Alexis Hall has just released his debut novel, Glitterland, to wide acclaim. It’s a four and a half star read on Goodreads. Library Journal gave it a starred review and deemed it “Highly recommended.” Alexis and I are Twitter pals so I asked him if he’d be willing to be interviewed for AAR. He said yes. I sent him my questions and, though he was on vacation and typing on his phone, he sent me the following resplendent replies.
1) I’ve rarely read a romance with such polar opposite leads. Both men fascinated me. Can you tell me a bit about how you came up with Darian and Ash? Who came first?
It’s pretty straightforward actually: Darian came first. Last year, there was a contestant on the UK X Factor called Rylan Clark who was this, well, sparkling glitter pirate of a man. Obviously Darian isn’t Rylan Clark, because that would be deeply weird, but he was a strong inspiration for the character. The thing is, that type of person does show up in fiction fairly regularly but usually as a background character or a gay best friend, and he tends to be played for laughs. So I decided I wanted to write a book where he was the hero because I think it’s so easy to dismiss people who seem shallow or frivolous or camp or, basically, just not like you. And that meant I needed a context in which he could shine, and also be taken seriously for who he is.
That thinking led me to Ash who, as you say, is pretty much Darian’s polar opposite, at least on the surface. In many ways, Ash is a much more comfortable and familiar character for me to write, because he’s overeducated, wordy and a bit of an arse. I knew pretty much from conception that Ash was going to suffer from bipolar depression. It’s always been something I’ve intended to write about and, in a strange way, this seemed like the right time to do it. I very much wanted to show that even though Darian isn’t posh or conventionally educated he is still capable of of dealing with something real and being of real value.
2) Americans have their own cities with iffy reputations–Pittsburgh, Oakland, Cleveland–and, after reading your novel, it’s clear that the Brits do too. Why do Ash and his friends sneer at Essex? Is it known for being a bad place to visit or for having dreadful food?
Essex is, well, it’s kind of a thing. Basically, people from Essex are stereotypically thought to be shallow, stupid and materialistic. “Essex girls” are supposed to be sexually promiscuous bimbos and “Essex boys” are supposed to be laddish, vulgar and cocky. There’s a whole Essex culture around flash cars, pointy shoes, fake tan and fake boobs. All the references to Darian being orange in the book come from the fact that spray tan is extremely fashionable – indeed, essential – in certain parts of Essex. There’s a TV show called The Only Way Is Essex which is, as far as I understand it, a sort of UK version of Jersey Shore. Truthfully, I’ve always quite enjoyed it. I think once you get past the artificiality of the setup, they do come across as real people to me, with genuine friendships and lives. In short: the attitude to Essex typifies a sort of British snobbery towards what you might call an evolving affluent working class. As is probably evident from the book, class, in general, sort of fascinates me.
3) Ash is a novelist whose first book was “literary fiction,” and whose subsequent books are crime fiction. What’s the first line of the former, Smoke is Briars? What’s the last line of his latest mystery, Through a Glass Darkly?
Do you mind if I take this opportunity to, as they say, go off on one? The thing is, I think fictional texts, by which I mean texts that are themselves fictional rather than works of fiction, are really difficult. There’s a trope you’ll see occasionally on a certain type of TV show, or maybe in some novels, in which a character on that show (or in that book) will write a book about their experiences that will wind up being a heartbreaking work of staggering genius, despite the fact that the show or book in which this character exists is, well, not. And I genuinely don’t have a problem with the idea of a character being a great creative talent – such characters are attractive and interesting – but you have to be really careful in actually portraying their work because, if you’re not careful, it means that you, as a writer, end up having to write something which is supposed to have been written by someone who is a better writer than you are.
The first season of The L Word is really chronic for this. The main character, Jenny Schecter, is this struggling writer and the whole series is scattered with these snippets of her work which are clearly supposed to be awesome and mind blowing but which actually come across as somebody trying way too hard to be awesome and mind blowing. They kind of cotton onto this in later series and start to portray her as this uncreative narcissistic who is only really capable of writing thinly disguised autobiography. And, weirdly, this makes the character a lot more plausible and a lot more bearable.
So, just to get back on track, I very consciously tried to steer away from giving too much detail about Ash’s actual work or from suggesting that he was supposed to be anything other than sort of talented. Obviously The Smoke Is Briars is supposed to be critically acclaimed but I personally always thought it was one of those dreary little books about being mildly discontented in your mid twenties, the sort of things that win prizes and get a few people talking, but nobody ever actually likes. There’s one character in the book who praises it but he’s blatantly trying to get into Ash’s pants at the time. On the other hand, I kind of hope that Ash’s crime fiction is reasonably good. Not Dan Brown obviously, as Darian would probably point out.
Aaaand after all that permeable, here are some suggested first lines for The Smoke is Briars on the understanding that I would deeply hate any or all of these books:
At four a.m. mist hung over the University Parks like the breath of a somnambulant god.
As the UN Inspectors were advised to leave Iraq, I was snorting a line of coke in the Islington flat of a soon to be disgraced Conservative MP.
I missed the last train home that night.
And the last line for any Rik Glass probably goes something like:
Rik Glass shoved the case file into his bottom drawer and poured himself another drink.
4) Ash is a “type 1 bipolar depressive with clinical anxiety disorder.” We know little about his parents other than that his mother treated him when he was hospitalized. Where did Ash’s mental illness come from? Did he have a traumatic childhood event or is he just made that way?
I should probably start off by saying I’m by no means an expert in Depression but my understanding is, even in the 21st century, it’s not very well understood. And I deliberately shied away from suggesting a trigger or a cause for Ash’s illness. Although, for some people, Depression can be directly related to specific events, for a lot people it doesn’t seem to be, and one of the things that can cause additional distress for people suffering from Depression is the lack of explanation and the feeling that their experiences are somehow unjustified or selfish because they don’t have anything to be depressed “about”. But, of course, everyone has different experiences and responses.
So I very much felt that Ash wasn’t a depressive because of anything specific. I think his first maniac episode – the one that got him hospitalised in the first place – was exacerbated by drug use and an unstable lifestyle, but I’ve always assumed he was simply an undiagnosed bipolar depressive before that. I think portraying mental illness in fiction is really difficult in general because there’s always the temptation to make it neat and tidy, and give it a cause at the beginning and a cure at the end. But that can be a problematic tendency because it suggests that mental illness is an obstacle to be overcome rather than, as is the case for many people, a fact you have to deal with every day. To me, the important thing was that Ash was loved for who he was and able to love in return. And for that not to be contingent on his illness being solved or cured.
I’m quite interested by your response to Ash’s parents. Obviously, interpretations are subjective and mine is just another interpretation, but I always saw Ash’s parents, not as evil or abusive, but as quite cold and distant people. There’s not a lot about them in the book because it’s not their story and I wanted to avoid suggesting that Ash’s childhood was responsible for his illness, but I did try to insert little details that might have suggested certain things about the way Ash grew up and his parent’s expectations for him. None of it is vital to the book, so I wasn’t sure how people would respond to it or even notice, but it’s things like pinning his report cards to the fridge (but only when he got As) and the fact they’re very much not present in his life as a potential source of support or love. Ash’s father is clearly absent, emotionally and literally – I think the only thing we learn about him is he once shook hands with Margaret Thatcher.
As for Ash’s mother, again, she’s open to interpretation but there a couple things that make me think pretty badly of her. There’s a bit where Ash remembers her asking him “to try”, just after he’s tried to kill himself, and this is an absolutely awful thing to say someone who is depressed and suicidal. It’s not like depression would be instantly cured if people would only pull their socks up. On the other hand, it’s quite an understandable response – albeit, to my mind, a harmful one.
5) It’s Darian who had the stressful childhood and yet he’s as sweet and gentle a soul as one could find anywhere. What’s his secret? What makes him so able to accept and be able to nurture Ash?
Again, since we’re talking about childhoods, to me it’s quite important that while Darian’s childhood was unconventional, it wasn’t dysfunctional or unloving. Obviously, Darian has been hurt by his mother’s abandonment but his Nan, and his best friend, still provided a safe and loving environment for him. I don’t think Darian has a secret, as such, but – again, without making generalisations about family life – I think people who have been loved tend to be better a expressing, giving and accepting love than people who haven’t. Not to say that the rest of us can’t get there in the end, or that everyone who is unloving themselves came from any unloving home, but, to me, Darian is just sort of person who gives and receives love very easily. I admire people like that very much.
As for for his ability to accept and nurture Ash, again I don’t think it comes down to a secret, or a particular set of traits. I don’t think you need to be a special sort of person to love someone suffering from mental illness, you just have to be willing to do it. Caring for someone with a mental illness carries unique challenges, but so does caring for anybody really. I think that’s kind of what love is: just accepting someone as they are and, with that, the recognition that what you have may not last but still has value and meaning.
6) Do you think you’ll ever revisit any of the characters in Glitterland? I’d love to see if Niall finds happiness and how Amy and Max are doing. And I love Darian’s friend Chloe–surely there’s a nice young thing out there somewhere for her?
I hadn’t really intended to – I tend to see books as quite closed worlds, unless they’re specifically designed to be series. I like to imagine all of those characters do okay, but I guess that’s because I’m a little bit sentimental on the sly – I think I hinted towards the end that Niall was moving on with his life, and getting over both Ash and Max, and I have a sense that Amy and Max would just be rock solid because, well, Amy’s awesome. I’d secretly quite like to write the Chloe book though – that’d be hilarious, but people would probably think I was obsessed with Essex.
Oh, while I remember, it’s not really a sequel or anything, and it doesn’t contribute to the book as it stands, but I did write a 5k word piece of fluff that takes place shortly after the end of the book. To be honest, it’s pure self indulgence, but I took an opportunity to address some things that weren’t really necessary parts of the text itself – like why Ash dresses like he does, and what Darian thinks of the tattoo. I think that’ll be released – for freez – sometime around Riptide’s anniversary.
7) What’s next for you?
The next thing I’ve got coming out is called Iron & Velvet. It’s book one in an f/f urban fantasy series, also published by Riptide. It’s kind of a lesbian paranormal detective romp with strong romantic elements, fedoras and vampires. Needless to say, it’s, um, really quite different to Glitterland. I wanted to write something plotty and actiony, and I’ve always really enjoyed those urban fantasy books where a feisty heroine shags her way around the supernatural population of a large metropolitan area. I thought those genre tropes intersected quite interestingly with a queer sensibility.
Other than that, I’m pretty wary about works in progress. The truth is, I write far more than is actually publishable so I don’t want to claim something is in the pipeline only to discover that no-one in their right mind will actually print it.