Interview by Nicole Melanson ~
Alex Hourston made a career in advertising for over ten years before heeding the call of her first love, books, and returning to university to complete a Masters in English. She started a Phd, but abandoned it when the idea for a novel surfaced, giving herself eighteen months to make her writing work. Nearly six years later, In My House was published.
She can be found on Twitter: @alex_hourston, or on her Goodreads and Amazon author pages.
HOW DID YOU GET STARTED?
I was a very bookish child and have always been a reader, but aside from the standard teenage diaries, hadn’t written a word until my mid-thirties. I struggle to explain why, other than it didn’t feel “for me,” somehow, perhaps because of the reverence I felt towards the authors I loved. I could never have done it in my twenties; I needed a bit of experience behind me, some confidence in my own voice.
There is also the issue of time and space. We moved out of London when I left advertising and everything slowed down. It was completely transformative. I suddenly started to think about writing – ideas, scenes, snatches of dialogue appeared to me. I felt like my brain had changed; in some weird way I was returned to a version of my dreamy thirteen-year-old self. I was freelancing and meant to be studying, but the writing crept up and elbowed its way in.
My first effort, (quite rightly), never saw the light of day. The novel took a year and a half to write, I submitted it to agents, and after months of waiting, worrying, a few rejections and a couple of tantalising bites, I started on something else to distract myself. My break came when I entered the first few chapters of this new novel to the Lucy Cavendish Fiction Prize. I got shortlisted, which gave me a reason to email those agents who still had my old manuscript. Antony Topping of Greene and Heaton got back to me, saying he’d been thinking about my submission and would I come in to chat (and in the meantime, send him what I had of the new book). When we met, he was pretty clear that he felt In My House was the better prospect. This had been dawning on me too, and whilst it was painful to bin all that work, it was nothing to the wonder of getting an agent.
WHAT IS YOUR LATEST BOOK OR CURRENT PROJECT?
In My House, was published May 21st by Faber. It tells the story of Maggie, 57, solitary, thoughtful and wry, who is passing through Gatwick after a walking holiday when a young girl, Anja, approaches her and whispers a single word: “Help.” Maggie does so, and there begins a strange and intense friendship. As these two very different women become close, they start to share details from their pasts, but there are untruths, back-tracks and omissions. What are Anja’s intentions? Why is Maggie so alone? And what isn’t she telling about the night she left her husband?
It has been an intense, surreal and wonderful couple of months. I’ve loved doing reader events, most memorably with a book club who had some brilliant insights into the novel which genuinely made me think again about what I’d written. I’ve also met some great writers and booksellers. I’m getting used to being reviewed, and finding a steadier path between the highs and lows involved. The pace of the whole experience has been odd. Sudden flashes of attention and excitement, then back to the solitude of working and family routine.
WHAT IS YOUR WORK ENVIRONMENT LIKE?
I write in the kitchen, where it’s warmest and there are refreshments, with a dog sat on my feet. He likes to be touching.
WHEN DO YOU WORK? WHAT DOES A TYPICAL DAY LOOK LIKE?
I write during the school day. I wake up desperate to get to it, drop the children at school, have a cursory tidy (I can’t work in chaos), and then there is a weird moment when I decide that, in fact, I don’t want /am no longer able to write at all and would rather do pretty much anything else. If allowed, this state can become protracted, so I force myself to sit at the screen. Sooner or later, I begin, and then the plan is to work all the way through to pick-up, aside from walking the dogs, (which is useful for ideas), and performing the minimum of domestic chores. If I’m stuck though, mundane tasks can help. I find if I focus on something else, solutions often present themselves. You can definitely try too hard.
WHAT IS YOUR WRITING PROCESS?
I have goals in terms of word count: 500 a day minimum, 750 and I’m happy, 1000 and I know that I’ll start next morning on the delete button. But I work in a circular shape; I’m constantly going back over the previous few days’ writing. Not too far though; there was a time when I began each day on page one, which became untenable after a while!
WHY DO YOU DO WHAT YOU DO?
I often ask myself this. Who knows? It’s beyond logic, some kind of compulsion, perhaps. What I love about writing is that I lose myself completely when I’m at it.
WHO OR WHAT INSPIRES YOU?
I think a lot happens at the level of the subconscious. I look and listen—overheard conversations are absolute gold. I read as much as I can while I’m working which can act as a sort of reboot, particularly when I’m feeling stale. I watch good telly for pace and dialogue (Mad Men is my favourite).
WHAT IS THE HARDEST PART OF WHAT YOU DO?
Belief. That your work-in-progress will keep revealing itself to you, that you’ll finish it, that anyone will like it, that the next idea will follow.
WHAT DO YOU WISH YOU HAD KNOWN WHEN YOU STARTED?
See above! Only that it can be done, if you keep going. Tenacity is key, maybe the most important thing. I wouldn’t want to know any more about the industry; I think that can be a real distraction. Keep at the work, bothering the characters, pushing them on, making the book the best it can be; the publishing side will take care of itself.
Also, I’d tell myself that help is not far away. That I will find people who care about my work and will improve it immeasurably. There was Jill Dawson, first, who mentored me through her fantastic scheme, Gold Dust. I don’t think I would have been published without her. Then Antony and my editor, Sarah Savitt. There’s something of an irony in the fact that as soon as you find an agent you have free access to expert advice, then you sign with a publisher, and there’s more again.
WHAT IS YOUR ARTISTIC OR PROFESSIONAL VISION?
Just the problems of the novel in front of me. My dream is to sustain a career, many years of writing, and all I can do to secure that is write as well as I can. I don’t worry about the future of the novel or the business of publishing; that’s someone else’s job.
WHO ARE YOUR FAVORITE FEMALE AUTHORS?
Anne Enright. Her sentences are miracles, her ideas huge. She writes with both warmth and bite.
Virginia Woolf. I hardly need explain.
A.M. Homes, Jennifer Egan.
WHICH FEMALE AUTHOR WOULD YOU LIKE TO SEE INTERVIEWED ON WORDMOTHERS NEXT?
Samantha Harvey, an established writer, but new to me. I’ve just finished Dear Thief, her third novel, which I loved, and have the first two ready for my holiday later this month.
Thank you, Alex Hourston!
— Nicole Melanson
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