Henry Hyde: Designer, Writer, Editor

Author Insights: Six of the best with Piers Alexander

Author Insights: Six of the best with Piers Alexander

Author Insights: Six of the best with Piers Alexander

Piers BearneI’m so pleased that author and serial entrepreneur Piers Alexander has agreed to be my second victim for this new series on the blog which has already attracted a great deal more attention than anything else I’ve ever done on this site. (There’s a lesson right there…) I first encountered Piers a number of years ago when the magazine I owned posted a review of his first book “The Bitter Trade”; more recently, I have been delighted to contribute to his latest work in a small way by creating a map of the place where the action is set.

“Author Insights: Six of the Best” is a new series in which I ask each of my guests six questions that I hope go to the heart of why they choose to earn – or attempt to earn – their living as writers. The intention is to have one writer as a guest every week, some of whom you will have heard of, and some of whom may not have hit the best-seller lists yet, but are beavering away to produce the highest quality work they can. Likewise, some are self-publishing indies, whilst others are ‘traditionally’ published, and yet more belong to that crossover breed of modern writers known as ‘hybrids’, such as myself, choosing whichever path suits best at the time. Thank you to everyone who has left comments here, and especially to all those writers and fans who have shown so much interest on Twitter and have generously helped to spread the word.

 

1. What sort of writing you most love to do? Include as much as you like – fiction (including genre), non-fiction, blogging, copywriting, academic, courses, poetry etc.

My favourite storytelling form – and I haven’t done it that much – is sculpture. OK, it’s not writing, but it gives me a purer form of the best writing feeling.
After that, it’s poetry; or the first draft of a scene I hadn’t planned to write. That glorious, gut-dropping swoop into the unknown. When it works, it’s a chaos that laughs at the future editing process, and takes you into a cloudy mix of nonsense and originality.

The Bitter Trade

 

2. How long did it take to earn your primary living from writing (if, indeed, you do) and what were the major obstacles you have had to overcome?

I hope I never do. Like most writers, I once wanted to – Roz Morris talks about this desire very eloquently in her “Six of the Best” interview – but no more.
Roy Hattersley once said (and it’s a brutal critique of Blair, Cameron and their ilk) that every politician needs a hinterland. I need a hinterland in order to write. Not just my business life (which is filled with illusory triumphs and disasters – ha! Imposters! – and with startups and exits and liquidations), but my real life: of family and marriage and pets and broken washing machines and walking holidays that lead to ecstatically bleak landscapes.
Part of the hinterland is my research trips. The first one was a long pilgrimage above the buried rivers of London, the second a whistlestop walking tour of Jamaica, the most recent a picaresque and slightly unnerving solo journey from Nashville to Charleston and back. I’d do them even if I wasn’t working on a novel – but they’re even better with a purpose. I changed my social media handles to @PiersAtLarge to remind myself not to get stuck behind a desk, even a writing desk.
What have I had to overcome? My ego and its infinite fear-generating capacity, the illusion of comfort and the shadow of bankruptcy, the deliberate and subconscious sabotages of those I trust and those I don’t – well, it’s put so well in The War of Art that I have little to add to the subject.

 

3. Briefly describe your writing and editing process. Are you primarily a plotter or a ‘pantser’?

I plot.
I put the plot in a drawer and fly by the seat of my pants.
I replot.
I put the replot in a bin and further abrade my pants.
I rereplot. I involve readers and editors in an edited rereplot.
I fling the edited rereplot into space and am forced to go to John Lewis for some new underwear.
And so on.
It takes me nearly two years to write the first two drafts, and six more months to write the third and fourth, and go through line edit, copy edit and proofread.
So pants are involved, but not exclusively.
Map of Eastern Jamaica circa 1690 created for Piers Alexander's new book "Scatterwood"

Map of Eastern Jamaica circa 1690 created for Piers Alexander’s new book “Scatterwood”. See http://piersalexander.com

 

4. Which writers, living or dead, do you most admire and why? (As many as you like, but just a couple will do.)

Non-fiction: Yuval Noah Harari, whose Sapiens made me become a vegan, and whose Homo Deus makes me think twice every time I touch a computer. Nobody uses the English idiom than intelligent people for whom it is a second or third language; and these days, many non-fiction writers craft better prose than we people who make stuff up. Harari is a prose Michelangelo.
Fiction: Patrick O’Brian, a literary writer whose plots are ironclad, and an adventure writer whose prose makes literary novelists weep.
And George Macdonald Fraser, who has proved unequivocally that a protagonist does not need to command much sympathy in order to command attention.

 

5. What advice do you wish you had been given when you set out to become a writer?

Actually, I was given it. And I ignored it. And I’m glad. It’s the mistakes that show us who we are.
Oh, sorry – what was the advice? Be yourself, don’t rely on other people for validation, do loads of drafts, practise your craft and get better at writing before expecting to get anywhere, do your research, do descriptions, don’t write cardboard cutout female characters, bleed on the page, etc etc etc.
I was also told to put the manuscript in a drawer when it didn’t get picked up. It was a nice moment when it hit the bestseller charts in WHSmith…

Scatterwood front cover

 

6. Why did you decide to take the indie route?

I didn’t do it voluntarily! I’ve had two novels with two different agents that (seemingly) came close with several different publishers. I’d still take a deal if it was offered, because I believe it will give me leverage to which I can apply my indie ninja skills.
But I’m really glad it worked out this way. I’ve had to confront (and abolish) my own need to be accepted, I’ve met and worked with some lovely people (including you, dear Henry, mappamundist extraordinaire), and I’ve had funny and meaningful interactions with readers – because I’ve had to work at it.
What would I do differently next time? I’d give my agent less time to sell the book – 3 months tops – then get ready to go to market. My agent is dynamic and proactive, and I believe in her, but I feel I let this one spend too long in people’s inboxes.

 

Where can people find you?

Social media links:

 

Thank you for your time and brilliant answers, Piers!

One thought on “Author Insights: Six of the best with Piers Alexander

  1. Roz Morris @Roz_Morris

    Well here I was, enjoying a glimpse of Piers under the bonnet, and I see my name pop up! And that’s such a great point about writers needing a hinterland. I do regular editing shifts on a medical magazine and it’s terrific for keeping my feet on the ground. Especially when our jobs as indie authors require us to be self-promotion machines, making contacts and networking. A good dose of business, or medicine, or broken washing machines stops us disappearing up our own fundaments, pants notwithstanding.

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