Alexis Hall, the author of "10 Things That Never Happened", talks about how important it is to be able to relate to characters, what led him into becoming a writer, and more.
Your characters are engaging. Your books mix romance, comedic moments and lessons as well. Why do you feel that it's important to write the type of characters that are so relatable to others?
That’s an interesting one. Something I’m very disinclined to do in general is to describe my own work, at least in those kinds of terms. It’s a slightly unhelpful reflex but whenever somebody asks “how do you make your books so X” my first response is always “I’m flattered that you find my books X, but I’m also very aware that some people find them not-X and I don’t want to invalidate those people’s experiences either, but here are some disconnected thoughts on why the people who do find my books X might find them X.”
And I think that instinct kicks in doubly when it comes to the question of characters being “relatable” because it’s about the most subjective quality a character can possibly have. Finding a character relatable, after all, means seeing some reflection of yourself or your life in that character, and since we’re all different we all relate to different things.
I think something I would say is that there are probably two different kinds of relatability (is that a word?) and I tend to go for the second. You can have broad relatability, where something is relatable because it speaks to very universal ideas and experiences which we can all project ourselves onto to some extent, a kind of “everyman” relatability that strives to reach the widest possible audience. I personally don’t tend to aim for that kind of relatability because I, well, I often don’t find it relatable. Try to make something that everybody can relate to and you’ll almost certainly be making some (certainly unspoken, possibly unexamined) assumptions about who “everybody” is. To take a completely frivolous example, a common Americanism for being “normal” is “he puts his pants on one leg at a time just like everybody else” and, well, just encoded in the first ten words is the assumption that this person is a “he”, that he dresses in a way that’s normative for Western men in the 21st century, that he refers to his lower-body garments using American terminology, and that he dons those garments in a particular way.
The other kind of relatability is the kind that doubles down on speaking to quite a specific version of quite a specific experience and accepting that there will be a ton of people, that doesn’t work. The more I’ve thought about — and talked about — my work over the years, the more I’ve come to realise that “specificity” is kind of the watchword I come back to most often. And I think maybe that’s what the people who respond positively to my books are responding to. It’s not just about seeing things you recognise in yourself, it’s about seeing things you recognise in yourself that you don’t often see elsewhere.
Do you have any rituals that you follow when it comes to writing your books? Coffee, listening to music, or silence, for example?
I’m very conscious that my answer to a lot of common writer questions is just “no” and that makes me a terrible interview subject. Something I talk about a lot is that I don’t like to mystify writing, and so I’m very leery of talking about “rituals” and the like. At the end of the day, writing is a job and I think it’s important to realise that it’s the kind of thing anybody can do. You don’t need a Special Writing Chair or Special Writing Music or Special Writing Coffee or anything like it. You can just write. Some people do it at desks, some people do it on their phones. It’s accessible like that.
What led you to become a writer? How is the marketplace now, as opposed to when you first published? Do you think there are more (or different) opportunities for a more inclusive spectrum of authors and voices?
This is a very … web 2.0 story. Back in the late 2000s/early 2010s when we all thought the internet was going to be this revolutionary democratising force instead of a cesspit of misinformation controlled by billionaires, there was a bit of a boom in self-publishing and small-press publishing. There was a real anyone-can-make-it-for-themselves-on-the-interwebs feeling that was largely false, as it always is, but it did get me to pitch a couple books (the original Kate Kane and Prosperity) to open calls at a boutique press. It kind of took off from there, although “took off” is probably overselling it. It built pretty slowly from there.
As for how the marketplace has changed — I always feel the need to credit Red, White and Royal Blue for changing publishers’ perception of the commercial viability of LGBTQ+ popular fiction. And of course TikTok has … not exactly been a game changer, there’s always been something out there that was perceived as the One Mythical Thing That Will Make You A Success, but that thing didn’t use to be TikTok and, well, now it is.
In terms of inclusivity and diversity, I’m always a bit hesitant to unfurl the Mission Accomplished banner because however far we’ve come, there’s still a long way to go. I think it’s very easy to view inclusion too much in terms of how it relates to yourself and only yourself. I can’t really speak for how inclusive the industry feels to people who aren’t currently inside it and aren’t currently, well, me; I think things have got incrementally better in the last decade, but I think there are still pretty high barriers to entry for a lot of people.
What character in your latest book surprised you the most? Especially with the direction that they might've taken in the story?
I’m not sure if I’m ever really surprised by my characters. I know there are some writers who feel their creations really do take on lives of their own, and I’m not knocking or denigrating that, but it’s not really the way I like to think about writing. Perhaps it’s just the way my mind works, but I generally approach writing with an awareness of its … “artificiality” seems like a really negative way to put it; perhaps “constructedness” or, I suppose, if I wasn’t too concerned about sounding pretentious “artistry.” I don’t always know how a book as a whole is going to come together, or how a character’s arc is going to fall out, but I’d always express that as the story surprising me, not the character.
With “10 Things that Never Happened” in particular I had a very strong sense of who Sam, Jonathan and all the various members of the supporting cast were going to be from the outset and the arc was pretty much set in stone. There was a bit of tweaking and fine-tuning (which is probably a mixed metaphor with the set in stone thing) but no huge twists.
What's up next for you in the bookish and creative world that you can share?
A fair few things. Of course the usual caveats about all this being subject to change apply but if things go as currently planned there’s the new re-release of both “For Real” and “Pansies” scheduled, and I’m super excited for both. I’ve just got a look at the ARCs for “For Real” and the cover is super gorgeous and goes really nicely alongside “Glitterland” and “Waiting/Chasing”. Going back to Spires after all these years has been such a joy for me, and I can’t wait to share these new editions with new and old readers alike. I’ve also got “Confounding Oaths” coming out in the summer; that’s the sequel to “Mortal Follies” and follows Maelys’s cousin John in a story of evil fairy godmothers, wishes, curses, and soldiers both dashing and not-so-dashing.
[Editor's note: An earlier version of this story identified the author by a different pronoun. While the author is open to all pronouns we decided to update the story to reflect his preferred choice.]