On The Table Read, “The Best Book Reader Magazine in the UK“, author Alex Woolf discusses his writing career, what inspires his stories, and his new horror book, Mr Jones.
Written by JJ Barnes
I interviewed Alex Woolf about his life and career, what inspired him to start writing, and the creative writing process that went into his new book, Mr Jones.
Tell me a bit about who you are.
I am Alex Woolf. I write books. I’ve written a handful of adult novellas and an armful of YA novels and chapter books. I’ve written stories about Shakespearean actors, Roman gladiators, 22nd-century hover bikers, teenage ghost hunters, steampunk aviatrices, flesh-eating shadows, magic typewriters, invisible spies, rips in the spacetime continuum, you name it. Last year I co-wrote a comic novel with a couple of mates about a writing group. Mr Jones is my first solo adult novel.
My writing journey began when I was a kid making up stories while playing with toy soldiers in an attic (don’t worry, they were my soldiers and it was my parents’ attic). Then and now, I’m inspired by “what if…?” questions. The more weird, scary or insane the idea, the more I’m drawn to it.
These days, I live in suburban North London and you wouldn’t guess from my street that anything ever happens. It’s very quiet, suspiciously so. But I’m interested in the strangeness that lurks below the surface of the seemingly mundane. For example, I’m convinced there’s a scaly creature living in our local swamp – I mean pond. You may call it a fish, but that’s because you have no imagination.
A lot of my stories involve placing ordinary people in mad situations and seeing how they react. Most of all, I love a good mystery.
One reader described my novels as onions with layers of mystery that have to be peeled away. My aim is to take readers on a journey to the centre of the onion.
When did you first WANT to write a book?
I don’t remember the exact moment when I decided I wanted to write a book. I know that when I was about eight I told a grown-up person enquiring into my future plans (and probably expecting the answer “train driver” or “astronaut”) that I wanted to be an author, though I’m not sure I knew what an author was at that stage. I loved Roald Dahl, so maybe I just wanted to be him.
When did you take a step to start writing?
Approximately twenty-nine years after my conversation with the grown-up person, I finally embarked on my career as an author. My first books were kids’ non-fiction. I wrote books on robots, sharks, ghosts, aliens, dinosaurs, acne, killer spiders, bees, soap, tea, chocolate and a hundred other topics. I wasn’t proud. I just took any writing gig going.
I wrote at least four books on the topic of terrorism (this was shortly after 9/11). I was once stopped at Athens airport after they discovered I had a suitcase full of books about Osama bin Laden. I didn’t know the Greek for “It’s for research!”
Among children’s publishers in the mid-noughties, I became the go-to guy for anything bleak. In one particularly tough year, I wrote books on crime, genocide, capital punishment, Nazis and the Black Death. It was not a cheerful time. While all this was going on, I was still writing stories, as I’d been doing on and off since my teens.
I’d just become a dad at this point, so didn’t have much time for my fiction, but I managed to snatch moments to write in the early mornings and at weekends. One of these short stories grew and grew until it became a 120,000-word science fiction epic called The Chronosphere.
How long did it take you to complete your first book from the first idea to release?
I first conceived of The Chronosphere in about 2005 and completed it in 2008. I submitted it to a children’s publisher I knew. It wasn’t a kid’s book at that stage, but he was looking to launch a YA fiction list and I thought my book could be adapted if he liked it. He said it was great.
“What about the sex and drugs?” I asked.
“All fine,” he said. “The drugs are futuristic, and the sex is with robots, so no problemo. Just make the protagonist a teenager, et voila.” Then he added, “Oh, and it has to be half the current length.”
I was horrified.
Seeing my face fall, he went on, “Or you could cut it in two and then we’ll have two books.” Horror turned to elation – trebly so when he continued, “In which case, we’d need a third book to complete the trilogy.”
I wrote a good chunk of the third book while on holiday in Italy, writing at night in the ensuite bathroom of our hotel room, trying not to wake my wife and tiny children. Chronosphere, the trilogy, finally emerged in 2011, three years after I’d finished writing it, six years after I’d conceived it. It didn’t quite take the world by storm, but it got some great reviews. I’m still mighty proud of it, and I’ve just reacquired the rights with the aim of pitching it to TV companies. Netflix here we come!
How long did it take you to complete your latest book from the first idea to release?
My latest book, Mr Jones, began life in June and early July of 2015. I wrote the first 25,000 words in a hot fever before screeching to an ungainly halt. The resolution I had in mind wasn’t going to work. It was clichéd, predictable, and based on pretty dodgy science. Disheartened, I threw it in a drawer and forgot about it.
Five and a half years later, during the second Covid lockdown, I was trying to come up with an idea for a new novel when I chanced upon Mr Jones. I reread the opening and thought it had an impressive energy. What was more, I immediately saw how I could complete the book without having to resort to anything remotely clichéd or predictable.
As for the science, well, this was fiction. This was horror. Ultimately, I could do what I liked, so long as I took the reader with me. The book was released in January 2022, six and a half years after the idea first popped into my hot head.
Focusing on your latest release. What made you want to write Mr Jones?
The summer when I first conceived of Mr Jones was uncomfortably warm. Every morning, I escorted my eight-year-old daughter to school in the sticky heat. Our journey took us through an overgrown recreation ground featuring a foetid swamp (pond, sorry) covered in a thick layer of algae. The heat and this jungle-like patch of North London must have played on my mind and I imagined I was caught up in a thriller.
I was a single dad with a daughter and she was being threatened by an unknown stranger, a panda-masked madman called Mr Jones. The idea terrified me and I realised I would have to start writing the story and see where it took me.
Why was I affected in this way? Plenty of other people walked through the same little park each day without being plagued by paranoid fantasies or feeling the need to write a horror story. It’s true that I’ve always suffered a slight queasiness at the sight of manicured green spaces gone wild. But that wasn’t all of it. There was something about the heat and this place, especially the pond, that was seriously troubling me.
It was my mother who eventually worked it out. After reading Mr Jones, she said to me, “This is about Abigail, isn’t it?” As soon as she said it, I realised she was right. Abigail was my sister. On a family holiday when I was eight and she was three, one hot September day in 1972, I witnessed her death when she fell into an algae-covered canal.
What were your biggest challenges with writing Mr Jones?
When I resumed writing the book during the second Covid lockdown, I faced an immediate challenge. I’d come up with a new ending for the book (the original ending being clichéd and predictable), but this new ending added some complexity to the plot. At this stage the book was written entirely from Ben’s (the protagonist’s) point of view.
For much of the story, Ben is in the dark about what’s actually going on, and therefore so is the reader – that’s what provides much of the suspense – so there would have to be pages and pages of exposition at the end when Ben (and the reader) finally learn the truth. This felt very unsatisfactory to me. I solved the problem by introducing excerpts from a second character’s POV and interspersing these through the book.
This didn’t damage the suspense because the reader would have no idea of the second character’s connection to the main story until quite late on, but it did mean that when everything gets resolved at the end, the reader will be slightly ahead of Ben and better prepared for it without the need for loads of exposition.
Any other challenges? Well, the story takes place during a sweltering heatwave, and one problem I faced during the second phase of writing was trying to remember what heat felt like, because I wrote it in the middle of winter.
Who or what inspired you when creating your Protagonist?
My inspiration for Ben, my protagonist, was – not to be too egotistical about it – me. Ben tends towards dark thoughts and paranoia, as do I. He finds it hard to trust people, as do I, and always thinks the worst is bound to happen (me again). We also both love our offspring to an extreme degree. I like to think that, in Ben’s shoes, I’d have acted with a wiser, cooler head, but truthfully I doubt it.
He’s not completely me, of course. He thinks more analytically than I do (he’s a structural engineer, I’m an author, so that’s no surprise) and he’s more prone to emotional outbursts, whereas I tend to get ulcers.
Who or what inspired you when creating your Antagonist?
Mr Jones, the main antagonist in my book, is shrouded in mystery for nine-tenths of it and you won’t be getting spoilers from me here. What I can talk about is the impression I want him to make on readers for much of the book and my inspirations for that.
The image of Mr Jonesis that of the archetypal “stranger” – the man (usually) that your parents warn you to keep away from. He’s Chitty Chitty Bang Bang’s Childcatcher, offering sweeties for free, except that Mr Jones wears a panda mask, and this lends him a scary anonymity.
Imogen, Ben’s daughter, says she can’t see anything through the mask’s eyeholes. This reminds me of other masks in horror, such as the ones worn by Halloween’s Michael Myers or Friday the Thirteenth’s Jason Vorhees, where the eyes are similarly invisible.
I can’t remember when I thought that Mr Jones should wear a panda mask, but as soon as I did, I knew it was the right choice. Pandas are cute, but in the context of horror, cute can easily become terrifying (one only has to think of dolls). He teams his panda mask with a smart grey businessman’s suit. Something about a man in a business suit wearing a panda mask gave me the shivers when I first imagined it. It still does.
What is the inciting incident of Mr Jones?
The inciting incident in Mr Jones happens in the very first scene – in the opening sentence in fact: “Imogen is kicking at something poking out of the ground with the tip of her shiny black shoe.” The thing she’s kicking at turns out to be a bone, and this is the object that upsets the balance of Ben’s world and changes the course of his life. Without this incident, there would be no story.
What is the main conflict of Mr Jones?
The main conflict in the book is between Ben and Mr Jones. Mr Jones is threatening to kidnap Imogen, Ben’s daughter, and Ben must stop him. What makes this struggle especially difficult for Ben is Mr Jones’s anonymity, as he doesn’t know who he’s up against. This central conflict leads Ben into other conflicts.
There is the internal conflict within Ben as he starts to question his own understanding of what is going on and even his own sanity. There are also conflicts with his daughter, his mother and Amy, another important character in the novel.
Did you plot Mr Jones in advance, or fly by the seat of your pants and write freely?
I am, by nature, a plotter, not a pantser. But with this book, I was so gripped by the premise, I did barely any planning and just dived straight in, letting the story take me where it wanted. 25,000 words in, there was a deafening squeal of brakes as I realised that where this story was taking me was disaster. I was going to crash and burn on the rocks of cliché and predictability.
Bitter and disillusioned, I abandoned it. I should have known, I admonished myself, I’m not a pantser and never will be. I should have been more patient and plotted it all out carefully before putting finger to keyboard. Looking back now though, I’m glad I dived straight in. There is a freshness and energy about those opening 25,000 words that might not have been there if I’d felt constrained by a plot.
The lesson of this book, for me, is that sometimes you should follow your gut. You can always rescue things further down the line if you find the road you’re on turns out to be a cliff edge or a cul de sac.
Did you get support with editing, and how much editing did Mr Jones need?
I was an editor for a long time before I was an author and try my best to deliver edited text. That said, I really appreciated having another set of eyes on the book. Matthew Gowans, my editor at Indie Novella, did brilliantly, pointing out inconsistencies and suggesting improvements.
What is the first piece of writing advice you would give to anyone inspired to write a story?
Read! Read as much as you can in as many different genres. Read outside your comfort zone. Reading other people’s work is the best teaching tool for any writer. You learn how other writers go about the practical process of putting down words in an order that can conjure images, characters and emotions in the minds and hearts of readers. You learn what works and what doesn’t – I’ve learned loads from bad novels about how not to do it.
I was a reader before I was a writer, and I still regard myself as a reader first and a writer second. I devour two to three novels a week, both on my kindle and through my headphones. I’d truly be lost without stories.
The other piece of writing advice I always give is equally simple: write! Don’t call yourself a writer if you’re not prepared to commit text to paper or screen at least once a day. Even if it’s just a paragraph. Writing is a technical skill, like the violin, and you need to practise it every day if you want to reach your full potential.
Can you give me a hint about any further books you’re planning to write?
I’ve recently completed a horror novel about six people trapped in a haunted house, which is currently doing the rounds with agents. My latest work in progress is a murder mystery about a killer on the loose at a publisher’s book launch.
And, finally, are your proud of your accomplishment? Was it worth the effort?
Yes on both counts. I’m proud of Mr Jones because, although it was a very personal project for me, it seems to be resonating strongly with readers, too, to judge from its performance so far (over 1500 comments on The Pigeonhole online book club, plus nearly 60 reviews on Goodreads, averaging over 4 stars). It had a long and unusual gestation, and I faced some big challenges to make it work, but it was definitely worth all the effort.
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