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Interview with "Sam Alexander"

Written by SJI Holliday

SJIH: Hi Sam, welcome to Shots! Your ‘debut’ novel, Carnal Acts is out now, amidst a storm of promo and the #WhoIsSamAlexander campaign… how do you feel?

SA: Thanks! Nice to be back, in disguise... To tell you the truth - something that I will of course be doing all through this piece - I'm amazed. Arcadia's campaign has exceeded all my expectations and the book seems to have struck a bell with many bloggers and early readers. All of which is enormously gratifying - well done, Arcadia! And it's been an honour to be seen, even in an imaginary world - as Val McDermid, Ian Rankin, JK Rowling (my kids LOVED that - oh, it's an author who has kids - hope that helps...), Kate Atkinson and so on. Less so Jeffrey Archer, tho I presume that was tongue inserted deeply into cheek.


SJIH: Ha! So, for anyone who’s been living under a rock… what’s it about?

SA: Carnal Acts is a police procedural, a sub-genre I haven't attempted before (CLUE!). The lead cops are mixed race DI Joni Pax and her DCI, Heck Rutherford. They're both damaged, as convention requires, but not in the standard crap marriage/ alcohol-reliant/ dodgy taste in music ways. Joni was badly wounded in a Met operation that went wrong, while Heck has only recently returned to work after cancer surgery. Joni is different from everyone else in the force and locale - not just because of her colour and capital-city experience, but because she's an Oxford graduate and a thinker. On the other hand, she seems to have inherited some of her mother's feyness. Heck's a former rugby player, much more down to earth, with an idyllic family life. (Are you watching, John Rebus?) The novel's about slavery - modern people-trafficking, specifically of young Eastern European women to brothels, but also the original slave trade on which so much of Britain's historical wealth was based. Joni becomes troubled by her ignorance about her own heritage as the case goes on. She also develops an empathetic bond with Suzana, a brothel-worker who escapes her captors, killing one and injuring others. The Albanian mob are after Suzana and they have friends in many unlikely places...


SJIH: Intriguing! The North East England setting – the fictional town of Corham –has got everyone talking. Are you from there? What made you choose it as a setting? You do know it means that everyone thinks you’re Mari Hannah?

SA: First, the Mari Hannah thing. I don't get it. She's already writing a successful north-eastern series. Why would she do another under a synonym? Corham was important as a backdrop. I know Corbridge and Hexham pretty well, but neither of them is big enough to be the base of a large police force. So I added elements of the former steel town Consett, too, something that people don't seem to have picked up. That made a place big enough to accommodate the newly formed (invented by moi) Police Force of North East England. I like inventing stuff. In this case, that's given my friends in the area a lot to laugh about - several of their crazy exploits are in the book. Apart from the fact that I know it, I chose the area because it's a borderland, not just with Scotland but with other parts of England - Cumbria, Yorkshire. Borderlands, the interstices between places, are fertile areas for writers. People and their relationships are more complex. Also, I love  the countryside I describe in the book. The more deserted parts of the Roman wall are extremely sublime and inspiring.


SJIH: I particularly like that you invented a new Police Force! Back to story then – it centres around Albanian gangs and human trafficking – what made you want to write about this?

SA: Yes, gangs and trafficking. I couldn't really avoid the subject, although many other writers have. If you drive around the country - not just the North East - you see people labouring in the fields. If you stop and listen, you realise they're often speaking a different language. That makes you think about what their lives must be like. Do they miss home? How did they end up in a freezing field in, say, Northumberland? Do they have kids? Have they left them behind? Then you think about the young women who are forced to work on their backs. If you're a crime writer, that's plenty to get you going - exploitation, physical suffering, in effect slavery. In modern, go-ahead, Cameronian Britain. In a novelistic way, I decided I wasn't going to take it any more. Not least because the exploiters aren't just the Albanian gangs - they're the locals who pay for sex, who pay field workers below the minimum wage and so on. This is becoming a bit of a sermon. There's a pacy plot, interesting characters and plenty of black humour too, honest...


SJIH: I agree! It’s a good ‘un! So, Pax and Rutherford… tells us about them… Which one are you most like?

SA: Obviously I'm most like Pax. No, Rutherford. Good try... Actually, there are elements of me in both, as is always the case with fictional characters and their creators. I would love to be a strong woman like Joni. I would also love to have a husband like Heck. Wish fulfilment is one of the good parts of writing fiction. Then again, Heck got cut open by a surgeon. I wouldn't fancy that at all; let alone Joni's stabbing by a vicious criminal. As for what happens to poor Suzana - I can't imagine what it must be like to be forced to have sex with strangers numerous times a day. Well, I gave it a try. But I'm outraged that it happens.


SJIH: You’re not giving away many clues, are you?! Anyway, to the big question… Although this is ‘Sam’s’ debut, it’s not a secret that you’ve written successfully under another name. What is it? (Kidding! I am saving that question for later…) How did writing Carnal Acts differ to your previous book(s)?

SA: I'm in danger of letting the lion cub out of the sack here. Let's just say that more people were involved in the writing process than normal. In the past it's been my excellent agent and me - s/he reads my weekly production and presses the panic button if anything goes off at a tangent. S/he was involved this time too, but there was input from others, including the hyper-wonderful folks at Arcadia. Still, writing Carnal Acts was the marathon that every novel is. You do your daily word count, you juggle as many balls as you can (and in this case, there were a lot of subplots and the like), you try to turn off your brain at weekends. Unsuccessfully, of course. It's a hard life, but nothing like as bad as Suzana's.


SJIH: True. Do you think there are similarities between your writing in this book and your others? Have you left a trail of clues as to your identity?

SA: Dunno. I suppose there are bound to be similarities - I didn't deliberately try to create a new style. On the other hand, I'd decided from the outset that I was going to use a pseudonym so that, plus the setting and characters led to a new start, if you like. I certainly didn't plant clues, at least not wittingly. No doubt a follower of Freud or other schools of psychoanalysis would be able to go to town (Corham) on my sexual hang-ups, sadistic tendencies and so on. 'Me, I'm just a lawnmower, you can tell me by the way I walk...' (Pat on the back for anyone who spots that reference.)


SJIH: Far too obscure for me, I’m afraid… Ok, so what’s next for Sam Alexander? Can we expect more of Pax and Rutherford?

SA: I'm currently thinking about a sequel. I'm sure Joni and Heck have the legs for a series, but I don't want to send them off in a wrong direction in that difficult second novel. But they'll be back...


SJIH: Fantastic! And finally (I ask everyone this…) what question does no one ever ask you that you would really like to be asked? (and what’s the answer?!)

SA: Q - 'Do you think crime fiction handles issues of power and the abuse of power adequately?' A - 'No, I don't. Given that crime is often about the strong (even an old lady poisoner in a Christie novel) exercising power over the weak (the unsuspecting, the clueless, the supposedly anti-social), I find it amazing that the wider implications of the exercise of power throughout society aren't examined more by crime novelists in England. Perhaps that's why the Scandinavian crime wave has been so successful - because it goes places that the home-grown crime novel (with honourable exceptions) doesn't. Having said that, I still find Swedish meatballs less than palatable.'


SJIH: Oh you disappoint me. They are my favourite of all the meatballs… Thanks so much for talking to me, Sam. Just one final question… are you going to tell us who you are?

SA: No. At least, not yet.

SJIH: Damn.

Since we first printed the interview above, this is an update via Bloody Scotland


The identity of #WhoIsSamAlexander


Sam Alexander is none other than CWA Dagger Award winner Paul Johnston, author of three bestselling series of crime novels, including Greek detective Mavros.



Bloody Scotland will be hosting Sam Alexander aka Paul Johnston at an exclusive event during Book Week Scotland 2014 in November.


Paul/Sam reveals more about the clues and teasers in the Q&A above…


1 - Other authors I was pleased to be identified with include William McIlvanney, Sophie Hannah, Laura Wilson, Laura Lippman, Mo Hayder, Mark Billingham, Martyn Waites, Stav Sherez (the last three kept shtum, but Stav forgot and almost blew it...), John Connolly, Denise Mina, Helen Fielding, Irvine Welsh, Lee Child, Colin Dexter and AL Kennedy. Not so keen on Agatha Christie (didn't you know? She's living in a grace and favour apartment in Buckingham Palace). Or Stephanie Meyer, though to be fair I'm hardly her target audience. Arthur Conan Doyle's my hero and, being a spiritualist/ spirit, he did nudge my elbow a few times, but he was revolted by the sex and violence (this from an author who cut off an engineer's thumb and sent a snake through a hole into a young lady's bedroom...).

- It was also pleasing that there was a pretty much equal split between female and male authors. I was paranoid that my female characters weren't convincing. 

- The person who suggested Jeffrey Archer also guessed who I was. Her reward is to be killed in the sequel to Carnal Acts.

2 - Although there have been cops in all three of my previous series, Quint Dalrymple, Alex Mavros and Matt Wells are basically private eyes (Wells is a crime novelist, for pity's sake...). So tackling the police procedural was a big issue. It was why I invented Corham and the new force - so I could set up a world that isn't quite ours. That didn't stop a particularly bilious critic attacking me for getting dog licences wrong. I'm sorry, in my fictional world they still exist. (Neat get-out clause, non?) 

- Cancer - I've had surgery and other therapy three times, so Heck's a wimp. 

- Rugby - I was a keen player when I was young and have mentioned the sport in other novels.

- Albanians - having spent much of my time in Greece, I've met plenty of Albanian immigrants and have educated myself about their country. Of course, only very few Albanians are gangsters - just as well, as the Albanian clan-based mob is seen as more vicious than the Italian equivalent. Matt Wells, crime novelist hero of my third series (The Death List etc), wrote a series starring an Albanian detective called Zog Hadzhi. Amazingly, it wasn't a success.

3 - Scotland - mentioned since I'm from Edinburgh (in England, according to Glaswegians). Some people spotted the Scottish link and went through every Scottish writer they could think of. Except moi. (Apart from a couple of bright sparks, including the doomed individual mentioned above.) Until earlier this year we had a family house in the Scottish borders, so visiting Northumbria was easy.

4 - People trafficking - it's a major contemporary social problem, but I think I was also drawn to it because I've spent so much time abroad. Clue - 'Do they miss home?' When you're away from your place of birth, you automatically start to think about your ties to it.

5 - I do share some qualities with Joni and Heck, though probably more with the latter. I enjoyed writing Joni - apart from the paranoia mentioned above - because I was able to combine my experience of women I've known plus use my imagination. Oh, and nick stuff from female cops in other people's novels. Actually, I didn't do much of the latter - I wanted to go my own way. And then there's the wish fulfilment. I wish I'd been as good a rugby player as Heck (I was a fly boy out on the wing, carefully avoiding the hard-man stuff), I wish I'd won an athletics blue (I didn't have the nerve to go for a trial, even though I'd been a reasonable long jumper and sprinter at school); and I wish I had their integrity. For good reason, readers like cops in leading roles to have a coherent system of ethics. Those of us who only write about them can be much less 'good'.

6 - More people were involved in the writing process - this refers to the fact that I recently finished a PhD in creative writing at St Andrews University, and Carnal Acts was the novel that I submitted. Well, a third of it - the rest of the thesis consisted of me arguing myself in circles about the main issues in the book; the so-called critical section. So I went into great detail about the issues of pseudonym, plot, character, genre, gender, the body, race and class. Hope that isn't too obvious in the novel... The book's dedicated to my professor Gill Plain. She kept me right, especially on issues of gender, the body and race. I learned a huge amount from her and her colleagues and think I'm a much better writer since doing the PhD. 

7 - The main structural difference between Carnal Acts and all the other novels I've written is the short chapters. That didn't happen till the second draft. I - and my agent and my prof - felt the story wasn't moving quickly enough and brief, filmic scenes seemed to do the trick. Let's hope a producer picks the book up... 

- The lawnmower quote - it's from the old, good Genesis (with Peter Gabriel), a song called 'I Know What I Like (In Your Wardrobe)' - I mentioned it as a tip of the hat to my pal Mark Billingham, who's an even bigger fan than I am. The lyrics are barking, which is what we want...

8 - The sequel to Carnal Acts has now been commissioned by Arcadia Books - see what a good publicity campaign can do! It'll be out next July (if I manage to write it in time...)

9 - Actually, I don't mind Swedish meatballs.

10 - Yes! I'm Paul Johnston. 'No, I'm Paul Johnston and so's my wife.' Actually, I like having two writing personas. Hang on, why stop there? Stand by for persona number 3 - I've always wanted to write full blown science fiction. As Margaret Wells (got to let my daughter Maggie have a crack of the pseudonym whip - ow - since my son's name is Alexander.) Hello? Arcadia Books? Can you hear me?



Arcadia Books (15 Jun 2014) Pbk £11.99


About the Book
A stunning crime fiction novel featuring a pair of detectives in the northern English borderlands. DI Joni Pax, a London homicide detective wounded in a disastrous raid, has been transferred to the newly formed Police Force of North East England. Her boss, DCI Hector Heck Rutherford, is recently back at work after cancer treatment. Between them they are responsible for major crime in rural Northumberland and County Durham. Joni, the daughter of a black American and a white hippy, is a loner struggling to regain her self confidence. Heck is happily married, but his illness has left him fearful. Based in Corham, a town with Roman, medieval and industrial heritage, Paz and Rutherford investigate a murder at a brothel run by the Albanian mafia. In a series of breathtaking plot twists, the author demonstrates the corruption that underpins the beautiful northern English countryside as well as hinting at a mysterious world beyond the horizon. Carnal Acts explores abuse of many kinds sexual, psychological, economic taking the police procedural to places it has never been before.

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