by Alex Hay
Interview by Diane Slocum
The master of the house has just died, and his daughter has taken over. Two of her earliest matters of business are to ask her head housekeeper to help her plan the biggest party of the season and then, to fire the housekeeper, Mrs. King. But Mrs. King isn’t about to go quietly. Instead, she begins to enlist a crew of conspirators to help her pull off the heist of the century. She engages her predecessor at the house, a black market queen, an over-the-top actress, acrobats, a seamstress, and whole teams of others to help her steal every treasure in the house, to strip it bare the night of the grand ball, under the haughty noses of the guests. But Mrs. King is after far more than the wealth these treasures will bring. She’s after the truth that has been hidden in the house and to expose its dark secrets.
AUTHORLINK: What gave you the idea for this story?
“So, sticking those two components together – plot and setting – was the first step.”
HAY: I’d been longing to write a heist novel because the structure is such a gift to a writer: gathering a team, unfurling a plan, throwing in a surprise (or two, or three…). And at the same time, I was itching to set a story in London in the 1900s, such a rich and enterprising era. So, sticking those two components together – plot and setting – was the first step. I began picturing a glorious Mayfair mansion, inspired by the opulent houses once scattered all across West London. I envisioned a cast of servants sidling out from under the stairs. And I began to wonder what might happen if they decided to grab a little bit of the opulence and privilege upstairs for themselves…
AUTHORLINK: How did your characters emerge? Did any of them surprise you?
“This was delicious detective work for me as the author.”
HAY: In the first draft of The Housekeepers, my characters obeyed my plan. But at times this made them feel a little wooden, a little thin. I could feel some of them bridling against the constraints of the plot. And so, rewriting the novel, and later working with my marvelous editors, I began to peel them back. What secret connections did they hold to the house, and to one another? When might they deviate from the plan? Could any of them betray their leader, my cool-headed protagonist, Mrs King? This was delicious detective work for me as the author. Plus, my characters were endlessly fun to write. My ferocious financier, Mrs Bone; my audacious con artist Hephzibah Grandcourt; my trapeze-swinging housemaids, Jane-one and Jane-two… I loved them all.
AUTHORLINK: How did you flesh out the storyline? Did you plan ahead more or did ideas come as you wrote?
“I set up a perfectly gargantuan spreadsheet, detailing every scene…”
HAY: Well, I planned this novel to within an inch of its life! I set up a perfectly gargantuan spreadsheet, detailing every scene, to help me get the first draft down. But alas, even the best-laid plans have holes in them. In the course of writing and rewriting the book I glued characters together, axed storylines, and altered the twists and turns in the plot. But I will say that the final pages stayed pretty steady all the way through. I wrote them fairly early on, a sort of north star to aim for, all the way through…
AUTHORLINK: How did you research the era?
HAY: Oh, the research process for The Housekeepers was an absolute delight! This is a story about a robbery – so building the house at the heart of the novel was one of my first tasks and great joy. I turned to archive accounts of real Park Lane mansions to get the details right: the rich carpets, the paintings, the chandeliers, the furniture, the pillars in the ballroom, the marble flamingos in the bathrooms… But corruption existed on the underside of all that gloss, so I also spent time reading about the dark side of the service trade, which formed some of the darker mysteries at the heart of the story. Novels set in or around the era were so helpful, too, for giving a sense of voice and tone.
AUTHORLINK: Was there any part of the writing process that you particularly enjoyed? Is any part difficult or your least favorite?
“Planning the novel was a head-scratcher.”
HAY: Planning the novel was a head-scratcher. There were times when I was longing to simply fling my spreadsheet aside and dive straight into the story. But then of course I would get stuck, and yearn to go back to the safety and surety of planning. I think the grass is always greener when you’re writing: if you’re in first draft mode, you long to be editing. If you’re editing, all you want is the freedom and gumption of the blank page. But overall, writing (and rewriting) this novel was a great delight to me: I had such fun crafting the world, and playing with my cast of characters. I really adored it.
AUTHORLINK: What were some of the ways your agent and editors helped get your story ready for publication?
“I did two fast edits with my remarkable agent before the book went out on submission…”
HAY: I had such absolutely stellar editorial support at every stage. I did two fast edits with my remarkable agent before the book went out on submission to editors, to try and bring the story into shape and balance. Then I had the miraculous experience of working with my phenomenal editors in both the UK and North America. We worked through several rounds of edits, tackling big-ticket structural items to give the story the right framework, before molding the characters and internal logic of the plot, and whittling down to tighten the book on a line level. It was invigorating and joy-inducing to be part of such a terrific team – really one of the best creative projects of my life.
AUTHORLINK: Is there a lesson to be learned from your story?
HAY: My driving motivation for writing The Housekeepers was to entertain you. But if there is a lesson to be learned, perhaps it’s this: when circumstances demand, we can move through the world like Mrs. King: sharp as a knife, bringing justice where it is most deserved…
AUTHORLINK: What are you working on next?
HAY: I’ve written the first draft of a new novel, which is set in the same world as The Housekeepers but stars a fresh cast and a new dastardly scheme…
About the author: Alex Hay grew up in Cambridge and Cardiff in the United Kingdom. He studied history at the University of York and wrote his dissertation on female power in royal courts. He began writing at an early age. He worked in magazine publishing and for charities. His debut novel, The Housekeepers, won the Caledonia Novel Award. He lives with his husband in London.