Hello everyone and welcome back to The Bookworm’s Fantasy! I hope you’re all well. This post is really exciting for me, and I’m absolutely thrilled to be taking part in my FIRST EVER blog tour! It’s for T.A. Cotterell’s stunning debut novel ‘What Alice Knew’. It’s due to be released as an eBook on December 1st, and as a paperback on 20th April 2017 with Transworld Books/Penguin Random House. I reviewed it here, so please do go and check that out. But in this particular post, I’m posting an exclusive Q&A with the author! So, here goes…
Alice has a perfect life – a great job, happy kids, a wonderful husband. Until he goes missing one night; she receives a suspicious phone call; things don’t quite add up.
Alice needs to know what’s going on. But when she uncovers the truth she faces a brutal choice. And how can she be sure it is the truth?
Sometimes it’s better not to know.
About the author
T.A. Cotterell read History of Art at Cambridge University. He worked in the City before resigning to become a freelance writer. He is now a writer and editor at the research house Redburn. He is married with three children and lives in Bristol.
Where did the initial idea for the story stem from?
The initial idea derived from finding out something about my parents as an adult I had never known as a child and, as a parent myself, thinking about truth between generations and the parent-child contract in terms of knowledge. This led to the idea of a couple with a secret. I also belatedly read Donna Tartt’s ‘The Secret History’ and liked the idea of being ‘on the side of’ people who have done something wrong, which seemed to offer an original slant – not ‘whodunnit?’ but ‘will they get away with it?’ After that it was a question of building the blocks to put it together.
Did you experience any set backs whilst writing this? How did you overcome them?
Yes! I originally wrote the novel in the 3rd person. This meant Ed was more central. Yet it was important he was simply the ‘man-next-door’ and what happened to him could happen to anyone. Hence agents said he was too dull. But I knew he wasn’t the protagonist, because from the moment Araminta dies he is a ‘dangling man’, waiting for the police to catch him or Alice to shop him. She is the one with a moral choice she must face daily and which ultimately defeats her. So, with a deep breath, and without looking at the original, I re-wrote it completely, with much changing in the process.
What motivated you to write this novel? Was there a particular message or meaning that you wished to convey?
I wanted to write about ‘truth’ in a human relationship. Specifically, two ideas which are central to this novel interested me: ‘intuition is more powerful than knowledge’ and ‘there can be no freedom without truth’. Most thrillers are plot-led, with a nod to the character of the maverick or down-at-heel hero: I wanted to write one that was character-led. As the plot and themes and first person narrative came together I realised ‘What Alice Knew’ could be an almost unique thing: a crime-based page-turner that turns on a character and an idea rather than a smoking gun or set of fingerprints. This seemed to offer an opportunity to expand the genre.
Did you always know that you wanted to write?
No. Although I read a lot when young and considered reading English at university, ‘being a writer’ was something other people did. After university I had no idea what to do so after a couple of false starts I drifted into the City. I didn’t enjoy it and wasn’t much good but didn’t know what else to do. As I approached my 30th birthday I thought ‘I can’t spend my life doing something I’m not interested in’ and began considering alternatives. Gradually I realised I wanted to write, though I had no idea how to do it or if I would be any good, so leaving a salary was a big punt. As John Fowles put it (typically pretentiously): ‘I didn’t give up work to be a writer, I gave up work to be.’
You studied History of Art at university – did this help you in writing from the perspective of Alice? I’m curious as to why you chose the profession of a portraitist for her?
In the original version Alice was a GP, but my inability to make her profession enlarge the novel was one reason it didn’t work. Making her a portrait painter was hugely liberating. It opened up temperamental and thematic possibilities. Artistic ‘truth’ is a wonderful analogy for marital ‘truth’, while Alice’s output from Julie to Marianne offered a metaphor through which to register her psychological decline. There is a nice irony that the Alice who says she would never sit for a portrait offers, through her words, a completely frank self-portrait. History of Art offered the background wrap but the psychology of painting was imagined, the mechanics the result of talking to a painter.
Did you enjoy writing a psychological thriller? Would you say that it’s your favourite genre to read/write?
I thoroughly enjoyed writing it. This is the first novel I have written in this genre and the first time I have hit upon a tense plot, which has given me a lot of pleasure, interest and satisfaction. Traditionally, I have tended towards character and prose rather than plot (which may explain why I have not been published before!), but I hope in ‘What Alice Knew’ I have – as much by luck as judgement – got the best of both (or even all three). I have read a lot more in this genre since I started writing this novel. Hitherto I tended towards reading writers who don’t work in a particular genre.
Which books have you read recently that you’d recommend?
‘The Power of the Dog’ by Thomas Savage, a re-released American realist novel of the 1960s, was outstanding. ‘Light Years’ by James Salter, possibly the finest prose stylist of the late twentieth century, was humblingly good. I re-read ‘American Pastoral’ by Philip Roth when the film was released and the power and vitality of his writing are undiminished. I thought ‘Gone Girl’ was a masterpiece of its genre. In the course of writing ‘What Alice Knew’ I re-read JD Salinger: ‘Franny’ (from ‘Franny and Zooey’) remains the best depiction of a frustrated, screwed-up teenage girl I have read; ‘A Perfect Day for Bananafish’ (from ‘For Esme – with Love and Squalor’) is equally brilliant.
You resigned from your job to become a freelance writer – did you enjoy this line of work, and in particular how did you find working on a self-employed basis?
I resigned from my job to become a writer of fiction. But I was a slow learner and initially found the writing process hard work. I became a freelancer because the bailiffs were at the door! But a strange thing happened: whereas I had struggled to find a voice as a novelist – there was a conflict between ‘good writing’ and ‘narrative voice’ – I immediately found a voice as a freelancer, perhaps because I was less emotionally invested in the work which allowed an ironic distance. This made it easy to produce decent copy. Being self-employed I have never had a problem with self-starting/working hard but with a young family I always felt economic pressure: if you don’t produce you don’t get paid!
What are your hopes for the future?
In the first instance I obviously hope ‘What Alice Knew’ is a great success! I think every writer is obsessed by the equilibrium of earning enough money to buy time to write unencumbered and I am no different. I am planning a second novel and my primary hope is that I can make that work in a way that is satisfying to write and enjoyable and thought-provoking for the reader. I want to continue to mine the seam of character- and idea-driven page turners, though I am conscious most artists paint the same picture over and over again and I am keen not to fall into that trap.
Any writing tips for budding authors?
I fear only the obvious: hard work, resilience in the face of rejection, retention of self-belief. You have to love writing for itself, as being published, being successful, are almost beyond your control. I have also learnt that a plot can almost always be made better, that there is always one more roll of the dice. Finally, you should read as much as you can, particularly outside the genre in which you write (if you write within a genre), and you will always learn from high quality prose. The more you read the richer your language.
Happy reading 🙂