This month I put some questions to Alex Marwood, author of The Darkest Secret and I’m delighted with the answers. Read on for a wealth of fool-proof advice and wisdom on writing and life!
What is the first book you remember as a child?
I think The House of Arden, by E Nesbit, though I will have been too young to read it myself. I was the youngest in an academic family, and frustrated by not being able to read, so I taught myself when I was two, though I would still have been at Peter Rabbit level, readingwise, when I consumed this with my siblings. It’s a wonderful book, obviously, because Nesbit was a wonderful writer: my first time-travel saga, and great at bringing history alive. My favourite bit was when the children involved end up somewhere on 4th November and ask when the fireworks are, then recite the Guy Fawkes “Remember Remember” rhyme – only to realise that it is, in fact, 1605. They get banged up in the Tower and all sorts. God, I love Nesbit. Just the right blend of comedy and drama and dark stuff…
What is the most important element of fiction to you, as a reader – plot, character, location?
Oh, sorry, but all three. If you soft-pedal on any of them there will always be something missing. That said, I rarely use real locations, apart from Poole in The Darkest Secret, which was for a reason. I’m just too lazy to spend my time looking up which side of the main shopping strip WH Smith is in Colchester in order to avoid the constant “I lost all faith” carping on the Internet. I still have people telling me I got my location “wrong” every now and then, despite that!
Are your characters based on people who you know or have met?
Ish. They’re more amalgamations of character traits/behaviour I’ve observed along the way, cemented together with other things that have come out of my head. To an extent we’re all great big bundles of clichés, however original we think we are. The Darkest Secret, for instance, was about Narcissistic Personality Disorder and its devastating effect on the people who are bound up with the narcissist. The theme had been in my mind for some time, as I got mixed up with a clump of narcissists a decade or so ago (they tend to come in clumps – something that’s well worth bearing in mind if you ever suspect you’ve got caught by one of them) and it took literally years to extract myself. But as with everything, a little bit of me was going “ooh, there’s a book in this” even as my lifeblood was being drained…
Is there one location that makes the hairs on the back of your neck stand up, or that fills you with happiness?
In real life? Malta. It’s my go-to place for healing, calming, cheering up. Light like nowhere else, astonishing sea-and-desert vistas, a rugged, noble and frankly terrifying history carried with lightness and humour by its delightful, eccentric population. I went into mourning for a bit when the Azure Window on Gozo collapsed the other day. Literally: tears, rending of garments, the lot. I want my ashes scattered over the Dingli Cliffs when my time comes – though, given the winds up there, they will probably blow straight back into the scatterers’ faces and give them something to remember me by until they can get to a washing machine.
Do you need any fixes when you’re writing? My editing fix is definitely chocolate biscuits!
Ditto! Funnily enough, I established my need for carbohydrates pretty firmly the other day, which is a bummer, as cutting them out almost completely is also the only way I have ever reversed the upward trend, weightwise. Anyway, trying to write without some in one’s diet is like trying to talk underwater. I have a terrible butterfly brain and I simple cannot muster the concentration you need to write a book without them. I’ll start a book off with, you know, nice healthy wholegrains and risottos and the like, but as the panic of deadline approaches it’ll be right down to the chocolate biscuits. Also: painkillers and naps. If I combine the two, in the daytime, there’s a good chance that whatever the knot I need to untie is, it will have started to unravel by the time I wake up. Waterproof-paper notebooks, for writing in the bath. And a cat. I have had a series of naughty, doglike Burmese cats, and I’m not sure I’d be productive without one.
Describe your writing day
More like writing months. As per what I said earlier, my butterfly brain won’t allow me to have any distractions while I’m writing, because I will leap upon them like a Komodo dragon on an injured fawn and not go back to the book until I have gnawed all the flesh off the bones and cracked open the thighs to get to the marrow, and then gone off wandering about to see if it had any friends. God knows, the internet is bad enough. So when deadline approaches I have to just lock myself away and see no-one until I’m done; I will pretty much be on it 24/7, with periods of rolling over and going to sleep.
What is your writing environment like, or can you write anywhere?
I sometime surprise myself by the places I find I have produced copy, but generally speaking my best place is in bed with a cat attached to my body. I actually threw my desk away a while ago and replaced it with another bed, so I could have a change of scene from time to time. I’ve also taken to going out onto my balcony, unless it’s actually raining, to get away from the internet and write longhand, because I got a bit short on Vitamin D once, when I was having trouble with a book and spent longer huddled indoors than usual. I can generally be found there first thing in the morning, sometimes at dawn, wrapped in blankets and fingerless gloves, from February through to November, and will stay out there until my fingers start to fall off.
What’s the best thing about being a writer? And the worst?
Being able to get all those weird circular thoughts out of one’s brain before they drive one mad. And the relentless, gnawing imposter Syndrome. I suspect that there will never come a time when I don’t expect it to turn out that I can’t write, after all…
What advice would you give to your 18 year old self?
Only ask advice from people who have actually done what you want to do, and don’t assume that it’s somehow “different” for you. Oh, and say “thank you” nicely even if you don’t get the answer you wanted to hear, because these busy people have taken time out to be helpful that they could have spent doing other things. She said resentfully, glaring at the many individuals who have emailed out of the blue expecting to be given the magic shortcut over the years. Ignore all other “advice”, because the giver most likely doesn’t know what they’re talking about, especially in matters creative. Be generous with praise, and grateful for help. Support other artists, and have friends who are writers, because no-one else understands our weird stuff. Only allow someone with a vested interest in making money from it to have an opinion on your work, pre-publication, and don’t let yourself be pressured into showing anyone else your work. Oh, and for God’s sake, try to be a bit more assertive before you turn fifty (not talking shouting and jabbing fingers here, just occasionally saying “that doesn’t work for me, because…”). Despite what they say, it really won’t make people with whom it’s worth doing business dislike you. Oh, in fact – that’s made me think of another one: anyone who expresses dislike of you being assertive is actually warning you that they’re profoundly untrustworthy.
Do you read any other genre outside crime and thriller?
Yes. I’m an absolute gannet and will devour pretty much anything, though I’ve got lazier about finishing stuff if it’s not gripping me. I’m particularly fond of psychology books. I should have read that at university, really. My English Literature tutor at university warned me that English Literature might get in the way of my original voice, and she was right. Ah, so that thing about advice maybe isn’t totally right.