The Asian Review is pleased to publish an enlightening interview with Alex Pearl – the author of the latest, gripping thriller, ‘The Chair Man’: read on for more!
We would love to know more about you and your background.
I was brought up in Ilford, Essex, which is a large sprawling conurbation just beyond East London. I wasn’t a particularly academic student at school, but was fairly good at art and English, and I ended up going to art college in Maidstone, Kent where I studied Graphic Design. The college no longer exists, but its claim to fame was that David Hockney once taught there before he became famous and moved to California. According to the tutors, Hockney used to constantly produce signed drawings, which invariably got binned by the cleaners. Hockney later described his short stay at Maidstone as the ‘most miserable episode of his life’ in a piece for the Sunday Times. It was here that I was responsible for staging the college’s first theatrical production; a surreal work of incomprehensible nonsense in which the lead character accidentally caught fire. While at college I became very interested in creative advertising and teamed up with a good friend. He was better at drawing than me and my punctuation was a little more proficient than his, so on this basis, I became the copywriter and he assumed the role of art director. Together we built up a portfolio of campaigns and pestered a lot of people; and were eventually able to secure a job as a creative team at a decent agency in London.
So it was here that I would start to write copy for press advertisements and the occasional radio and TV commercial. This was back in the 80s when London was arguably producing some of the most creative advertising in the world. It was a fairly brutal world though. You were thrown in at the deep end and you either swam or sank. Fortunately for us, we swam, and did rather well, and I was able to hone my skills as a writer; skills that have served me well. Indeed, advertising is often cited as a very useful training-ground for writers and film directors. The late Alan Parker who started as a copywriter believed that his years in advertising were invaluable, and taught him to tell stories in a particularly short form. Most TV commercials are no more than 30 or 40 seconds in length.
I suppose writing was also something that I had always been reasonably proficient at, and was one of the few subjects at school that just came naturally. And going back to my school days, I had a very unusual and inspiring English teacher by the name of Clive Lawton. He was very charismatic and had an affinity with kids to the extent that he really was on our wavelength. He’d do the most extraordinary things and turn everything on its head. On one occasion he announced that instead of him marking our essays he was going to ask us to mark his, and then handed out old essays he’d written in the past. He’d often tell us that the syllabus was boring, and that we were going to ignore it and have a serious discussion about something fairly contentious like advertising and the blatant use of sexual imagery. The point of his lessons was to make us think and to convey to us the power of words. And by teaching in this wholly unconventional and radical manner, he not only gained the attention of every single child in that classroom. He also instilled a love of words and ideas. And as a result, every child in my class passed their O level exams, and nobody received anything less than a B grade.
Later on, when I started working as an advertising copywriter, my Creative Director, a man by the name of Ken Mullen was also influential. Ken was and still is a brilliant writer. He had two degrees in English Literature from Oxford University and is the only English advertising copywriter to have had his work quoted in the Oxford Book of Modern quotations. These included two headlines he had penned for The Times newspaper when he was working for Leo Burnett – ‘Our sages know their onions.’ And ‘No pomp. Just circumstance.’ He encouraged his entire creative department to immerse themselves in literature, cinema and the arts in general. But perhaps, more importantly, he wore his learning lightly and was incredibly funny and approachable. He was, in short, the best boss you could ever hope for.
On one occasion, he and his art director had created a press campaign for marketing real fires and fireplaces for domestic use; a campaign that revolved around testimonials by famous authors. Ken penned a simple headline: ‘Pictures I See in my Fire’, and invited various authors to write a long piece to fill an entire page of The Times newspaper. If memory serves me correctly, he asked a number and the first to accept the challenge were Frederick Raphael, the playwright, Charlotte Bingham and Beryl Bainbridge. All three pieces were eventually penned, approved by the client and cleverly designed like editorial pieces with a small photograph of each author sitting next to their open fire at home. Beryl Bainbridge’s auto-biographical piece about her childhood was touching and like everything she writes, absolutely captivating. The press advertisement went on to win a silver award at the prestigious British Design and Art Director Awards as the best written advertisement to appear in any publication that year. And I had the pleasure of sitting next to Beryl Bainbridge at the award ceremony. Had it been anyone else, I’m sure I’d have been too scared to utter a single world, but the lovely Beryl Bainbridge was one of those remarkable people that just made you feel at ease, so I ended up chatting away to her as if she was my next-door neighbour. The thing I remember vividly is that every few minutes she’d produce a notebook and take notes, occasionally asking how to spell a certain name or title. She explained that if she didn’t write down interesting details and observations, they’d simply evaporate like dreams. Looking back on that experience now makes me think that she may very well have inspired me back then to write something other than advertising copy.
It would take a few years, but then one day I began writing a story as an experiment. I had no fully developed story in my head and 15,000 words later, I simply came to a crushing halt. I had no idea where I could take the narrative, and it was put to one side until my daughter picked it up, read it and then nagged me endlessly to finish it. I never did. But a couple of years later I had an idea for a children’s book, and this time I spent some considerable time working on a detailed synopsis. At the time I was working at a large agency with the same working partner from college days, who had just decided to retire from the industry at the grand old age of 47. And at that time the agency was undergoing an enormous merger with another lumbering giant. Some bright spark at the time described the whole thing as being tantamount to the Hindenberg coming to the rescue of the Titanic. Anyway, the merger was an incredibly painful and time-consuming process. In fact, it dragged on for the best part of a year during which all work dried up and my creative director became ostracized and shoved to one side. Rather than just twiddle my thumbs I started working on my first work of fiction.
By the time I was eventually made redundant, all I had to remove from my office was a stack of laminated ads, a show-reel, a Collins English Dictionary and a tatty manuscript entitled ‘Sleeping with the Blackbirds’, which made it into print the following year.
Could you tell us about your latest book and why you wrote it?
My latest book ‘The Chair Man’ is a thriller. It’s set in London in 2005 and revolves around the central character of Michael Hollinghurst, a successful corporate lawyer who becomes a victim of the London 7/7 terrorist attack on the capital’s transport system. While most passengers in his train carriage are killed, Hollinghurst survives, but is left in a wheelchair as a tetraplegic. As a result, he struggles to come to terms with his predicament, and also suffers feelings of guilt as a survivor. As time passes, he also becomes increasingly angry, and harbours a very strong desire to seek retribution via the internet by posing as an Islamist radical with the intention of tracking down and deterring potential terrorists. However, this obsession doesn’t go entirely to plan, as both GCHQ and a terrorist cell become aware of his presence; and before too long, Hollinghurst becomes quite literally, a sitting target.
I wrote this book because there are so few novels that feature protagonists with disabilities, and the idea of a wheelchair user gaining freedom and independence through the internet and then getting themselves on an incredibly dangerous roller-coaster that they simply can’t get off, was one that really appealed to me. So with this book, I set out to address a problem: this dearth of disabled protagonists in fiction, while hopefully conveying a compelling yarn.
While some will admire Hollinghurst, his actions will always be morally questionable. And his recklessness in putting others at risk, as well as involving the computer skills of a child with autism, also have to be questioned. In this respect, I hope readers find ‘The Chair Man’ a thought-provoking read, while also being entertaining. Many readers have already said that they didn’t see the ending coming and were taken by surprise by the twist in the tail, which for any writer is obviously music to the ear. So on that note, I will let you judge for yourself.
What is the most difficult part of your artistic process?
For me, the hardest part of the process is coming up with a storyline that I’m happy with. A narrative that has a beginning, a middle and an end. Call me old-fashioned, but that’s what I want from a story. I don’t want a narrative that just hinges on wonderful character studies where very little actually happens in the way of a story. And for me, a good ending is absolutely crucial. And I love endings that are surprising, yet logical and credible. Such constructs are very difficult to create.
I have only written three works of fiction, but am pleased to say that two of them have surprising conclusions, which have been noted by readers who have left reviews on sites including Amazon and Goodreads.
What themes do you find yourself pulling into your stories?
That’s a really good question. I have only written two novels and a short story, but now that I think about it, there are in these stories recurring themes that hadn’t occurred to me until now. All three narratives, although very different in style and content, feature protagonists who are victims of cruelty. In my first book ‘Sleeping with the Blackbirds’, Roy Nuttersley is treated dreadfully by his parents and is bullied at school; my short story is about 19-year-old Thomas Highgate who enlists to fight in the First World War but is terrified by the horrors of war, deserts and is callously executed by firing squad; and Michael Hollinghurst is the protagonist in my thriller ‘The Chair Man.’ He is the victim of a terrorist attack and now seeks retribution. All three of my stories also examine themes of friendship and betrayal. I guess these are pretty profound, universal themes that interest me as a writer and make for engaging and compelling narratives.
How many unpublished and half-finished books do you have?
I have one unfinished manuscript, which was in fact my first attempt at writing fiction. At the time I was working full-time as an advertising copywriter and this particular book, was an experiment to see if I could sit down and formulate a story on the hoof. It’s something some writers are able to do; and I certainly take my hat off to them. In my case, however, the exercise was very unsatisfactory, for having written some 15,000 words about the kidnapping of a young child, the writing came to a crushing dead-end. I simply didn’t know where to take it. So I’m afraid to say that the manuscript was shelved and not looked at again, until my young daughter picked it up, read it, and then nagged me incessantly to finish it because she had enjoyed it so much.
I did try to formulate the rest of the story but could never resolve it to my satisfaction. But because my daughter had enjoyed it so much, I vowed to write something else for her, and by a stroke of luck, had an idea that appealed to me. This eventually came to fruition in the form of my children’s urban fantasy ‘Sleeping with the Blackbirds’.
What is your favourite childhood book?
My favourite childhood book was the very first proper story I read as a child. It was ‘Stig of the Dump’ by Clive King. It’s a wonderfully charming book about a little boy who is staying with his grandparents in the country, and while exploring the back garden happens upon a cave inhabited by a caveman boy. He strikes up a friendship with the boy and has a lovely time with his new friend. But when he tells adults about his new caveman friend, they don’t believe him. The book explores themes of friendship and growing up and is rather moving. And looking back on it, it was probably an important book in that it got the ball rolling and got me into reading and the magical world of literature and storytelling. This said, it’s also a wonderful little book in its own right.
What kind of research do you do, and how long do you spend researching before beginning a book?
For my first book ‘Sleeping with the Blackbirds’ I did no research at all. I relied entirely on my imagination and one or two characters from my own childhood. But for my recent thriller ‘The Chair Man’, I had to do a lot of research. I knew nothing about the way in which terrorists communicated via the internet in 2005. I had no understanding of the workings of MI5. And nor did I know anything about GCHQ (Government Communications Headquarters). So I had to turn to both books and the internet and make copious notes from my findings. Of course, there are very little published facts about GCHQ and MI5 for obvious reasons, but if you search diligently, there are certain books you can turn to for some details, and these did in fact work themselves into my book. The research takes a long time though. In my case I must have spent as long researching as it took me to write; something in the order of nine months. But then, I am retired and writing for pleasure rather than a living, so I’m not writing to a deadline. In other words, I’m slow. Bloody slow.
Have you been inspired by any teachers in your life, and why?
My old English teacher, a man named Clive Lawton was hugely inspirational. He was totally unconventional in his approach to teaching and would turn everything on its head. On one occasion he announced that he wasn’t going to mark our essays but was going to ask us to mark his, and then proceeded to dish out some of his old essays. He had an affinity with his pupils and was able to engage with us and broach controversial subjects in a way that no other teacher ever tried. And by doing so he was able to instill into us the incredible power of words and storytelling. He was a remarkably gifted teacher and went on to achieve great things in education. A couple of years ago I was driving in my car and his dulcet tones came over the airwaves on Radio Four. Needless to say, he was totally captivating all those years after he’d been capturing imaginations in the classroom. And I often think that his inspirational lessons led me into a lifelong career as a creative advertising copywriter.
What lasting effects have your favourite authors had on your writing and style?
I’m sure authors I have read and enjoyed have influenced my writing in some form. It’s inevitable that a style or form of writing will rub off on all of us. But it isn’t something I set out to do. I don’t consciously want to emulate any particular style of writing though I am aware of influences. When I wrote my first book ‘Sleeping with the Blackbirds’ I deliberately set out to write it in an old-fashioned style redolent of authors like Richmal Crompton and Clive King. Looking back on this, I think this was, in part, down to my annoyance at work where both clients and agency account men were obsessed with writing copy in a tone of voice that was ‘modern’ and ‘forward looking’. As a result, words that were deemed old-fashioned would be removed from my copy, or I’d be asked to rewrite certain passages.
What do you do for inspiration?
Walking on Hampstead Heath is a good way to unwind and get rid of the cobwebs. As is listening to music, particularly JS Bach. His Goldberg Variations for solo piano are hard to beat if you really want to chill out and maybe, just maybe find some inspiration. A good cup of tea and a piece of toast with marmalade is probably also as good a way as any to recharge those batteries. The last place I will ever find inspiration is at my desk in front of a computer or a blank piece of white paper.
What’s your favorite line from any movie?
That’s an easy one. It was the line that Orson Welles came up with on the set of ‘The Third Man’. The line was unscripted. Welles had come out with it on the spot, and the director Carol Reed loved it and kept it in. It has since become one of the most brilliant ad-libs of all time and demonstrates the genius of Welles. The line is as follows:
“You know what the fellow said – in Italy, for thirty years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love, they had five hundred years of democracy and peace – and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.”
What are you reading at the moment?
I am currently reading ‘The Constant Gardener’ by John le Carré and just finished ‘Beneath a Scarlet Sky’ by Mark Sullivan. ‘The Constant Gardener’ is utterly brilliant in every way. Sullivan’s book was very good but not quite in the same league. I also recently read ‘The Upright Piano Player’ by David Abbott, which I would certainly recommend if you like Ian McEwan.
Do you have any tips for first-time authors?
Never let rejection letters from agents get you down. We all receive them; even J.K. Rowling. But take constructive criticism on board and don’t feel you have to agree with all criticism that comes your way. After all, you have to remember that this is a subjective game. There are no hard and fast rules. But the most important rule of all is this: enjoy your writing because if you don’t nobody will.