Alex Preston was born in Worthing, West Sussex in 1979. He is the author of two critically acclaimed novels, 2010’s This Bleeding City, and The Revelations which was released in 2012. As well as his work as a novelist, Preston writes and reviews for a number of publications; The Guardian in England, and a magazine in Greece.
The chance to interview one of your favourite authors is not something that comes along all too often, but when Alex followed me on Twitter, I decided that I had to make contact, firstly for some advice and then later for this interview, he very kindly agreed on both counts.
DH: What inspired you to become an author, was it something you had always wanted to do?
AP: My grandfather is the author and academic Samuel Hynes. I grew up idolising him, and started off, aged seven or eight, writing stories more to be able to take on the look of studious application I’d seen while watching him work, than because I thought I’d be any good. When I became a teenager, I started to write properly – dreadfully of course, but that’s allowed when you’re a teenager. And by fifteen or so, it was inescapable, a pressing need to form the mess of my life into the clarity of fiction.
DH: Who would you say are your main influences?
See above. In terms of literary influences, I have always adored Fitzgerald and think Alan Hollinghurst the finest living prose writer.
DH: If you could, what advice would you give to aspiring writers?
Simply that writing is a job much like any other. Don’t inflate it into some mystical act where you can only write with your special pen, on a particular desk, at dusk. I wrote my first novel on the Tube, on aeroplanes, in the bath. You have to write everywhere, all the time.
What, if any impact / influence did your brother Sam’s success with The Ordinary Boys, and then later ‘Big Brother’ have on you?
I was in bands with my brother all through our teenage years. If you see me doing karaoke, you’ll understand the rock star manqué that dwells inside. I was delighted with his success, rather less so at the whole ‘Big Brother’ fiasco. I wish I’d given him better advice during that crazy, awful time.
DH: Have you got a process that you follow when writing?
I write in short, energetic bursts, when I’m dead to the outside world. I get emails out of the way first thing, then disconnect the internet and work pretty much straight through, pausing for brief snacks. The best writing gets done between 9pm and midnight, followed by the worst between midnight and 2am.
DH: There was speculation that the main character of Charlie in This Bleeding City was based on yourself, mainly due to your past as a Banker in the city. This, I believe is not true, but do you base the characters in your novels on people close to you?
AP: Like many authors, I create composite characters that draw upon people I know, pinching attributes from one person or another. Many people read This Bleeding City as a roman-a-clef, but it wasn’t. I wanted to do what all great fiction should – tell a story deeper and truer than mere fact. We read novels to make sense of the world. I wrote that one to make sense of mine.
The Preston family certainly have good creative genes, as Alex mentions his Grandfather Samuel Hynes is a Professor of English at Princeton University, his mother has a book published, while his brother Sam (or simply Preston to those familiar with his work) is the musician and frontman at the helm of The Ordinary Boys, who has written top 10 hit singles with the likes of Olly Murs. Alex gave a brief glimpse into the heart-breaking turmoil that followed Sam’s stint in the big brother house and it is clear that that experience had a profound impact on them both.
In an interview a couple of years ago Alex described his writing process; it differed greatly from the routine he spoke about in our interview. Back then he would have to steal time wherever possible to get his writing done. This is a sharp contrast to now where he can focus whole days or nights to the pursuit of his creativity. Every aspiring writer dreams of having the lifestyle that Alex Preston and others of his profession now have, but his story shows the struggles that must be overcome to get there.
One of the shining lights in this whole episode is social media, a lot of time sites such as; Twitter, Facebook and Instagram get a lot of negative press, but this shows that if used in a proactive manner they can really be tools for pursuing individuals ambitions – Imagine five years ago, there is no way I could have got this interview without trawling through a myriad of press agents and personal assistants, Twitter made the connection between me and my favourite author possible.
I also mentioned some advice that Alex passed on to me previously. It was simply this:
Make sure that your work stands out, remember that publishing companies will be receiving drafts every day – the first thing they will read is the cover letter, make yours interesting and attention grabbing, make them want to read on.
And so, to let Alex have the final word:
DH: What about a new novel, are there any plans? If so, will the story be something completely new, or linked to your previous work in any way?
The next novel, In Love and War, will be published by Faber next year. It’s set in 1930s Florence and is about Fascists, spies and the Tuscan resistance.