Alex Pearl ~ Author Interview

Today I had the pleasure of interviewing Alex Pearl, author of The Chair Man and Sleeping with the Blackbirds!

Alex’s first novel ‘Sleeping with the Blackbirds’, a darkly humorous urban fantasy, written for children and young adults, was initially published by PenPress in 2011. It has since become a Kindle bestseller in the US. In 2014, his fictionalised account of the first British serviceman to be executed for cowardice during the First World War was published by Mardibooks in its anthology, ‘The Clock Struck War’. A selection of his blog posts is also available in paperback under the title ‘Random Ramblings of a Short-sighted Blogger.’ In 2019, his psychological thriller, ‘The Chair Man’ that is set in London in 2005 following the terrorist attack on its public transport system, was published as an ebook by Fizgig Press. The paperback followed in 2020.

Alex lives in NW London with his wife and two children who are far smarter than their old man.

He is quite possibly the only human being on this planet to have been inadvertently locked in a record shop on Christmas Eve.

Let’s start by finding out a little bit about you…

  1. What is your name and do you write under a pen name?  My name is Alex Pearl, and I was very tempted to write under the pen name Bertram Bolzwinick, which was the name of my grandfather who died before I was born. He was from Russia or Poland; I’m not sure which. Sadly, when he arrived on these shores he changed his name by deed poll to Bertram Davis, which doesn’t have the same cachet. However, having toyed with the idea, I finally decide to stick with my own name simply because everyone I’m linked to online knows me as Alex Pearl.
  2. Where do you call home? I live in NW London and I have always lived in London. The area I live in is known as Hampstead Garden Suburb, which was set up in 1906 as part of the garden suburb movement. And we are very close to a large heathland known as Hampstead Heath.
  3. Obviously, we know you are an author, but some writers have other jobs as well. Do you have another occupation? Do you believe you’re any good at it? Do you like what you do? I have retired from work now. I used to be an advertising copywriter, so writing has been something I did professionally for around 35 years. 
  4. What is your family like? It’s getting quieter as both our children have now flown the nest. My wife, unfortunately, became a tetraplegic seven years ago when she was very suddenly diagnosed with a spinal tumor, which was impossible to remove. So she now relies on a power chair, but it doesn’t stop her from working and driving a car. She does a lot of work for organizations that assist those with physical and mental disabilities.
  5. If it doesn’t bother you, can you let us know what your childhood home looked like? I was born in Wanstead, east London, which used to be Winston Churchill’s constituency. and I was brought up in an area called Ilford. Ilford is a large sprawling suburban conurbation on the eastern outskirts of Greater London. Its most attractive feature is a well-tended park, Valentines Park
  6. Do you have any hobbies, other than writing? What do you enjoy doing? I used to paint large abstract compositions on glass, but I haven’t done that for years. Other than writing, I spend time reading, gardening, cooking and all the household chores. Naturally, my wife can’t do too much in terms of physical work from her wheelchair.
  7. What is your greatest dream? Ooh. I suppose that would be winning some ludicrous literary prize. The Pulitzer perhaps or the Booker. I think I’d settle for the Booker. That would be pretty cool. And I could make a nonchalant acceptance speech to the effect that I had come to the conclusion that the judges had clearly lost their minds or their glasses, or both as they had clearly made some kind of mistake as there were so many more deserving winners in the room.
  8. What kind of person do you wish you could be? What is stopping you? I wish I could play the piano very well. I just think it would be a wonderful gift to have. My son learnt as a child and got up to Grade 8 very quickly while he was at primary school. He’s very good at math, which clearly helps. There is definitely a correlation between music and math. I am terrible at math and I know instinctively that I would never make the grade as a pianist. so I have never tried.
  9. Not to pry too much, but do you remember your first love? Yes. Her name was Helen Lewis. She was the first girl that ever made me go weak at the knees. We were both five years of age at the time. And I don’t think I ever had the courage to say a single word to her.
  10. What is the most terrible thing that ever happened to you? Getting locked in a record shop on Christmas Eve. Thankfully, I didn’t forego turkey and Christmas pudding as my father was able to contact the police. This was long before mobile phones had been invented. And within a couple of hours, I was freed from my temporary prison. It was, however, a fairly frightening experience. and one I wouldn’t recommend. 
  11. What or who inspired you to start writing? And how long have you been writing? There have been several people. Going back to my school days, I had a very unusual and inspiring English teacher by the name of Clive Lawton. He was very charismatic and had an affinity with kids to the extent that he really was on our wavelength. He’d do the most extraordinary things and turn everything on its head. On one occasion he announced that instead of him marking our essays he was going to ask us to mark his, and then handed out old essays he’d written in the past. He’d often tell us that the syllabus was boring and that we were going to ignore it and have a serious discussion about something fairly contentious like advertising and the blatant use of sexual imagery. The point of his lessons was to make us think and to convey to us the power of words. And by teaching in this wholly unconventional and radical manner, he not only gained the attention of every single child in that classroom. He also instilled a love of words and ideas. And as a result, every child in my class passed their O level exams, and nobody received anything less than a B grade.                                                                                                                                                                Later on, when I started working as an advertising copywriter, my Creative Director, a man by the name of Ken Mullen was also influential. Ken was and still is a brilliant writer. He had two degrees in English Literature from Oxford University and is the only English advertising copywriter to have had his work quoted in the Oxford Book of Modern quotations. These included two headlines he had penned for The Times newspaper when he was working for Leo Burnett – ‘Our sages know their onions.’  And ‘No pomp. Just circumstance.’ He encouraged his entire creative department to immerse themselves in literature, cinema and the arts in general. But perhaps, more importantly, he wore his learning lightly and was incredibly funny and approachable. He was, in short, the best boss you could ever hope for.
  12. What was your dream growing up? Did you achieve that dream? If so, in what ways was it not what you expected? If you never achieved the dream, why not? I’m not sure that I ever really had a dream when I was growing up. Not one that I can readily remember at any rate. I never really knew what I wanted to do when I left school. I was never particularly studious and I wasn’t heading for university. But I wasn’t bad at art, so at the very last minute I applied to go to art college, and it was here that I became interested in creative advertising and teamed up with a good friend at college. And together we pestered a lot of people in the business with a portfolio of our ideas, and eventually, someone relented and gave us a job. So in answer to your original question, I guess I achieved my goal, which was a kind of dream I suppose.
  13. Who is your role model? I think my father was a pretty good role model. He was an incredibly good father and grandfather. And was very community-minded. There was nothing he wouldn’t do to help someone else; even a complete stranger. He was an incredibly generous, warm-hearted man and I miss him.
  14. What is your greatest fear? Death. Woody Allen was once asked if he liked the idea of becoming immortal through his writing and he replied that he’d prefer to become immortal through not dying. I’m with him on that one.
  15. Do you prefer e-books, paperbacks, hard-covers or audio-books? Call me old fashioned, but I’m afraid books, either hardbacks or paperbacks win hands down. There’s nothing quite like having a book in your hands.
  16. Have you ever read a book more than once? And if so what was it? Yes. It was the first book I ever read as a child. ‘Stig of the Dump’ by Clive King. I reread it recently out of interest – just to see if I still thought it was a terrific children’s book. And happily, I can report that it is every bit as good as I thought it was as a young child. It’s charmingly written, rather clever, and very touching.
  17. What is your opinion of novellas? I see no massive difference really between a short story, novella, and full-length novel. They all have to be compelling. Obviously, with the shorter form, the writing has to be more economical and concise. But that in itself is an art form, and many believe that mastering the short story is more skillful than the full-blown novel. I’m not sure that I necessarily agree with that. I think it’s difficult to generalize. In Japan, of course, there is a very great tradition for writing short stories and there are authors who write nothing more. But at the end of the day, a good story that is well written is a good story, whether it’s in long or short form.
  18. Have you ever read a book just based on its cover? Ooh, that’s a good question. As someone who studied graphic design, I’m sure there should be a book cover that I was drawn to, but interestingly, there isn’t one I can think of. In fact, so many really good books seem to have such anodyne and forgettable covers, which is a shame. 
  19. What is your favorite film based on a book? There are two films that immediately spring to mind that succeed in capturing the essence of a book. And that’s something that’s really hard to do with the medium of film, because you simply don’t have the same enormous scope of a book and you can’t appeal to the imagination; and, of course, you have to leave a huge amount out. The first film that for me comes close is ‘To kill a Mockingbird’ the film adaptation of the book by Harper Lee that stars Gregory Peck in the lead part of Atticus Finch. It’s faithful to the book and does a near-perfect job of recreating its characters. And the other film is ‘Schindler’s List’, the Spielberg film adaptation of Thomas Keneally’s book that was originally titled ‘Schindler’s Ark’, which is arguably a better title. Again, the film is a pretty faithful adaptation of the book, but is also filmed in a highly realistic way by using hand-held cameras and adopting a reportage style of shooting that is very matter of fact and a million miles away from Hollywood. Both films did well at the Oscars, winning among other things ‘Best Adapted Screenplay.’  
  20. What is your favorite book genre at the moment? I don’t really have one. But I tend to read literary, historical, and thrillers.
  21. What books have made it onto your wish list recently? And why? ‘Beneath a Scarlet Sky’ by Mark Sullivan is a book I’ve just bought because it has received a torrent of rave reviews and it sounds like a great read. My cousin also recommended it and he has impeccable taste, so it must be pretty special. It’s also based on a true story set in Italy during the war. 
  22. What book are you reading at the moment? And in what format? I’ve just finished reading ‘The Last Lemming’ by my old friend Chris Chalmers who, like me, also used to be an advertising copywriter. That’s how we met. Chris is a very talented writer. This is his fifth book; they’ve all been magnificent. ‘The Last Lemming’ is an engaging yarn that combines mystery, humour and a dash of romance to great effect. In Mr. Chalmers’ inimitable style, we are introduced to the lives of two disparate central characters: in the form of TV naturalist, Prof Leo Saunders and Claire Webster, a young Personal Trainer with aspirations to become an investigative journalist. There are two distinct threads to the narrative: one set in the mid-1980s and the other in the present-day narrated by our amateur female journalist. The plot involves Saunders admitting on Youtube just before dying that his one claim to fame – the discovery of the Potley Hill lemming – was in fact a hoax and that a certain advertising luminary had ‘blood on his hands.’ While the stunt is eventually written off as nothing more than unreliable ramblings of a sick man, Webster decides to investigate and use her findings for her dissertation on her journalism course. This entertaining and deftly plotted tale involves a cast of colourful characters including some of the furry variety. It’s a skilfully woven yarn with some lovely descriptive passages that establish time and place. And in the best tradition, there are, of course, dead bodies
  23. If you could invite any four (4) celebrities (alive or dead) to your dinner party, who would you invite and why? Ooh blimey. Well, I once had the pleasure of sitting next to the novelist, Beryl Bainbridge at an advertising awards dinner and I found her both delightful and fascinating, and I love her books, so I wouldn’t mind inviting her. I reckon Stephen Fry would be good value. And I’ve always admired and really liked Archbishop Desmund Tutu. And to add the cherry to the icing I’d invite Mr. Barak Obama, one of America’s most articulate Presidents. I think that would be one hell of a dinner party. In fact, I don’t suppose I’d ger around to eating very much in such esteemed company. 

Let’s shift somewhat and talk about your latest story.

  1. What is the name of your most recent book and if you had to sum it up in 20 or fewer words, what would you say? The title of my latest book is ‘The Chair Man‘, which is a thriller. Here’s a 20-word summation: Having survived a terrorist attack, Michael is now a wheelchair user seeking retribution online – but will become a sitting target.
  2. Is the above book part of a series? That is a distinct possibility. Several people have said that they would love to read a sequel. And though the book has a natural conclusion, there is certainly another story that can be woven from the book’s remnants; and it’s something I’m working on. But I say this a lot to people, the plotting of a book is something I find particularly challenging and difficult. And I can’t start writing a book without having the synopsis mapped out. It can and will evolve as I write it, but without this road map, I will just get hopelessly lost. 
  3. How did you come up with the cover? Who designed the cover of your book(s)? That’s a very good question and I’m pleased you asked me that because I’m fortunate to have a very good friend named John Mac who is a brilliant advertising photographer and director. And he kindly photographed and designed the covers to both my books. In fact, for ‘Sleeping with the Blackbirds’ he shot a stunningly beautiful trailer, too. You can watch it here. We were both particularly pleased with the cover for ‘The Chair Man’. Back in 1998, John had been commissioned by the film director Guy Ritchie to produce the film poster for his film ‘Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels’. And for my cover, John has used a similar approach by creating a very strong silhouette against a stark white background with quite distressed typography. It is very distinctive and feels absolutely right for the book. 
  4. Did you listen to any particular songs while writing your book(s)? No. I generally can’t work that effectively with music on. I need silence. Music is just too distracting. It was the same when I worked at an advertising agency. We needed our own quiet space to think. That said, there are several music references in ‘The Chair Man’ The title pages to part one and part two are the titles of songs by Bruce Springsteen and Elvis Costello from 2005. And one of the characters in the book loves the classical piano playing of Glenn Gould – particularly bach’s Golberg Variations.   
  5. How did you come up with the title for your book(s)? ‘Sleeping with the Blackbirds’ as a title came to me fairly early on, and I just liked it from the outset. It has a certain ring to it that sounds lyrical. ‘The Chair Man’ is the moniker that the terrorists use to describe the book’s protagonist Michael Hollinghurst, so I thought it would make a good title – particularly against a graphic book cover.
  6. Do you have a book trailer? If so, where can we watch it? I have a book trailer for my first book ‘Sleeping with the Blackbirds’, which was shot by my good friend John Mac and edited, dubbed, graded and animated by Hogarth Worldwide. You can watch it on Youtube here.
  7. In your latest novel, who is the lead character, and can you tell us a little about him/her? Michael Hollinghurst is the lead character. He’s a very successful corporate lawyer. His marriage to his wife is beginning to fall apart and eventually does when Michael becomes the victim of a terrorist attack that leaves him in a wheelchair. His two kids who are in their mid to late 20s choose to live with him, and you get a sense that he is a good father who cares deeply for his two children. And they likewise are very close to him. Following a lengthy stay in rehab following his ordeal, Michael suffers from feelings of guilt having survived the blast when everyone else in his carriage didn’t. He finds it difficult to come to terms with his predicament and his anger is channeled into a plan for retribution.
  8. What are your character’s greatest strengths? His greatest strengths are his warmth and compassion, not to mention his intelligence and his generosity. 
  9. And what are his/her greatest weaknesses? His greatest weakness is his complete and utter inability to forgive and forget. When he makes a decision he is like a dog with a bone. He simply won’t let go of it.
  10. What are some of his/her favorite foods? He likes fish and is partial to wine, particularly Spanish Rioja.
  11. What’s a positive quality that your character is unaware that he or she has? Despite his anger and bitterness towards the perpetrators of the terrorist attack, he is fairly stoical and pretty brave about his own position. Part of him feels pangs of guilt for surviving, and these feelings drive him to feel a moral obligation to act on behalf of those who were killed. So he is brave, stoical and determined. Positive traits that he almost certainly doesn’t recognize in himself.
  12. Will readers like or dislike this character, and why? Readers have mixed feelings about Michael. Some like him and admire his close relationship with his kids. They also seem to sympathize with his obsessive need for retribution. Other readers aren’t so sympathetic. They see him as a rich white arrogant man who is prepared to put his family’s lives at risk just to seek revenge. They see him as a reckless individual who hasn’t tried to even think through the ramifications of his actions. And some also think that the devious way in which he gets his neighbor’s autistic son to help him hack into an East London mosque is really manipulative and morally wrong.
  13. What first gave you the idea for your latest book? The germ of the idea sprang from my wife’s predicament. She became ill seven years ago with a spinal tumor and ended up in a wheelchair. She is, however a very strong and resilient individual and doesn’t let her predicament stop her doing what she wants, within reason. So naturally, I know a fair bit about spinal injuries and wheelchairs, and I thought it would be a good idea to develop a character that had survived a terror attack and ends up in a wheelchair. But like my wife, I didn’t want my protagonist to roll over and lead a quiet life. I wanted him to go a bit crazy and actively go after other terrorists by using his wits and, of course, the internet.

Let’s talk now about your writing process.

  1. What is your writing style like? Are you a pantster or a plotter? As far as style is concerned, I think I’m a bit of a chameleon. As an advertising copywriter, I’m used to adopting different tones of voice to address different audiences. I think it’s the same when it comes to writing books. My first book for children, young adults and parents was deliberately written in an old-fashioned, whimsical style redolent of authors like Clive King and Roald Dhal. When it came to writing ‘The Chair Man’ though, I adopted a crisp modern unfussy style of writing that felt right for the subject matter. When it comes to my approach to writing, I’m most certainly a plotter. I need a road map to see where I’m going. The story can evolve as I write it, but I have to have very clear directions and know where the thing is heading. So before writing the first chapter, I have to have a fairly detailed synopsis typed out; and the ending is absolutely crucial. And I’m very pleased that the endings to both of my books are I think unexpected and satisfying full stops.
  2. Have you come across any specific challenges in writing or publishing? What would you do differently the next time? Proofreading assistance is something I will certainly invest in next time around. No matter how many times you go through your manuscript, there will always be errors you miss. And it isn’t just indie authors that have this problem. I see typos in mainstream publications by the big publishing houses that a whole team of editors and proofreaders have missed.
  3. Are you a self-published/Indie author or did you publish through a traditional publishing company? I’m an indie author. I publish through Amazon (print on demand and ebooks) and Smashwords for all the other e-platforms.
  4. If you’re a self-published/Indie author what made you go that route instead of the traditional publishing route? I tried approaching literary agents through the traditional channels but haven’t yet received anything other than polite rejection letters several months after my submissions. So the next best thing is to self-publish. 
  5. What’s the best advice that you have been given when it comes to writing? “Read, read, read everything – trash, classics, good and bad, and see how they do it. Just like a carpenter who works as an apprentice and studies the master. Read! You’ll absorb it. Then write. If it is good, you’ll find out. If it’s not, throw it out the window.” William Faulkner
  6. What advice would you give someone who wants to start writing?  Formulate a story in your head; write it down as a synopsis; once you are happy with it, start writing your book; enjoy the journey.
  7. Where can your readers follow you? WEBSITE  BLOG FACEBOOK TWITTER    GOODREADS             AMAZON

Michael Hollinghurst is a successful corporate lawyer living a comfortable, suburban life in leafy North West London. But on 7 July 2005, his life is transformed when he steps on a London underground train targeted by Islamist suicide bombers. While most passengers in his carriage are killed, Michael survives the explosion but is confined to a wheelchair as a result. Coming to terms with his predicament and controlling his own feelings of guilt as a survivor conspire to push him in a direction that is out of character and a tad reckless. In a quest to seek retribution, he resorts to embracing the internet and posing as a radical Islamist in order to snare potential perpetrators. Much to his surprise, his shambolic scheme yields results and is brought to the attention of both GCHQ and a terrorist cell. But before long, dark forces begin to gather and close in on him. There is seemingly no way out for Michael Hollinghurst. He has become, quite literally, a sitting target. 

Eleven-year-old schoolboy, Roy Nuttersley has been dealt a pretty raw deal. While hideous parents show him little in the way of love and affection, school bullies make his life a misery. So Roy takes comfort in looking after the birds in his suburban garden, and in return the birds hatch a series of ambitious schemes to protect their new friend.

As with the best-laid plans, however, these get blown completely off course – and as a result the lives of both Roy and his arch tormentor, Harry Hodges are turned upside down. While Harry has a close encounter with God, Roy embarks on a voyage of discovery that draws in and impacts on everyone around him, including the local police, his headmaster and the national media. Where will it all end, and will life ever be quite the same for Roy Nuttersley? 

(As an Amazon Associate, I earn from qualifying purchases. That means, when you purchase a book using an Amazon link on this site, I earn an affiliate commission. All commission earnings go back into funding my books; editing, cover design, etc.)

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