How did you become a writer?
I’ve wanted to be a writer since before I can remember so, from the time I mastered my dyslexia and dyspraxia enough to put pen to paper and create things that looked vaguely like words, I did. It was pretty hit and miss to start off with as I had enough trouble writing shopping lists (‘keesh’ for dinner anyone?), but I had a wonderful tutor, Maureen Cook, who eventually taught me how to read… and then I was off. I started writing my first novel before I turned ten and haven’t stopped since. Throughout my teens many manuscripts, in many genres, were started and then abandoned as unsatisfactory. When it came time to choose what I would do at university, I decided that there wasn’t much point learning how to write if I had nothing to write about; I took Social and Political Sciences, majoring in Psychology, as that lies at the core of the subject matter I am most passionate about as a writer. After finishing my first degree, I started looking for an agent in and around various jobs and various other degrees.
I submitted three different novels to agents before the wonderful Claire Wilson at Rogers, Coleridge & White offered me representation after reading The Bone Dragon (it’s psychological thriller rather than fantasy in case you were wondering about the genre!). To be fair, I had only sent each previous manuscript to a scant handful of agents so I wasn’t very surprised that getting signed took a while. Knowing that most writers make a lot of submissions before getting an agent, I figured that, instead of trying and trying and trying again with the same manuscript, I should give each book a shot with a few people then, if I got rejected (as I did), I could take the feedback and go away and improve my work before trying again with a new project. The plan was to gradually inch forwards, improving from book to book, to the point at which I’d get a yes.
I had a feeling about The Bone Dragon when I wrote the first page. It just felt like the right book at the right time. It’s telling that, for the first time, I was prepared to keep submitting until I got a ‘yes’ or ran out of agencies to submit to. But I didn’t need to. Claire offered me representation within 48 hours of being sent the full manuscript and less than two months later the book sold in a three-way bidding war to Faber and Faber. Not long after, Carlsen bought the German rights. Now, the final proofs are nearly ready and then it’s just the wait until the book is released on 2 May 2013. So, Chapter 1: Getting an Agent, Getting Published is finally finished. Soon it’ll be time to start on Chapter 2: So How’s Publication Working Out for You? Cross fingers!
Name your writing influences (writers, books, teachers, etc.).
As a child, I spent a lot of time with my maternal grandparents, listening to their stories about the past – though my grandfather also made up the most wonderful stories combining all sorts of books with real figures from history: Robin Hood meets Queen Elizabeth I was one of my favourites. I think that was probably what triggered my passion for storytelling.
In terms of direct writing influences, I am in awe of Barbara Kingsolver’s craft. She can pack an incredible amount of beauty, plot and characterisation into even the shortest sentence. I would love to have her command of technique. Children’s writer Diana Wynne Jones has an enviable ability to create likeable, three-dimensional characters with just a few ‘brush strokes’: I admire her efficiency. And her sense of humour.
That said, like most writers I find inspiration in all sorts of things: books, poems, paintings, films, anime, beautiful scenery, flowers, music… This tends to be reflected in my writing. The Bone Dragon mentions plays (Hamlet, The Tempest), films (including Hitchcock’s Spellbound), poems (including ‘The Lady of Shalott’, paintings (including ‘Miranda and the Tempest’), a statue and several other books. For me, the world of the book just wouldn’t be complete without bringing in all those connections.
Finally, a special mention must go to the fiercely amazing Pat Neal, who gave me my first piece of serious criticism… and who continues to be the first person to read my work.
When and where do you write?
I have a lovely study in a converted attic with a view of roofs, trees and even some distant hills. Most of all it’s bright, with lots of natural light. I’m in the process of reorganising at the moment to make the room less chaotic, so it’s even messier than usual, but it will remain scattered with various beautiful things, including pictures, cards, stones, shells, glass animals, the odd shiny knife (I like shiny knives), dried flowers, sugar-flowers and books, books, books, books and more books.
I also love to write in the garden, provided there’s nothing noisy going on nearby.
As for timing, I write whenever I can, day or night. I start as early as I can and keep going until I get stuck. Then I work on getting unstuck. Then I carry on until I’m too tired to keep going.
What are you working on now?
Too many things: the screenplay for The Bone Dragon; a historical novel set during WWII (a new version of the novel I wrote as part of my PhD); and a second YA/crossover psychological thriller. I’m also working, in the back of my mind, on restructuring the manuscripts that I tried submitting before The Bone Dragon. I think I might now have the skill to turn them into good books.
Have you ever suffered from writer’s block?
Nope. I don’t believe in it. I get stuck all the time – on a daily basis actually. But even when I get stuck for weeks and months at a time I don’t see this as some sort of pseudo-illness. Usually I’m stuck because I don’t know how to solve a problem with whatever I’m working on. Or I’m standing in my own way for any number of reasons – fear of failure, not having enough emotional resilience because of difficulties in other areas of my life… But I never say I’m blocked. I just tell myself that I’m stuck and I’d better unstick myself if I want to call myself a professional writer.
What’s your advice to new writers?
Be honest with yourself about what you want to achieve, why you want to achieve it and how much it matters to you. Then put in the work necessary to achieve what you really care about achieving.
Don’t spend time worrying about whether or not you’re talented: there’s nothing you can do about your natural ability. Take control of the thing you can do something about: how hard you work. Work (then work some more) on every aspect of your technique, including grammar and punctuation. Decent grammar and punctuation isn’t that hard to master so if you can’t be bothered agents, publishers and other writers will be inclined to think you don’t care very much about writing after all.
Read. Everyone says it and everyone is right to. Read. But write too. The best way to learn about writing is to write. And write some more. At the start, don’t worry about writing something worth publishing. If you write something great, then see if you can get it picked up. If it’s not so great, then remember it’s still good practice so the time and effort is not wasted.
Finally, don’t be in too great a rush. It’s vital to be passionate and to feel a driving need to achieve your goals. But remember that most writers have to write for years before they get an agent and often for months or years after that before they get published. There’s no harm in wanting it to happen fast, but don’t want speedy success to the point where you paralyse yourself as a writer if it doesn’t happen right away. Remember that most people get there by inching towards their goal, not performing a long-jump over the frustrating, heart-breaking stages of rejection. And while you’re waiting, you’re probably becoming a better writer so, once you get that miraculous, vital ‘yes’ you’ll be able to move ahead much more effectively in your writing career than if you got a ‘yes’ based more on luck and talent than graft and hard work. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with luck and talent, but both can let you down: hard work rarely does in the long run.
A British-American citizen of Italian heritage, Alexia Casale is an editor, teacher and writing consultant. After studying psychology then educational technology at Cambridge, she moved to New York to work on a Tony-award-winning Broadway show before completing a PhD and teaching qualification. In between, she worked as a West End script-critic, box-office manager for a music festival and executive editor of a human rights journal. She loves cats, collects glass animals and interesting knives, and has always wanted a dragon. Luckily, she has her very own rib in a pot…
The Bone Dragon is now available for pre-order at Waterstones, Amazon and WHSmith.