Last week, I had the great pleasure of interviewing Alexis Hall, romance author whose latest work, For Real, came out June 1st from Riptide Publishing. We chatted about this, his other works, queer lit, and the deep bowels of London, amongst others.
Laurence Dalziel is worn down and washed up, and for him, the BDSM scene is all played out. Six years on from his last relationship, he’s pushing forty and tired of going through the motions of submission.
Then he meets Toby Finch. Nineteen years old. Fearless, fierce, and vulnerable. Everything Laurie can’t remember being.
Toby doesn’t know who he wants to be or what he wants to do. But he knows, with all the certainty of youth, that he wants Laurie. He wants him on his knees. He wants to make him hurt, he wants to make him beg, he wants to make him fall in love.
The problem is, while Laurie will surrender his body, he won’t surrender his heart. Because Toby is too young, too intense, too easy to hurt. And what they have—no matter how right it feels—can’t last. It can’t mean anything.
It can’t be real.
Liz: Hello! 🙂 So, first of all, congratulations on your new book, For Real! It seems to have swept through the romance and queer lit community in a wave of resounding success, which was really fun to see!
Alexis J. Hall: Oh thank you. I’m really chuffed at the response it seems to be getting.
L: It’s quite the response!
AJH: I’m a bit dizzy about it, to be honest. As concepts go, it has a lot against it so I guess something went right somewhere.
L: I think it definitely touched many people, on many levels. Actually, I’m glad you mentioned the concept, because my first question was this: Did the writing process for it differ from your previous works in any way, such as coming up with the idea, developing it, etc.?
AJH: Not really is a totally disappointing answer isn’t it? I think the more you write, the more you develop techniques and processes that work for you but how I approach a book tends to have more to do with the genre than the individual book, if that makes sense? So my genre books (like Kate Kane and Prosperity) tend be heavily planned and my contemporary romances seem to be more … uh … organic and wibbly.
L: Ohh, I wondered about that. So, when it comes to planning and research, what sorts of stuff DO you do? Is it books, or other means? For instance, there’s the lemon meringue pie scene (THE lemon meringue pie scene) in For Real, which involved crafting a scene around the recipe. What’s the longest (or strangest) bit of research work you’ve ever done?
AJH: Well, the lemon meringue pie was kind of … entertaining. But I guess the most story-worthy thing I’ve done is go down a sewer for Iron & Velvet. I probably shouldn’t admit that in public since it’s technically illegal but I have a friend who is really into urban exploration. So he took me down there.
L: OMG, you did not! That’s amazing. I hope you wore a giant rubber suit. What was it like?
AJH: I wore some protective clothing – boots and gloves and clothes I didn’t care about. It was fucking amazing. I mean, the Bazalgette bits are genuinely beautiful. I mean, for big underground tunnels that carry shitty water around. But there are parts where they’re just vast and glorious–these, uh, intricate, echoey chambers bigger than a person. I was also mildly afraid I was going to die horribly.
L: I mean, there is that fear! Dying in shitty water is a sort of an ignoble death, but it was for a good cause. I remember thinking that the details in that scene were quite striking. Now I know why!
AJH: Yes, I feel really lucky I could bring readers the authentic sewer experience.
L: Truly, it was very special. So, in terms of the creative process, how do you begin an idea for a book? Is it a line, or a scene, or an emotional moment, or something else entirely? And in a similar vein, how do you create the characters themselves? Do they develop around a story or the other way around?
AJH: Wow. Haha. Um. I kind of feel like Luna Lovegood right now: “where do ideas come from? The Great Snozzletrumpet brings them!” It really does vary from book to book. I seem to be talking a lot about Kate the moment, but I developed that series in direct response to an open call for f/f stories. So I kind of sat down and thought, okay, what sort of story do I want to tell, what tropes can I queer up for this. And so lesbian urban fantasy is kind of what happened there because urban fantasy heroines tend to get a lot of agency and I love the smorgasbord of supernatural lovers trope and I thought that would be brilliantly fun if they were all queer women.
L: And it WAS.
AJH: Hee, thank you 🙂 Prosperity came from just this image I had … of this town in the sky? This old west type town, rickety and falling-apart, with the blue all around it. Which is a pretty flimsy thing to build a book round but once you have SKYTOWN in place, SKYSHIP and SKYMONSTERS follow pretty quickly.
L: I can imagine! And SKY PIRATES.
AJH: The best ideas are ALL CAPS ideas.
L: Heartily AGREED.
AJH: The contemporaries are … I suppose more personal? And consequently slightly more political. They tend to be explorations of ideas–big ideas about life and love and queerness and family and selfhood– that are important to me. And The Great Snozzletrumpet gets them from everywhere, really. Like Glitterland happened (and I’ve written about this a lot) when Rylan Clark was on the X-Factor and he got an awful lot of shit for being the wrong sort of gay – flamboyant and embarrassing and ditzy. And I’d always wanted to write a book about depression so somehow those ideas came together. I think that’s I tend to end up doing, actually – combining unlikely ideas.
L: So, this is interesting, because one of the things I wanted to ask you was what draws you to write situations which sort of upend expectations.
AJH: I don’t think it’s quite as self-conscious as that? Like, it’d be pretty wanky to be sitting there thinking “gosh, how can I defy expectations today”. I think it’s more that in life, things rarely look like they’re supposed to and that’s … well … that’s awesome. So I think I try to write about things that feel true to me even if they don’t look the way the world tells us to expect them to look.
L: And that definitely comes through. I’ve talked to quite a few people about For Real, and the thing that I heard the most was that the readers really identified with the characters. They felt true to life, and weren’t just pastiches on a page. Do you happen to have a favorite line or moment for each character, something that you feel defined or unlocked them for you? Like a moment when suddenly a characterization came together and you felt like sharing this part or line would communicate the character to the reader. If that makes sense.
AJH: I think there’s a lot about Laurie that’s evident from the very first line of the book – when he’s growling that he just wants to get hurt and fucked at this BDSM club and he doesn’t care what he’s wearing.
L: Which was beautiful.
AJH: Aww, thank you. I think the key to Laurie (for me) was about a paragraph down when he says:
It was almost as if the Scene ran on fairy-tale logic: A pauper in a ball gown was a princess. A wolf in a nightcap, a grandma. A wanker in a pair of leather trousers, a dom.
Wow, it’s weird looking at your own work. I’m like: that’s not subtle at all is? Laurie is looking for something REAL, d’you see. But I think it’s the fairytale thing? Because actually he secretly wants to be enchanted. Swept off his feet. And that’s what Toby does.
L: AMAZING. And it’s fine, about Laurie wanting to be enchanted, I didn’t need my heart, anyway. (Meep.)
AJH: Awww 🙂
For Toby … this is even more embarrassing actually … it’s the bit where he, uh, where he’s talking about Laurie’s wang. Which is this bit:
It’s really . . . beautiful, all strong and straining, needy and aggressive at the same time, and sheathed in gleaming skin, with these drops of moisture crowning the tip, like tiny perfect opals. I think they’d taste of heat and salt and tears and him.
Like, I’m normally … not coy exactly, but I’m not lavish in my sexual description. And I do get embarrassed so while sexythings definitely happen in my books (and it’s important that they do!) I’ve never embraced it with quite that degree of … glee? So that was when I realised just how much joy there was in Toby. And writing him was almost effortless from there.
L: That’s lovely. I think the reader also gets that sense of freedom from Toby. He has his own demons, but he throws himself head-first into most situations, which really demonstrates something about him as a person, but also about him as a 19-year old. (Not sure there’s a question in that, so how about this: in terms of unlocking the characters for the readers, how do you decide how much to reveal and when, for instance when it comes to Toby’s parentage during the Oxford scene?)
AJH: Oh, that’s … interesting. I think usually at the point I’m putting fingers to keyboard I know a character pretty well, although obviously there’s some stuff you learn and develop as you write. But it’s this balancing act of wanting to make reading the book a process of discovery for the reader as well (don’t blow your load too early in other words) without artificially holding things back for the sake of mystery/tension/denouncements/reveals. I guess the Oxford Scene with Toby was meant to be a slight hark-back to the wedding in Cambridge, where Ash completely fucks up his relationship by being ashamed of Darian. Whereas, obviously, Toby (who has been brought up a total Bohemian) is absolutely in his element – so that was meant to kind of give the reader the same emotional experience as Laurie, anxiety and bewilderment and relief and pride.
L: Which was delightful to read, and definitely felt almost like a do-over for Ash and Darian, without it being…about Ash and Darian.
AJH: Well Laurie is fundamentally a better person than Ash.
L: Yes, definitely. (Although, Ash does redeem himself in some ways, by the end.) Also, not to abruptly jump back to For Real or anything, but can we talk about Jasper? He was another who jumped off the page and stayed with us, despite him only appearing in, essentially, three scenes. How did Jasper come to be for you? Is he wholly made up or is there a basis for him in reality out there somewhere, being oh so very Jasper? (And if he got a story of his own, what might that look like?)
AJH: Hehe. Oh Jasper. I was, honestly, very slightly sequel-baiting with him. I wanted Laurie to have a very “Oxford” friend and while I hasten to emphasise that #NotAllAcademics and Oxford can be very ordinary and banal … Jasper is definitely a type that exists. He says coyly. Jasper does have a story of his own outlined (the working title is English Roses) but it’s not contracted or anything so I’ve no idea if it’ll come to anything.
L: So, when it comes to writing in general, you’ve said that Prosperity was the first book you ever wrote. What were your beginnings in creative writing before that? (And are you a savant?)
AJH: I’m pretty sure I’m not a savant – unless you mean in the sense of having no idea how things work. I don’t know why I wrote Prosperity really. Again, there was an open call and I thought I’d try … writing sommat. And it was fun. So I’ve kept doing it.
L: So, to wrap this up, I will pull out a couple more questions, if you don’t mind!
AJH: Of course. Sorry, I’ve babbled substantially.
L: It’s been awesome! 🙂
So, queer lit has been extremely important to so many of us who had wanted/needed to see representations of ourselves reflected in a way that made inner acceptance…easier, I suppose. Can you think of any work that has been an inspiration of sorts for you as you write now, or as you first began writing?
AJH: Mary Renault has always been incredibly important to me. There wasn’t exactly a wealth of queer lit available to me when I was growing up, but she’s one of the few authors who write about queer relationships that aren’t inherently doomed. I’m also a huge fan of Sarah Waters — when I read Affinity, it was just like … oh wow, this is Victorian gothic but gay! And I think the moment when you realise that queer stories don’t have to be about queerness, they can be about anything, is exceptionally powerful. And the fact that Sarah Waters is, in fact, basically writing something that is understood to be and marketed as FICTION not QUEER FICTION feels so liberating and exciting to me. I also read a lot of Georgette Heyer when I was younger, which might seem like an odd choice of queer fiction, but again, they were the first books I read that depicted … alternative masculinities, if I can call it that. Like her heroes are polite and well-dressed and witty. It gave my scrawny teenage self something to aspire to outside the type of man the world was telling me I should grow up to be. Sorry, I’ve just realised those are influences on me as a reader and a human, not as a writer. *fails at question answering*
L: Haha, not a problem – readership must influence writing in some direct and indirect ways, right? So, that makes a lot of sense, actually. And as for Heyer, there’s more than one way to queer a book, right?
AJH: Hell yes 🙂
L: Queer all the things! Wait, that wasn’t my next question. My next question is: can you talk a bit about your next project, Nettlefield (which I am, personally, incredibly excited about it)? What can we expect?
AJH: Oh gosh, well. I should probably say straight off that Nettlefield isn’t a romance. It’s definitely a love story and nobody ends up dead in a gutter or hanged for sodomy (because I have a profound aversion to tragic queers, even while understanding that they’re important and can be really cathartic). It’s Victorian-set, and kind of in the style of a Victorian novel (it’s even in three volumes – though, err, obviously they will be published as a whole book), and it’s about a priest and a prostitute. I wrote it when then the same sex marriage thing was being discussed in parliament so it’s heavily influenced by that – for me, it’s very much an exploration of love-as-choice. And I mean love in the broad sense. Love for a partner, love for a child, love for a deity, love for community. And, god, that sounds pretentious now.
L: Not at all! It sounds very exciting to me. Like, meaty and involved.
AJH: *fingers crossed* I’m really excited that Brain Mill Press offered me an opportunity to publish this story.
L: Hooray! Okay. One last question. Kind of a silly one. You have described yourself as a dilettante. How does that manifest itself?
AJH: Hehe. It’s partially me being silly – but I think being a dilettante is what happens to people who lack the conviction to be Renaissance, err, people. So there’s lots of things I do a little bit but not very well – so I fence, I dance, I write, I speak a little bit Mandarin, I play the guitar pretty badly. And I’ve had lots of jobs, most of which I was terrible at and got fired from.
L: Well, apart from being fired from lots of jobs, all of that actually sounds like living a very full life. 🙂
AJH: Or picking things up and dropping them pretty much at random. I kind of had this … I don’t know … emotional/mental breakthrough at about the age of twenty-one when I realised you could just sort of do things. And it didn’t really matter if you were bad at them.
L: THAT is an excellent philosophy.
AJH: Yes, and so now I am bad at a wide range of things. Unlike most people who are only bad at a few of them.
L: Ahaha, well, it’s better to have lived, etc, etc. Thank you so much for chatting with me today! 🙂
AJH: Thank you for having me. And letting me ramble on interminably.
L: Time is relative! This has been great. Thank you!
Get to know Alexis Hall in all the ways: