Alex Perry published his first novel, ‘The War of Undoing’* a couple of years ago, and I posted this interview with him then on one of my other blogs (Cecilia Peartree – Woman of Mystery).
The reason for re-posting the interview now is that, following a rather trying week (for me anyway) during which I moved out of my old office and found the new office wasn’t quite ready for my team yet, something really nice happened while Alex and I were shopping in Tesco’s on Friday.
A little while ago he had entered his novel in the Self-Published Fantasy Blog-Off (2017 edition) or SPFBO, a contest in which up to 300 self-published fantasy novels are entered, and ten established fantasy bloggers take a share of them each, read as much as is humanly possible (more, in some cases!) and whittle their list down until only one remains from each group. Along the way they post reviews, which are sometimes not very long in the case of novels that are eliminated quite quickly, and which can be as long as they like for the rest. After a first stage where the blogger read 20% of each novel in his group to decide the first round, Alex’s novel was one of only four remaining in his group, and on Friday in the toothpaste aisle in Tesco’s, he heard via Twitter that he had won the group and progressed to the final round, in which the winners from the ten blogger groups are judged against each other by all the bloggers. The review he received at this point was one of the best reviews I’ve ever seen anywhere, and if you’d like to read it please follow this link: The War of Undoing review
(Don’t be put off by the title of the blog itself – it seems harmless enough!)
The contest will take quite a bit longer to complete, as many of the other bloggers are taking a lot longer to get through the novels on their list.
Why I did the interview in the first place
I had been thinking of writing something about what it’s like to have two writers living in the same house, and this evolved into an interview format.
Personally I feel very lucky to have someone else in my family who also writes novels. This is not entirely because I’m hoping at some point Alex will publish an international bestseller and keep me in luxury in my old age, or because we can talk about grammar and character development without boring each other’s socks off. It’s mainly because he doesn’t give me the look that sometimes passes over people’s faces when I tell them I write novels. The look is a sort of mingled incomprehension and panic. I think the panic is in case I try and get them to read something I’ve written and they have to confess they didn’t like it. Not everyone has that look, I hasten to add – one of my friends ‘secretly’ reads all my novels and once said to me, out of the blue, ‘If you keep writing them, I’ll keep reading them’.
Anyway, here we go with the questions and answers.
Image: Alex as King Neptune in one of the plays we wrote together. I thought he wouldn’t mind this picture because of the way the beard hides his face.
Cecilia Peartree: What made you want to be a writer?
Alex Perry: I can’t remember, but I know what makes me want to keep being a writer: it’s an escape from all the worry and uncertainty of real life. When my brain is boiling, writing cools it down. I also like the idea of connecting with strangers who share some unspoken sensibility with me. Plus I don’t have many practical or social skills, so at this point writing may be my best hope at a career!
CP: When did you start writing?
AP: I’ve been writing for as long as I can remember. I don’t know what the first thing I wrote was, but I think my first full book was The Thinking Tunnel, a shameless rip-off of Enid Blyton’s Faraway Tree series, which I loved. Then I wrote The Red Water World Mystery, a meandering fantasy starring a boy called Alex, then Super Bubble Mix, an even more meandering Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy rip-off. After that — when I was about eleven or twelve, I think — I started writing a bunch of beginnings for epic fantasy novels, one of which eventually mutated and grew into The War of Undoing.
CP: Have you always wanted to write fantasy?
AP: Yes. For one thing, many of my favourite books are fantasy: The Hobbit, Harry Potter, His Dark Materials, Discworld. Almost everything I’ve ever written has some element of fantasy in it. I like it because it allows us both to escape from the real world and to confront it. Somehow these two are not mutually exclusive in fantasy. That’s part of its magic.
CP: Did you ever consider separating ‘The War of Undoing’, which is a very long novel, into more than one book?
AP: I did when I started seriously thinking about publishing it. All the advice I read told me that debut novels should be less than half the length that The War of Undoing was. But by then I’d already written a draft, and there was no good place to split it — the story only seemed to work when told in one piece. So my rebellious streak kicked in, and I decided to ignore the ubiquitous advice. I’m wary of writing advice anyway — I don’t like strangers assuming they know all the problems with what I’ve written without having read it. I suppose I’ll find out for myself if publishing such a long book was a mistake.
CP: Do you write from an outline or make it up as you go along?
AP: A bit of both. The basic plot for The War of Undoing was born one day when I had the idea for the big thing that happens at the end of part three (I won’t spoil it here). Suddenly a bunch of other elements I’d been playing with for ages fell into place around that, and before I knew it I had a four-page outline. The first draft more or less followed this outline, though I got to know the characters a lot better along the way. Then, at every stage of rewriting, the story changed a little more. Mostly I just wove more story threads in between the ones I already had, until the book felt nicely dense with character and theme.
CP: How much time do you spend every day writing?
AP: That varies wildly. I used to only write when the mood took me, which is why the first draft of The War of Undoing took years. But after university, when I decided to treat writing as a career, I came up with a routine which involved writing for six hours a day (I now split this into three blocks of two hours each). That’s how I got TWOU from an early, messy draft to a finished, slightly less messy novel. But I still have trouble staying productive — I tend to have two or three week bursts where I follow my six hour routine, punctuated by weeks of trying to find the motivation to get back into it.
CP: What do you do to relax?
AP: I’d say reading, but nowadays there’s always that jealous voice in the back of my head telling me I’ll never write anything as good as this, or, less frequently, that bitter voice telling me I could write something better. So reading isn’t exactly relaxing, although I still love it. I enjoy working on smaller projects like podcasts, songs, silly short videos and so on, but these inevitably become stressful in their own way. The only way I can really relax is to completely tune out of reality for a while — for the past few years I’ve mostly been doing this by watching Let’s Play videos and other nonsense on YouTube, and listening to podcasts about subjects I’m not too personally involved in. I know this is a waste of time, but there’s something incredibly soothing about it, especially once you get to know the voices.
CP: Is there somewhere you’ve always wanted to visit? Or to live?
AP: In theory I’d like to visit pretty much every country in the world and experience all their cultures — Italy, New Zealand, India and the US spring to mind — but in practice I’m not a great traveller. I tend to get anxious, stressed, travel-sick, sleep-deprived, or, more often than not, all of the above. It is an ambition of mine to get over all this some day and go on a round-the-world trip. But for now I’d probably be happiest living somewhere peaceful and secluded — maybe a cottage in the Scottish highlands.
CP: Do you prefer cats or dogs? Or don’t you like either?
AP: I like both. Dogs want to be everyone’s best friend, which is a nice quality, but a little exhausting after a while. As an introvert I can relate to cats more.
CP: What’s it like when two writers live in the same house?
AP: It’s great! I would feel quite isolated if I didn’t have someone to talk to about the writing process, rogue characters and fiddly grammatical matters. It’s even better that the other writer in this house has already been through the self-publishing process many times and can encourage and advise me about it. And in this case she also pays the bills, so I can’t really complain…
*The War of Undoing by Alex Perry is available here:
Find out more about Alex here: http://www.alexperrywriter.co.uk