Adventures in Glitterland: Talking With Alexis Hall
“When you strip everything away, it doesn’t matter if she’s a film star, or if you’re both boys or both girls, all there is is love, and the fundamental human need to seek it out and give it.” – Alexis Hall
The novel Glitterland by U.K. novelist Alexis Hall is sexy, funny, and deeply romantic. Think Four Weddings and a Funeral with more sex and a gay romance. I loved this book so much I tracked down the brilliant author, all the way across the pond, and asked him to stop by R@R for a few questions.
LB: You are a complete mystery to me but I freakin’ loved your book. So here we go from your new fan girl: How did you come to write Glitterland?
A.H: I wrote Glitterland in October of 2012, while another project (Iron & Velvet) was sitting in slush, so while it was technically written after I&V, it still feels like the first book I wrote. As for the title, I’m not entirely sure where it came from. It wasn’t a conscious process, because I can’t remember ever actually sitting down and thinking “god, what the heck am I going to call this thing” like with some books. In a strange sort of way, it almost happened before the book.
I’ll talk about this a bit more in question two, but the U.K. X Factor had just started, and one of the contestants was this sparkling, slightly silly Essex boy called Rylan Clark. There was an immense public backlash against him – part of it was straightforwardly homophobic but what really kind of, shocked me I guess, was that some of it actually came from within the queer community. Like I can distinctly remember hearing someone call him a “disgrace to gay men.” I mean, what does that even mean? I can’t remember the last time I heard someone described a disgrace to straight people. Basically, it was like half the world was condemning him for being gay, and the other half was condemning him for being gay in the wrong way. Which is so messed up, on so many levels.
So from there I pretty much decided I wanted to write a book about the “wrong” sort of gay. Of course, you do get more flamboyant queer characters represented in fiction quite a bit, but they tend to be one dimensional and de-sexualized, and relegated to support roles, like the heroine’s BFF, or the comic relief. And I realized that if I was going to write about that sort character in a “real” way, I needed to put him in a context that would make people take him seriously.
Essentially, I wanted to write a book that was both dark and shiny. And while I was playing ideas Tetris, just shoving things together in my head and seeing how they fit, the word ‘glitterland’ somehow got muddled up in there, and from the first moment I stumbled over it, I knew it was right. It brought everything together and became the lynchpin of the book, encapsulating how I wanted it to feel, sort of sharp and bright and slightly fleeting, anchored to the idea of a place.
LB: Ash and Darian are polar opposites but so vividly real. Who came to you first?
AH: As I was saying above, Darian came first, as a kind of response to this deeply toxic idea that there’s a right and wrong way to be gay. And Ash came about as a way to place Darian in the sort of context Darian-type characters don’t usually get placed in. But where, I hope, he nevertheless shines.
LB: Is this a series? These characters are so real, even the secondary ones. I don’t want to let them go. (I especially want to see if Max can be true to his marriage.)
AH: I hadn’t planned on it being a series. I kind of like it when books end in a way that makes you feel they could sort of … continue somehow, beyond the page. Rather than everything being wrapped up and boxed up and closed down.
But quite a few people have asked me about Niall, so never say never and all that.
For what it’s worth – and this is only my interpretation – I think Max probably would be faithful. Firstly because Amy is awesome, but also because something I was sort of trying to hint at with both of them is that they’re people who have lived, and are open to, alternative lifestyles (at one point Amy tells Ash that she’d consider a polyamorous relationship, for example) but they’ve chosen a traditional one, not because it’s “the default” but because they’ve decided its right for them, at that point in their lives. That gives me faith in them.
LB: You articulate the anchor of depression so beautifully. Have you personally suffered from it, or is Ash’s struggle based on research or someone you’ve known?
AH: Oh, thank you – that’s really kind. I mean obviously mental illness is a personal, highly subjective subject, and I’m very aware that what feels like an effective portrayal to one person might feel just the opposite, or actively problematic to another. Depression kind of runs in my family, and I’ve done quite a lot of welfare and mental health charity work, so there’s an extent to which it’s something that feels quite familiar to me. It’s something I’ve always been meaning to write about, and it seemed the right fit for glittery Darian.
I think it’s probably fair to say Ash isn’t a very sympathetic protagonist. I tried to make him engaging since there’s something very relentless about living with depression and, while I wanted to kind of lock the reader into Ash’s perspective, I didn’t want to make everyone completely miserable. And while Ash is pretty melodramatic about himself, I thought if I could somehow make his world – which is partially shaped by his depression – real and vivid, sort of its own place where Ash was trapped, it would help the reader understand what it was like to be him, and live as he lives. And maybe that might mean people would grow to like him anyway, even though he’s not naturally very likeable.
LB: Great dialogue, and lots of humor. I reference Four Weddings and a Funeral, in my intro because the wit in this book (among other things) reminds me of those early Hugh Grant movies. You even reference Notting Hill at one point in the novel. Can I assume you’re a fan?
AH: I really am. It’s cheesy as heck, but I do love me some romcom, especially the bumbling, uber-British Curtis/Grant type movies. Maybe I identify, I don’t know. And Notting Hill is definitely one of my favourites. I think I like how small scale it is. Like there’s a hugely glamorous Hollywood world going on the background but the foreground is a blue door and badly cooked lamb and not being able to find your glasses when you want to go the cinema. Also that scene – the standing on front of a boy scene – is so completely perfect. I mean, when you strip everything away, it doesn’t matter if she’s a film star, or if you’re both boys or both girls, all there is love, and the fundamental human need to seek it out and give it.
LB: I don’t want to give away the ending, but I’m wondering if you knew where the story was going from the beginning. Can you answer that without any spoilers?
AH: I’m a planner so I usually know where I’m going. Glitterland isn’t exactly plot-heavy but I had some sense of the overall trajectory, and the major emotional developments. This is partially why my editor – Sarah Frantz – was (and remains) so invaluable to me. Writing is learning, and I’d never written anything like this in my life before, so the ending in particular (no spoilers) took some serious reworking. The first time round it was a lot more intellectualized, and less romantic, but that wasn’t so much a conscious choice, so much as a genuine inability to break through into the emotions I was trying to get at. That felt a bit like a personal revelation, as much as writing one.
LB: Darian loves trendy fashion, while Ash is most comfortable in bespoke suits. Where do you fall on the fashion spectrum?
AH: I guess I’d probably describe myself as a lazy dandy, but it kind of depends on my mood. I go through phases of being quite stylish, and phases of not being arsed. Now that I’m a grown up, and am expected to be taken seriously in a professional context, I tend to be a bit more restrained than when I was younger – which is probably a relief for everyone.
I’m interested in clothes more than I’m interested in fashion, if that distinction makes sense. I tend to have a few signature outfits or accessories. I wear a lot of hats, and I’ve got a great coat, because everyone needs a great coat, and I do actually have a couple of Savile Row suits, which were gifts, so I understand why Ash would want to hide in them because there’s nothing like bespoke tailoring to make you feel goshdarn invincible.
But, at the other end of the spectrum, I have this deeply beloved pair of tartan lounge trousers that are generally believed to be the most repulsive thing on the planet. They’re my writing-and- not-leaving-the-house trousers, and I usually pair them with nerdy T-shirt.
LB: This book has intense sex scenes, but it also extremely rich in emotion. Does one come easier for you in terms of writing – sex or emotions?
AH: God, neither. As I was saying above, both are pretty serious learning exercises for me. They’re both incredibly abstract things, really, to try and put into words and communicate to another human.
In some ways sex is easier. Not necessarily to write, but I have some intellectual grasp of what I want to achieve with it. Whether I’m successful is another question, of course, but it’s something I’m working towards. I have no problem with sex scenes that are written simply to be sex scenes, or to inspire … err … responses in the reader, but I wanted to make sure the way the characters behaved in the bedroom reflected who they were for the rest of the book. On the most basic level, I kind of think sex is an act of communication. As for emotion? Yikes. For me that’s more difficult because it’s even more abstract and, well, wibbly. But being prodded at by Sarah helped.
LB: Your language, your descriptions, are breathtaking. At one point, you describe Ash feeling of a drop of sweat on his spine “I felt each one as clearly as if it were a diamond.” Did you study creative writing or poetry?
AH: Nope, I’m an absolute rank amateur. Obviously I read a lot, including poetry, but that’s kind of a different skill set. I think writing in the first person was helpful to me because that’s about creating a consistent voice for a character, and it kind of liberates you from having to be self-conscious. You can just think “okay, so how would a pretentious, slightly unpleasant, deeply vulnerable, over-educated, bipolar depressive express this.” I mean, obviously it’s still me writing so my habits of expression and perception are still going to be in there, but there’s still some sense of distance, I think. And one of the things I really like about first person narration is inhabiting a deep, but ultimately limited, world. Heh, a bit like being alive, really.
LB: Who are your favorite authors?
AH: I only really got deep into romance this year, but even in that short time I’ve accumulated quite a pile of favourites: Laura Kinsale, Ruthie Knox, Mary Ann Rivers, KJ Charles, Cecilia Grant, Nalini Singh, Alex Beecroft, Meljean Brookes, Joanna Chambers, Suzanne Brockmann, Jessica Scott, Patricia Gaffney, Georgette Heyer just off the top of my head.
Fantasy-wise, I really enjoy Mary Gentle, Tanith Lee, Joe Abercrombie, Scott Lynch, Daniel Abraham, Cat Valente, Kristen Cashore, Frances Hardinge, Robin Hobb, Ursula LeGuin, Ginn Hale, Ellen Kushner, Diana Wynne Jones, Holly Black.
Srs-wise and poetry-wise, I like Jane Austen, TS Elliot, John Wilmot, James Joyce, Mina Loy, Bryon, Richard Siken, Sarah Waters, Michael Faber, Dashiell Hammett, Neil Bartlett, Roland Barthes, Angela Carter.
LB: What’s your guilty pleasure in books or television?
I was completely and passionately addicted to Gossip Girl when it was showing, and don’t get me started on The Vampire Diaries. God, I just love it to pieces. So much stuff happens. Oh, and The Tudors, I know it’s awful, but it’s kind of brilliant too. Blood! Nipples! Jonathan Rhys Meyer wandering around in leather trousers! I’m also madly into the Starz Spartacus series. We started off sort of laughing at it for being so utterly adolescent in its enthusiasm for slow-mo neck stabbing, swearing and gratuitous nudity but it won us over completely by just being awesome in every conceivable way. Also Lucy Lawless.
LB: What’s next?
AH: The first book of my f/f paranormal series (Iron & Velvet) came out in December, and the second book is due out in June or July, I think. Obviously I’m still writing, but I get nervous talking about uncompleted projects in case they end up sucking, and nobody wants to publish them. I’m in contract negotiations over a queer steampunk adventure, and there’s another contemporary m/m but I’m not sure what’s happening with that yet. Hopefully someone will want it!
LB: For what it’s worth, I’m in!