INTERVIEW WITH JANE ALEXANDER - LEGEND.
This has been a very strange week in Barton-Land. I finally managed to publish my second novel, Blood, to Amazon Kindle and it's doing okay so far. As for its elder sibling, Burn, Baby, Burn, it continues to astonish its creator, along with everybody else who's ever met me in any capacity, or so I imagine. I had high hopes for this novel, dug my heels in, decided to take the plunge, send it out into the world to sink or swim. NB - please indulge my cliche-obsession for a moment, I'm trying to quit and am in the throes of withdrawal this morning!
Back to the book, now number five in the UK Thriller chart and 15th in All Books. That's so far beyond any of my expectations as to be surreal. I've managed to wean myself off the compulsion to peek at sales and ratings every ten minutes, but in the throes of a difficult house sale this has not been a hardship.
Last year, 2010, I met a legend for the first time. Here's some background to that meeting and an interview with the legend herself.
When I joined the writers’ site Authonomy I was nervous. Uncertain. In all honesty, way, way out of my comfort zone. I’d hardly looked at the book I placed on the site in years, wasn’t at all confident of how it would be received by any ‘proper writers’ that may be lurking therein.
I was right to be concerned. If my book were ever to reach a coveted top five position, out of many thousands of books on the site, it would take a lot of work on my part. Luckily for me I found a role model. A writer whose dedication put my own feeble efforts to shame, with a background as a professional journalist, Jane Alexander taught me so much.
I had no idea what POV meant until Jane drew it to my attention. Forcibly. With more than a hint of scorn. Yes, really. I just wrote as it came, not giving much thought to the manner in which a professional editor would look at the results. Without ever mastering Point of View, I learnt to look at my own writing in a different, more acute, manner. Jane is a working journalist; she knows all the clever stuff. I learnt a great deal from her, mostly by reading her reviews of other books.
The months went by, we became friendly on the forum, sparked occasional flights of nonsensical fancy between us, secretly mocked the same people, and championed others. Jane’s book began to climb and it became evident to me at least that a Gold Star was a formality. For a writer with her track record and sheer talent, however, there’s more than a hint of insecurity lurking deep inside.
On occasions, not so deep. After the first ‘melt-down’ I wrote a long email to Jane.
Told her she was brilliant.
Told her to ignore the effects of ‘tall poppy syndrome.’
There’s a problem here. Jane isn’t the toughest person I’ve ever met. Would I want her alongside to go into the jungle? Probably not. There’s fragility there.
There’s also a competitive streak that exceeds that of many a top sportsman. Competiveness - I can relate to that. I’ve played sport at a high level, mixed with top athletes – they all have that inner desire to excel. Jane has it too.
The occasional supportive messages turned into regular bulletins, sometimes many times daily, with frequent shrieks of unbridled panic emanating from Exmoor, but eventually Jane’s book reached the Editors’ Desk.
Along with other fellow writers, she stayed to support me through my own book’s ascent to the top of the pile. That wasn’t easy either.
I’d ‘talked’ to Jane by email or on Facebook virtually every day for almost a year, but had never met her.
Late last year a fellow Authonomy member, the richly talented Gerald Johnston, author of Dropcloth Angels, announced he was coming over to London. Would I like to meet him? Hell, yes, I replied.
Another fan of Gerry’s was well known to me, so I bullied and cajoled Jane into joining us. We had a wonderful few hours in London, chatted away as if we’d been meeting up for years.
In real life, Jane was everything I’d expected, apart from being taller than I’d imagined, five foot eight inches, extremely red hair, no airs and graces – simply wonderful.
When I decided to interview a fellow writer, there was only ever one first choice. Here’s my interview with Jane Alexander. Legend.
So, Jane, talk to me. You know you want to. What are you working on now?
Right now I’m working on a pretty much total rewrite of my YA novel, Samael. It’s frustrating as I’m itching to start on something new but it has to be done. My agent commissioned two editorial reports to find out why Samael hadn’t been bought (despite some incredibly close near-misses) and the consensus was that it was too complicated; there were too many sub-plots and the ending needed considerable work. So, it’s nose to the grindstone. It’s tough but I want this book published so it needs to make the grade.
Can you remember when you first knew you wanted to be a writer?
I have been writing ever since I could put together a sentence. I have notebooks from when I was at junior school, stuffed with stories (all illustrated as well). I used to write newspapers when I was about eight or nine – and foist them on people. But I never really thought about writing in terms of earning a living. I wanted to be a Blue Peter presenter (children’s TV show) – because I also liked making things – and I knew I could do the demonstrations without my hands shaking like Valerie Singleton’s did!
Were your parents ‘bookish’?
I don’t think I ever saw my father read a book. He was a very down-to-earth working class man – his idea of leisure consisted of long walks, the pub and a paper. My mother, on the other hand, came from a family who idolised words – a long line of very strange people fascinated by philosophy, religion, spirituality, literature, politics, art, science.
Tell me about school / university.
What’s to tell? I went to the local primary/junior school and was unbearable. Found the schoolwork all easy-peasy. Used to write plays and ‘entertainments’ and would rope in the whole class, sort out costumes, direct them (didn’t act, just liked being in charge). Or, instigate huge art installations – enormous collages and so on – get everyone busy and then cheerily donate the end result to some unsuspecting local nursing home.
Then my father died (when I was ten) and it knocked the stuffing out of me. Became asthmatic and depressed and went through most of high school as a wraith.
I loved language though and took French, Spanish and Latin at A –level (though I was still torn between the idea of university and art college). Was put forward to do Oxbridge exams but decided I didn’t want to study modern languages after all and switched, on whim, to applying to university to study English. Accepted by Manchester and had three fabulous years living student life to the full (highs and lows). Realised that, actually, I hated dissecting literature (still do) – but loved dissecting language (still do). Fell in love with Old English. Did a crash course in (modern) Italian so I could read medieval Italian.
Hmm, impressive! A nitty-gritty writer’s question now. Computer, laptop, or longhand? Which is it?
All three. I wrote Samael in longhand, in three Moleskine notebooks and I am never without a (paper) notebook. Generally though I work on a desktop PC in my study. I have a very ancient laptop which I take on trips.
Hands off knee, please. I know you're besotted, understandably so, but let's keep this professional, okay? I mentioned your ‘track record’ earlier. I’ve read a fair number of your newspaper features, what else have you done? Give us some details.
I’ve written over 20 non-fiction books (mainly self-help) and ghosted four. I write an agony aunt column – yet never EVER follow my own advice.
Are you a storyteller outside of your writing? Can you spin a yarn?
I am a listener, more than a talker. It comes partly from my journalistic years, where the best stories come when you let the person just talk, with minimal prompting. I don’t really like the sound of my own voice.
Hmm! Who is your favourite author and is your writing style in any way similar to theirs?
I honestly can’t pick just one. I love David Mitchell for his use of words – but I could never ever write like him. My favourite childhood author was Alan Garner and he was my inspiration for my children’s book, Walker (one of the high spots of my life was actually meeting him.) But I don’t think I write like him either. I read so much and so widely I like to think I don’t fall into the trap of subconsciously writing in someone else’s style. But if I could have a wish, it would be to write like Margo Lanagan.
How much thought goes into naming your characters?
Names are important. Often they just pop into my head (and I realise later how apt the name is). Sometimes they require more thought. I often use the same names in different books – partly because I’m lazy and partly because a lot of my characters are quite archetypal.
Who is your target readership and why did you gravitate towards them?
Two-fold really. The teen market but also older people, predominantly women, who still feel like teenagers inside. Why? Because the teens are such an intense period – it’s all or nothing and I love that. Love extremes.
What’s the best thing you’ve ever written and what makes it special?
Actually I think it’s some of my blog posts. I occasionally write about depression – because I firmly believe that we need to bust this stigma over mental health right out of the water. If I can make one person feel less alone through my writing, then it’s worth doing. My uncle committed suicide as a direct result of depression. I dunno, maybe if he’d read something that made him stop...just long enough...
I know you’ll screw up your face at this, but do you have any advice for an aspiring writer?
Heck. No. Because I’m not a success in my fiction writing. Come back and ask me when I’ve got a huge deal! My agent always says ‘write what you believe in, what you love; follow your passion.’ That’s fine, if you don’t need to pay the bills. My only good tip is to read what you write out loud. Often you can hear where something is going wrong that way.
Tell us how your personal experiences affected your writing.
Walker was directly inspired by my personal practice of shamanism. I wanted to write a book that was exciting but also used ‘real’ techniques and practices. Samael...well, who hasn’t wanted a love that consumes your very soul? It was easy to write because, in many ways, I was Genevieve when I was a teen. And in many ways I still am – seeking for answers, looking for a place of safety (within as well as without).
As a reader, do you limit yourself to only the genre that you write yourself? What are the last three books you read?
Hell no! Last three (fiction) books I read were Dancing Jax by Robin Jarvis, Linger Awhile by Russell Hoban and Exploits by Poppet! A pretty eclectic mix.
I barely ever read ‘chick lit’ or ‘women’s fiction’ yet a good number of my (real life) friends make a cracking living from it.
Writers’ block - what advice would you give to people who "run out of creativity" when writing?
Julia Cameron’s ‘morning pages’ idea seems to work well for a lot of people. I often write a blog post to ‘limber up’.
I’m a big fan of Samael, your latest book. How did you come up with the story?
Well, Samael isn’t exactly new but it is the latest. I’d had the basic idea for years, and had played around a few years back writing an adult version as a blog. Originally it was about a woman who is forced to move to the countryside by her husband and hates it. She is supposedly suffering from infertility and yet becomes pregnant (through an affair) and then realises with mounting horror that, not only has her husband been lying to her but that she is living in a place inimical to babies (and their mothers). But I stalled at around 30K.
One day my agent asked me to try to write a teen dark romance (in the Twilight mode) and, on the train on the way back from London I realised that the scenario, reworked, could be perfect for a supernatural chiller/romance.
What kind of research did you do for this book?
Feck all! I write about places I know as I don’t have funds for travelling. Anyhow, Exmoor is about as creepy as you can get! The rituals and so forth in the novel are based on Wicca and ritual magick so they were easy-peasy too (I used to study this stuff). If I get stuck on detail, I find someone on Authonomy or Facebook will usually know the answer!
What's a typical working day like? When and where do you write? Do you set a daily writing goal?
I write all day, every day. But then I work as a journalist and non-fiction writer as well as trying my hand at fiction. I’m lucky – I have a huge study, lined with bookshelves, with a sofa in the window for the Moleskine scribbling. I do have a desk but I tend to write on a huge table that houses my PC, stereo, litepod, candles, etc etc. If I’m on a non-fiction/journo deadline, it’s easy – I just write until I hit it, whatever the word count. When I’m in the active writing phase of a fiction book, I find a thousand words a day is good for me.
What question have you always wanted to be asked in an interview, but it never happened? How would you answer that question?
You know, I’ve never thought about it. I’ll have to think about it! Funnily enough, when I used to interview people, I would always end by saying, ‘What haven’t I asked you that I should have asked you?’
Okay, sidestepped that one, how about this? If you were writing a book about your life, what would the title be?
‘Loving the Stranger’.
What are three things most people don’t know about you? Extra marks will be awarded for indiscreet revelations.
Damnit, I’m an open book. Read my blog and pretty well everything is laid bare. Other than stuff that affects other people. Hmm.
1. I came within a whisker of running away with the cowboys to Montana, for a life of horse herding and farting round the campfire. Still have a lingering regret over that.
2. The first book I ever wrote was called Future Sex, back in the 1980s. It was a round-up of the many and various ways that sex could transform in the future. Some fabulously weird stuff including, if I recall, virtual reality, nanotechnology, quantum physics, advanced NLP, cyber-tantra and wetware interfaces. First agent I sent it to (from PFD, I think) snapped it up but it was a bit ahead of its time and never got a publisher.
3. I am unfeasibly bendy. Yes, I can do a full lotus and yes, I can wrap both feet round my neck. I have often regretted doing the latter, when alcohol has also been involved.
Interviewer’s note: One of the original responses was later rescinded and an alternative answer substituted. Hurriedly, and in my opinion, wisely. The original information is safely stored away in my memory, will always have it in the back of my mind from now on…
As for ‘unfeasibly bendy’ and ‘I can wrap both feet round my neck - I’m still thinking of a response!!!!
Meeting you in person was a major highlight of 2010 for me. I’d emailed you daily, we’d nurtured each other through the angst of the Authonomy Editor’s Desk, but it was such a joy to finally meet you. Have you met any other aspiring writers in person? Are there any writers you’d like to meet and why?
Aww, and I loved meeting you too. Half my friends are aspiring writers – and that is hugely comforting, as they understand the struggle and the angst. I also know a lot of successful writers and that is interesting as, for the large part, they are just as angsty and insecure as the unpublished ones.
I’m actually pretty shy (believe it or not!) and I think I make a lot more sense when I write than when I talk...so I don’t race to meet a lot of people as I’d hate them to think ‘Oh shit, she’s a bit of a letdown’. Sometimes it’s safer to keep people on the page or online. Having said that, yes, of course, there are people I would love to meet.
Thank you so much. I did indeed think ‘oh shit, she’s a bit of a letdown,’ but I’d never tell anyone else that.