Wednesday, July 5, 2023

Q&A with Alex Hay




Alex Hay is the author of the new historical novel The Housekeepers. He lives in London.


Q: You write that you were interested in setting a novel in the early 20th century. What appealed to you about that period, and how did you end up writing this particular story?


A: I had been circling the 1900s for a while, trying to find the right way in. It’s a period associated with a certain level of glitz and glamour – big houses, rolling lawns, endless servants, a last gasp of privilege before the Great War.


I knew that would provide me with a sumptuous setting – and the chance to scratch at something a little darker beneath the surface, namely the corruption and oppression on the underside of all that wealth and power.


At the same time, I’d been longing to write a heist story, to play with the twists and turns and engineering of that plot structure.


So, London in the 1900s – full of vast, opulent mansions and servants starting to bridle against longstanding constraints – felt like the perfect backdrop for a grand robbery and a story of seven women taking on their masters and seeking to upturn their status quo…


Q: How did you research the book, and what did you learn that especially surprised you?


A: I had read a great deal about the late 1890s and early 1900s over the years, so had absorbed some things by osmosis, but there was plenty I needed to test and investigate.


I’d been poring over The Lost Mansions of Mayfair by Oliver Bradbury, a book full to the brim with descriptions of palatial houses once scattered across West London, lost to bombing and redevelopment.


It helped me create a composite picture of a fictional house at the heart of the wealthy Mayfair district: a multi-story mansion stuffed with priceless artworks, objets d’art, sumptuous furnishings and so much more.

My research became quite focused: I wanted to know exactly what those treasures looked like, to understand how many servants would have been employed to care for them. In other words, I needed to think about how such a house could have been designed, built, robbed…


Several books provided details that proved invaluable to making the world of the novel feel rich and real. J Mordaunt Crook’s The Rise of the Nouveaux Riches gave me a sense of the individuals who might have been making their fortunes in the neighbourhood. And Julia Laite’s The Disappearance of Lydia Harvey provided poignant insight into the dangers faced by young women entering the service industry in London at the turn of the century.


The most interesting discovery? It was striking, if not entirely surprising, to realise just how many of these sumptuous houses had been lost. You can walk down Park Lane today and catch tiny glimpses of the mansions that once stood facing Hyde Park – but the rest have vanished.


Writing this novel was a chance to spin a world that shimmers in sepia photographs but has otherwise disappeared – for good and ill – forever.


Q: The writer Nina de Gramont said of the book, “A treasure trove of contradictions: fast-paced but thoughtful, vengeful but compassionate, satisfying but completely unpredictable.” What do you think of that description?


A: It makes me SO happy. The kindness and generosity of other authors, who have taken the time to read and respond to the novel, has been one of the most marvellous – and humbling – parts of the publication process. Nina de Gramont’s words resonated enormously.


I had always hoped that The Housekeepers would spin a few different plates – the shimmery glamour of 1900s London, the fellowship amongst a gang of brilliant women, the twists and turns of a heist plot, and the dark secrets lurking in the biggest house on the street…


Q: Did you know how the novel would end before you started writing it, or did you make many changes along the way?


A: I drafted the last chapter early on, and although some of the nuances twisted along the way, it remained a north star to aim for all the way through the writing of the book. This was the most plotting I had ever done – I had a detailed scene plan, but SO much of it shifted along the way.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I’m writing a standalone novel set in the same world as The Housekeepers, but starring a fresh cast and a new dastardly scheme… It’s been both a joy and a head-scratcher to write, and I’ve been loving it…


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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