Interview conducted by Albie Fasseau
Alex Reeve’s Leo Stanhope series consists of three crime novels based in 1880s Victorian England, with a fourth one in the process. With the series still going strong, I wanted to question Alex upon how he truly writes a series, especially one dealing with so many serious issues of identity.
Q: I just want to start off by asking how you plan a novel. Is it all written down or just in your head?
It’s not all done in my head that would be very challenging! My memory is not that good. I write stuff down and write a plan for the novel before I write the novel. Then I start writing and get about three pages into the novel and a new character pops up and two new things happen and then I’ve got to change the plan. So, I change the plan and then I come back and write another five pages and something else changes like a character having an argument or buying a horse and I’ve got to change it again! I keep going in this loop until I get about half way through and get rid of the plan and the rest is in my head.
Q: In your mind was it always a series or was a case of once you finished the first one you wanted to do a second?
In my mind it was always a series but you have to write each one individually really. On the one hand you have individuals who read the first two and want to read the third but then you have readers who only want to read the third one. To some extent you have to explain enough of what has happened before to have a self-contained story but you also want them to enjoy it enough so that they want to go back and read all the others. So, I always wanted it to be a series.
Q: How do you manage that? Obviously, you need to give some things away but you don’t want to give away a whole novel.
You have to kind of allude to the previous novel/s. I’ve just finished off book four and I wanted to refer to some trauma from previous books without referring to it directly. You really have to refer to it in a careful way so the protagonist has fleeting memories but he doesn’t want to confront them. You focus on the emotional consequences instead of what has actually happened so you don’t go into much detail. I do find in some shows that the characters have horrifying traumas; they lose loved ones, they get tortured and then the following week they are all fine! And that’s not the truth, people have tremendous overhang, things carry over from one experience to the next. And that’s very important for me to have that, that Leo has things that have gone wrong and right for him that are reflected in the present.
Q: You evidently developed your characters in every book. Even though they are crime novels, do you think of the books as very character focus pieces?
I do really yeah. There’s a crime element to the novel and that’s the core story but really the novels are about relationships and people. And that’s the bit that probably interest me the most. I do like the crime elements of it and I love crime novels but I love crime novels where it’s all about the people and not a procedure guessing game.
Q: In terms of Leo and their journey how did you go about developing the character considering you haven’t been through the same experiences?
I’m not transgender so to do that there’s a whole issue around culture appropriation which is a fair discussion to have. I spent a long thinking whether I really had the right to tell the story at all. But in the end, I wanted to tell a story about identity and it seemed a good way to do it and I felt strongly about the subject. I originally wrote Leo as a B character instead but he kept getting in the way; his story always seemed to be the better one and I couldn’t find an easy way to include him without him hogging the spotlight. So, what I did in the end was think to myself; I’m going to write this novel, I’m going to show it to some transgender people, I’m going to see what they think and if they think it’s ok to do this then I will carry on and then if they don’t, I’ll throw it away. And so, I did that and I wrote the first one fairly quickly, it sort of flew out, and then I took it to some transgender people, particularly at the Beaumont society, which is a group run by transgender people for transgender people as a support charity. They were incredibly helpful and really supportive and said they liked it. So, I think just a process of empathy and research and talking to people. Although he (Leo) is a transgender character, and that aspect of him is incredibly important, he doesn’t go through a transition, because it’s set in the 1880s. There was no access to hormone therapy or surgery or anything of that kind so, to some extent, I wouldn’t nessicary say it reflects a modern-day experience anyway just because of the time he’s living in. It’s more a novel about someone who happens to be transgender rather than a transgender novel and that makes it easier for me because I don’t have to think about the modern-day implications of being transgender; it’s all set in the past.
Q: I understand you’re a lover of historical fiction but it still must have posed quite a lot of challenges setting it in Victorian England. I’m just curious; why did you decide to set it then?
Lots of reasons really. The main theme of the novel is really identity and this series is really about identity in its various forms. Actually, in ways the reader probably doesn’t see, all the characters have identity challenges and all of them are questioned about identity and I wanted a period of time where everything was going through change, you know? The kind of speed of change now we have is with the technological revolution but, in those days, it was the industrial revolution and the advancement of electricity and medicine and the country and world was going through a massive state of change. The 1880s is right within that period where it’s just about recognisable in terms of the modern world, London’s geography was very similar, electricity was just coming into the world and we were at a point where going to the doctors was more likely to make you better than worse, which didn’t use to be the case. There was also a sewage system in London. So, in many respects, it was just on the brink of the modern era and I think that’s why it’s such an appealing time period because of that change. In a novel about identity, change is so important and I wanted to get the closest I could to that challenge of identity that people have but for the time period.
Q: As I was reading, thought to myself it must be absolutely terrible to try and get the research so accurate for Victorian England! How much of the writing process do you actually devote to just research?
A lot! I am super picky, I am really really annoyingly picky about the history and sometimes it drives me crazy, let alone anyone else! I spent half a day trying to work out what colour Westminster Bridge was painted in 1882. I’ve spent time doing bus timetables! The second book has a bus journey where they go from central London to the zoo at Regents park so I worked out what the bus timetables were on that day in 1882 and how to get them to get on the right bus and get off at the right stop that they would have actually gotten off at. And that meant they actually had to walk to the zoo which wasn’t in my original draft but no they have to walk there because I couldn’t possibly have the bus stop there it didn’t actually do it! I’m so ridiculously picky and it’s added a lot of richness in some ways, because the history reveals new interesting information which you can then wrap into your books and make exciting. But it’s time consuming and annoying, I annoy myself with it really, but I am very picky about the accuracy of it and I’m sure there are holes but I don’t know what they are, I would never include anything that I didn’t know to be true.
Q: And does that get easier with each book or does that just give more challenges?
It definitely does get easier. With the first one you’ve got to not only do the research you’ve got to work out how to do the research and what kind of tools you have at your disposal and so on. By the time you get to the third or fourth book you know what those are, I spend a lot of time reading contemporaneous newspaper accounts for example, they are great sources of history newspaper, and I know how to get hold of them now and which maps to use and the limitations those maps have so it definitely does get easier. The research for the first one was huge, the research for the second one was less and less and less.
Q: I just wanted to ask a couple of questions concerning your work as a series. So, in terms of your characters, obviously Leo’s always going to be there, but as side characters, how do you decide which ones are going to go into the next novel and which ones are going to be left as a standalone.
There are certain characters I look at as permanent through the series and they all have longer arcs through the series. So, Leo and Rosie are two central characters and his friend Jacob and his Wife Lilia and then Leo’s landlord Alfie and his daughter Constance. To me those characters go right through all the books, that’s six central characters. And they may not have a huge part to play in all the books but they’re all there because they are part of a central group. After that, the danger is as you go through a series, you just gather more and more and more characters and you have to populate this entire world and the novels just gets confusing because there’s too many people. I want to make sure if I involve another character again, and I’ve just done it in the fourth book draft I’ve just finished. There’s a character in there who was in the second book but wasn’t in the first or third and I want to make sure that that character is exactly the right character for that book, that there’s a real part to play. The plot demands that specific set of personality traits and qualities that really bring that novel to life and I’m never going to include them just because I like the character and I want them to turn up and they’re really colourful. So, for me, my central group of six is the people I love most and then after that it’s really a question of what works for the novel, whether I bring them back or not. Its good to bring them back sometimes because you can see how they have changed in the intermediate time and they’ve had experiences that you’ve got to include as well so its always nice to do.
Q: I understand you have a fourth book in the process which is good to hear. This might be a very bad question to ask you but do you see an end to the series?
I think there’s several aspects to that really. I have a sort of idea in mind and I think that I’ll know when that moments come, I think! But the other aspect to that is the publisher, who might get bored publishing them. It’s not only me it’s the publisher and others who have to say we want more of these. You’re always dependant on that process, I think. But for me, personally I would at some point probably want to write something else that’s not a story about this one series and that ambition to do another book also plays into that. So, I think I’ll know when it’s time. For some reason I think they work best as odd numbers so I would never stop at an even number that’s all I’ll say. I don’t know why that is but I’ve only got two rules for my novels and that’s no dog will ever be hurt in the writing of my novels and the only other rule I have is I won’t stop on an even number.
Q: Good rules to have! Another bit of an impossible question. As a lecturer yourself, what do you think is the most important thing to teach people who want to write?
Gosh, what a big question! The first thing is to read a lot. Reading and writing is really good together. Second thing is to enjoy it because why not? It’s supposed to be fun and if you don’t enjoy it what’s the point. And I think the third thing is to write a lot, just to write and write and write. Don’t question yourself, don’t doubt yourself; it doesn’t matter. Experiment and try new things, just write and write; write everyday if you want to. Practice teaches you so much. If you read a lot and you enjoy yourself and just write all the time, I think that will help you be the best writer you can be. And I think that’s the best advice. There’s stuff you can be taught in lectures and University and elsewhere in terms of techniques and things can be pointed out to you and you can work with that but ultimately reading a lot and writing a lot will make you a better writer and that’s what will really make a difference.
It was a wonderful experience discussing how Alex works in his process. It was very evident, throughout the interview, the amount of care and work that was put into the series to make it as full as possible and an experience very easy to enjoy. I look very much forward to the next book in the series!
Albie Fasseau is a first year Creative Writing and English Literature Student at the University of Surrey. Albie chaired Sunday afternoon’s novelist reading session with Alex Reeve, Gillian Best and Michael Donkor.
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