Interview with 2022 Winner Alex Hay

Alex, many congratulations on winning the Caledonia Novel Award 2022 with The Housekeepers, which Alice Lutyens described as “deft, clever and slippery…a dastardly plot of revenge and retribution”! What does winning the Caledonia Novel Award 2022, and being signed by Alice, mean to you?

It means so much. I’ve been following the Caledonia Novel Award for years and there was something surreal (but so very wonderful!) about being longlisted. I’d written several novels before The Housekeepers and abandoned countless (really countless) others, so writing a story that gained traction with the Caledonia judges was an enormous thrill.

Being part of the competition really helped propel things for me when I was out on agent submission, and meeting Alice was another special moment. I knew her as a real leader in the industry, the agent behind some terrific authors as well as being at the forefront of the audio boom. I couldn’t be happier to have signed with Alice and Curtis Brown.
Let’s talk about the women! Your novel is driven by an extraordinary group of strong, resourceful – and frequently overlooked – females. Why did you choose to put the women front and centre, and which character was your favourite to write?

That’s an interesting question. I suppose the easy answer would be that I followed my instincts: this story came to me with a nearly all-female cast and I never really saw it any other way. That said, I was mindful that I was writing with a male perspective, and I think we’ve all seen some pretty hideous ‘men writing women’ tropes out there. I hope I avoided the worst of those.

Mrs King came pretty fully formed. She’s driven, disciplined, good-humoured, resilient. And I’m sure she has some of my own flaws in her, because she can be impatient, judgmental, self-interested, bad-tempered (let’s gloss over all of that!). In other words, I hope she’s real.

My favourite? Too hard to choose! I loved writing Mrs Bone – she’s the woman backing this enterprise financially. Then there are my beloved Janes: circus girls disguised as house-parlourmaids with a talent for the trapeze. Hephzibah Grandcourt, playing a flamboyant decoy duchess. And my villain, Miss de Vries, the young mistress of the house on Park Lane: intelligent, mercurial, vicious. She was a bad egg, but delicious to write.

The Housekeepers is packed with historical detail and local colour which gives it clear context and vividly brings the Edwardian era to life. How much research did you have to do, and is it important to you to get the facts right before you embark on the fiction?

I’ve always loved the era and had absorbed some details by osmosis over the years, but I knew watching Upstairs Downstairs might not be sufficient research. I certainly had a lot of work to do. I started by building the story, so as not to head down rabbit holes, and then used research to fill gaps in my knowledge or test my assumptions.

Let’s say the women needed to create the illusion of a fire during their heist. I’d go digging for strange inventions, and stumble across something like the Parenty Smoking Machine, a contraption designed to expel cigarette smoke. Great! I’d then allow some liberties to serve the story, such as permitting my characters to purchase several dozen machines and transport them across London at will.

Other elements required more thoughtful reading. I needed a more nuanced understanding of life at both ends of the social scale, and books like Julia Laite’s The Disappearance of Lydia Harvey gave brilliant and eye-opening accounts of female trafficking and the economic tensions around going into service. J Mordaunt Crook’s The Rise of the Nouveaux Riches offered insight into the snobbery and tensions between ‘old’ and ‘new’ money, and helped me paint a very real picture of who might be living in my house on Park Lane.

Novels from the era were also so helpful. You only have to read The Well of Loneliness by Radclyffe Hall, which was published in the late 1920s but set at the turn of the century, to find characters driving motorcars, forging independent careers, and grappling with their sexuality – all threads in my book too.

One of the most joyful finds was an archive article from the Illustrated London News, a gossipy and touristy account of a splendid house on Park Lane. It was jam-packed with glorious details: carpets, paintings, the type of marble used on the staircase. Old magazine adverts were also eternally fascinating. I loved it all!

I’d like to ask you a bit about your craft: are you a disciplined writer and what does a typical writing day look like for you? And what has been the hardest part about writing The Housekeepers?

I do try to be disciplined. I work full time for a charity, so I write around my job – mornings, evenings, weekends. Let’s say I’ve got time early in the morning to write. The primary battle will be against procrastination. I’ll open the laptop, force myself to open Word, and put noise-cancelling headphones on. I have a playlist of thunderstorms that I’ve been playing over and over for years, and at this point my brain just goes ‘click’ when I hear it.

The hardest – but most satisfying – part of writing The Housekeepers has been the editing process. Pull on one thread and the whole story unravels, but it’s so creatively energising to press on the plot and the characters and see things start to grow stronger and more coherent. Working with Alice has been fantastic for this reason.

Did you plan The Housekeepers assiduously and how did you maintain its pace and suspense?

I have learned through trial and error (read: many abandoned novels) that I am a planner, not a ‘pantser’ or discovery writer. I’ve tried a couple of times to write without an outline, and it always feels glorious at first, but the whole thing falls apart at around 30,000 words. Delete!

This book was born out of two practical considerations: I wanted to write something set in the 1900s, and I wanted to write a heist. Heists have rules. So, I started by setting out questions like: what’s the prize? Who’s the fox, who’s the hound? I pulled together a rough synopsis/outline just to check it felt like a book, and I spent a long and joyful time really picking apart film scripts and novels to make sure I could locate the key beats in my own plot.

I used to fear planning might feel too plodding/joyless. But really I think it can be immensely creative. You can give your imagination free rein when you’re not constrained by, you know, having to actually write the whole book. And of course as the story goes down on the page you can take off and leave the plan behind – and indeed I found I had to, when I came to tackle big structural edits – combining characters, deleting storylines, excising scenes. But I would struggle to finish a first draft without a plan to guide me.

Are you a member of a writers group? If so, do you find it helpful?

In 2015 I applied to the Curtis Brown Write Your Novel course, which was transformative for me. I forged deep and trusting friendships with 14 immensely talented writers, all ambitious and supportive, and their friendship has been invaluable. We were tutored by Erin Kelly, as gifted a teacher as she is a novelist, and the whole experience opened my eyes to the craft and trade of novel writing.

My husband also writes, as does my mother, Dale Frances Hay, who published her first novel The Night Fogs in 2018. They are wonderfully talented, ambitious and encouraging. I feel lucky to have people around me who accept and appreciate what I’m doing, because of course it’s a big sacrifice to write all the time: you give up weekends, evenings, holidays – all for a passion and a dream.

Alice Lutyens described The Housekeepers as “escapism at its best” – is this the sort of novel you enjoy reading yourself, and which debut novels can you recommend?

Absolutely I do. Is there anything better than escaping into a rich, immersive world? I’m deep into The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett at the moment, and it’s such a joy. Every time I turn the page (and there are 1,000+ of them!) I fall deeper into the 12th century. That same all-consuming quality is true of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, or Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, or Frank Herbert’s Dune. That kind of world-building ability is really the holy grail in my opinion.

There are SO many debuts I’ve loved recently. I just finished The Manningtree Witches by A.K. Blakemore and it blew me away; hypnotic, immersive, stunning on a line level. Looking ahead I’m excited to read The Leviathan by Rosie Andrews, Wahala by Nikki May, Pandora by Susan Stokes-Chapman, Yinka, Where is Your Huzband? by Lizzie Damilola Blackburn…and on and on. Cannot wait to get my hands on all of them…

Are there certain novelists who have influenced you as a writer, and which novel – if any! – do you wish that you had written?

Where to begin?! There are certain images and echoes from books I read growing up that still linger in my mind: the moodiness and strangeness of The Princess and the Goblin, The Magician’s Nephew, Griffin’s Castle. I loved E Nesbit, especially The Story of the Amulet. I inhaled Enid Blyton, then Harry Potter. In my teens I was obsessed with the big 18th-century blockbusters: Ann Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho, Frances Burney’s Evelina and Cecilia. I suppose there are some threads connecting all of these in my writing today – historical settings, peculiar people, humour, something gothic…

I discovered Ruth Rendell at university and admire her tremendously. She produced the most extraordinary body of work: such original, ruthless, incisive novels. I’ll buy anything Tana French writes. Lee Child is incredible: such tension, such careful prose. Naturally Sarah Waters is a hero – everyone loves Fingersmith and so do I, but I love The Little Stranger best of all. I must have gifted Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life more than almost any other novel. Michelle Paver, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Erin Kelly, Catriona Ward – all amazing. If I had to name one author who inspires me professionally then I think it would be Nora Roberts, because she’s such a powerhouse and is so generous with her reader. She knows exactly what we need – to be nourished and buoyed and heartened – and she delivers every time.

A book I wish I’d written? Well, I’ve just finished The Betrayals by Bridget Collins and adored it. Every single element hit my buttons: the strange and speculative setting, the simmering sexual tension, the most gorgeous lyrical prose. I would have LOVED to have written something so good.

And what are your next steps with your new agent? What has the process been like so far, and why was Alice the ideal fit for you and your novel?

I was always hoping to work with an agent who was hands-on editorially, and Alice has wowed me on this score. At our first meeting she presented a phenomenal list of editorial notes, and I got cracking on those straight away. These ranged from big-ticket structural issues right the way down to smaller tweaks to help situate the reader in the story, ensuring the characters felt real. Then we tried to trim anything superfluous and weed out any logic/timeline/credibility issues. Alice is creative, perceptive, and straightforward in her feedback – it really has been a joy to edit with her.

We are now sending The Housekeepers out to editors – and I expect to be on tenterhooks for the foreseeable future!
Alice felt like a great partner and agent from our very first meeting. I could tell at once that she was pragmatic, strategic, super-honest and FUN. She can also read at supersonic speed!

And finally, what made you enter the Caledonia Novel Award 2022, and do you have any advice for anyone thinking of entering the Caledonia Novel Award 2023?

I couldn’t recommend it highly enough. Being part of the competition has absolutely propelled my book so far, and the community of authors surrounding the prize is so supportive and encouraging. I think it’s worth noting that I’ve entered twice before, with two different novels, and didn’t make the longlist – so I would always recommend giving it a go. You never know whether this could be your year!
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