2016 Author Interviews Blog Tours TA Cotterell Transworld
Blog Tour: What Alice Knew - Author Interview with T.A. Cotterell
Hi Alba; I was born in London and brought up in suburbia, which was ideal as I loved sport and there was plenty of opportunity. I read History of Art at Cambridge University, having initially persuaded my tutor to allow me to switch to English – only to reverse the request when I realised the first year was mediaeval literature (Beowulf, Song of Roland), which wasn’t my bag! After university, I worked in the City. I liked the people and the ideas but not the mechanics and left to become a novelist. Whilst failing to be published I wrote obituaries and for several magazines, an art dealer, corporate spooks and finally Redburn, for whom I produced a quarterly review and now work as an editor and writer. I live in Bristol with my wife and three children, having been chased westwards by the bailiffs via West Dorset and a year in Pollensa, Mallorca.
Your debut novel, What Alice Knew, tells the story of Alice, who has a really nice life until her husband goes missing one night and when she finds out why, she is faced with the difficult decision of telling or keeping quiet about it. What sparked this idea?
I find ideas for novels gestate over time. There is rarely a ‘Eureka!’ moment. They evolve through books I read, people I meet, stories I hear and – the difficult bit – putting a towel on one’s head (metaphorically) and trying to think things up or work the plot through. The original idea was to write from the perspective of the perpetrator rather than the police or victim. I also became interested in the idea of secrets between parents and children. That led me to write a ‘will they get away with it?’ story rather than a whodunit?’. I hope that is a (relatively) fresh angle – and that that answers your question!
Art plays a big role in the story. Alice is a portraitist and every time she paints someone, she seeks honesty. Painting them as they really are. Are you an art expert too? Or did you have to do a lot of research on this topic?
Despite reading History of Art I am definitely not an ‘art expert’. My interest, as with the City, was always in the ideas rather than the application of the paint. And I couldn’t paint a pin-man! Instead I spoke extensively to two friends who are portrait painters, one of whom sketched me in order to talk me through the process. I have no idea whether all portrait painters have the same animus in how they approach their art, but one was very conscious of the adversarial nature of a sitting, a powerful sitter forced to obey a hired hand, which is how I decided to portray Alice.
What does this aspect add to the story?
In the original version of What Alice Knew, which was told in the third person, Alice was a GP. Unfortunately I know nothing about medicine and as a result her vocation added nothing to her characterisation. The moment I thought of making her a portrait painter it was as if the proverbial door opened. I realised truth in art is a wonderful metaphor for truth in marriage or life and that the psychology Alice takes into (and out of) her portraits of Julie and Marianne, and the other art she makes (e.g her hands when depressed) were an analogy by which the reader could measure or chart her declining confidence and equilibrium.
When I finished the book, I felt a bit confusing. Is that what you intended, to leave the reader wondering?
No, I didn’t intend to leave people wondering, though I appreciate from conversations with readers some have found it ambiguous. I am clear in my mind about what I think happened, but I am happy for people to interpret it as they wish. I didn’t want ‘What Alice Knew’ to be a traditional ‘linear’ thriller – five suspects and one turning out to be guilty – I wanted there to be more a permanent underlying sense of unease and ‘where is it going?’ and I hope the ending reflects that – my aim was to leave it more ‘open’ than the traditional thriller.
Actually, what do you expect your readers to feel while reading What Alice Knew?
I wouldn’t dare ‘expect’ anything of my readers! I would love it if they enjoy/suffer/enjoy suffering an on-going, low-level, almost inchoate sense of dread. From the moment Ed disappears, I would like them to sense the novel was not travelling along the traditional path of a thriller (as per above) and therefore have no real idea where it was heading and as a result have a disquieting sense of being out of control. I would also be thrilled to hear that they, male or female, thought at some point: ‘God, that could have been me! What would I have done in the circumstances?’
Lately, I have the impression that psychological thrillers are everywhere. What do you think makes What Alice Knew stand apart from the crowd?
I do think – as any writer no doubt would! – that ‘What Alice Knew’ stands apart from the increasingly crowded field of psychological thrillers. This is partly because it takes the perspective of the perpetrator rather than the police or victim, and partly because ultimately it turns on ideas – intuition is more powerful than knowledge; there can be no freedom without truth – and a character (Alice!) rather than a set of fingerprints or a smoking gun. Alice’s choices reflect the collision that occurs in her life between the limitations of knowledge and her obsession with drilling down to the truth. That said, I think there are a lot of brilliant psychological thrillers out there and I’m overjoyed that I get to be a part of that crowd.
Finally, what are you working on now?
At present I am writing some short stories that I hope will appear alongside the paperback publication of What Alice Knew in April. The plot for my next novel is (slowly) coming together and I hope to start writing at Christmas when I have some time off from the day job! It is shaping up to be slightly more of a traditional thriller than What Alice Knew but I hope my interest in character as much as plot will ensure it is enjoyed by anyone who enjoys What Alice Knew.
Thanks so much for having me on your blog.
About the book:
About the book:
Title: What Alice Knew
Author: T.A. Cotterell
Published by Transworld:
ebook - December 1st 2016
paperback - April 17yh 2017
Blurb: Alice has a perfect life – a great job, happy kids, a wonderful husband. Until he goes missing one night; she receives a suspicious phone call; things don’t quite add up.
Alice needs to know what’s going on. But when she uncovers the truth she faces a brutal choice. And how can she be sure it is the truth?
Sometimes it’s better not to know.