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May 2016 Crime author of the month interview with Alan Alexander

1. How did you get started writing?

 ​I was an academic for most of my professional career, having started in the ‘publish or ​​perish’ atmosphere of North American universities. So I had to write academic stuff, ​​though I had also tried my hand at student journalism at Glasgow University. I really ​​wanted to be a journalist, but academic life seemed less precarious for a married man with ​a young family. Somewhere, unformed in the back of my mind, there was an ambition to ​write fiction. Or rather, a curiosity about whether I could do it. I found time to scratch that ​itch only after I retired: my first crime novel appeared in my seventieth year.


2. What drew you to write a crime novel?


​I had an idea for a murder mystery that would draw on my academic background as

​an expert in government, politics and public sector management, and on my experience as ​a public servant of working in large, complex organizations. I couldn’t make the idea work ​in its original form, but the notion of a body discovered after fifty years in the ground ​​survived and was the basis for Bloody Royals. I thought I would be better at plot-driven ​​rather than character-driven fiction, though I recognized that the invention of strong ​​characters would be crucial to the development of plot. All of that pointed towards crime ​​fiction.


3. Which writers past or present have influenced your style of writing?


​Given my background, I’ve had to read a lot of turgid academic prose, in which the clarity of ​the ideas gets concealed by the obscurity of the style. So a negative influence came from ​deciding that one should try to write simple, clear prose, with a minimum of complexity and ​a maximum of impact. Quite early on, I read almost everything George Orwell ever wrote. ​I knew that I would never write that kind of clear, limpid, lucid prose – ‘subject, object, ​​predicate’, as my secondary school English teacher emphasized – but it was a style to ​​aspire to. Among contemporary writers, few are better than William Boyd and John le ​​Carre. A wonderful recent discovery was Stoner, by John Williams, originally published in ​1965, and largely forgotten until it was reissued in 2013. A campus novel rather than a ​​crime novel, but beautifully written.


4. When you first started writing did you find it hard to get publisher interest?


​Still do! It’s a fiercely competitive and very crowded field. Most of the agents I contacted ​before I self-published my first novel as an e-book simply didn’t reply; a few said on their ​​websites that their lists were closed; one prominent agent asked for sample chapters and ​then failed to contact me further. I continue to try to find an agent to take me on, for ​​conventional publication, promoted by a publisher, is still the best way to get a book ​​noticed, and read. Good reviews (mainly!) on Amazon help, but it’s not enough to get a ​​writer widely noticed. It’s important, as all aspiring authors will tell you, not to take ​​rejection personally and to keep at it.


5. There are many interesting characters in your Novels, do you have a particular favourite one?


​It would be a surprise if I didn’t say DI/DCI Vanessa Fiske. She’s the core of the books, a ​consummate professional, but prone to the self-doubt that affects many women in male-​​dominated professions. I also have a soft spot for Harry Conival, the hardbitten, cynical ​​press officer who presents as an idle sod, but can’t quite conceal his professionalism.


 6. What kind of research have you had to undertake for your Novels?


​The internet is a wonderful thing! I once heard a very distinguished writer at a literary ​​festival confess that he had never visited the city that was so much a part of his latest ​​novel, which I had recently read. Somehow, that stuck in my mind. On technical matters ​that are central to the plot, I talk to the appropriate expert. My academic past, and my ​​current position as General Secretary of the Royal Society of Edinburgh (Scotland’s ​​National Academy), are useful in securing access to the best people.


7. Are the characters in your books based on any real life?


​Not consciously! When I re-read my books (to ensure consistency among them), however, ​I sometimes see characteristics that I remember from people I’ve met, or worked with. But ​they’re composites rather than clones.


8. What do you think makes your novels stand out from all the other Scottish Crime Fiction Novels out there?


​That’s for others to judge! I can say only that I’ve tried to make them plot-driven, with a ​​preponderance of dialogue over exposition and narrative description. I’ve also avoided ​​gratuitous violence and not been afraid to allow characters to be opinionated and ​​intelligent. Does that make the books ‘stand out’? Again, not my call!

9. Do you see any of your characters personality in yourself and vice versa?


​Some of my readers say they can hear my voice in the words of some of my ​​​characters…And sometimes I indulge my prejudices, I fear.


10. If you can, would you give us a sneaky peek into any future novels you have planned.


​I’ll say only that there’s a clue at the end of By All Means to the plot of the next Fiske ​​and MacNee Mystery, which I hope to publish later this year.

11. Out of all the Novels you have written do you have a favourite one that stands out to you?


​Of the three so far, By All Means, because it situates a strong story in a very real world of ​Scottish politics, but watch out for the next one!


12. As an up and coming crime writer do you have words of advice you can share?


​Early in my academic career, I had colleague whose advice to younger staff members was ​always, ‘Don’t get dis-en-couraged!’ I can’t do better than that.



BY ALL MEANS*Version*=1&*entries*=0





Twitter: @alan_alexander7


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