Monday, 15 February 2010

The Speculative Spotlight: An Interview With Alex Bell

Hello, everyone.

At long last, it gives me great pleasure introduce you to The Speculative Spotlight, a semi-regular interview feature that with a little luck, you'll be seeing a great deal more of here on the blog. It's been an age in the offing, and I've already lined up several incredibly exciting candidates for future installments - but let's not get ahead of ourselves so soon!

I couldn't be happier to have, as the first writer to be subjected to my meandering inquiries, none other than the lovely Alex Bell, author of Lex Trent Versus the Gods as well as two previous novels that rocked genre fans upon their earlier release. Her most recent novel, published earlier this month by Headline here in the UK, is a comic fantasy fans of YA literature will find particularly to their tastes. But I'm not particularly young, nor particuarly adult, at that, and I had a great time with Lex Trent Versus the Gods. There'll be a full review on the site for your reading pleasure tomorrow, but for the moment, suffice it to say that I'd recommend Alex's latest to anyone who likes fun.

Without any further burbling, then, let's all gather round and make an effort to keep any whispering to hushed tones while The Speculative Spotlight shines on... Alex Bell.


Hi there, Alex.

Hello, Niall.

Well then! Thanks so much for answering my --- no, no, hang on a second. I’m getting rather ahead of myself, aren’t I?

All kidding aside, I couldn’t be happier to have you here on The Speculative Scotsman, Alex. I’ve been reading through LEX TRENT VERSUS THE GODS over the past few nights - well into the wee hours, in fact - and I’m pleased to say I’ve had a great time with your first all-ages fantasy. Of course, you’ve written several rather different novels in the past, haven’t you?

I am delighted to be here on the estimable Speculative Scotsman blog, Niall!

I'm glad to hear you had a good time with Lex - I certainly had loads of fun writing about him. In fact, my family teased me mercilessly for laughing at my own jokes whilst I was typing them.

In the past I have written two serious adult novels for Gollancz. THE NINTH CIRCLE is a supernatural, religious thriller, and JASMYN is supernatural romantic suspense. They are both completely different from Lex.

What was it that compelled you to write a novel for young adults, in that case? Had it always been among your no-doubt dastardly plans to win over that audience, or did LEX TRENT VERSUS THE GODS begin as something else entirely? I’d be very interested to hear how such a radical shift in your writing came about.

I do have an abundance of dastardly plans festering away in my brain, but this was not one of them! I don't really think of LEX TRENT VERSUS THE GODS as YA, as such, I think of him as comic fantasy. I've always wanted to write comic fantasy, and first wrote one when I was eighteen, which got me my agent at London Independent Books.

So LEX TRENT VERSUS THE GODS was a return to what I had originally wanted to do rather than a going off in a new direction.

Well, LEX TRENT VERSUS THE GODS is certainly funny, and fantastic, at that - stay tuned, readers, for a full review tomorrow.

So, would your first comic fantasy, as you say, be one of the two novels you mention on your excellent website that haven’t yet seen publication?

Yes, the first comic fantasy is one of those books. Maybe one day I will get it out, dust it off, and try again, because I still have a special soft spot for that one and would love to see it published rather than wasting away in a drawer.

Now I know it’s not polite to ask a lady her age, but going from the fact you’ve only been around - by which I mean alive - since 1986, you must be... what? 24 years young, at most? How on Earth have you managed to write five novels and study Law in that short space of time? What’s your secret?

I'm 24 in April, and my secret - wait for it - is that I do not sleep! I drink Red Bull instead. Lots and lots of Red Bull! All joking aside though, I was desperate to get somewhere with the writing before I finished my law degree because otherwise I knew I would go straight into training to be a solicitor and would have very little time to write from then on. It was like one of those adventure films where the hero wakes up tied to a raft that's rushing down a river and heading straight for a waterfall. I dreaded getting sucked into the legal profession and never being able to leave it. If there's a more effective incentive to write than trying to escape from a career in Law, I have yet to see it.

But I really do have a mini-fridge full of Red Bull next to my desk.

A would-be lawyer who doesn’t sleep at night? I’m going to leave that one well alone!

For all that the idea of a career as a solicitor seems to leave you in cold sweats, I noticed several things during my reading of LEX TRENT VERSUS THE GODS that very much feed into the notion of Law and order; if I might be so bold, your novel seems to share many of the same principles that underpin the legal system - even if Lex goes against them at every turn. There’s talk of absolute rights and entitlement; you could very well call the games trials; not to mention that Lex is himself studying Law, and the character of the Judge. Was it a conscious decision to infuse your novel with so many of these notions, or did it just... happen naturally?

Well, the inclusion of all the legal stuff was a conscious decision. There seems little point in denying that some of my own frustrations and boredoms with studying Law are reflected in Lex's feelings and behaviour. I had lectures I wanted to just throw down my books and run out of, but as I couldn't do that myself, the next best thing was to have Lex stick two fingers up at the legal profession on my behalf. This is quite unusual for me as I usually make a conscious effort to keep my own life out of the books, but I think a few personal elements did creep in with LEX TRENT VERSUS THE GODS. I wanted to poke fun at the Law a bit, as it got a little tedious having to take it so seriously all the time at university.

I hope you’ll forgive me if I’m prying into something very intimate here, but I’m wondering, now, if another of those personal elements you say crept into LEX TRENT VERSUS THE GODS was the soulless wake. Before we get to that, though, could you be so kind as to explain what the soulless wake is for those readers who haven’t yet had the pleasure of Lex’s inaugural adventure?

The soulless wake is a condition that causes a person to mentally deteriorate, until they forget who they are, and who their loved ones are. It is, to all intents and purposes, a fantasy world version of Alzheimer’s. And, yes, this is one of the personal elements that crept into LEX TRENT VERSUS THE GODS, as my grandfather was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s a couple of years before I started writing the book.

As I said, I usually try to avoid any of my own life getting into my novels, but this was something that was upsetting me at the time and it just sort of sneaked in. I think having it there helped me deal with it in a strange sort of way. Obviously, I did not react to my grandfather's illness in the same selfish manner that Lex did, but I understand the inclination to give up and run, as it is a very difficult condition to live with, and I think to care for someone who is suffering from Alzheimer’s - as my grandmother did for my grandfather - day after day, for years, requires a very special kind of patience, strength and love, and I have nothing but respect and admiration for such people, even though I am unsure whether I would be capable of such a thing myself.

For myself, I don’t imagine that’s a question you can ever truly answer until you find yourself in such an awful position.

And I wouldn’t say that it’s strange at all, Alex, that fictionalising a difficult thing you’re dealing with in the day-to-day could help you come to terms with it. In much the same way, I would think, as you incorporated into the writing of LEX TRENT VERSUS THE GODS another of the quandaries you’ve faced: the Law.

Now I know you don’t think of LEX TRENT VERSUS THE GODS as YA, but given that it’s been at the very least marketed as such, it’s certainly likely to land in the hands of young readers. How do you think that audience will react to the more difficult questions your novel raises?

I'm not sure that teenagers will react to the difficult questions any differently from how adults readers would react. The darker bits in LEX TRENT VERSUS THE GODS are, I hope, done in a relatively light way rather than an overly depressing way, and were not supposed to be incredibly profound or meaningful as such. The book is primarily meant to be fun, and I would hope that any reader, whether teenage or adult, would enjoy it as a light hearted piece of escapism. I suppose Lex's contempt for the legal profession could possibly put younger readers off the idea of becoming a lawyer, but as there are so very many of them already, I can't say that I view that as an overly bad thing! The world only needs so many lawyers, after all.

I certainly don’t mean to suggest that younger readers aren’t capable of grasping such provocative subject matter; quite the opposite, in fact. I feel that there’s a terribly reductive sort of snobbery as far as YA literature goes. You know the opinion I’m referring to, I’m sure: it’s just stuff and nonsense about pirates or magicians or some such, and if you really want your books to make you think, better to wait it out for the next Ian McEwan or Salman Rushdie, say, than to lower yourself to something that serves little purpose beyond keeping the kids busy.

What I’m asking, ultimately, is having written fiction for both for adults and younger readers, how do you feel YA is positioned to ask and answer the bigger questions? And, if I may, what are your thoughts on the sneers and jeers the genre so often receives from critics more concerned with the high-brow?

I think there is an element of snobbery towards YA as a genre because there is sometimes a presumption that this means "dumbing down" the story. I do think this is a shame as any decent YA book won't talk down to its audience, and novels aimed at young adults can be every bit as deep and insightful as those aimed at a slightly older market.

Having said that, I think some of the snobbery is lessoning now because of the fact that YA seems to be turning into a bigger deal, with publishers starting separate YA imprints, and online reviewers starting blogs aimed specifically at YA books. Also, with the success of things like HARRY POTTER and TWILIGHT, the line between the two markets is blurring a little. Basically, I think anything an adult book can do - any issues it can tackle or deal with - can be dealt with just as effectively in a young adult book because these are novels aimed at young adults, not children. If anything holds the content of YA books back then it is far more likely to be overly zealous parents (who don't realise their kids hear far worse on the playground every day) than the teenagers themselves. But my own experience has been that I have not been in any way hampered by writing for young adults, even though I feared at the start that I might be.

Hear hear!

Before we leave this topic once and for all, though, let me ask: you’ve said a YA book can do pretty much anything an adult novel can, but do you think there’s anything YA is capable of that adult fiction isn’t? I’m of the mind that its unique situation can work to its advantage, despite the fact that the opposite perception seems to be the overriding opinion.

Hmm. Possibly, I suppose. When I was writing LEX TRENT VERSUS THE GODS I felt like I had more freedom to make the characters and settings as mad and fantastical as I liked, without worrying that I ought to hold back in order to make the story more realistic or whatever. I thought these elements would be accepted more readily by teenage readers. But perhaps that was me doing an injustice to the adult market! I certainly do not think the situation of the YA market is a disadvantage, and I wouldn't deny that it might even be an advantage instead.

Quite right, too.

Moving on, you mentioned earlier that Lex deals with his grandfather’s illness selfishly. In point of fact, he’s a bit full of it in many other respects, too. He’s smug, arrogant and often rather mean - and that’s just for starters. Was there an art to making a collection of such unappealing characteristics into an appealing character?

Did you feel compelled, ultimately, to show him the error of his ways?

Oh, Lex is quite awful in a number of different ways! It's always going to be a bit of a fine line with an anti-hero, but Lex came into my head fully formed. I liked him, and enjoyed writing about him, more because of his faults than in spite of them, and I hope readers will feel the same way.

As for showing him the error of his ways, I think there are occasions in the first book, and especially in the second one, where his selfish, arrogant ways cause him problems. But he usually manages to overcome them! I would never want Lex to be completely reformed because then he would bore me profoundly!

Well, you brought up the second book, so I can’t be held responsible any longer!

What can we expect from Lex’s next adventure? Is there another game in store for him, or are there bigger hijinx afoot?

There is a game - which will be even bigger and better than last time - but there is also a spectacular scam involving cowboys, magic swords and dragons! And Lex finally meets his match in the form of his new companion - a happy-go-lucky, good-for-nothing outlaw cowboy called Jesse, who is almost as much of a liar and a cheat and a scoundrel as Lex is himself!

Oh, that does sound like fun. Any chance you could whet the appetites of TSS readers with a working title, or perchance - to dream - a rough timeframe? With all that Red Bull you’ve got to be making some serious headway with the sequel!

I finished the sequel months ago, Niall! Lex Trent books practically write themselves! Even now I can hardly believe they pay me to do it! I'm afraid I can't give you a title as that is still being discussed at the moment, and, similarly, I can't give you a release date because I don't know it myself. The first Lex book was delayed coming out due to a setback with the cover, and I assume this means the second Lex will get pushed back a little as well - which should probably make it early next year some time.

Ah, well, you can’t blame me for trying for the scoop.

My nosiness aside, that’s some great news. So you’re on number three now? Do you think we’ll see another adult Alex Bell book at some point in the future, or is the comic fantasy of Lex and his continuing adventures all you need for now?

I'm working on a serious adult book at the moment, but I would certainly love to write more Lex Trents in the future. They're very different from the adult ones but I really enjoy writing both types of book, and it's quite nice to have the two as they make a pleasant change from each other.

I gots the scoop in the end!

One last question, then, before I let you go. If you could eat LEX TRENT VERSUS THE GODS - and that’s not something I’d advise readers try - what would it taste like?

What a great question! It would taste like a funnel cake - this hot, fried batter cake thing that you get at theme parks, carnivals and fairs in America - with lots of powdered sugar and chocolate on top. Not particularly good for you, but a delicious treat nonetheless!

I’ll have to look that one up, can’t say I’ve had the pleasure.

Well, that’s all I’ve got. I can’t thank you enough for taking the time to give me and the TSS readership an insight into the creative process, Law, YA literature and why we can’t help but love to hate Lex Trent - not to speak of all the other subjects we’ve covered in this interview. It’s been an absolute pleasure, Alex, and you’ve been a brilliant subject. Thanks again.

The pleasure was all mine, Niall! Thank you very much for the brilliant questions!


And that concludes my conversation with the first guest to grace The Speculative Spotlight. Wasn't it fun?

Tune in again soon for my next chat, when I'll be playing host to Sam Sykes, the machete-wielding author of Tome of the Undergates.

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