The Alex Grecian Interview
Kate: Congratulations on the upcoming release of LOST AND GONE FOREVER! This is your 5th book about Scotland Yard’s Murder Squad. What can readers expect from the Murder Squad and Jack the Ripper’s ongoing saga?
Alex: This one finally brings Jack’s saga to an end. (He’s disturbingly easy for me to write, which is probably why I kept him around for the three most recent books, but he’s not the most pleasant fellow to have around, so I’m glad to see the back of him now.)
Meanwhile, Walter Day hasn’t been himself lately, and Nevil Hammersmith has opened a very unusual detective agency.
The Murder Squad series is never the same for me, from book to book. I enjoy seeing the characters change, seeing them learn and grow from the events that have befallen them. I try to make each book accessible to anyone who hasn’t read the previous book, but I never want to write the same sort of thing twice. Letting the characters’ lives play out over time keeps it all fresh.
K: Volumes have been written about Jack the Ripper, both academically and in fiction. How do you keep your take on Saucy Jack fresh, but true to the essence of the world-famous killer?
A: The tropes Jack introduced more than a hundred years ago have become stale. It’s nearly always a three-pronged formula these days: one man who (for whatever reason) hunts women, one female victim whose ordeal we follow, and finally another man who intends to rescue the woman from the first man. The only real wiggle room is whether he’ll succeed or fail, whether the woman will escape on her own or is doomed to be victimized. It might have been a fresh concept when Jack was actually working the back alleys of Whitechapel, but it’s old hat now. And it makes us all, men and women alike, look bad when you step back and squint at it all. There are definitely exceptions to that formula, but not enough of them. So I wanted to do something different with the concept, since Jack’s legacy was already so much a part of the series, and that was a challenge. Jack’s awfully well known. By using a well-known secret society to capture Jack and hold him prisoner for a year, I was able to essentially recreate him and give him a different motivation. Make him my own. Over the course of my Ripper trilogy, he’s gone from a raving lunatic to an almost reasonable fellow who’s simply seeking revenge on his demented captors. It’s allowed me to explore aspects of Victorian London that feed into all that back-alley lore, but skew it my way.
K: You’ve also written comic books, RASPUTIN and PROOF. Is your writing process different if you are writing prose or comic books? Do you prefer writing one more than the other? Honestly, which one gives you the most satisfaction?
A: I like comic books. I do. They’re a lot of fun and some concepts are a better fit for that medium than any other. But novels are a hundred times easier for me to write. I’m always tremendously relieved to finish a comic book series or graphic novel and escape back to the world of prose fiction.
In the first place, there’s more room to stretch in novels. I can explore tangents and entertain digressions and, as long as I can tie them back to the story, there’s a place in books for that. But mainstream American comics, for good and bad, are tied to a very rigid structure. I have twenty pages per chapter, and only six or eight or ten chapters. I’ve got to pick and choose what will fit as I’m writing and what I leave on the cutting room floor (so to speak) is sometimes heartbreaking for me.
And, in the second place, the actual writing process has to be different. In comics, I can have anywhere from one to seven specific beats on a page. These are single discreet actions. And each page has to end with a mini-cliffhanger of sorts, something climactic or intriguing, signaling that it’s time to turn the page. Surprises have to happen after that page-turn. And page twenty has to end with a real cliffhanger, something to entice the reader to come back next month for another fix.
Of course, many readers will wait to pick up the collections instead, and bypass the monthly format entirely, and the piece has to read well as a whole because those collections are the things that will stay in print and be available in bookstores. It’s a much more complicated tap-dance than the novel is. Still, it keeps me sharp and lets me collaborate with artists I respect and admire so it’s well worth it. If I’ve recovered sufficiently from the last time I tried it.
K: The Scotland Yard Murder Squad series and the RASPUTIN comic book are set around the turn of the 20th century. What is it about that era in history that you find compelling to write about? How do you make your characters and setting feel authentic?
A: Looking back on my early life, the majority of books I read were from at least a half-century before I was born, and most of those were British imports. So there was a cumulative effect. Victorian and (particularly) Edwardian England felt as real to me as the American Midwest in the nineteen-seventies. But with charm. I enjoy the research because it feels like I’m being reminded of good things from childhood.
K: On the letters page at the end of the first issue of RASPUTIN, you told about a near-death experience you had as a child and the impact it had on you as a writer. Would you mind sharing that story with the Crimespree readers?
A: Which near-death experience? Oh, that one. I’m not a strong swimmer, but I was completely hopeless as a kid. When I was eleven or twelve my best friend’s mother dropped us off at the local public pool and back then parents left kids unsupervised. We were alone there. I was kind of a clown and, when my friend took a dare to jump off the high dive, I followed him up. After his dive, I noticed people were watching me, so I goofed off a little up there, pretending I was falling. Then I did fall. No clue how to actually swim. I did a belly flop, which squeezed all the air out of me, and sank. The lifeguard thought I was still goofing when I didn’t come up right away, and I remember clearly the panic I felt as I fought for air, and then the acceptance as I blacked out and floated to the surface. I came to with a teenage girl giving me mouth to mouth, so the day wasn’t a complete loss (until I vomited water all over her face).
In the spirit of “Inside the Actor’s Studio” and the Bernard Pivot questions asked of every guest, we have our own set of questions we ask of every interviewee.
K: When did you finally say, “Yeah…I’m gonna write stuff for a living. And it will be AWESOME.”
A: I always wanted to be a writer, but for a long time I thought I would be a veterinarian too (even as a child I understood that writing wasn’t likely to be a stable career). I had a long-range plan in which I would be a sort of American version of James Herriot (a favorite author from my childhood, who wrote All Creatures Great and Small) and I would write about the animals I imagined I would treat on my modest estate. But when I was about twelve years old I had to dissect a fetal pig that hadn’t been properly preserved. It was hard work, and gross, and I finally gave up after about six weeks, while that poor pig rotted on a school windowsill. I threw in my scalpel, picked up a pencil, and decided writing was less likely to involve blood and guts.
I was wrong.
K: What was your favorite moment in mystery writing? The moment that when you read it on the page, you smiled and said, “That was so cool!”
A: Years ago, I was about halfway through writing my first novel (not my first published novel) and a major character got himself killed unexpectedly. He just blundered into a situation and, before I realized what I was doing, I’d killed him. Before that, I thought I had the ending of the book worked out, and I really needed that character alive and well for my ending to work. I had a mini-panic attack and had to get up from my desk to pace around for a bit. My choices were: go back and rework things to keep him alive or forge ahead with a dead character and no clue about how to end the book. After worrying about it for an hour or so, I sat down and wrote the rest of that book without my important character. It was exhilarating. And the ending I eventually came up with was much better than what I’d originally planned. Since then, I’ve never written anything with an ending in mind. There’s no point in planning for something that’s likely to change before I get there.
K: What was the moment that made you say, “Writing books is amazing”?
A: The morning the auction started for what would become my first published book. That day changed my life.
K: The standard Beatles or Rolling Stones question: Raymond Chandler or Dashiell Hammett?
A: The Kinks. Definitely the Kinks.
I’d say I have an easier time rereading Chandler. I can examine the language. But I re-watch the Thin Man movies every year or so, which means Hammett’s probably had a bigger influence on me, but in a roundabout way. Nick and Nora Charles mean more to me than Philip Marlowe ever could.