Welcome to author Alexis Hall joining us today in honor of his newest release “Pansies”
Love Bytes had the honor to ask author Alexis Hall some extended questions on his new release , we hope you enjoy it as much as we did! 🙂
Alexis, congratulations on the release of ‘Pansies’. I found it a very emotive and layered novel and a joy to read. It is rare to love both MCs equally, especially in a character-driven piece like this, but I genuinely did. So –
1) Let’s start the questions gently – Why is this novel listed as in the ‘Spires series’, as South Shields is quite different from the dreaming spires of Oxford?
That’s actually a really good question. And one with several quite complicated answers. Basically, right from when I started to get into writing I had an ambitious but slightly nebulous idea for a set of linked stories that would have thematic similarities and take place in a shared world with overlapping characters. At the time, however, I knew very little about the mechanics of actually getting a series picked up and marketed as a series so I just sort of … figured it would somehow come together. Which was ridiculously naïve of me.
So essentially what happened was Glitterland came out, and was retrospectively branded as part of Spires when Waiting for the Flood and For Real were published. And, while I knew not all of the books were set in Oxford (Glitterland, for example, is set in Brighton, London and Cambridge) I did know that most of them had an Oxford connection, and I liked the ideas evoked by Spires as a name … so I wound up calling it Spires, essentially because it sounded better than “Alexis Hall’s Series Of Thematically Connected Stories In Which Characters Will Eventually Start To Overlap Somewhere Down the Line.”
The problem is, due to various factors, I’ve not managed to get to Somewhere Down The Line yet. For people who are connection-spotting, Fen’s ex-boyfriend is Niall’s current boyfriend (and, if I ever get to write that book, a significant proportion of it would take place in South Shields, at Alfie and Fen’s wedding—spoiler for future events of imaginary people) and there’s a loose group of trendy London sorts who overlap across all the books. Basically, I started with quite a specific plan for Spires, which I quickly edited down “whatever wound up happening.”
I do think that Pansies still feels like a Spires book but, obviously, that’s mostly a call for readers to make. Most of books in the series are quite different anyway—even the ones that have explicit Oxford connections.
2) I loved the way that South Shields seems to become a more beautiful place as Alfie starts to fall in love with Fen, even though Fen’s experiences of life there are far more painful and dark. Did you intend to create this paradox from the beginning or did it develop as you were writing?
Short answer: yes, that was kind of a deliberate thing, and I’m glad it came across okay.
Long answer: I think the thing about writing, like most practiced skills is that you develop a whole set of techniques and strategies and make a whole lot of choices without consciously articulating to yourself what they are or why you’re making them. For example, when I wrote For Real I put Toby’s chapters in first person present and Laurie’s in first person past and I didn’t, at any point, sit down and say to myself “tell you what, Alexis, since Toby is young and lives in the moment, why you don’t put all his chapters in present tense and since Laurie is older and, in many ways, lives in the past, why don’t you write all of his chapters in past tense?” But clearly that was what I going for there.
So basically I definitely wanted the characters’ relationship to South Shields to change alongside their relationship with each other. But I didn’t sort of consciously plan how I would do that.
3) My first reading of Pansies, and I can’t wait to read it again, left me feeling that this novel was as much about the MCs relationships with their parents, as their love story. Did you decide on the parents’ role in the novel before you plotted Alfie and Fen’s love story or was it never that linear?
I think this is quite a hard question to answer because, for me, when I’m writing … anything really, the story and the context of the story have to be simultaneous. Alfie and Fen’s love story takes place between two people who live in a particular world and grew up in a particular world (which isn’t necessarily the world they now live in) and that whole set of conflicts and tensions and interactions is sort of what makes their romance have meaning. Without getting too “a man cannot step in the same river twice” about things, Fen and Alfie wouldn’t be Fen and Alfie if Fen didn’t have a dead mother and Alfie didn’t have a homophobic father so they’d be different people and their story would be a different story.
4) Do you think you could have forgiven yourself in Alfie’s place or indeed forgiven him if you were in Fen’s?
The thing is, I think most of us have been at some point in our lives both Fen and Alfie, in that we’ve all had shitty things done to us, and we’ve all done shitty things.
And actually I have quite an ambivalent relationship with forgiveness. Perhaps it’s because I’m an overeducated prick but there are a lot of concepts that our society (insofar as I can assume that I and everyone reading this come from the same society, which we obviously don’t) consider important that I’ve never quite got to grips with. Ironically, love is another one in that I think we make a lot of assumptions about what it is or what it means that I either question or actively reject. I guess I’m a pretty odd person to be a romance author, now I think about it.
For me, the thing about forgiveness—like love—is that we have a tendency and, if I want to swim dangerously close to waters I won’t be safe in, a probably on some level religiously derived tendency to view them as innately virtuous. I tend to think of them as very much morally neutral in that often both forgiving and desiring to be forgiving can be quite selfish things (as can loving and desiring to be loved). Forgiveness in particular is extremely hard to pin down, to the extent that I can’t think of a single time I’ve seen somebody satisfactorily articulate what it actually means to forgive anyone for anything. I mean, it obviously has specific meaning within theological notions of sin and repentance but if you cheat on me or murder my father and I forgive you for it … what does that involve? It doesn’t mean I condone the original act and it probably doesn’t even mean I’ve stopped caring about it.
This is sort of consciously bathetic but the only way I can articulate to myself what it means to forgive someone is that it sort of means you decide you’re not going use the thing you’re forgiving them for as an excuse to be a dick. And, obviously, this is a very idiosyncratic way of looking at the idea but I think I’d rather avoid being a dick to people in general rather than avoid being a dick in ways that are motivated by specific feelings of resentment.
I think for me personally the closest I’ve ever got to forgiving anyone for anything is realising that I’ve reached a point in my life where I actually no longer care. And that feels different enough from what I perceive as the cultural notion of forgiveness that I’m not entirely comfortable calling it by the same name.
To actually bring this back to the actual book that this interview about … I’m not sure I even think that Fen forgives Alfie in Pansies. Let me very quickly say that I’m happy to accept that you can read the book assuming that the process that Fen goes through is a process of forgiveness. But part of what I wanted to explore with the story was what it meant to come to terms with those feelings and experiences. And, for me, it’s more about Fen reconciling his feelings for Alfie as he is now with his feelings for Alfie in the past than in anyone necessarily explicitly being forgiven for anything.
5) The title is excellent and I love the reasons for it that the book offers – do you ever wish to reclaim that lovely word that is often used derogatorily?
I think as slurs go, pansy is in a slightly funny place in that, at least to me, it feels quite outdated and evocative of (and I don’t want to sound like I’m some kind of connoisseur here) a very specific flavour of homophobia. It’s specifically the slur that people (primarily men) who have a very specific view of masculinity use against men who they feel deviate from that norm. It’s odd in a way because it’s sort of self-referentially derogative. As a homophobic slur its power comes from suggesting that a gay man is effeminate and therefore not a proper man. As a slur directed at a man who you perceive as weak or insufficiently masculine it derives its power from suggesting that an effeminate man is gay and therefore not a proper man. Slurs are so weird.
I think the word itself doesn’t have any particular resonance for me—although I do really like the flowers, with their quizzical little faces and their bright, shiny colours—but I think, weirdly, the flower connection is part of the problem. I mean, this is really obvious slur etymology but the whole reason pansy is used to mean a gay or effeminate man is precisely because of the comparison with flower. In this sense, I don’t think it’s like queer where reclaiming the term has a subversive power because the word itself almost literally means subversive. I can certainly imagine people who might want to reclaim pansy as a term but I think they’d have to be people who are keen to identify with tiny, brightly coloured flowers. And I’m not sure spirit plants are a thing? But if I had to pick a spirit plant I’m pretty sure it wouldn’t be a pansy.
6) Alexis, you are well known for writing in many sub-genres – from lesbian vampire detectives to dashing gender-queer sky captains and mute mermen – do you have a favourite romance genre to write in, or maybe a different genre altogether you would like to attempt?
I’m not particularly keen to get out of romance because—despite what I said earlier about not understanding it—I actually like writing about love. I think basically I like variety so I enjoy writing in multiple sub-genres. The realities of the market are such that I’ve put out a lot more contemps recently than I started of with and I’d really like to do something with more wizards, monsters or spaceships in it. Basically I’m just a flighty person and I’m always seeking opportunities to indulge that flightiness.
7) Authors often remark that their work is a form of catharsis for them, is that ever true for you and how does that manifest?
I think most authors have emotional relationships with their books, but they might not always be the emotional relationships you’d expect. I think catharsis suggests quite as specific experience of writing and I don’t think it’s necessarily reflective of how I approach my own work.
8) Personally, I think your eclectic back catalogue keeps your storytelling fresh, however, you have proved that you can write successful series with the outstanding Prosperity and associated stories, and Kate Kane. Are there any of your previous characters you would like to re-visit?
I would absolutely love to go back to the Kate Kane series and although there’s nothing on the horizon for it at the moment I might look at self-publishing at some point in the future. I definitely do have plans to finish off the series because her story isn’t anywhere near complete.
As for the Prosperityverse, I feel pretty much all of its major characters have complete arcs so there isn’t the same need to continue the series. I did have a slightly mad plan for a follow up where Captain England goes to Mars, and another volume of related shorts, but apart from a story from Milord’s past with Black Jack Callahan they weren’t really focused on the original crew of Shadowless.
In general, I’m not that into re-visiting characters unless the characters were originally envisioned as part of an “until we all get bored” type series. I can’t decide if it sounds obvious or self-aggrandising but when I write a standalone novel about some people… then that novel generally contains everything I want to say about them. It’s partly why I ended up writing In Vino (the mini-story attached for For Real) about Jasper, rather than Toby or Laurie.
9) How has winning the RITA, for your novel For Real, changed your view of your writing and your aims regarding your writing career?
Wow, that’s kind of a big question. In a lot of ways, pragmatically, it hasn’t made much of a difference. I don’t keep very close tabs on these things but my sales are pretty much what they’ve always been and it’s not like I’ve had publishers knocking down my door saying “we’re desperate to give you a ten book series” (if you are a publisher, and you’d like to give me a ten book series, I am so there for that). Obviously it’s affirming in a lot of ways but I think the problem with awards is that they’re simultaneously really good at helping with imposter syndrome and really good at giving you massive imposter syndrome. So I think I’ve probably come out about the same insecurity wise.
I suspect it might be a bit of a bellwether for the status of m/m within the wider community in that two m/m novels won RITAs this year and that might be a sign that the genre as a whole is getting more mainstream traction, which might prove to be the rising tide that lifts all boats. But I think when it comes to real practical things, like who buys what books, it’s such a mess of competing and conflicting factors and a chaos of butterfly wings that it’s very hard to predict what any one event or change means for anyone.
Thank you, Alexis Hall, for your time and your gift as a storyteller.
Thank you for having me!
(questions provided by B.J Jansen)
Alfie Bell is . . . fine. He’s got a six-figure salary, a penthouse in Canary Wharf, the car he swore he’d buy when he was eighteen, and a bunch of fancy London friends.
It’s rough, though, going back to South Shields now that they all know he’s a fully paid-up pansy. It’s the last place he’s expecting to pull. But Fen’s gorgeous, with his pink-tipped hair and hipster glasses, full of the sort of courage Alfie’s never had. It should be a one-night thing, but Alfie hasn’t met anyone like Fen before.
Except he has. At school, when Alfie was everything he was supposed to be, and Fen was the stubborn little gay boy who wouldn’t keep his head down. And now it’s a proper mess: Fen might have slept with Alfie, but he’ll probably never forgive him, and Fen’s got all this other stuff going on anyway, with his mam and her flower shop and the life he left down south.
Alfie just wants to make it right. But how can he, when all they’ve got in common is the nowhere town they both ran away from.
About Alexis Hall
Alexis Hall was born in the early 1980s and still thinks the 21st century is the future. To this day, he feels cheated that he lived through a fin de siècle but inexplicably failed to drink a single glass of absinthe, dance with a single courtesan, or stay in a single garret.
He did the Oxbridge thing sometime in the 2000s and failed to learn anything of substance. He has had many jobs, including ice cream maker, fortune teller, lab technician, and professional gambler. He was fired from most of them.
He can neither cook nor sing, but he can handle a 17th century smallsword, punts from the proper end, and knows how to hotwire a car.
He lives in southeast England, with no cats and no children, and fully intends to keep it that way.
Connect with Alexis:
To celebrate the release of Pansies, one lucky winner will receive their choice of 3 ebooks from Alexis Hall’s backlist. Leave a comment with your contact info to enter the contest. Entries close at midnight, Eastern time, on October 15, 2016. Contest is NOT restricted to U.S. entries. Thanks for following the tour, and don’t forget to leave your contact info!