English writer Alec Marsh writes dramatic thrillers set in the 1930s. He’s the author of the new soon-to-be-classic Drabble & Harris adventure series. Ernest Drabble is a mountaineering Cambridge historian and his partner Harris is an old school friend and press reporter. These two have all the dash and wit they need to solve mysteries and throws spanners into the works of bad folks.
Alec started his writing career on the Western Morning News in Cornwall, and then went on to write for titles including the Daily Telegraph, Daily Mail, The Times and London Evening Standard. In 2008 he was named an editor of the year by the British Society of Magazine Editors. He is now the editor of Spear’s Magazine, a title focused on luxury lifestyle. He is married and lives with his family in west London.
Alec’s debut novel RULE BRITANNIA was released in 2019 and the second novel in the series, ENEMY OF THE RAJ, will be published this September.
Welcome to last Word of the Week, Alec, and thank you for coming along to chat about your books and your writing. Looking at your bio, I can see that you have been writing all your life. Why is writing important to you?
Alec: I can only imagine that it’s the same for a lot of writers and most people on some level. But since the earliest time I can remember I’ve been telling stories – either to myself or others, but mostly I would think to myself. And it becomes a habit that drives an urge that leads decades later to hard-drives being filled with words. So I think for me it’s pretty hard-wired.
A born storyteller! That usually goes with voracious reading. What was your favourite book as a child?
I adored Hornblower; CS Forester’s nautical series set during the Napoleonic war; I also loved – perhaps more and in very much the same vein – the Richard Bolitho series written by Douglas Reeman, under his ‘other’ name of Alexander Kent. Years later I had the pleasure of interviewing Reeman. He was exceptionally generous with his time, clearly spotted me as a fan, too, and was quietly inspirational: he told me how he would get into his car during his lunchbreaks as a young man and write with his typewriter on his knees. I’ve often thought of him since, when I’ve been sitting in Pret-a-Manger with my laptop, eating a sandwich…
Do you think that creative writing courses are valuable?
Absolutely. I did a one day screen-writing course in Newcastle when I was a student there and learnt a huge amount in just a few hours. I still remember being terrified. Later on I was tempted by the Creative Writing MA at East Anglia university but in the end I decided I would keep working and writing around work. With my first published novel, RULE BRITANNIA, I got some advice from a literary consultancy. Books like EM Forster’s Aspects of the Novel offer important advice and insight for writers. Arguably just reading the best that’s out there is the most important thing.
What words of advice would you give an aspiring author?
I asked Martin Amis for his advice once at a literary festival. ‘Just keep writing,’ he said. It didn’t seem very profound in the moment he said it, or repeated it. But it was – and it worked for me. I once asked Sir John Mortimer, creator of the Rumpole of Bailey series, what the secret to a great comic novel was. ‘Making people laugh!’ he roared, laughing. Then he added an important point – words to the effect of: ‘If you can make yourself laugh while you’re doing it then you’ve got half a chance.’ And that’s true for any emotion you’re trying to generate, really.
I love your anecdotes of such great writers! Do you have a go-to routine for writing?
Not really. I work fulltime and have a young family so a great deal of my second novel, ENEMY OF THE RAJ, was actually written on the London Underground on my commute to and from work. A crowded Tube carriage is not ideal, but fortunately the book was not harmed. I’ve written in lunchbreaks, or after the kids have gone to bed. Quite often, on a Saturday morning I’ll get up early and head to a local café when it opens at 8am, and get in two hours then. That’s the best time.
How do you feel about reviews?
Be grateful for good ones and listen to the bad ones. Sometimes people go too far and make it personal. That can be upsetting. As a journalist it has made me think harder about the impact of what I write upon my subjects.
Yes, it does have that effect, which I think is a good thing. Whatever we write, we can think about the effect on readers. Has your work been compared to other writers?
The author most referenced by reviewers of RULE BRITANNIA is John Buchan. Stanley Johnson remarked that with the Drabble and Harris series Buchan ‘must be stirring uneasily in his grave’. It’s without doubt true that Buchan was something of an influence – The 39 Steps, Greenmantle; these are tales of personal hazard and adventure that generate an excitement for the reader that I very much wanted to ape.
Can you tell me about the time you decided you are a writer?
When I was 17 or18 I went on a school theatre trip to see Arcadia, Tom Stoppard’s then new play. I had no idea how much of a big deal it was to see it (the first run with a star cast) but I came away thinking that I would very much like to do that. I also loved Oscar Wilde’s plays as a kid – anything really that demonstrated such verbal dexterity and wit. I was also fascinated by plays like Look Back in Anger, which are really very different. As a result my first efforts as a writer when I was at university were plays. One of these won a student competition which made me think there might be something in it. I switched to fiction after reading Evelyn Waugh’s Decline and Fall. I realised that you could bring the essential freshness of dialogue to life without the need of a theatre, and perhaps therefore have a more direct relationship with the reader.
Did you always plan to write historic fiction?
No, never. In fact I set out write the next great English novel. Eventually, after several failures, I listened to an old friend of mine who had been advising me for years to write historic fiction. ‘Alec,’ he would say, ‘you’re obsessed with the past, you should write about it.’ He was absolutely right. When I began writing what would become RULE BRITANNIA I knew immediately that I was on to something.
Is writer’s block a thing for you?
Absolutely. Knowing what comes next can be difficult. Quite often you run out of track and I often find my mind needs time to catch up. When this happens I go for a run, or more likely read around the topic or setting – tangential research – is the answer. Before you know it you’re raring to go again. The secret, if there is one, is to keep thinking ahead as you are writing, but that’s easier said than done.
True! Thank you so much for chatting with me today, Alec. Congratulations in the publication of Rule Britannia, and good fortune to you for Eneemy of the Raj!
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