#BibliomaniacsBookClub EXTRA #WhatAliceKnew #AuthorQ&A

What Alice Knew

Alice has a perfect life – a great job, happy kids, a wonderful husband. Until he goes missing one night; she receives a suspicious phone call; things don’t quite add up.

Alice needs to know what’s going on. But when she uncovers the truth she faces a brutal choice. And how can she be sure it is the truth?

Sometimes it’s better not to know.

What Alice Knew is published by Black Swan on 4th May 2017.

What Alice Knew is Bibliomaniac's Book Club choice for June. You can find my review of What Alice Knew here and everything you need to run a book group session on What Alice Knew here.

But this post is a Bibliomaniac Book Club EXTRA! Questions for TA Cotterell himself! Read on for some fascinating insights into the novel, the author TA Cotterell and his favourite painting. Thanks so so much to TA Cotterell for answering my questions and taking part in this special blog post as part of my June Book Club feature. I am very grateful! I hope you all enjoy reading his answers as much as I did!

Can you sum up the book in one line?

What Alice Knew is a psychological thriller that turns on a character and an idea rather than a set of fingerprints and a smoking gun.

What is your most favourite portrait painting? Why?

Edward Hopper’s ‘A Woman in the Sun’ (1961). Hopper captures the solitariness of existence better than any other painter. His people, whether standing naked or playing the piano or sitting at a bar, are always alone, whether they are depicted in company or otherwise, whether it is his wife (as in this case) or a stranger. I hope I caught something of that quality in Alice. In Hopper’s art there is no possibility of communication or interaction, no sense of togetherness. Yet the paradox is that through this separateness his work communicates something to us about the mystery of existence far more powerfully than if there were jovial figures socialising. Often one sees a lonely house or service station, or near-empty bar or café, particularly at night, and a Hopper image leaps to mind. In such a way he creates some sort of communion where there is none.

"What is a portrait if not the opening up of a character, the physical manifestation of the story of a life." [What Alice Knew]

If you could write a story behind the face in one painting (portrait or scene) which painting might you choose?

‘Bonaparte on the Bridge at Arcole’ (1801) by Jean-Antoine Gros

This painting really is ‘the physical manifestation of the story of a life’, and portraiture, as Alice knows, “spares no one”.

Classicism and Romanticism are the twin poles of art history. The former venerates order, reason, drawing, the study of the ancients; the latter energy, emotion, colour, innovation. They are mutually exclusive.

Gros trained under a stern Classicist, Jacques-Louis David, but his sensibility was Romantic. Unable to restrain his impulses he painted a series of paintings, such as this, noted for their dazzling brushstrokes, bold colours, rejection of Classical ideals of composition, near abstract backgrounds, sacrifice of clarity to effect, and rejection of the conventions of portraiture. In such works, Gros became the founding father of Romanticism and looked forward to, and hugely influenced, Romantic masters such as Delacroix and Géricault. A direct line can be drawn (or painted) between Napoleon on the Bridge and Liberty on the Barricades.

David was horrified. From post-revolutionary exile, he poured scorn on his former pupil and exhorted him to return to classical ideals. The sensitive Gros wilted under his glare and, betraying his nature, retreated into a sterile Classicism.

But the world had moved on. Delacroix and his Romantic followers dominated the Salon; Gros (and David) had nothing to offer. That is why this portrait resonates: Napoleon, marching forwards, looking backwards, becomes a metaphor for his creator. Gros had turned his back on his destiny, leaving suicide as the only rational, if Romantic, option.

I would like to write this story because although we are familiar with the external events – David’s entreaties, Gros’ reluctant retreat to Classicism, his suicide – it would be fascinating to try to get inside Gros’ mind and understand the conflict as he slid towards his suicide. The psychological conflict between what someone must do and yet cannot lies at the heart of every story.

This book is written in the voice of a female character. In my opinion it is completely convincing. Can you tell me a bit about how you found writing from a female point of view and if it was more challenging than writing in the voice of a man?

I was not intending to write in the voice of Alice. The novel was originally written in its entirety in the third person. I sent it to agents but the message came back that the story had possibilities but that Ed was too dull. This was a reasonable response to a page or so and a synopsis, because it was reasonable, if wrong, to assume Ed was the protagonist. For the same reason everyone can remember Michael Douglas in Fatal Attraction but not the name of the actress who played his wife.

Of course, I knew Alice was the protagonist rather than Ed because Ed is, for most of the novel, simply a ‘dangling man’ unable to shape events. I tried to raise Alice in the mix but eventually realised the optimal solution was to re-write the story entirely from her perspective.

The re-write was far more challenging as I was forced to confront male received wisdom about womanhood. I was unable to rely on instinctive responses to situations but had to question those responses. I had to reject stereotypes and be permanently alive to the danger of slipping into generic characterisation. This was a good thing as it allowed no writing on ‘autopilot’.

Ultimately, I tried to circumvent the imaginative leap required by writing less as a ‘female’ than as a ‘human being’. Although I hope Alice feels fundamentally ‘feminine’, she is ultimately a human being struggling with forces beyond her control. It is the conflict between what she believes (or thought she ‘knew’) and harsh reality, which undermines her belief, drains her self-confidence and sets in train the denouement.  

Have you ever known something you wish you hadn’t? Have you ever told a white lie that grew into something much bigger?

I know a secret about unhappiness and betrayal in a friend’s marriage that I wish I didn’t.

When I was a child I stole from the village sweetshop. I was caught and banned but was too ashamed to tell my parents. There was a second sweetshop that was further away, which I had to pretend I preferred. Although the lie never became bigger, it became ever more contorted as I attempted to justify why I “preferred” walking further to a less good shop. It was an early and salutary lesson in where lying can take you.

Generally, people are unwise to confide in me. Unless a secret is very important (as defined by me!), I’m not good at keeping it. For a while after university I was a stockbroker salesman. One day I rang a client and told him something and he responded: “Not only did I tell you that… but I told you not to tell anyone.” I realised I needed a new career.

I wonder now if one shouldn’t expect novelists to be good secret-keepers, or if it would be contradictory for them to be so. Their job, after all, is to take secrets and inner lives and expose them to the public gaze. It is the exposure, the breach of trust, that makes a novel interesting.

There are several big themes in this novel for example, truth, marriage, friendship and parenting. Was there one theme in particular you were interested in writing about?

All those themes you’ve picked up were of interest to me but if I had to pick one it would be truth. The lack of truth and the need to keep a secret is both the fount and engine of the novel. Around the time I was starting What Alice Knew I learnt a secret about my parents that made me question how far the basis of trust in a family is eroded if there are secrets. However, I was also conscious that children do not necessarily have a right to know everything about their parents, who are individuals struggling to live their own lives just as the children are or will. It is the conflict between these two conflicting but eminently justifiable positions that pulls Alice and Ed apart.

What question would you like to put to a book group about “What Alice Knew”?

I would like to ask how they found the ending. I believe (I would!) that Alice is a red-blooded, admirable and compelling if not necessarily always likeable character. Clearly the ending loses its power if the reader doesn’t share that view. Yet some readers who are engaged by Alice feel the ending is too open-ended. Obviously(!) I disagree. It is hard to go into detail without spoiling it, but I’d love if I reader could reach the critical moment and shake their head in disbelief, thinking ‘hold on, that can’t have happened’. But then, as they consider the trajectory of the book and the characters, they begin to think ‘yes, that could have happened’ and finally ‘not only could it have happened, it had to happen.’      

Can you tell us anything about your next writing project?

I have started a novel with the working title ‘Prospect Row’, which is the name of a street in Cambridge. The idea was sparked by a line in ‘What Alice Knew’. It occurs when she is trying to extricate herself from having to paint three portraits. The second man she calls, Alex Quoyle, is a property dealer ‘who preyed on old ladies with short leases’. There was something pregnant about that line. It begged questions. Although the book I have started has moved a long way from that character and idea, it is still about a property dealer whose life is going wrong and whose wife (in)advertently makes things worse. There will be a dead body, and a set of fingerprints and smoking gun, but again the focus will be on character and motive, and that little grey area we can all get lost in between right and wrong.

Thank you so much for such interesting and detailed answers. I really appreciate your time and really enjoyed hearing your thoughts. I am intrigued by your new novel and can't wait to read it!

What Alice Knew is available via Amazon and all good bookshops.

Don't forget to check out my blog posts, Twitter feed and website to find all you need to run a book club session on What Alice Knew.

For more book recommendations, reviews and Book Club questions and suggestions, follow me on Twitter @KatherineSunde3 or on the Bibliomaniac's Book Club pages on my website bibliomaniacuk.co.uk


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