An exclusive interview with Alexander King, author of It Looks Like You’re Writing a Letter

itlookslikeyourewritingaletter_cover

Cover graphics by Andy Curry. Click on the image to buy the book.

Recently I was privileged enough to get an early glimpse at this debut novel from author-musician Alexander King. If that wasn’t exciting enough, (it was) he agreed to tell me a bit more about it, to share with you all on here (below).

I had a great time with this book. It’s a fast-paced, gripping social-media-social-commentary thriller. I liked it as a detective story, and a road movie, and as everything else it was, because it’s so much more. King paints affectingly the exhilaration of unexpected moments of human connection, and other poignant reminders of the sad state of modern-day interaction.

It’s full of cheeky, fun, clever uses of language and tasty characters. I can see it working really well on the big screen should we be lucky enough to see an adaptation. The world-building was immediate, natural and effective. It had terrifying parallels with our own reality. The ending was very satisfying, which is a big thing to say of any story, though I was hungry for an extension of time in this world when I finished reading.

Fun, thought-provoking, insightful and poignant. And fun. Looking forward to a second read, and to sharing it with my friends and family.

Anyway, enough of what I think, let’s hear from the man himself.

1.1 What’s the book about?

It Looks Like You’re Writing a Letter is a sci-fi/detective story set in the near future, in a world where one social network knows everything about everyone. It follows Henry Thorner, a consultant who specialises in missing persons cases, trying to track down a young hacker called Tanner Griffen. The ubiquity of Ora, the world’s largest social network, makes his job harder as he’s “off-grid” and he’s trying to find someone who is an expert in manipulating the online world. There are twists and turns, murders and double-crosses and an explosive denouement.

1.2       What does the story mean to you?

On the one hand, it’s a way for me to pay homage to all my favourite literary and cinematic tropes, but on the other I’m exploring a subject very close to me, which is our digital life and how it’s changing, and whether these changes are a good thing or a bad thing. I had a friend who died young, and his social profiles lived on without him and it got me thinking about how much of our ‘soul’ is contained in databases owned by huge corporations.

1.3       Describe the route to this debut novel being published…

I took part in NaNoWriMo last year (2013) and wrote the first draft of 50,000 words in the month of November. I wrote 1600 words every day without fail which was tough but a huge achievement personally. The book went through a long editing process, I think I did nine or ten drafts, with the help of an editor friend of mine. Once I considered it complete I had a cursory attempt at sending it to a few literary agents and had a few rejections before deciding to self-publish digitally. I figured I could bang my head against the wall of the literary establishment for a year while my story withered on the vine, or publish and be damned and have real humans actually read it. It was a no-brainer.

1.4       How do you feel about the cover graphics?

I love the book cover. Andy Curry has done a great job both on the concept and the execution. I like it because like the book title, it doesn’t really make sense until you’ve read the book.

1.5       Any chance of an adaptation?

I hope so! I’d love the story to be made into a film. When I wrote it, I basically played a film in my head and wrote down what I “saw”, so I think it would suit that media. There’s enough action in it and colourful characters to make it something I think people would watch. I’m also realistic enough to accept changes to the characters or stories if the book was turned into a screenplay by someone else.

1.6       What’s your Thing? Do you lean toward a certain style/theme/time?

I love stories with an interesting concept or premise. Something that makes a reader think and maybe see life in a different way. Quite lofty ideas but why spent months of your life on something if you don’t want to change a little corner of the world, or people’s perceptions? This book is an action/adventure novel and exploration of the human race as data in equal measure.

1.7       Why do you write?

It’s just another creative outlet really. I also write music for theatre and film, draw and paint and play guitar in a rock band. I often start with an idea then determine what media best suits it. I’ve got an idea for a play, for example, that I think is pretty strong, but that idea wouldn’t work as a novel. I’ve never written a play before, but it would be exciting to try.

1.8       Who/what are your influences/inspirations?

I love Philip K Dick, Elmore Leonard, Raymond Chandler, Bret Easton Ellis, Ray Bradbury and all the big Sci-Fi writers.

1.9       Favourite writers?

See above!

1.10  What are you reading?

I’m currently reading I, Robot by Asimov and the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius. I listen to audiobooks in my car when driving to and from work every day, and have a paper book on the go at home.

1.11  Describe your writing routine/ritual

I read a lot about the first hours of the day being the most productive and this has proven to be true. I get up an hour before my family (very early when you have a 3 year old!) when the house is quiet and nobody is asking me to do other things. An hour is usually enough.

1.12  Do you have an agent? Why?

No. It’s a bit early in my writing career and I feel I have to prove myself before I can seriously approach people like agents and publishers. I’m really hoping that the interest in It Looks Like You’re Writing a Letter will create a bit of a buzz around what I do.

1.13  What were your biggest learning experiences or surprises throughout the publishing process?

How easy it was. I paid a company to format the ebook to the acceptable technical standards, then used SmashWords to push it out to most of the online bookstores. Amazon and Google Play had to be done manually, but even they were just a case of filling out a few online forms and bingo – you’re published.

1.14  Would you have done anything differently if you could do it again?

Knowing what I do now? Everything! I pretty much learned how to write in the process of writing this book, which sounds a bit melodramatic but it’s true. I thought I knew a bit about grammar and punctuation but when you actually sit down and analyse your work word-for-word it’s a real eye-opener. The plus side is that I feel more at ease about the idea of tackling another book.

1.15  Something personal about you that people may be surprised to know?

I teach Wing Chun Kung Fu, which I’ve trained for 16 years.

1.16  Would you identify yourself as a writer, or something else?

I would like to! I think having written a full-length book that I’m very proud of should qualify me. It’s not all I do, but I’d like to add it to my list of skills if that’s not too presumptuous.

1.17  What are you working on next?

I think I’m going to do NaNoWriMo again this year. I’ve got a half-baked idea for a novel with a lot of depth, probably a lot less action-based than It Looks Like You’re Writing a Letter and more psychological. Plus I’m writing music all the time for some York based film and theatre companies and trying to be a good father and husband at the same time!

1.18  What’s your ultimate goal, writing or otherwise?

To be happy. I think that should be everyone’s goal. Everything you do should go some way towards making you a happy person. If you’re doing something that makes you miserable, stop doing it.

AK

You’re welcome.

You can buy the book here, which you should, like, now, because it’s currently an absolute steal at £1.83.

Check out Alexander’s own website here in time for when you’ve finished reading the book and developed a totally healthy celebrity obsession.

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On Reflection

Today I filled out a survey on my arts practice that was open to some pretty in-depth and reflective answers. I chose to answer both as a theatre practitioner who has left her company this year, and as an individual writer finding her way.

It was refreshing to reflect on the reasons behind certain choices in the theatre practice that I could now see with some distance and hindsight, and that I no longer felt afraid to admit or concerned about representing in a particular way.

It also gave me hope to talk about my approach to writing as a new thing (which it isn’t, as I’ve been writing all my life, but it feels almost like a new endeavour at the moment due to my change of focus) and to speculate on where this could lead me.

I felt like this was worth sharing, so if you’re an artist of any kind in York (this one’s focussed on the York UK scene; maybe elsewhere you’d like to create your own), it might be nice to check this survey out:

https://www.surveymonkey.com/s/75YKY3G

If you’re an artist anywhere it might be a useful exercise to do a survey like this every now and then to take stock of what you’re doing and why. The answers might surprise you. If you’re anything like me, you may not know you think something until you’ve said it to someone else.

Thanks to Henry Raby for the ask.

TV Review: ‘Homeland’ Season 1

Homeland is a series that will consume your every spare hour, and do not let that put you off. With the fourth season coming up in a few weeks and the first two now being available on Netflix, I decided to give this political thriller series a go. It’s been a while since I’ve seen Claire Danes in anything new, and I’m a fan of hers, and I hadn’t seen much of Damian Lewis before but really enjoyed him in the Much Ado About Nothing adaptation from the BBC series ShakespeaRe-Told in 2005. Watching the National Theatre’s live broadcast of Medea (well worth a watch, by the way) recently put me in mind of him, given his link with Helen McCrory, and so I was reminded that I had some homework to catch up on.

Image from artsbeat.blogs.nytimes.com

Image from artsbeat.blogs.nytimes.com

If you haven’t seen any Homeland, you’re missing out. It’s an addictive drama following intelligence officer Carrie Mathison (Danes) through her investigation into a returning P.O.W. marine (Lewis). The story is fairly simple; our protagonist is the only person who’s joined the dots the way she has, and everyone around her sees two and two making five, while to the audience it’s painfully obvious that we are working with four. Her voice within the C.I.A. is clearly a respected authority up to a point; convenient negations include (if you’re looking for it) womanhood and all its inextricable vulnerability, a Big Mistake somewhere in her working past, and a constricting mental illness that rears its ugly head as the series goes on. While the tropes are as frustrating as they are designed to be, the story is incredibly well-paced, making for compelling viewing. There are some predictable turns – no one really believes America’s most important bits are going to be ended in season one, do they? And there are reasons to be on edge about the acting before you’ve seen it – any actor attempting to live in a character for a whole series with an accent that isn’t their own is in danger of being too distracted by their vocal task to do a good job of convincing us of who they are. A white, red-haired, British actor who is so perfectly suited to the camp role of Benedick for instance, is now playing an almost thuggish, passive-aggressive, scarily unpredictable soldier with controversial motives. Throughout the series I felt incredibly uneasy around Sergeant Nicholas Brody, and I thought it might be for these reasons alone. But having finished the season and left it alone for a few days I’m now inclined to think that Lewis is pretty damn good, and that the awkwardness is simply down to how detestable and threatening his character is, albeit one you can somehow empathise with. After all, a surprising development in Mathison’s relationship with him that I initially declared unbelievable does seem to have struck a chord with me, on reflection. And, like Mathison, whatever I think of him, I’m hooked on watching him. I like to think the team would be pretty pleased with that kind of response.

Image from popgoesthearts.blogspot.com

Image from popgoesthearts.blogspot.com

Danes has a much clearer run at delivering an impressive character profile, with so many – successfully achieved – opportunities for really spreading her legs as an actor. I won’t go into any more detail there, it’s not needed. Her character and her acting are both really worth your time.

Many Patinkin (The Princess Bride) serves as a father-figure to Mathison and is as good as always. Her boss (David Harewood) is sadly completely uninteresting, but then, so are real people, sometimes. It just adds an unwanted layer to the frustration factor because we’ve heard so many stories these days that obstinately unquestioning and apathetic characters like these seem like an unnecessary detour from the real story being revealed; almost a cheat to get out of having to execute the impressive climax that the beginning really sets us up for here. But hey, what do I know, the pacing really worked and by the climax of series one I was practically panting, so maybe that stuff is an inextricable value of good storytelling.

I do feel a tad uncomfortable with some of the portrayal of bipolar disorder. I don’t know the illness very well, but the action didn’t seem completely compatible with what facts I have been taught, so they’re possibly taking a damaging step backwards in the minds of mental health awareness experts. But they’re not the first, and they seemed to have an amount of research and good intentions in there somewhere.

The production values are typically smooth for the high quality TV we’re used to in 2014; it’s a solidly attractive show. The sets and people look good, and the jazz-addled soundtrack – written and performed originally, I believe, by Sean Callery – is hauntingly unsettling and alien yet fitting, setting the tone for Mathison’s internal struggle perfectly.

I think what keeps me watching is mainly the actors – every one is compelling, and they’re allowed to be by the editing team, which is actually quite rare. I’m looking forward to delving into this story again. I’ll meet you at season four.

Season 1 trailer

Book Review: Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi

My first experience of this story was the 2007 film, which I watched a number of years ago when there was still enough of a World Cinema section in HMV to browse and buy interesting new gems from the world outside Hollywood.

I recently read the graphic novel for the first time, it having been given to me as a really thoughtful gift quite a while back and subsequently sat on my shelf for a criminal length of time.

The film, despite adding some nice depth and (somehow, using a majoritatively black and white palette) colour to the illustrations of the book, originally left me feeling a bit flat, and since reading the book I think I can see why: the book is just so rich and expansive, and while it’s a worthy story to develop into multiple mediums, a traditional feature-length animated film just can’t communicate in the same way that the book can. The snaking headscarves are one element that really do work on-screen; adding a sense of urgency and real threat to their confrontational appearances. It’s worth a watch, maybe even before you read the book, because the book was, for me, a more enjoyable experience.

Anyway, enough about the film.

The book is a treasure. I cannot recommend it enough. It’s been a while since I read anything so full of perfect snapshots of humanity. Having never visited Iran, it felt quite special not only to learn a tremendous amount more about its history than I ever did from the news or from school, but also to feel connected to the author, an Iranian woman with whom I had no idea I’d have much in common with, but who seemingly went through a lot of the same personal and social feelings and ideological questions that I did growing up. And, while emotionally universal, it’s a unique and landmark book. It’s not every day you read an illustrated autobiography detailing that a young girl has tried to pee standing up to understand someone’s point. ‘Marji’ maintains this objective curiosity (portrayed wonderfully by a kind of blank, alert look penned by the author herself) throughout the years the book covers, making her the perfect empathic window of a protagonist to vessel her experiences to the reader. She also illuminates little mental games she used to play to keep herself occupied, for example guessing the shape of a woman under her scarf, which is just joyful.

Ostensibly the story is about growing up in Iran during a time of war, change and unrest, and the events of the period are inextricable from her personal experience, but actually on finishing the book I was left with an overwhelming focus on the feeling of being human. Of connecting to someone halfway across the globe, born two decades before me. For that, I have Satrapi’s integrity and continuing self-belief as a spokesperson to thank.

Marji compressed into cartoon form, in her early years at least, is kind of like Bart and Lisa Simpson combined. She’s mischievous and fun-loving, passionate and philosophical. Throughout the comic-strip chapters we get to know her through dialogue with her friends at school and her family at home – mainly the latter, where her emotional and philosophical forming seems to have undergone the main course of its development. It is clear that Satrapi’s family was a strong community of which she was an important, comfortable, accepted part. She also delivers us informative asides detailing specific terms, making the story further accessible.

She moves on into an independent young-adulthood abroad and continues to travel and take in new experiences, until heartbreak drives her to homelessness, and subsequent illness, before she returns to Iran to reconnect with her family.

Of course, the subject matter could and does no doubt provide enough of a unique selling point for most publishers, but quite aside from the backdrop of the Iranian revolution and the Europe of the 1980s, I really enjoyed Marji’s company.

Find more book-related thoughts on my Goodreads.