Please welcome Alice James to The Qwillery as part of the 2020 Debut Author Challenge Interviews. Grave Secrets was published on September 1, 2020 by Solaris.
TQ: Welcome to The Qwillery. What is the first fiction piece you remember writing?
Alice: When I was little, I was obsessed with dragons and elves – also boiled frankfurter sausages, but that’s another story. My mum was disappointed, I think because she was a mahoosive Science Fiction fan but also she hated frankfurters. Anyway, my sister and I wrote a very complicated saga set on a magical world with a canal that went all the way round. Our heroine got stranded alone on the lower deck of an abandoned boat – I have no idea how – and gradually found her way to the upper roof where of course there was an enchanted jungle garden filled with elves and Nice Things. Cue happily ever after the end yada yada. I don’t have a copy of it anywhere, sadly, but my sister and I still call it The Barge Story and argue about plot elements. Don’t listen to her, by the way. She’s wrong.
TQ: Are you a plotter, a pantser or a hybrid?
Alice: Total 100% pantser – no question, no doubt. I start my books with a strong feeling of atmosphere and one or two key scenes that I like the idea of … and then I just span backwards to find out how they got set up in the first place and forwards to find out what happens as a consequence. I don’t have the organisational abilities to be a plotter. I am bad enough at planning breakfast. As a result breakfast is often just coffee and complaining – which is bad, but not as bad as no coffee. I talk to writers who have a spreadsheet at hand all the time, flow diagrams, coded folders... I am so disorganised the closest I get to a timeline is an incomplete list of character names so I can remember how to spell them. My books are very very character driven, and the plot just has to work around that.
TQ: What is the most challenging thing for you about writing?
Alice: Keeping things short. My agent never asks for additions, just cuts. (He always takes 99% of the sex scenes out too – what’s with that?) I think it’s because as a wire journalist, which I was for nine years, you are always crimping down everything to fit the page, and so it’s nice to take a more freeform approach in creative writing. But there’s got to be a happy medium set between writing soliloquies and getting on with the story line. When we were editing Grave Secrets, my agent would say: “Where’s the plot gone this time, Alice? Did it roll under the sofa?” and I would sigh and get out my red pen.
TQ: What has influenced / influences your writing?
Alice: I love to travel, and do think that influences me. I will see a fascinating geographical location and start setting things up in it in my head… My Dad is a history buff, too, and he is always phoning me up to tell me a fascinating factoid about the ancient Persian army or how they first farmed vanilla in Madagascar. That often plants little seedlings in my brain. And I read way too many novels and comics and watch too many films as well – not to mention play too many computer games – so I am always immersing myself in new fantasy and science fiction.
TQ: Describe Grave Secrets using only 5 words.
Alice: “Whodunit with zombies and vampires” – that’s five, right?
TQ: Tell us something about Grave Secrets that is not found in the book description.
Alice: OK, I don’t know if I have told anyone this yet, but I gave my Dad a cameo role. He’s the coroner who is also a conveyancing solicitor! He gets a slightly larger part in the later books but I liked the idea of sliding something personal like that in for absolutely no reason whatsoever. Growing up in the countryside as a coroner’s daughter was eye opening. The police would ring all the time, and of course it was always about the deaths that were unclear – or all too clear in Bad Ways. I don’t view death as entertaining, quite the opposite, but I had to take a very pragmatic approach to it from an early age because it was all around me all the time.
TQ: What inspired you to write Grave Secrets? What appeals to you about writing Urban Fantasy?
Alice: I love the genre. I first came across it at uni when a friend leant me the first in the Barbara Hambly James Asher books, Travelling with the Dead. I think the allure for a lot of people is that you take the real world and change just this one thing: you make a little bit of the darkness real. The macabre and the numinous creep out of your imagination and into reality. It makes the genres uncomfortably relatable.
For Grave Secrets, I was inadvertently inspired by a couple of books I was reading. One was a volume of short stories about zombies, and I didn’t like it because not one of the stories was actually about the zombies. It was just about people who encounter zombies. I thought it missed a trick and I decided to fill that gap.
The second books was a glorious genre mashup, the first of the Gaslight series of short stories that pitch Sherlock Holmes against the eldritch forces of darkness. That’s where I decided that cosy crime, romance, zombies, vampires, horror and a whodunit could all join forces with an LGBT+ friendly Aga saga under one cover.
TQ: What sort of research did you do for Grave Secrets?
Alice: Mostly I just cheated and wrote about what I know – messing up relationships, growing up in Staffordshire, having a totally crap car, spending too much on clothes, taking a very random degree at Bristol University. I don’t think my heroine and I have a lot in common character-wise, but we have quite a lot of overlapping background due to me being lazy and not wanting to do a lot of research.
But when I stepped out of my comfort zone, I did do some research. For example, there is a scene with a nail gun – no spoilers, I promise – but I had never used a nail gun so I went out and bought one. It’s been remarkably useful to be honest! Money not wasted.
TQ: Please tell us about the cover for Grave Secrets.
Alice: I love that cover so much. We went through many, many versions because my editor Kate Coe and my agent Simon Kavanagh were most determined to find a visual that screamed Cosy Crime and Urban Fantasy in equal amounts. The artist is the amazing Sam Gretton, and Sam somehow found a way of keeping us all happy and ticking every box and not just leaving the building Elvis-style when we requested Yet Another Rework. Sam even redid everything a final time, when it was honestly already gorgeous, because I moaned that the car wasn’t actually the heroine Toni’s car. (She drives a clapped-out vintage Morris Traveller.)
There are loads of little touches that just warm my heart, too. I asked if Sam could add the little skull in the ‘I’ of my name, and it’s just the cutest thing ever. For styling, I appreciate how the subheading is the text on the gravestone instead of just underneath the title and the way Solaris tucked their spine logo into the gravestone....
There were a lot of ideas that we threw about and then threw out too. The process of creating a book cover is a lot more labyrinthine than I realised. But I am very fortunate in that Solaris is part of the Rebellion group, with its graphic novel empire, so they know an awful lot about artwork compared with many publishers.
TQ: In Grave Secrets who was the easiest character to write and why? The hardest and why?
Alice: Toni’s brother has a boyfriend called Henry, and he was super easy to write because he is the only character – apart from the coroner – who is shamelessly based on a real person. He’s based on a cousin of mine, who is always chilled and reassuring even when the sky is falling, the hedge has caught fire and you have run out of wine.
The toughest was probably Grace, one of the vampires who is a bit part in this book but has more airplay later in the series, because I just don’t know anyone like her. She is hard. She is cool and collected. She shows little soft emotion on the surface but clearly has a lot that’s passionate hidden underneath. I worked on her because I wanted her to be convincing, but in fairness I don’t think she comes into her own until Book Two.
TQ: Does Grave Secrets touch on any social issues?
Alice: Not intentionally, but I do often find when I have finished any creative writing that many of my main characters are bisexual. It’s not something I plan for, and it tends to be pointed out to me by my proof readers.
Elsewhere, with Toni – who is the lead character in Grave Secrets – I wanted to avoid the “feisty female” trope, because I didn’t want her to be stereotyped in that way even though she certainly has some of those elements. She is passionate. She is flawed. She makes decisions in haste and regrets them. She is always broke. She wants to be driven by her head but her heart is always in the way. She is loyal. She gets scared. She can be self-confident or insecure. I think I have ended up with someone who is feminine but a feminist, who has to battle the sexism of modern day England, as well as vampires and other evils, but is ready to do so.
TQ: Which question about Grave Secrets do you wish someone would ask? Ask it and answer it!
Alice: “Please can we make a long-running HBO series of your novel?” No, seriously, I love it when people ask questions full stop because it means they have read the book and are interested in finding out more. I would like to be asked what I see making Grave Secrets different from other urban fantasies… and it’s my no-angst pledge. The one thing I went overboard with when I wrote this was to try to keep it 100% free of angst:
Think about the first Star Wars film. Death, suffering, betrayal, totalitarian regimes committing genocide on a whim – and yet it’s all done with such a light touch that you are lifted up not cast down. A lot of urban fantasies with female protagonists in feature rape, too, and a lot of sex where everything is so fraught that the characters don’t appear to be actually enjoying it. I was determined that if my characters got any shagging in, everyone would be having A Good Time. And Toni faces a lot of Bad Stuff but, while she gets scared or set back, she never gives in to despair. So there are some tough scenes in the book, and it’s not free of gore because at the end of the day it’s also horror, but there is no drag-me-down angst.
TQ: Give us one or two of your favorite non-spoilery quotes from Grave Secrets.
Here’s one I am like: “Please Oscar, try shutting up again. It was working really well.”
I think this one is also a Toni classic: “Round here, we’d say you got all the custard but not the mustard, if you get my drift, Mr Gambarini.”
And just to keep people going: “He didn’t look particularly cool with his trousers at half-mast and his todger wagging about, and I could tell he knew it.”
TQ: What's next?
Alice: So, this is a series of ten, and I am on volume eight, so there is still some work to go on the Lavington Windsor Mysteries, I know! That said, I have put them down for now until after the launch of Grave Secrets because I find it confusing to work on two books from the same series at the same time.
In terms of my next projects, I just finished my first science fiction novel. I do love it and I can’t wait for people to read it. It’s got the whole shebang: tentacled aliens, spaceships on fire, interstellar war, abandoned planets and a locked room murder mystery set in space.
My current work is an old-fashioned swords and sorcery trilogy with deserts and dragons. It’s the first creative thing that I have written that is not a mystery, and that gives me a lot more flexibility in terms of where I take the narrative. That’s surprisingly unhelpful, though. In a mystery novel, you have to solve it shortly and you have to do so just before the end, so much of the story flow is predetermined. With this one, I have to make it up all myself which is harder! But it’s got some great characters and I am having to learn about sword fighting and ancient Egyptian mythology. Watch this space!
TQ: Thank you for joining us at The Qwillery.
Alice: Thank you! Ask me again next year when volume two is out…
The Lavington Windsor Mysteries 1
Solaris, September 1, 2020
Trade Paperback and eBook, 300 pages
Agatha Raisin meets Sookie Stackhouse, with croquet and zombies.
"Fun, fast debut... Fans of Charlaine Harris’s Sookie Stackhouse will want to check out Toni." -- Publishers Weekly
Toni Windsor is trying to live a quiet life in the green and pleasant county of Staffordshire. She'd love to finally master the rules of croquet, acquire a decent boyfriend and make some commission as an estate agent.
All that might have to wait, though, because there are zombies rising from their graves, vampires sneaking out of their coffins and a murder to solve.
And it's all made rather more complicated by the fact that she's the one raising all the zombies. Oh, and she's dating one of the vampires too. Really, what's a girl meant to do?
"Raises the zombie genre from the grave."- Jack Hayes
"Dead funny."- Mark Beech
Readers are loving the newest necromancer in town. Read advance praise for Grave Secrets from NetGalley:
"Heads up to all fans of True Blood and Buffy, our new favourite heroine is here, she's a necromancer, and she's kind of a hot mess!"- NetGalley review
"A thrilling five-star read."- NetGalley review
"A fun filled, laugh out loud page turner."- NetGalley review
Alice works as a writer, specialising in finance and travel. She is currently International Editor for Dante Magazine, who don’t seem to mind that all her columns are about getting lost in a different international destination, and Content Writer for the French business school EDHEC. She was previously a journalist and TV presenter for Bloomberg before becoming press and PR director of a $1 billion US hedge fund for 18 months. That turned out to be the worst period in history for hedge funds, so she retired wounded and decided that perhaps writing fantasy was a safer career. She has also worked as a project manager, creating business supplements for The Sunday Times, which involved more spreadsheets than she would like to see again. Ever. Alice has a degree in Maths from Bristol University – and half of a diploma in silversmithing from UCE University because it turns out that making the ladies’ version of the One Ring is a lot harder than she thought. She likes cats and ramen noodles and lives in a converted chapel in Oxfordshire because when people tell you that you will grow out of being a Goth, what they actually mean is that they’d like their black leather coat back now. She has written nine and a half novels; recently an interfering friend suggested that she should trying finding a publisher.