Wednesday, 3 February 2016

In Conversation with Piers Alexander

Hello, Piers, welcome to WWJ. Tell us a little about yourself and your writing?

I love my beard, my wife, my dog and the dusk. I live in London, where I founded a couple of businesses that nearly killed and bankrupted me but now give me more time to write. And I write slightly grubby, vulgar historical adventures - I'm just finishing my first trilogy, set in late seventeenth century England and its nascent empire.

Your debut novel is called The Bitter Trade. Can you sum it up in a single paragraph?

Oh yes! In 1688, torn by rebellions, England lives under the threat of a Dutch invasion. Redheaded Calumny Spinks is the lowliest man in an Essex backwater: half-French and still unapprenticed at seventeen, yet he dreams of wealth and title. When his father's violent past resurfaces, Cal's desperation leads him to become a coffee racketeer. He has just three months to pay off a blackmailer and save his father s life - but his ambition and talent for mimicry pull him into a conspiracy against the King himself...

You’ve been brave in giving up your ‘real job’ to write full time, something not many writers dare to try. What drove you to make that decision? 

I couldn't stand not writing. And I couldn't stand working in an office. And I have an unhealthily high tolerance for risk.

Do you ever regret your decision or are you happy to be a full-time writer?

I never regret it. And I don't think being a full time writer is like a full time doctor, or mum, or any other job. I think it should involve having lots of other pursuits - things you're learning, research, travel, taking risks - what Roy Jenkins called a "hinterland". So I still do bits of working - I'm on some company boards, a literary advisory board, and I give bits of unsolicited advice to young people (I call it "pro bono work", haha!).

What are the worst things for you about being a writer? 

I can't think of any bad experiences that haven't been transmuted into painful but welcome learnings, or new friendships, or both. The worst bit was when I was trying to grow a proper business career and develop as a writer. That was agonising, and expensive, and in the end I just had to choose one or the other.

I heard you talk at LBF Fringe about your rather original (and successful) marketing techniques getting your paperback into WH Smith. Can you retell the story here? 

Well: I took the foolish decision to make a trade paperback, one of the big format ones you see in airports. And we embossed it and used spot UV (ie a shiny bit of print to make a blood pool stand out). It alienated regular book shops and cost a lot more than usual. And then I met the amazing fiction buyer for WHSmith Travel at the Historical Novel Society's conference. Unable to speak (and that NEVER happens to me!), I pressed the book in his hands. He read it on the tube and liked it. And it's sold very well there. Wonderful luck.

And then you were voted WH Smith’s ‘Fresh Talent’ for 2015. How did that feel?

Honestly? 50% "imposter syndrome", 50% gratitude and happiness!

What inspired you to write The Bitter Trade? And what attracts you about writing historical fiction?

I hadn't planned to write a historical novel, but I nicked my wife's (Singer-songwriter and published author Rebecca Promitzer) premise for a futuristic coffee smuggling thriller and found that I was naturally writing in the past. Then I saw a statue of William III outside the London Library, looked up the a Glorious Revolution and realised I had found the perfect context for the story I wanted to tell. What a period that was! Intrigue and war, an explosion of ideas and science and commerce, and opportunity for a gobby outsider to become somebody.

How do you handle research as it’s known as a stumbling block in your genre? 

I don't do it all up front, because I find it stifles the characters and the originality of the story. I learn about the context and write an outline. Then I read a few dozen books to understand more about the characters, key events and customs of the day, and write the first draft. Then I go back and re-research all the detail I've found that I am light on, and simultaneously question the motivations and consistency of my characters, with help from wonderful beta readers including the historical author Anna Belfrage, academics, and my friend the editor Sally O-J. So the research always advances in step with the truly fictional parts. It's organic.

What other writing ambitions do you have on your hit list?

I have a rather epic overarching theme and concept for the trilogy, which I can't reveal without plot spoilers. And after that, I am going to wander London, the world and my imagination waiting for adventure to entice me down a filthy side alley....

Can you name three authors and/or novels who inspire your writing – and why?

Patrick O'Brian, who wrote historical adventures that are better-written and say more about humanity than most literary novels. Wilbur Smith, whose earlier books filled my young brain with lusty restlessness. And Bernard Cornwell, whose heroes are ordinary and sinful and selfish, and whose violence is elegant and purposeful.

What is coming next for you?

A research trip to South Carolina, which will also involve time travel to 1715. If I return to this era, I'll tell you all about it!


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