Friday, June 16, 2023

Q&A with Alex Marwood




Alex Marwood is the author of the new novel The Island of Lost Girls. Her other novels include The Wicked Girls. She lives in London.


Q: What inspired you to write The Island of Lost Girls, and how did you create your characters Mercedes and Robin?


A: Primarily, I suppose, the Jeffrey Epstein case and the remarkable lack of prosecutions that have ensued so far – but also, the UK has been rocked, over recent years, by a series of cases of mass grooming that went largely ignored by the authorities who should have been safeguarding the victims.


Thousands – thousands ­– of underage girls were groomed, raped and prostituted by groups of men in working-class areas across the country, and the police and prosecution service did nothing.


And at the same time, a popular TV “personality” was revealed after his death to have been a serial paedophile – and despite repeated complaints, the BBC, who employed him,  had turned a blind eye for decades.


We're only beginning to scratch the surface with all this, and revelations still take my breath away on a regular basis.


The omerta – the wall of silence that allows predators to get away with their crimes – is grimly fascinating to me. The mix of self-interest and self-regard that allows people to dispense with their integrity entirely while remaining convinced that they are “good” people.


It’s happened so often – think of the people who throw themselves behind toxic regimes, who watch their neighbours being marched off to their deaths, who allow banks to crash and destroy economies, who allow overmighty surgeons to kill patients by the hundred – that it must actually be an element of human nature that we really, really need to address. 


It's really difficult to explain how I go about creating a character. It's a bizarre alchemical process, in which I decide what I want to write about, and as I think about who the people who might be affected might be, they gradually start forming in my head, like figures emerging from the mist. Gosh, that sounds pretentious.


With Robin, I wanted to show the raging regret that careless actions can produce. And Mercedes: well, I'm as suspicious of nostalgia as I am of overspeedy change, and I wanted very much to show how the modern world and its abuses are in many ways just same-old same-old, and whatever the pretty costumes it wears, whatever emollient language is used, contempt for women is as much a part of our world as it ever was.


And that despite it all, the bloody-minded toughness of women should never be underestimated.


Q: The novel is set on a Mediterranean island--how important is setting to you in your work?


A: Immensely important. I think place is just as important as all the other elements in a book, and I love world-building.


But honestly, La Kastellana was to a great extent a product of lockdown. Like a lot of Brits, I make the endless grey of my homeland bearable by spending a certain amount of time ambling and snorkelling about the endlessly fascinating Med - and I try to get to lovely, ancient, noble, eccentric Malta once a year if I can - and that came to an abrupt halt in 2020.


I was better off than a lot of people - I have a lovely little city garden and genuinely adorable neighbours - but the only way I could deal with how badly I was missing that light was to go there in my head.


Q: The book takes place in 1985 and in 2016, and is told in alternating sections. Did you write the book in the order in which it appears, or did you focus more on one section before turning to the other?


A: I'm a dot-and-go-one sort of writer. I do try to vaguely keep everything moving in the same direction as I write, as the past and the future inform each other so much in my novels, but often I'll leave elements blank and come back once I know more about where things have gone.


I always write the prologue last, by the way. The prologue is vital in terms of setting the scene and the mood, and you can't possibly know what that's going to be until you already know how it ends!


Q: A review of the book in The Observer said, “This thriller travels to some very dark places: missing girls, cruel traditions, abusive fathers. Where it shines brightest, though, is in its insightful, compassionate depiction of the relationship between Robin and Gemma.” What do you think of that description?


A: I'm absolutely delighted by it! I actually meant them to be quite minor characters, when I started out, but I got fonder and fonder of them, and their terrible mistakes, as things progressed, so I'm really glad that other people see it too!


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I'm reading a whole lot about the terrorist movements of the 1970s - in America and Europe - because I really feel that another wave of similar stuff is heading our way. I'm fascinated by how many of the radicals of the post-hippie era ended up being respectable members of the professional middle class, so that's where I'm going.


All I know so far is that I've got a bunch of retirees with an, um, "interesting" shared history, and someone's about to throw a metaphorical hand grenade into the middle of them...


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: Um. All books are actually written by cats. Fact. That's why the humans they employ as cover for their exploits all seem so vague about their process, and why I don't think AI will ever really replace them, because the people programming it have never worked out that it's cat, not human, psychology that they need to be basing their algorithms around.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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