As an already established author, what made you change both your name and genre of writing (Alex has previously written under her real name of Serena Mackesy)?
Publishing’s a funny old game. I guess I’m a bit of a cross-genre writer, in that I’ve always been interested in women and the things that affect them, but I’ve always – even in my first novel – been a bit crimey, because women are, in fact, affected by crime in many ways beyond being shallow objects tortured by fictional serial killers for the reader’s gratification.
Anyway, back in 1999, when The Temp, my first novel came out, was the height of Bridget Jones fever, and everyone was scrabbling about to find ‘the next BJ’. Sadly, a lot of people had mistaken BJ for fluff, rather than the sharp, intelligent satire it is, so they’d decided that all woman writers had to be packaged like fluff to ride the wave, Now there are many, many what one would loosely call chick-lit authors whose skill and emotional incisiveness I really admire – Lisa Jewell, Chris Manby, Jenny Colgan, Jojo Moyes, Rowan Coleman for starters – but my books really didn’t thrive, packaged like that. So rather than change what I do, I basically decided to change my name. So I’m in the interesting position of having been a debut bestselling author twice, now. I wouldn’t even bat an eye about doing it again. I want to make a living, not be recognised at parties.
Do you use your experience of journalism in your crime writing?
Of course. It’s inevitable. I spent 15 years of my life in and around newspapers, and I can’t help thinking like a journalist. I’m always looking for the angle, wondering if there are links between seemingly unrelated things, trying to hunt down the ‘real’ story. Journalists get a lot of things wrong, but they also get a huge amount right. But of course, the nature of news is that it’s always the bad things that make the headlines!
The Wicked Girls is one of my favourite crime reads. It reminded me of the James Bulger trial. Is there a connection to that story and yours?
Of course. You couldn’t write a British book about child murderers without thinking about that case. Certainly, a factor in how The Wicked Girls came out was the fact that, as I was thinking about how to write the book, I received one of those round-robin emails that often come from people one would have thought knew better, demanding Thompson and Venables’s permanent incarceration/ lynching. I’m not saying that there is a redeeming feature about this case, or denigrating the Bulger family’s appalling distress, but they were 10 years old, for God’s sake. Ten-year-olds may well have a strong sense of right and wrong, but their understanding of possible consequences of their actions is a lot more iffy. I did want to get that across, raise the subject for discussion.
Any advice to anyone dreaming of becoming an author?
Strap your armour on: this is one of the toughest ways to make a living, in terms of parlous income and blows to the self-esteem, and you might as well get used to that as quickly as you can. Read, read, read, read, read. Re-read things that have affected you, so you can see how it was done. Go through your manuscript and delete 90% of your adverbs. Don’t sabotage yourself by thinking that people will overlook your spelling and grammar because your story’s so brilliant.
Where do you get your writing inspiration from?
Oh, everywhere. Things I read, things I see, people I talk to, memory, nightmares. Writers never truly switch off. As a journalist, the most common phrase out of my mouth was ‘ooh, there’s a piece/column in that’. As a novelist, I guess it’s ‘ooh, I wonder what happened next?’.
What are you working on next?
I can’t talk about it much, as it’s in early stages and I don’t really know where it’s going to go. But it’s about family secrets, family lies and a long-past death that still colours the narrator’s life every day. The working title is Hide and Seek, but I’m sure my editor will come up with something better!
If, heaven forbid, there was a fire, what possession would you grab first to save?
Oh, gosh now there’s the Cloud, I don’t have to grab my laptop any more! Probably the cat, though he has a catflap and can probably look after himself. Oh, I know – my asthma inhaler.
What five people, living or dead, would you choose to invite to a dinner party?
Stephen King – partly because I totally owe him one after he championed both The Wicked Girls and The Killer Next Door, but mostly because he is, and always has been, my writing hero.
Dr John Stonehouse – one of the dearest friends of my life, who died suddenly of cerebral malaria about five years ago, He was the most intelligent, and the most interesting, person I have ever met. He was an entomologist, and we made friends at a dinner party when he produced a handful of red kidney beans from his pocket and spent half an hour talking me through the differences between each one. I’ve never met anyone before or since who can make red kidney beans interesting. I still miss him, every day.
Rebecca Chance – bonkbuster novelist, feminist and glamorous loudmouth. Because there’s never a dull moment when she’s in the room.
Dorothy Parker – she may have been a tragic old drunk, but by god she could make a party go with a swing.
George Eliot – because I love her novels, because she was one of the great advancers of women’s rights by walking the walk, because she lived a life that completely disregarded the straitlaced mores of the time, and because, if you tried to patronise her, she would go completely Casaubon on your arse.
Alex's new novel, The Killer Next Door, comes out as a paperback in the UK in June and the US in late October. Stephen King called it ‘scary as hell’. No, he really did! Alex was dizzy for days!
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