Welcome to the two hundred and ninety-sixth of my blog interviews with novelists, poets, short story authors, biographers, agents, publishers and more. Today’s is with literary novelist Alexandra Singer. A list of interviewees (blogged and scheduled) can be found here. If you like what you read, please do go and investigate further.
Morgen: Hello, Alexandra. Please tell us something about yourself, where you’re based, and how you came to be a writer.
Alexandra: I live in Manchester, England, although I have lived a rather peripatetic existence, living across Europe, but particularly in Rome. I speak several languages and trained as a lawyer but fell severely ill and spent two years in hospital, learning to move my body again. Devastated by the loss of the use of my hands, I fought through extreme pain to use my fingers and write again, writing my debut novel ‘Tea at the Grand Tazi’, concerning the experiences of a woman drawn into the seedy underbelly of Marrakech, during my time in hospital. I had memory loss, but I have always written and before I was ill, I had made the outline of the novel. It was very exciting to rediscover my work as I lay in hospital. As I wrote the world of the Grand Tazi came alive for me.
I started writing young; it is a compulsion that I could not do without. However, I did not start to write seriously with the intention of finishing a novel until 2007 when a theme grabbed me and would not let go. For me, writing is not just the desire to tell a story, it is a need to explore certain issues in society and in the subconscious which I cannot find an answer to in any other way. I am probably over sensitive to emotions and am fascinated by the psyche; essentially writing is an exploration of the human condition.
Morgen: My goodness, what an experience. I can absolutely understand the ‘compulsion’ and it’s what we need to keep going through rejections but you’ve certainly had it tough. It must be so thrilling to see your debut novel here. What genre do you generally write and have you considered other genres?
Alexandra: I write literary fiction, but in a manner I consider entertaining and accessible. ‘Tea at the Grand Tazi’ is the sort of story I would like to read, an intelligent story aimed at people who love to travel. I enjoy playing with words, symbols and meaning and am interested in psychoanalysis, so my work is influenced by this. I do consider other genres but it depends on the story that needs to be told.
Morgen: That’s the key – you have to write what you’d like to read. If an author doesn’t want to read their own books then it’s going to show in the writing. What have you had published to-date? Do you write under a pseudonym?
Alexandra: I write under my real name, Alexandra Singer, and my first novel ‘Tea at the Grand Tazi’ was published by Legend Press yesterday, Thursday 1st March.
Morgen: Yay! I mentioned rejections, have you had any? If so, how do you deal with them?
Alexandra: I had many rejections, but I had an inner conviction that my story would resonate with readers and that I was able to write well. When I received rejections I also received encouragement from kind publishers and agents and I concentrated on improving the novel as much as I could, refining language, character and plot. Fortunately, the judges of the Luke Bitmead Bursary, set up in the memory of Luke Bitmead, a Legend Press author who died too young, with the aim of helping struggling young writers, saw my potential and after I came second in the competition they decided to publish Tea at the Grand Novel.
Morgen: I often see mention of the bursary and it picture, what a shame. But again, something good has come out of something bad… like your book. Can you tell us a bit more about the Bursary?
Alexandra: Yes, it set up by Elaine Hanson and her family in memory of her son Luke. The Luke Bitmead Bursary is run by Legend Press every year. Please see www.lukebitmead.com for more information on Luke Bitmead and the Bursary, and there is a donation page for anyone who would like to support the fund.
Morgen: Do you have an agent? Do you think they’re vital to an author’s success?
Alexandra: No, I was rejected several times by agents. I am not able to judge how successful they are to an author’s success. I trust my publishers with whom I have an excellent relationship and I also have a legal background. When I was sending out my novel, I would have liked the support and expertise that an agent offers, but I managed without one.
Morgen: More and more publishers are dealing with authors directly now and it’s gone from being more difficult to get a publisher to now being tougher to get an agent. They’re going to have to make it easier or authors will go straight to the top. Is your book available as eBooks? Were you involved in that process at all? Do you read eBooks or is it paper all the way?
Alexandra: ‘Tea at the Grand Tazi’ is available as an ebook, and I do have a Kindle myself, which I use regularly. I do not believe that eBooks will eradicate paper books; they are interchangeable. EBooks are incredibly convenient, but I o not enjoy the reading experience as much. I use a computer when I work and I am not sure I want to use one when I am relaxing and taking refuge in my imagination as well. Also, you cannot give an EBook as a present, or put them in your library. I love books as objects of art and beauty – cover designs are often works of art in themselves and I enjoy browsing bookstores – they can be such magical places and it would be a tragedy if they died out. People are beginning to realise the danger of this happening and there is a resurgence now of respect for bookstores, so hopefully the tide will begin to turn.
Morgen: Absolutely. I’ve always seen eBooks and pBooks (as paperbacks are now referred) running alongside each other. I have both and have paper at home and electronic away. Even if you’re (one) not a fan of eBooks there’s no doubt that having 400+ books (as I have on my Kindle) with you at any one time is fantastic. How much of the marketing do you do for your published works or indeed for yourself as a ‘brand’?
Alexandra: Legend Press are fantastic. I am also receiving a great deal of media attention at the moment due to my own story and how I came to write ‘Tea at the Grand Tazi’, which is fantastic. I have my own website, (www.alexandrasinger.co.uk). I don’t know if I am a ‘brand’ but it is certainly a place where I can connect with readers and they can contact me, and I write on current affairs and writing.
Morgen: Not a brand yet, perhaps. Do you have a favourite of your characters? If your book was made into a film, who would you have as the leading actor/s?
Alexandra: In ‘Tea at the Grand Tazi’, my favourite character is, without any doubt at all, Mahmoud, who is the jovial, yet evil owner of the Grand Tazi hotel. He is rather nefarious, up to all sorts of shady deals and he runs the Grand Tazi hotel as a den for all sorts of illegal dealings, but he is a fascinating character, really slimy, a complete fixer but strangely sympathetic at the same time. He feels very real to me. If ‘Tea at the Grand Tazi’ was ever made into a film, I imagine Mahmoud as being played by the Iranian-English comic Om
Morgen: That’s the thing – characters have to be real and I love that. Did you have any say in the title / cover of your book? How important do you think they are?
Alexandra: I had certain ideas for the theme, but I am a writer, not a designer. I do think that the cover of a book is very important; not only should it convey the theme and what the book is essentially about, and it should draw people in, but the cover of a book can be a beautiful piece of art in itself. I had certain ideas for the cover of ‘Tea at the Grand Tazi’, and the artist Anna Marrow designed a fantastic, vibrant cover which I absolutely love and which I think is perfect for the novel.
Morgen: The cover’s great. Simple yet effective. What are you working on at the moment / next?
Alexandra: I am doing a lot of research on memory and religion in the library for my next novel, and thinking about certain aspects of the plot and characters.
Morgen: See we’re working even while we’re thinking (staring out the window :)). Do you manage to write every day? Do you ever suffer from writer’s block?
Alexandra: When I am thinking about a novel, before I start writing properly, I scribble down notes and read everything relevant I can get my hands on. Sometimes I worry that I am not doing any real writing in those months and that I am not actually producing anything, but actually that time is crucial for the formation of the plot and characters in my subconscious. Even when I sleep the story is forming, once I am a certain way into my research and planning. However, once I start writing seriously, I make sure I produce at least a thousand words every day and am extremely disciplined. I don’t suffer from ‘writer’s block’, although I have experienced times when I find I can’t continue writing, but this is usually due to the need to rethink a plot line and revaluate my work. Sometimes I don’t reach my target word count per day, and that is alright- it just means I have to work harder the next.
Morgen: 1,000 words a day, wow. That’s a NaNoWriMo novel in a couple of months. Do you plot your stories or do you just get an idea and run with it?
Alexandra: I don’t plot as much as I should, but I find that when I plot too much the story becomes inflexible and unbelievable. I think I may have found a happy medium. I find that the theme, the location of the novel and creating well-formed characters are crucial, and they then tell me where they want to go as the story develops. However, I have found that at certain points they may need a little guidance.
Morgen: <laughs> My favourite aspect of writing. Do you have a method for creating your characters, their names and what do you think makes them believable?
Alexandra: I have no particular method, other than thinking about them until they form in my mind as believable people. When I am ready, at the right point in the story, usually before a character makes their first entrance, I write a character portrait.
Morgen: Do you write any non-fiction, poetry or short stories?
Alexandra: No, I prefer the novel form. The short story is a difficult form to perfect, and I actually prefer the novel because I find the short story unsatisfying, it is a snapshot whilst what I love about the novel is that an entire world can be found between two covers.
Morgen: Ah, I find novels hard. Too many threads. I’ve written four so it’s great to now be able to go and edit them but if I didn’t have to write another one and just stick to the short stories, that would be fine. Do you do a lot of editing or do you find that as time goes on your writing is more fully-formed?
Alexandra: Like most writers, I do a lot of editing. If I was to submit my writing unedited it would read like a stream of consciousness. I do several drafts and the first draft is always by hand, full of unfinished ideas and random twists.
Morgen: Do you have to do much research?
Alexandra: Yes, I do a great deal of research, because I enjoy delving into the world I am intending to create, and it helps me to gain a feel for the themes I am exploring. I also love libraries; I enjoy spending time in them and find them very calming.
Morgen: Aren’t they great. Fortunately my local is well supported but then it’s in the town centre so that helps. What point of view do you find most to your liking: first person or third person? Have you ever tried second person?
Alexandra: I always use the third person, past tense. I find the first person and the second person artificial and hard to believe, and I also find it very hard to read novels which are written in the present tense, because that too sounds artificial, as by the time someone has spoken or an event has been described, it is already over.
Morgen: Third person, past tense is definitely the most popular. Do you have pieces of work that you think will never see light of day?
Alexandra: I am sure most writers do; writing is a craft and learning to write a novel is a process, often a very long one. It is also ongoing. There are early pieces I wrote which I can’t bear to read. I think that I am finally ready to be published.
Morgen: Me too. What’s your favourite / least favourite aspect of your writing life? Has anything surprised you?
Alexandra: I enjoy all aspects of writing, it is all part of the creative process, when the story and the character are forming in the mind. It is surprising what my mind can create, and the connections that I make. Sometimes I don’t know myself where some of my ideas come from! Definitely my favourite part of writing has to be when I have been writing and I arrive at about the half way mark for the novel, which is probably about 50,000 words. I know then that I am getting somewhere and the story and characters are developing. Also when I have a good writing day. I try for 1000 words a day before I do anything else (I don’t just write, I am doing an MA in Law and I also freelance and do intensive physiotherapy to walk again) I am happy. The least favourite part is when I am creating a new story and doing research, when I am right at the beginning and I don’t know if all the work I am doing will come to anything or I will reach a dead end; I also become very anxious during this period because I worry that if I am not producing then I am being lazy, although in reality I know this worry is groundless because this period of thinking about the novel, the location, sketching out the plot and developing the characters is a crucial piece of planning that has to be done before the writing can begin in earnest.
Morgen: Writers do give themselves a hard time if they’re not writing and it’s true that you can’t edit a blank page but equally forcing something out is likely to force rubbish and is bound to lead to frustration. What advice would you give aspiring writers?
Alexandra: Read as much as possible; all the classics, modern and contemporary literature, and read the bible, the Greek playwrights such as Aeschylus, Euripides, Sophocles, read Shakespeare so that you can quote him and know the story lines, so that you understand literary theory and you recognise beautiful, innovative use of language. Have an interest in people, in psychology, in history, culture and art – essentially, an interest in the world around you and the people who make it up. I’d also suggest learning another language so that you understand how language works. Most importantly, practice. Writing is a craft. People think that because they can write, they can write a novel. But writers are always improving.
Morgen: They are, even famous ones. I speak pretty good German, and it’s interesting you say that. If you could invite three people from any era to dinner, who would you choose and what would you cook (or hide the takeaway containers)?
Alexandra: Graham Greene, because I love his writing, his stories and satire and his description – the opening passage of ‘The Quiet American’ is haunting. Also, Anais Nin because she was a fascinating woman and because of the tales she would tell about her lovers, and Freud, because he could psychoanalyse all three of us.
Morgen: Is there a word, phrase or quote you like?
Alexandra: Yes, amongst thousands of others, the one that springs to mind this moment is the word ‘bibulous’. It reminds me of Winston Churchill. I love how one word can evoke an entire person.
Morgen: Are you involved in anything else writing-related other than actual writing or marketing of your writing?
Alexandra: No – I am doing an MA in Medical Law and Bioethics at the University of Manchester. I trained as a lawyer and I had to stop suddenly for health reasons (a sudden neurological illness that was nearly fatal). I freelance in legal research and as an Italian translator. In the past I have worked in marketing and sales. I find that I often need to have other work as well as writing so I have that extra longing to create.
Morgen: Having an overwhelming blog (and still the day job, although I should be leaving that next week – I’ve been saying that since Christmas!) and little spare time to create gives me that longing. What do you do when you’re not writing? Any hobbies or party tricks?
Alexandra: I paint and work on other projects, see my friends, go to the cinema and the theatre, nothing particularly unusual.
Morgen: But the important things. Are there any writing-related websites and/or books that you find useful?
Alexandra: No. Only real literature can teach a writer; that and practice. The rest is time wasting.
Morgen: What do you think the future holds for a writer?
Alexandra: The world will always want more stories.
Morgen: It will, and we’re grateful for that. Where can we find out about you and your work?
Morgen: Thank you, Alexandra. Good luck with novel number two.
I then invited Alexandra to include an extract of her writing…
At the next table along, a large woman was laughing, her head thrown far back. She must have been in her early fifties at least, and her voice made a low, rasping sound. Her head was uncovered, her skin pitted and her hands rough, and she was talking to her much younger male companion with all the innocent flirtatiousness of a school girl. But when she laughed, she laughed loudly, with the voice of a savage. Maia was enthralled by the woman’s plumpness, her vast femininity.
Alexandra Singer lives in Manchester. She travelled widely, living in Europe, most notably in Rome, before training as a lawyer.
In 2008 she succumbed to a sudden neurological illness which was nearly fatal and struggled to write again during the two years she spent in hospital rehabilitating. ‘Tea at the Grand Tazi’ is her debut novel.
Oh, how cute is her dog (‘Scrumpy’).
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