An exclusive Authorlink interview with Tasha Alexander
Author of And Only to Deceive (William Morrow/HarperCollins, October 2005)
By Doris Booth
Stolen antiquities, betrayal, and murder set the scene for Tasha Alexander's first novel, AND ONLY TO DECEIVE. This gifted new writer's work has been likened to the bestselling novels of Anne Perry. Tasha writes with superb detail, spins a plot that holds surprises at every turn, and rivets the reader's attention to the very last page.
In this cleverly-wound tale, Emily marries rich Viscount Ashton as an easy escape from her overbearing mother. But marriage to dashing Philip doesn't turn out well. Soon after their wedding, Philip dies on a safari —or does he? Emily is compelled to know more about her art collecting husband, but soon uncovers a dark and dangerous secret that raises troubling questions about Victorian society and her place in it.
Here, Tasha admits she had to overcome serious doubts about her desire to become a writer before penning the crackling suspense story.
"It took me two months to write the first draft. Being the hedonist I am, I wanted
to finish it fast so that I could see
how the story turned out."
AUTHORLINK: AND ONLY TO DECEIVE is your first novel. How long did it take you to complete the work?
ALEXANDER: It took me two months to write the first draft. Being the hedonist I am, I wanted to finish it fast so that I could see how the story turned out. I couldn't stand not knowing what happened next.
AUTHORLINK: Where did the idea for the book originate?
ALEXANDER: I adore London and I have always been fascinated by Greece. I am also interested in ancient art forgeries. These were the broad elements I knew I wanted in the book. Then I invented the main character, Emily, and fit the story around her.
AUTHORLINK: Is Emily really you? From where did she come in your imagination?
ALEXANDER: Not really. I knew I wanted the book set in the late 19th Century and I wanted a heroine who was independent beyond her time. To have a young and self-reliant woman during that time period, she couldn't be married, and she couldn't still be living with her parents. So she had to be widowed. Then, why was she widowed? The story seemed to make itself up. There are those moments when you are sitting typing and thinking "Why is this character saying this?" But she has to say this because she is who she is, and that's what she would say. It's a wonderful moment when characters take on a life of their own.
AUTHORLINK: Did you have to do a lot of research?
ALEXANDER: I have read so much about the Victorian period that I knew a lot about the time. I did have to research mourning customs to be sure I got them right. I also had to research art forgeries. I assembled a lot of information first, then I would dip into my files when I needed a specific artifact or a fact. I have tired to stay true to the period. Nearly all the antiquities mentioned in the book were in the British Museum or the Louvre in 1890.
AUTHORLINK: Do you consider your novel somewhat literary?
ALEXANDER: When I wrote the book, I had no idea what genre it was. I figured that if I were fortunate enough to get published, my editor would know how to position the book. I tend not to like labels, so I didn't think about what category it would fit. I wasn't sure.
When I finished the story I did let a couple of people read it; they liked it and told me I had to try to get it published.
"I began researching for an agent. I read
the articles Anne Hawkins of John Hawkins & Associates had written for Authorlink."
AUTHORLINK: What was your next step?
ALEXANDER: I began researching agents and read the articles Anne Hawkins of John Hawkins & Associates had written for Authorlink. She was writing on myths about agents. It is so hard to find information about agents and even harder to get a sense of their personalities and interests, but the pieces she wrote on myths about agents made me decide she was my number one choice. I had a hard time writing a query letter and worried that it would take longer to compose it than it took to write the book. I sent Anne an email, and she responded quickly, requesting the full manuscript. I never had to query anyone else. The articles on Authorlink allowed me to identify the right agent to target. Authorlink is a fabulous site. Look where it got me!
AUTHORLINK: Did your agent ask for any revisions?
ALEXANDER: Yes. Anne wanted some revisions. She has a good editorial mind and thought we should change the ending to make it less happy. After I made the changes, she submitted it to four houses. One said the novel wasn't edgy enough, but within a few weeks we had an offer from HarperCollins for a five-figure advance.
"Can this really be happening to me?
I hope I never wake up from this dream. "
AUTHORLINK: How did you hear that your book had been accepted for publication?
ALEXANDER: It was very funny. Anne called on a Thursday and said Carolyn Marino, an executive editor at William Morrow/HarperCollins, read and loved the manuscript, but she would have to get additional reads from the editorial committee. That Saturday Anne called and said Morrow had decided to make an offer. It was President's Day weekend, so HarperCollins was closed on Monday. On Tuesday I waited on pins and needles. Nothing happened. A whole week went by. I had an offer but I didn't know any details. I was hovering by the phone like a teenage girl waiting for a boy to call, trying not to pace. At one point, I decided to get into the shower, and sure enough, that was when the phone started ringing. I climbed out of the shower with soap in my hair, and, trapped on a phone that wasn't cordless, I was writing notes on the back of an envelope as Anne talked. It was fun!
AUTHORLINK: And how does it feel to actually be published?
ALEXANDER: It feels great so far—almost surreal. Can this really be happening to me? I hope I never wake up from this dream. It's such fun to go through the various stages of the publishing process—seeing the cover, listening to publicity plans. But it is also a stressful and daunting time. I hope the book will sell well and want to do everything I can to help make that happen.
AUTHORLINK: Can you tell us in your own words what the book is about?
ALEXANDER: It isn't easy to sum up. It's not a high concept book that I can describe in a handful of sentences. People look at the story in different ways. Some call it a love story, others think it is the story of a woman's intellectual awakening, others view it as a historical mystery. To me it's a good read and I had fun writing it.
I had written the first two pages about a year before I sat down to write the book. All I had was a character and a vague idea of what would happen. I stuck the printed pages into a folder for when I'd have time to write, then I forgot about it. When my son was older, I took the pages out and began to think seriously about completing it. I didn't know much about Emily, my main character, but I had an image in my head of her standing at the window in her villa on Santorini. The first few paragraphs of the work have stayed as they originally were written.
"I concluded that I actually did want
to be a writer and that I'd stop talking
about it and start doing it."
AUTHORLINK: How long have you been writing and how did you begin?
ALEXANDER: When I was a little girl, I wrote short stories that were well received by, well, my parents. I had always said I wanted to be a writer, but I never got around to actually writing anything. I was working, had a baby, and finally had a epiphany moment. I was reading Dorothy L. Sayers' GAUDY NIGHT, a mystery set in the 1920s in England. One character said to another that when you at last figure out what it is you want you will do it, regardless of the circumstances. I thought, "Do I really want to be a writer? If so, I really need to write a book." I concluded that I actually did want to be a writer and that I'd better stop talking about it and start doing it.
AUTHORLINK: What were some of the obstacles you faced?
ALEXANDER: I have a lovely, adorable son who was 3 1/2 at the time. A week after I had my epiphany, he decided he would stop taking naps. He was home with me, and we weren't in situation to have a babysitter; my husband was doing his post doctoral research. All I could do was steal a few minutes here and there to write. I'd always wanted to have a beautiful room and five hours a day to work, but when you don't have those luxuries, you figure out another way. My circumstances forced me to be a better writer. I never knew when I'd get another 15 minutes to myself, so I couldn't procrastinate.
AUTHORLINK: Where did you learn to write?
ALEXANDER: I learned primarily from reading. Since I was four, I have always been big reader, devouring anything I can get my hands on. I was an English major in college, but I didn't take writing, I only wanted to read. I would carry stacks of books home from the library. When you read a lot, you learn by osmosis, getting a sense of storytelling from books, learning what you do and don't like.
"I am working on a sequel
to the first book. It is slow going. "
AUTHORLINK: And what tales can we expect from you next?
ALEXANDER: I am working on a sequel to the first book. I have been toying with it all summer, taking my time. My son, Alexander, is in school now and we have just moved from Connecticut to Tennessee. When his classes begin I'll have a big block of time to finish it quickly. Oh, I had better not say that aloud.
AUTHORLINK: Do you consider the path of becoming a published writer difficult?
ALEXANDER: For me it has been easy. It feels too good to be true, and I am so very lucky to get a book published. You have to start by writing a good book, but so much of this business is luck. Many people have long paths to publication, but that doesn't mean their books aren't good. To get an offer requires many factors coming together at the right moment, between agent, editor, marketing people. It is important to remember that, as a writer, all I can control is the actual writing. I think you should judge your success on how much fun and satisfaction you get from writing your books.
AUTHORLINK: What would you recommend to writers who are struggling to break in?
ALEXANDER: You have to keep at it! The publishing part can be incredibly frustrating, and much of it is completely beyond your control. It's so easy to fall into the trap of analyzing every word in a rejection letter, but that's not really useful. You have to focus on the part you can control—the writing—or you'll go crazy. It's a pretty cool thing to be published, but not as cool as sitting down and writing a good story. That's the most fun of all.
Tasha Alexander writes full time. She is married to a professor of cell biology at Vanderbilt University. They live in Tennessee with their son Alexander (Xander), who is age six. Visit Tasha's web site at http://www.tashaalexander.com.