Everyone, please welcome Piers Alexander to the blog. He is the author of the historical fiction The Bitter Trade, and you can catch my review of it over HERE. It is much amusement we chat about time travel, books we have yet to appreciate, meals famous dead authors might have fancied, among other interesting things. Please sit back and enjoy the interview!
Myths and beliefs that we would consider fiction or fantasy in modern literature once upon a time shaped history (think of all the hunts for unicorns & dragons). Do you see modern fantasy fiction affecting human cultures today and how?
Good question! I see today’s fantasy fiction as like an alternative strand of historical fiction: very often the settings, and the characters’ values and challenges, reflect the medieval world. But isn’t science fiction really today’s fantasy? When I read or watch sci-fi, I see mythical beasts, and ethical challenges that reflect what’s happening in our society (space exploration is like globalization, there are always conflicts for resources (eg Avatar), inter-species rivalries and romances… So my answer is yes – if you think of sci-fi as today’s fantasy.
Are minions/sidekicks just throwaway devices in a tale? Can they become more? Do they need to become more?
They definitely do need to be more! I worked with an excellent editor (Sally O-J, who also works with Sarah Waters) on The Bitter Trade, and she showed me just how important it is that all characters are three-dimensional, with their own backstories and motivations. My father’s an actor, and he puts as much care and attention into working out a one-line character as he does for a main character – I think good writers do the same.
As a reader, I always enjoy discovering subplots and sidekicks who are unpredictable and take the story off into a richer world. One of my favorite writers is Patrick O’Brian, who wrote the Master and Commander series. He put so much care into the minor characters that I regularly found myself stopping and putting the book down each time he killed one off!
What are the top 3 historical time periods and locations you would like to visit?
Definitely the late seventeenth century, especially London. Packed with mavericks, genius scientists, egotistical but hugely wealthy merchant adventurers, all opining and singing and doing deals in the smoky, raucous coffeehouses of the period.
I would have to go back to ancient Egypt and experience a civilization that for a while was just so advanced compared to its neighbors… and of course to see some old school magic.
And – since it’s Thor Heyerdahl’s 100th birthday as I’m writing this – I’d like to join the great South Seas migrations. I’ve always wondered what would make a tribe of Polynesians get in their canoes and just head out into thousands of miles of empty Pacific Ocean, hoping to hit land. Now that’s a sci-fi premise.
Which ancient or historical works have you not read and periodically kick yourself for not having made time for them yet?
I only ever read Dickens at school. I think I am waiting until I have finished my trilogy, because I don’t want to compete with or emulate him. But I will definitely read them all.
I haven’t read The Last of the Mohicans either. And I also can’t touch it until I’ve written the trilogy, because my main character Cal ends up in a nasty Indian war in 1690s Virginia.
In my experience, some of the best fiction is based on facts and history. How do you build your research into your fictional works?
It’s very tricky! I tend to do my research in three or four phases rather than in one big block, because I want the characters and story to have their own voice. I don’t enjoy historical fiction that is just a rehashing of historical fact, so I deliberately use invented characters and then write a historical note to explain how I’ve diverged from the official records. I’ll get inspired by broader, more popular histories, and then gradually dive into the amazing eighteenth century labyrinth called the London Library. It has creepy unlit back shelves where the most esoteric histories can be found. I love it.
I’ve also started working with specialist historians to make sure that the “invented” parts of the book don’t jar with readers.
In this age of publishing, self-promotion is really necessary for the author. What do you enjoy most about advertising yourself and your works? What do you find most challenging?
I love reading to an audience. The great French writer Chateaubriand used to edit his work by reading ALL of it aloud – and I’ve certainly been much more ruthless when editing scenes when I know I’ll be doing a gig. It’s such a fundamental part of human nature, to share stories and songs around a fire.
I also enjoy writing blogs and Q&As. You’ve asked some questions that make me question my own motivations and beliefs about books and history, and that’s a great process.
What’s most challenging is the impersonal, internet-based aspects of marketing. Tweeting can be fun, but working out how to time promotions to maximize Amazon rankings feels about as far from writing as you can get. That’s why it’s cool to talk to book-loving bloggers like you – it feels like a very personal connection to you and your readers.
If you could sit down and have dinner with 5 dead authors, who would you invite to the table? What would they order?
George Macdonald Fraser, author of the Flashman series. I think he might have a quite elaborate, spicy, seven course meal, like an officer of the Raj.
Patrick O’Brian, of the Aubrey/Maturin series. He’s put me through so much emotional pain that I would make him eat a weevilly ship’s biscuit.
Leo Tolstoy. We would sit down with his serfs and enjoy their watery beetroot soup and rye bread – while we discussed the Infinite.
George Orwell. We would share some simple Catalan dishes, beans and sausages and grilled fish, and talk of the Spanish Civil War, revolution and justice.
And the Emperor Marcus Aurelius. Peacock tongues, honeyed lamb, garlic roasted kale, and a vigorous discussion on how Richard O’Brien played him in THAT movie.
What do you do when you are not writing?
Hang out with my partner-in-crime, wife, muse and best friend – the singer-songwriter and author Rebecca Promitzer. Walk my dog Lulu in the mystical emerald depths of London’s Hampstead Heath. Keep an eye on the two very cool business media companies I co-founded. Think of hilarious places to do readings: historical reenactments, art galleries, coffee shops, Berlin… It’s a great excuse to meet new people and discover new places.
Thank you Susan!
The Bitter Trade is a historical adventure set during the Glorious Revolution: Rebellious silk trader Calumny Spinks must become a coffee racketeer and join the conspiracy against the King to save his father’s life.
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.
Cal’s journey takes him from the tough life of Huguenot silk weavers to the vicious intrigues at Court. As the illicit trader Benjamin de Corvis and his controlling daughter Emilia pull him into their plots, and his lover Violet Fintry is threatened by impending war, Cal is forced to choose between his conscience and his dream of becoming Mister Calumny Spinks.
Places to Stalk Piers Alexander