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Well, hopefully you’ve been around long enough that you know a thing or two about me. Namely that I’m a pencil-maker, writer, and extreme bibliophile.
When I’m not wrangling four under four (I’m a double-twin mom…perhaps another thing you should know about me?), I’m nurturing the very serious and very long-term relationship that I have with my TBR pile. In fact, it’s not a pile. It’s a bookcase. A to-be-read bookcase. I’m nothing if not committed.
During the shelter-in-place surprise that is 2020, I have deeply embraced that relationship and spoken my TBR bookcase’s love language of quality time. While I’ve been working to put miles (err..pages?) in and make a dent in my shelf, I’ve also been spending my quarantine time online shopping. Namely, book shopping. So basically what I’m saying is…there is no dent being made.
BUT. But. The wonderful news is that I hoard books, so the book-buying is actually very on brand for me. And secondly, it means that I’ve read some truly fantastic books this year.
The top of my list? No contest. I discovered Boyfriend Material by Alexis Hall while browsing romance books online, and because I’m a slut for fake-dating/enemies to lovers tropes, I snatched up this new release. Like reallll quick.
Here’s how my whole love affair with this book went down. Buckle up.
I got the book, immediately moved it to the top shelf of my TBR bookcase. Well, didn’t even put it in the bookcase, rather I moved it directly from shipping box to hands while I sprawled out on my couch and didn’t move until I finished. It was that good. I read it, devoured it, laughed, cried, swooned, it was a Whole Thing.
But truly, it was everything I loved about books, especially the books that remind me why I wanted to be a writer in the first place: real, relatable characters, swoon-worthy romance, and writing that leaves you awe-struck and admiring and giggling to yourself. (Also, LONG LIVE THE FAKE DATING TROPE!)
Since then, I’ve been listening to it — and re-listening to it — on Audible nearly non-stop since I finished reading the paperback. I laugh, I swoon, I feel all the feels. Every. Single. Time. And I REGRET NOTHING. (Also, the narrator Joe Jameson is perfect for this book?!)
But the moment I finished it, I knew I had to make a pencil set love letter/homage to this incredible story. What started as six pencils became TWELVE because hello? There are too many amazing lines and moments from this book that I couldn’t stop.
When I shared the set, I was rewarded with a heart attack because Alexis saw them…and *gasp* liked them? YES I fangirled and WHAT ABOUT IT?! I got to connect with Alexis, share the set with the mobs of you who also loved the book, (and remake the set twice), and solidify the book’s place at the top of my favorites list. Ideal.
And lucky for YOU (and lbr, ME), Alexis graciously consented to answer some questions and let me pick his brain about writing and processes and (Moby) Dick.
The TL;DR version is: Alexis agreed to chat and answer some of my burning Qs! Check out our Behind-the-Pencil-Set Author interview below!
When did you discover you wanted to be a writer?
I’m, um, not sure I have really. I think to me there’s quite a sharp distinction between the thing people have in their heads when they think they want to be a writer at age eight-and-a-half or whatever, and the reality of what being a writer actually is. Which is, in many ways, kind of a data entry job.
But I first started writing in about 2012 and I don’t appear to have stopped yet.
What makes you passionate about your work?
Being British, I’m somewhat unwilling to admit being passionate about anything, especially something I’m directly involved in. I like to think I put as much into my books as I can but I’m far too close to them to be able to directly analyse that.
What does your writing process look like?
I’m very conscious that I’m answering a lot of these questions with “it isn’t” or “it doesn’t’” but I’m not sure I really believe in writing processes. I don’t want to use conspiratorial language but I think there is an extent to which it benefits writers to mystify writing when, the truth is, it’s something anyone can do.
Everyone’s writing process is, to some degree, to access something that can record information and then start … recording information on it.
One of the things I think is really misunderstood about writing is which bits of it are difficult. The bits of writing that readers respond to or like to analyse are usually the bits that are easiest to write. And, if you think about it, that makes sense because human beings are pretty much hard wired to connect to other human beings. So writing something somebody connects with is wonderful but not technically difficult.
The bits of writing I have to stop and think hard about—and will occasionally get stuck on for really long periods of time—are things making it clear who is speaking at a particular point without it sounding clunky and repetitious. Or having a character walk from the door to the window in a way that isn’t just “He walked from the door to the window.” And, obviously, you could say “He walked from the door to the window,” but unless you were going for a very, very specifically stark style … it would read really oddly. Especially when there’s emotions happening everywhere else.
What was the writing process for Boyfriend Material like? (If it was different than normal)
Honestly, not really. I spent a lot of time sweating over moving characters from doors to windows, worrying if it was clear who was speaking, and trying to trim the 500 uses of the word “just” down to 360.
What inspired the story and characters?
I think most of my inspirations for most of my books boil down to “I want to do this but like this.” So, “I want to do Sherlock Holmes, but she’s a pansexual sorceress in a fantasy world,” or “I want to do the bildom thing but queer and in a way that works for me.”
For Boyfriend Material, it was a combination of “I want to do fake dating but in a way that makes sense for a same-sex relationship given that the social assumptions behind the fake dating trope are intrinsically quite gendered” and “I want to do a romcom that feels like a British romcom from the 1990s.”
What did Luc and Oliver teach you in the course of writing the book?
This might be another of those “it isn’t and it doesn’t” responses but I’m very nervous of the idea that we can learn from things that we make up entirely in our heads. It’s sort of the definition of an echo chamber.
And I do try to write people whose experiences I don’t necessarily share or whose values I don’t necessarily agree with, and I like to think that does help me empathise but that comes with the giant honking caveat that all I’m really empathising with is something I’ve made up.
And I suppose researching a character can expose you to information that changes your mind about things. Like, I definitely know a lot more about jury trials and, for that matter, French toast than I did before I started writing Boyfriend Material. But I also think it’s really important that credit for my increase in understanding of those things goes to the people who wrote the books and blog posts about jurisprudence and recipes for French toast that I read while writing. Rather than the imaginary people I was writing about.
What has been your proudest accomplishment so far in your career?
I am secretly quite proud of the fact that I have a book published called How to Bang a Billionaire.
I’m also weirdly proud of the cover for Boyfriend Material, although I had exactly nothing to do with it (the artist is Elizabeth Turner Stokes). There’s just something quite satisfying about having your book packaged in a way that attracts people to it and I honestly think it’s easier to be proud of things that I’m slightly distanced from.
What advice would you give to aspiring writers?
I have two pieces of advice and they’re both really glib so I apologise.
The first is, write something. Because a surprising number of people don’t.
The second is, work out what you want from writing. It is completely fine to be a writer whose end goal is not professional publication. And it’s strange that writing is basically one of the few human endeavours that we think have no value if you don’t do them for money. Nobody says it isn’t worth learning to cook if you aren’t going to become a professional chef, or taking up a sport if you aren’t going to be a professional athlete. For some people, writing fanfic or original fiction that they publish on a website or doing NaNoWriMo gives them exactly what they want from writing but there’s a weird tendency to assume those things only have value if they’re a stepping stone to professional publication. Which is … not true.
Assuming you do go the professional route then, again, there are a million more decisions to make. Do you want to work with a small press or a big publisher, are you okay to be digital only, would you prefer to self-publish, do you need to make enough money at this to pay your bills, or is it okay for it to be a secondary income stream? Do you want to win awards, do you want to be a USA Today or NYT bestseller, do you want to attend cons or go on book tours, or do you just want to tell the stories you want to tell to the people who want to hear them? And, once again, any of these things are valid goals to have or to not have. But what makes you a successful writer is writing in a way that works for you and having a clear idea of what you want from it. Rather than chasing an idea of writerness that you’ve left other people define for you and have never really pinned down for yourself.
The last great book you read?
Normally, this would be really difficult because ‘great’ is a word I avoid using lightly. There are lots of books I love that I don’t consider to be Great Books because the whole idea of Greatness carries a bunch of connotations.
However, I have just finished reading a literal Great Book. That book being Moby Dick, which I read at the rate of one chapter a day on Twitter. And, as with most Great Books, I sincerely can’t decide whether I like it or not. Or if it’s possible to meaningfully have an opinion.
It’s a vast sweeping epic that uses whaling as an extended metaphor for the human condition while also—let’s be clear—being nerdily specific about actual whaling. It plays a bunch of really weird structural tricks that are either genius or nonsense, and it ends (or in some editions starts) with a glossary of terms that includes an aside in which a fictional librarian disses the narrator.
What is this. I can’t even.
Alexis Hall is a species of aphodiine beetle native to the United Kingdom. He persists on a diet of leafmould and Jaffa Cakes, and his conservation status was recently upgraded to “least concern” on the IUCN Red List.