17 Jan 2014

A chat with author Serena Mackesy / Alex Marwood

I invited Serena over for a chat back in September but she was ill with whooping cough! Can you believe it? Fortunately she's better now though! And here she is...

When did you first start writing? And when were you first published?

I think I wrote my first novel when I was about twelve. Didn't get one published until I was in my mid thirties, though. In the meantime, I worked as a journalist for a decade, after a number of wildly varying jobs such as crossword editing, door-to-door sales (cute pictures of baby animals that went down a storm on the M40 corridor) and teaching English.

You started off writing chick lit but you've moved over to crime. What is it about this genre that appeals to you the most? Do you read other genres? If so, which?
As a reader, I'm voracious and varied, though at the moment I'm mostly reading crime just in order to be better informed about my current genre. As a writer, my move over to crime is less about going off chick lit as going off my packaging. There's always been a dark element to my work, even to my first novel, The Temp, but my packaging never reflected that, and, weirdly, I found myself increasingly under pressure to match my packaging rather than people wondering if they needed to make it go with the words inside. Retailers in this country are terribly conservative, as well, and once you've 'been' something you really can't change or develop beyond very narrow boundaries without changing your name (or, as marketing people would put it, your 'branding'). Anyway, becoming Alex Marwood has given me full rein to let the devil inside come out, and I'm hugely enjoying it at the moment.

Do you still dabble in chick lit?
Not at the moment, but I'm not very good at multi-tasking. I absolutely won't say never, as I did enjoy the comedy aspect of writing chick lit, particularly. But not at the moment. I still read plenty of it though. There's some terrific writing in the genre.

What's the title of your latest book? Can you tell us about it?

My first Alex Marwood book was The Wicked Girls: basically, it's about whether, if you'd done something truly awful as a child, you would ever recover - and whether society would ever forgive you. My latest, The Killer Next Door, came out as an ebook in December and will come out as a paperback in June 2014. It's set in London during a heatwave: that time when everyone has their windows open and you're suddenly far more aware of your neighbours - but you can never tell where the random laughs and fights and screams are coming from, or what they mean. In a big old run-down house in the suburbs, a disparate group of people live cheek-by-jowl in their separate bedsits, keeping themselves apart until, one night, a horrific event brings them together into an uneasy alliance...

What inspired you to write it?
Having my windows open all summer, which I always do - despite being a Londoner, I like a bit of 'fresh' air. It was also inspired by a well-known real-life murder case, but I don't want to say which one, as it would effectively be a spoiler.

Is it part of a series?
No. I'm not big on reading series myself, and I usually feel I've wrung my characters dry by the time I'm done with them. It would be lovely to write a series and not have to make everyone up from scratch every time, but I guess I'm a bit of a masochist. Also, of course, in crime it's hard to do a series without falling back into police procedural or detectives if you're not going to quickly slide into the realms of the unbelievable - how many crimes can one likeable character be involved in in a lifetime? - and I'm not madly interested in that. I hugely admire Jeff Lindsay (Dexter), Thomas Harris (Hannibal Lecter) and Patricia Highsmith (Ripley) for having pulled off the non-detective series so well, though.

Have you ever spotted anyone reading your books anywhere?
Yes! Several times! I'm always overcome with embarrassment and have never gone up to them, partly out of fear that they'll think I'm a lunatic and partly because I think every writer has a secret fear that they'll ask someone if they like their work and be told it stinks...

Who designs your covers?
I've had several designers over the years, but The Wicked Girls and The Killer Next Door are the work of Hannah Clark, for Little, Brown. I love them so much I almost burst into tears at both the big unveilings. She's a genius, and I think that her contribution to the success of The Wicked Girls was huge.

If your latest book was made into a film, who would you cast?
Oh, lawks. The Wicked Girls has been sold to BBC North, so I'm waiting to see who they come up with, but personally I think that Olivia Coleman can do no wrong at all, ever. Though she looks nothing much like Amber, I'd love to see her play her.

What's your favourite book that made it to the big screen?
Gone with the Wind. Oh, and Whatever Happened to Baby Jane, which is loads better as a film.

What were the last two books you read?
Doctor Sleep by Stephen King and The Woman Before Me by Ruth Dugdall. Though I admire King more than pretty much any other living writer, I have to admit I liked the Dugdall book better. It's terrific.

Name one female author who you think deserves to be better known.
Can I say my grandmother, Margaret Kennedy? She was huge in her time - her novel The Constant Nymph particularly - but she's rather vanished. She's being reissued by Vintage Classics very soon, though, which is rally exciting.

Where do you write?
In bed. In fact, I recently threw away my desk and put another bed in its place, so that I have both a spare room and somewhere to go for a change of scene.

When you were a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up?

A writer.

In the movie of your life, who would play you?
photo credit: Eva Rinaldi Celebrity and Live Music Photographer via photopin cc
In my fantasies, Judy Davis. In reality, probably Pauline Quirke.

Speed Round...
Top drink to make you tipsy?
 A sweet Manhattan on the rocks with three cherries.
Shopaholic or shopadon't? I vacillate between squandering and high-minded parsimony, largely depending on my budget.
Sky high heels or closer to the ground? Used to be sky-high heels, but my wobbly ankles have turned me into a Clarks sandals sort of girl... sob...
E.L. James or Jilly Cooper? JC. She's hilarious.
Cry baby or tough cookie? Bit of both. I cry over other people's stuff all the time, but I'm revoltingly dry-eyed over my own.

Serena Mackesy worked as a features writer and columnist across the British press for a decade before jumping over the wall to write novels at the turn of the millennium. In 2012 she changed her name to Alex Marwood and turned to crime, with the international bestseller (so my publishers tell me) The Wicked Girls. She lives in south London and always thanks her cat in her acknowledgements.
www.serenamackesy.com, www.alexmarwood.com (though it's still under construction), @AlexMarwood1, fb.com/AlexMarwood or my page AlexMarwoodWriter if you're shy.

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