What was the worst? “I was a hotel chambermaid for a while, tipping piss out of people’s wastepaper bins. That’s fine. It pays the rent. Most of those years I was a bookseller. I was a music buyer for a chain of record stores. And suddenly I write a story and it came from nowhere. It was atrocious but it was complete, and that was it. It felt that this was what I was always meant to be doing. Why the hell was I not doing it sooner?”

A few years back Allan might have been called a slipstream writer when that phrase was in vogue, one of those whose works sits somewhere in the gap between fantasy and science fiction and literary fiction. As she showed in her previous two excellent novels The Race and The Rift, Allan is adept at embedding her speculative ideas (in The Race, genetically modified greyhounds on Romney Marsh; in The Rift a missing child who reappears years later to tell her sister she has been to another planet) in real, everyday landscapes and messy human emotions. They are as much (maybe more) stories about emotional violence than they are about technology.

“I loved speculative fiction from a young age. I remember reading HG Wells’s The Time Machine when I was about 10, 12. It was a hugely important book for me. It absolutely terrified me. I absolutely loved it.”

That love now feeds into her writing. “I think the way I write is in a way a metaphor for the way I see the world,” she says before putting on her coat and heading back to Bute. “There’s always something weird in the corner if you look for it.”

The Dollmaker by Nina Allan is published by Riverrun, priced £14.99.