Let’s start with an introduction: Who is Alice James?
Well, it’s not a pseudonym, though I was meant to be called Ruth. Apparently after 52 hours of labour, when I finally deigned to pop out, my mother decided I looked like an Alice. Very kind of her because at that point I would have come up with something less flattering.
But I’m digressing, my all-time favourite hobby after touching my face. I’m a maths graduate who trained as a COBOL programmer who threw it all away to become a writer and editor. I somehow got stuck in finance and worked for Bloomberg, The Sunday Times, the FT, investment magazines, banks, fund managers… you name it. I don’t know quite how that happened, but I met some interesting people on the way. I began writing novels just recently and can’t see me stopping.
The book is set in an English village called Colton in leafy old Staffordshire and that’s because I’m lazy; I genuinely grew up in Colton. I’ve put my heroine’s house exactly where mine was. I’m very much a country girl. I like sheep and cider and long walks. I feel at home with hay bales and tractors. I can ride a horse – even a mean one – and I’m a damn good shot with a 12-ball. (Just don’t ask me to kill anything!)
My Mum was a fabulous landscape painter. She was Czech, and a real plate thrower when she was riled. But she was also incredibly creative. If I ever asked her for anything and we couldn’t afford it (which we usually never could) half the time she would just work out how we could make it. Clothes were never an issue – she had initially trained as a fashion designer and I would take her the front cover of Vogue and she would recreate it, made to measure, in an afternoon.
My Dad – no surprises – was a coroner. He’s retired now, but there were always interesting stories and the police would ring him at all hours of the day and night. I grew up with a comprehensive awareness of the ways that country folk commit suicide or accidentally total themselves whilst attempting DIY tasks.
Your debut novel, Grave Secrets, will be published by Solaris in September. It looks rather fun: How would you introduce it to a potential reader?
It’s certainly meant to be fun! I would say that it’s a genre mashup, melding cozy crime, light horror and a touch of romance all under the umbrella of urban fantasy. (Except it’s rural fantasy, because it’s all set in the countryside!) Zombies, vampires and bad decisions with English humour and a mystery to solve. It’s also angst free – urban fantasy usually comes with a fat side order of angst and I wanted to avoid that.
I also wanted to write a book where the protagonists make relatable decisions. We are often not logical when we choose to do something. We are guided by loyalty or lust, maybe, or just decide in a rush because it’s all a lot of trouble to think things through. You have to wedge yourself into your character’s heads a lot to do that, but I enjoyed it and I felt it was all worth it by the end.
Is it part of a series?
Very much so. I think they will finish on No. 10, and I wrapping up No. 8 right now. My heroine Toni is the core character, but many of the other people in the first volume make repeat appearances. The later books are also more full-on whodunits than the first one, where there was so much background to squeeze in that the central murder mystery is quite light. I hope people will want to follow Toni’s story and uncover the strangeness that seems to hang over her family and the origins of her powers.
What inspired you to write the novel and series? And where do you draw your inspiration from in general?
I have A Bit Of A Thing for fantasy stories with vampires and zombies in. Then one day I was reading a book of short stories about zombies. It wasn’t great and I just said: “I could do better than this” and sat down at my keyboard. The rest just happened. It started off as a short story, ballooned into a novella and then it was a full length novel. It was unplanned and took me by surprise. It took just four months. I was surprised by my progress every day, and when it was finished I realised I had just started telling Toni’s story and that I had a lot further to go. So maybe two days late I started on Book Two… I’m still going!
In terms of where I draw my inspiration from in general, I read a lot – books, short stories, graphic novels – and I watch so much stuff on TV and at the cinema. Oh, and I play way too many computer games. I also write and run Role Playing Games with my friends, and I think that’s where I began to explore genre mashup. I’ve made them play medieval monks battling the forces of darkness, they’ve been gun-slinging cowboys facing ghosts, demons and aliens, and most recently I cast them as escaped prisoners marooned on an island gaol in a steampunk world filled with flying cat dragons. I think I also pluck my inspiration from mythology. Greek, Roman, Egyptian, Norse… it’s all such a wacky world of badly behaving deities. There is infinite fuel for the fire in there.
How were you introduced to genre fiction?
In the womb. No, seriously: my mum was addicted to science fiction. She was a massively prolific reader of fiction. She died five years ago, and her tombstone has a version of the Tyrell quote from Bladerunner on it: “Your light burned so very, very brightly.” It’s totally fitting. Our house was always stuffed with books. They had long filled up the shelves and were stacked in tea chests in the garage. She also read fantasy, whodunits, historical romance, literature, you name it… For Christmas and birthdays, we were given an allowance and let loose in a bookshop for two hours.
My Dad is a great reader too, but he prefers history. He is always reading something new, and he will get so excited that he will ring me up to tell me This Amazing Thing he just found out about the Aztecs or the Russian army. It’s amazing that he is nearly 80 but always learning new things and that he is as fascinated and absorbed by them as ever. I want to be like that.
How do you like being a writer and working within the publishing industry?
I’ll be honest, it’s early days. I’ve always been a writer, and it’s worked well for me. I have no problem concentrating – I don’t need peace and quiet or a special place, and I can pick things up instantly and just work for 20 minutes or five hours. My brain just clicks happily into writing mode. But until recently I was a writer of facts – finance, travel, tax, investments – and it’s only with Grave Secrets that I began writing fiction as a serious occupation. I love it. I love exploring the corners of my creative brain and finding out what’s lurking there. It’s going to take a while to mine that out. I am looking forward to the journey.
In terms or working within the publishing industry, it’s terrifying and fun in equal measures. On the one hand it’s fabulous having people endorse your invented scribblings and insist they are good enough for total strangers to read. My agent Simon is my hero. He’s so chilled and yet so upbeat about stuff. He never seems fazed and he always grounds me. I am also lucky in my editor Kate. She knows Literally Everything and has a light touch with my work. She is also boundlessly enthusiastic, and that’s agreeably infectious.
But then there is the terror of putting your beloved creation out there to be savaged by critics and readers. What if they don’t like it? What if there’s a plot hole? What if I crash and burn? So far, people have been kind and enthusiastic. So far. It feels like walking on very thin ice over deep, dark, cold waters…
Do you have any specific working, writing, researching practices?
Goodness no. No notes, no spreadsheet, no timeline, no special place, no playlist. I start at page one and I stop at the end. I write when my imagination has stacked up sufficient content to fill a paragraph or a page and I tend to change and edit things very little. There is a mystery to solve in Grave Secrets, and I had no idea until I was maybe two thirds of the way through the book who had done it, how or why. I knew my brain would feed me the data when it was ready and it did… It all just appeared when it was needed.
In terms of research, I try to write where I feel I have competence, and I will ask friends or read a book when I don’t know how a thing works. There is only one time in Grave Secrets where I just couldn’t manage that. There is a scene in the book with a nail gun. I actually went out and bought a small nail gun. Then I found a friend who is a carpenter and asked him if I could watch while he used his industrial nail gun. After that, I was happy writing that scene…
When did you realize you wanted to be an author, and what was your first foray into writing? Do you still look back on it fondly?
Hmm. That’s quite a question. I told people while I was still a student that I planned to be a writer and editor of something. I wasn’t sure what – I thought maybe fashion, despite the fact that I was studying a maths degree in between training to be a programmer – but it seemed to be where I wanted to go. My first job was writing and editing text books for distance learners. Then I edited academic research papers for a while, then I ended up in finance. I started writing fiction shortly before my Mum died, just short pieces to amuse my friends, and after she died I found it more cathartic. I tried a couple of novels but they didn’t go anywhere. And then the zombie thing happened. I remember the moment when it happened. I also remember the moment when I realised it had taken over my life. I was cooking dinner for The Spouse and Best Friend John and I asked without thinking what would happen if you ripped someone’s head off: would the blood spurt out and, if so, how far and for how long? They didn’t dial the emergency services, fortunately, they just put their minds to answering my query. That decapitation scene even made it to the final cut…
What’s your opinion of the genre today, and where do you see your work fitting into it?
I love the fact that genres are so fluid and so intersectional these days. Not that this is a new thing; I mean, look at Dragonflight. It’s got spaceships, telepathic dragons, a romance, a mystery, time travel and a feminist heroine and it was published in 1968. Or 2000’s Declare by Tim Powers: Nazis, cold war spies, supernatural weirdness and warring angels and demons.
But it’s certainly something that is particularly popular realms of urban fantasy today. The “female Sherlock solves Cthulhu-esque crimes” is a genre all of its own now. There are bucketloads of great series that have got that nailed: the Anita Blake: Vampire Hunter series by Laurell K. Hamilton, Tanya Huff’s Blood Books, Barbara Hambly’s James Asher Mysteries, Charlaine Harris’s True Blood books… That’s the shelf where Grave Secrets probably fits in best.
Do you have any other projects in the pipeline, and what are you working on at the moment?
So, I have to finish the Lavington Windsor Mysteries, I know that! There are two and a half still to go, but it’s on hold until after we have finished launching Grave Secrets because I find it hard to work on two books from the same series at the same time.
I have also finished my first science fiction novel, which I am super excited about, and my current project is an old-fashioned swords and sorcery trilogy with deserts and dragons.
What are you reading at the moment (fiction, non-fiction)?
For fiction, I am loving Tamsyn Muir’s Locked Tomb trilogy, which is just stunning. I am also enjoying the Stars Uncharted Series by the S. K. Dunstall sisters and Ann Leckie’s fantasy series that kicked off with The Raven Tower. I was also part way through the The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton when UK lockdown began, but my copy got stuck in an empty flat in London that belongs to a friend so I have yet to finish that.
For non-fiction, I am re-reading David Niven’s Hollywood autobiographies, which are magical, and also working through A Little History Of British Gardening by Jenny Uglow. I recently finished Master of the Mysteries: The Life of Manly Palmer Hall by Louis Sahagun whish is stunning and everyone should pick that up. He was a snake oil salesman in old Hollywood and had millionaires and presidents at his beck and call. I like it so much that a character in one of the Toni books is named after him. But also Manly is just an awesome name.
If you could recommend only one novel or book to someone, what would it be?
That’s tough. My favourite read in the last five years or so was Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik, a beautiful modern-day feminist retelling of Russian fairy tales around the Rumpelstiltskin mythos. My favourite book of all time is much harder. It’s probably The Shadow Guests by Joan Aiken, which was published back in 1980. Part coming of age drama, part ghost story, part tragedy about fate and suicide… it’s written for teenagers, but it’s exquisite. In terms of mind-blowingly clever plots, I would rate it a tie between Tim Powers’s The Anubis Gates and Busman’s Honeymoon by Dorothy L. Sayers. And then probably the funniest book in the world is Three Men in a Boat by Jerome K. Jerome – which has no plot at all: three blokes hire a boat for a week but the weather is crap so they all go home early, the end.
What’s something readers might be surprised to learn about you?
I am not that interesting, truly! There isn’t a lot… But I am a fully qualified silversmith. I studied at the old School of Jewellery in Birmingham’s jewellery quarter for a year.
What are you most looking forward to in the next twelve months?
I won’t lie: the launch of Grave Secrets takes place at FantasyCon in London in September. I am more excited about that than I was about my own wedding.
Alice James was born in Staffordshire, where she grew up reading novels and spending a lot of time with sheep. She was lucky enough to have a mother who was addicted to science fiction and a father who was fond of long country walks, so she grew up with her head in the stars and her feet on the ground. After studying maths at university and training to be a Cobol programmer (!), she began writing novels to get the weird people in her head to go somewhere else. She now lives in Oxfordshire with a fine selection of cats, fulfilling her teenage gothic fantasies by moving into a converted chapel with an ancient spiral staircase—and gravestones in the garden.