INTERVIEW BY DEBS CARR
Allie Spencer’s latest book The Not-So-Secret Diary of a City Girl is published today. To coincide with the publication and my review of her book, she has very kindly agreed to answer a few questions for the Little Black Dress fans here at Novelicious.
1. Allie, as a barrister who specialized in matrimonial and family law, you must have gained a lot of experience of dealing with people who are coping with difficult situations. Do you feel that this helped you as a writer when creating your characters?
I do feel as though most human life has passed through my office door at one time or another, but – strangely perhaps – I would never consciously base a character or a plotline on a real person or event. Partly that’s because of serious things like libel issues, but also because I’m convinced that if I ever tried to work a real person/situation into any of my stories I would feel I had to keep it true to life and that would stop me from being as creative and flexible as I need to be. That said, however, there is the very occasional bit of real life which has worked its way into my books (with the permission of any relevant people, of course) and I think I can safely say that fact is a good deal stranger than fiction.
2. In The Not-So-Secret Diary of a City Girl, Laura McGregor works as an analyst. How much research did you have to do in this field, or did you already have some knowledge of how Hedge Funds etc worked?
I knew little bits about hedge funds and share trading before I wrote the book, but not a great deal. In fact, the whole premise for the book grew out of the banking crisis that started in the autumn of 2008: I had a phone conversation with my editor one Friday to discuss ideas for my next book and I suggested one set in City. The next Monday Lehman Brothers went under and it looked as though some of our big high street names might have been about to follow it. The whole thing was incredible and I thought ‘Yes! This is what I have to write about!’ A friend’s son worked at a large international bank and he gave me some background on Laura’s job, but the rest was more or less all my own research. Luckily the task was made a whole lot easier because the television and radio networks were suddenly jam-packed with programmes explaining how the banking system worked! The most nerve-racking bit was trying to make sure it all stayed topical and didn’t get overtaken by events: for example, I had quite a few references to bonuses which I deleted at the proofing stage because I didn’t want to risk the government clamping down on banking bonuses and immediately making parts of the book obsolete; and there was a very hairy moment when hedge funds themselves seemed under threat – but that one seems to have passed. Phew.
3. Can you tell us about your usual writing routine, and if you aim to achieve a certain word count each day, or if you prefer to work for a particular length of time?
My writing time depends totally on my youngest child’s pre-school routine – and, if there’s a deadline, how much extra I can squeeze out of weekends and bank holidays when my husband is around to look after the children. I work upstairs, sitting on my bed with my lap-top on my knee so I can’t see the washing up and the toys littering the floor downstairs (!). If I’m writing the first draft of a book, I do a minimum of 1500 words a day – usually 1000 during the day and another 500 in the evening – I also try and clear another 2000 over the course of a weekend. I’m hoping that in September when he’s at school full time, things will feel a bit easier and I’ll have a little more time at the weekends.
4. I love the heroes in both your books and especially enjoyed Alex Hodder. Where do you get the inspiration from for your heroes? Does a picture or real person inspire them, or are they formed entirely in your imagination?
I think the most important thing is that I actually have to like my heroes: there is no way I could have a hero who I didn’t think was good enough for my heroine! The starting point for Alex was probably the 1930s/40s Hollywood ‘screwball’ comedies like The Philadelphia Story which feature strong, feisty leading characters: I loved the idea of Alex and Laura (the heroine in City Girl) having the sort of relationship where they said exactly what they thought to one another – and not always in a good way, either! I also had a very strong sense of what Alex looked like right from the start. This was great because a lot of the comedy between him and Laura is quite physical – even a bit slap-stick at times – and, because I could visualise them together so easily, it was almost like watching a film in my mind (although one that I could stop and start until I was sure the various interactions between them worked properly). In contrast, Mark from Tug of Love grew more out of his situation: when we first meet him the focus in his life is his son; he feels hurt and bewildered by the big legal battle he is fighting, but he is also tremendously driven to do the right thing – which ultimately includes winning over the woman he loves.
5. How long does it take you to write your first draft, and how many drafts do you write before you feel your books are ready?
Would it be terrible of me to say that I never quite feel my books are ready? I’m always mulling them over in my mind and thinking ‘maybe I should have done that’ or ‘next time I’ll try so-and-so and see if it works’! It takes me about three to four months to produce a first draft (I start and just keep on going till I get to the end) and then I begin the editing process. The first ‘go through’ is definitely the hardest: it takes ages and I can sometimes spend days working on a single page. After that, it does get easier; but there are certain scenes which I find myself working and re-working again and again. I spent well over a week honing the scene where Alex and Laura meet for the first time – eventually sending it off to a writer friend for a critique (she said it was fine and told me to stop worrying!). Then again, there are scenes which just come out right the first time (the scene between Laura and Mel at the start of Chapter Four was one of those) but they are sadly the exception rather than the rule. I am also dyslexic which means it probably takes me longer than other people to really polish a book. The bottom line, though, is that I want my novels to be as good and funny as they can possibly be – and if that means going over parts of it again and again then that’s okay.
6. Can you tell us a bit about your journey to becoming a published author?
I’d been writing on and off for a while, but when I had my first child and was on maternity leave I decided to have a go at the novel that had been batting round my head for a couple of years. I got a very encouraging response – not least from the Romantic Novelists’ Association New Writers’ Scheme – and, just after the birth of my second baby, I began writing ‘Tug of Love’. I entered both novels (or parts of them) in various competitions, making use of any feedback from the judges, and also foisted them onto as many friends as possible – again working in their comments where I could. Then I met my agent and, after reading Tug of Love, she offered to represent me and Tug was published by Little Black Dress in October 2009. From the time I started my first novel until the time Tug of Love was published took about five and a half years, and there were a lot of rejections and false starts along the way. Having said that, though, it was definitely worth it and I don’t regret a moment!
7. Were you given any writing advice that you feel could help others achieve their publishing goal, and if so, could you tell us what it is?
Two things, really. The first is just to keep on writing. Keep on polishing your manuscript; ask people to read it for you; ask yourself honestly if there’s anything you can do to improve it and, when you are totally happy with it, send it out to agents and publishers. Then start your next book – and do exactly the same thing. The other tip is to network: the more people you know in the publishing industry and the more they realise that you are a committed, hardworking professional, the easier it will be for you to get that big break. There are all sorts of ways to meet people: try going to writers’ conferences where they offer delegates one-to-one appointments with agents and editors and also consider joining organisations such as the Romantic Novelists’ Association. As well as organising regular parties and events which are well attended by industry professionals, the RNA run a fabulous critiquing scheme for their unpublished members. Without them I would have found it much, much harder to get a publishing contract.
8. Do you have a favourite author, and if so, can you tell us who he/she is and why you like their books?
I like any writer who makes me laugh or who looks at life in a fresh and interesting way. I am a huge fan of Jasper Fforde and Douglas Adams and the bizarre but incredibly clever worlds they have created in their books. I also love Sophie Kinsella and Marian Keyes – in my opinion two of the funniest, most talented authors around – and particularly admire the way they manage to make me laugh and keep me gripped by the story. Freya North is also brilliant, as is Kate Atkinson… Then there are classic authors like Jane Austen and Virginia Woolf . Sorry, I think choosing one would be totally impossible!
I’d like to thank Allie for giving us an opportunity of finding out a little bit more about her and for taking the time to give such interesting answers.
To find out more about Allie Spencer - visit her website!