With the release of the immensely popular Boyfriend Material in 2020, author Alexis Hall received new name recognition, despite having been publishing novels already for years. From Regency era romps to romantic comedies that positively yank at your heartstrings, to a British Bake Off riff, there are few genres Hall has yet to explore and, in each, he manages to craft such lovely pockets of escapism that makes saying goodbye to any of his characters seem like a considerable loss. I read Boyfriend Material, Rosaline Palmer Takes the Cake, and Something Fabulous all in a day and, with each, regretted doing so rather than slowing down to spend more time with them.
Luckily for me, those only scratch the surface of what he’s released and, in this year alone, has three upcoming novels due to be published. In his latest novel, Something Fabulous, released in January this year, we follow a handsome, reserved Duke, Valentine, as he searches for his strong-willed, runaway betrothed, Belle, with the help of her twin brother, the romantic Bonny. However, the true love story is found between Valentine and Bonny on their journey to find Belle and it’s their simmering dynamic, hysterical misadventures, and Belle’s spirited and theatrical characterization that give the story its addictive kick.
I spoke with Hall about his latest book, the time-management (or lack thereof) that goes into writing, and Queer representation in his work.
Spoiler Warning for Something Fabulous and Rosaline Palmer Takes the Cake. This interview has been edited for clarity.
What gave you the idea for Something Fabulous?
Alexis Hall: To put it quite briefly it was essentially a pandemic book. Obviously, there was a lot of terrible stuff going on in the world and I was locked indoors and so I thought I’d really want to write something that was joyful and happy and where people got to go outside a lot. I also spent a lot of time reading because I was stuck inside my house so that’s where a lot of the living through books came up with Belle and Bonny because it was feeling a bit like that after not leaving my house for a year.
Did that also inspire the period setting to take you away from modern times or was that something that came up while you were writing it?
A little bit of part A and part B. There’s always an aspect of escapism to a period setting but I’ve also always wanted to do something in a historical media and for whatever reason, Regency is one of the big historical mediums in romance. I’ve always really liked it as a setting – you’ve got your gigs and curricles and duels.
I liked that the author’s note immediately addresses the fact that there are going to be some linguistic choices that are very modern. Again, how deliberate was that or, what led you to that?
My take on historical fiction, in general, is that I think it’s important, to be honest upfront. First of all, about the fact that it is not a historical book in the sense that it’s not from the period, it’s not written for an audience from the period. It would be completely pointless to try and write a book to appeal to people who all died 200 years ago. All historical fiction is ultimately modern fiction written by modern people for a modern audience. You can make different levels of concession or effort to invoke historicity and some people do a really good job of it but to me, particularly with this book, it was very much about using the historical setting as a frame to tell a fundamentally modern story for a fundamentally quite modern audience with quite modern sensibilities. I think using, straightforwardly, modern language communicates that nicely. I’m aware that sometimes people do find it a little bit jarring if people use things that sound modern in historically set stories. The reason for that is I think often the phrases that trick people’s “this sounds modern” alarms aren’t particularly modern but because we have such a strong idea of what pastimes, historical times should sound like. I thought it was worth finding where those ideas met.
How was it writing Bonny and Valentine? They’re such rich characters and then also, Belle is a storm of a character as well. Do you find yourself falling in love with the characters as you’re writing them?
That’s a difficult one. Because I’m British and reserved I don’t necessarily like talking about writing in that way. I love all my characters, obviously, I try to empathize even with the ‘extra’ ones and I really enjoy writing for them. I really love writing joyful people. I really love writing awful people. If you can do a mixture of those, that’s just really good fun for me. It was a joyful experience, genuinely, just because it’s so silly.
Did you have a favorite part in exploring their dynamic and relationship? It’s odd because I know it’s also just a part of the job but is there a character you found yourself really enjoying writing for? You said you like writing awful people and silly people, so was a character like Belle a highlight?
I honestly couldn’t pick a favorite. There are a lot of scenes I really like. I like the fact – and again, this is really silly [laughs] – that multiple scenes are just explicit Winnie the Pooh riffs. I really like the scene with the two spinster ladies as Valentine initially perceives them because it’s just so silly and fun and involves getting tied to a chair. I like Belle because I like people who are really, really extra and she is really, really extra. Though, I hope in a way people can sympathize with her.
I’m sure it’s different while writing but when I’m reading a book I’m envisioning them fully in my head – I’m casting actors even for certain characters. Is it the same when writing? When you start, do you have a full picture of who they are, what they look like?
It varies. It’s one of those funny ones where there are weird paranoia reasons where even if I model off a casting reference in my head I don’t talk about it because it feels weirdly presumptive. I think very often I am not, as anyone who has ever worked with me on a cover will know, I’m not a super visual person so often when it comes to looks I often tend to think in terms of icons and archetypes, is a way to think of it.
So Bonny and Belle just look like the heroines of the books they grew up reading. It was important for me for Valentine to be big. I try not to always go down the “hero is huge” route because I think that raises some complex questions about masculinity. But it was important to me that Valentine be big because one of the things that I was trying to convey was that part of Belle’s deal is that yes, she is just a young woman and she doesn’t want to get married and part of the reason she shoots Valentine, in the end, is because he can be a terrifying man. He’s incredibly rich, incredibly privileged and he’s huge. When they tie him to a chair he physically tears out of the chair and cracks one of their ribs and I did want to create that sense of someone who you could reasonably flee from if you were a bit prone to drama and if you just plain didn’t want to marry him.
I’m curious about your overall writing process. In the last few years, you’ve had Boyfriend Material, Rosaline Palmer Takes the Cake, and Something Fabulous and then you have three books coming out in 2022 alone. Is this just excellent time management?
No, it’s terrible time management. Basically, I’ve been doing this for about a decade. Because I just got to the point in my career now where people are just taking notice – some have been taking notice the whole time – but I’m aware that there was a big rush of offers in the wake of Boyfriend Material, and because I have profound insecurities there’s a voice in the back of my head saying “well, you’ve got to say yes to all of this because otherwise it will go away in two years and you will starve.” Basically I just really over-committed to a lot of things because a lot of opportunities came up where I thought “I actually do probably want to do all of this because I may not get the chance to do this again.” So basically, I don’t have a social life and I don’t sleep. Weirdly, one of the reasons I think I’m one of the people who have been able to make use of the pandemic time is because I’m a bit of an anti-social recluse anyway.
It is in some ways a bit of an excuse for me to carry on the way I’d been carrying on for a while. It’s genuinely not a pace that I think is sustainable but it’s a pace that I have wound up with out of essentially mortal fear of saying no to shit. I think a part of it is that extreme motivation works well and once you’ve got deadlines you’re like “well, I’ve got to do this, gonna find a way to do this, gonna find the motivation to do this.” I think so far it’s come out okay but at the end of 2022, I will sleep for a week and then reevaluate and probably go down to a more sane publishing schedule. Please do not learn from my schedule.
I’m skipping around a bit but with Rosaline Palmer Takes the Cake, on a personal note, I loved that there was bisexual representation with that character while she’s in a “heteronormative presenting” relationship. The LGBTQ themes in your books are crucial so how deliberate was the choice to make Rosaline bi in the book? Is it as simple as just deciding before writing that you want this representation?
I do think it’s very important to write for the full spectrum so I’ve written about gay men, lesbians, transmen, transwomen, non-binary people, so the character and her being a bisexual woman, there was a deliberateness to it because I was aware that I think Rosaline was the first protagonist person I’ve written who openly identified as bisexual. While I’d had other protagonists who fall under the bi umbrella they all either explicitly don’t use that term but identify as generically Queer and there are bi umbrella characters in some of my historical and fantasy works who don’t use that term because it’s not a term that exists in that universe. I did come to a point where I was like I haven’t written someone who openly identifies as bi. So it was a sort of conscious decision in that regard, as for that matter was very firmly narrowing my colors to bisexuals are bisexuals, even if they’re in heterosexual presenting relationships because I believe it’s an important thing to acknowledge.
One of the things that I wish was better about the world, something I felt quite strongly while writing “Rosaline”, was having to think in perhaps more than I would another character about what her relationship choices – the ones she makes and also the ones she’s presented with – say within the context of the wider discourse. I would love it if we lived in a world where we could write about a bi woman and she could be with whoever and her secondary interest could be whoever and it just wouldn’t be a big deal. I quite consciously wanted her to be in a straight presenting relationship. The love-triangle thing came in fairly early when I was thinking through what plot I wanted for a baking book and that raised a thorny question because I felt that if I had a love triangle where it was a guy and a girl well, first of all, it would seem like it would undermine the whole, yes, you’re still bisexual even if you’re only dating men thing. It felt like it would be implying that she needed to get with a girl on-page to be properly bi which I thought would seem a bit gross.
Similarly, if you’ve got a bisexual love triangle between a guy and a girl in the current social media, social context – whichever of the many choices available to you you go with, there are unfortunate implications. You pick the guy and you feel like you’re kind of choosing heterosexuality over homosexuality even though you’re not, it feels like that.
If she winds up with a girl, and perhaps this is just me, it feels like you’re reinforcing the notion that bisexuality is only valid if you ultimately end up in a same sex relationship or potentially feed into the notion that a relationship between two women is somehow better or more empowering than other relationships, which I find a bit difficult. That gets into a difficult trope and I think it’s something you can do unconsciously or reinforce unknowingly and that’s bad. If you wind up with the poly-route it really goes into the exact type of stereotypes of bisexual people that Alan in the book is operating on and then if she winds up with nobody you have the idea that bisexuals can’t be happy [laughs]. Thus I decided not to do all of that by having the two love interests be men. There’s also the fact that they’re both contestants on the show and just running with numbers it was far more likely that there were two attractive, straight men on the show than of the four other contestants, one of them was both her age and into girls and a part of the competition.
That makes sense and I just loved some of the comments like her pointing out that one of the hosts was attractive and Alan not getting her. I just loved that it was a fact of her and not like you said, a big thing other than how some other characters understood or didn’t understand it and I agree that we do need more of it.
It was a tricky line to walk though because you don’t want to make it a huge, big deal but also sometimes if you go the bisexual route and you don’t follow it through enough it can feel a bit like you’re bisexual in name only which is difficult as well. That itself is difficult because, for some people, like not all bi women are talking about how hot they find girls but I wanted to make sure there was at least enough of a throughline where it was a part of her identity and part of her story while also happening not to inform that narrative of the people she dates in the actual book.
You mentioned when we were talking about Something Fabulous that this was a genre that you had wanted to work in for a while. It seems like your work has covered a large number of genres already, but is there one that you haven’t tried yet that is calling to you?
I think I might genuinely run out! I would have said crime, but then I actually had a crime book come out last year. I’d like to do everything, it’s part of why my schedule is what it is. There are a couple of science fiction ideas I have that I think might be cool; one of the books I reread during my time during the pandemic was Moby Dick, and I would really like to do Moby Dick in space. It is one of those difficult things where you think about how can I do this while still being faithful to the original material while not including some of the more problematic elements of the original.
As someone with a fear of both outer space and the deep sea I have to say that just sounds terrifying.
Well hey, I suppose I haven’t actually done horror yet!
Boyfriend Material was one of the books that got me back into reading after a few years away, and it was one that very quickly became a household comfort book; it very quickly made its way to my husband, then my sister and is now over at a friend’s house. Is there anything you’ve read recently that you’d want to have everyone you know to read and share in whatever it is you’re currently loving?
I see what you mean, but I have no social life. I do post on Goodreads though! There is however a really nice and sappy rom-com coming out this year called Delilah Green Doesn’t Care by Ashley Herring Blake and it has that lovely and classic premise where a jaded person ends up in their small hometown for a wedding and they learn to reevaluate themselves. It has that mixture of that trope – a great one I might add – and Bridesmaids-style wedding hijinks.
I read on your blog that you are doing a Jane Austen marathon. As someone who is an avid list-maker of all the things I’d love to someday catch up on, I’m curious if this is for research or enjoyment, or as a writer is it a case where you can’t even separate the two?
Because I am a nerd I am also a project person, a list person, a blog person.There was something I did a few years ago for my blog where I watched everything Hugh Grant had been in chronological order and that was something I wanted to do for myself. Plus I had been wanting to re-watch Notting Hill, although I did have to wait a while for that one; he was in a lot of stuff in the 80s. I had thought about what I might do as a follow-up for that and ended up doing all the Austen adaptations.
I’ve done the 1940s Pride and Prejudice adaptation where they’re all dressed like it was Gone With the Wind, and Mary Bennet is the most awkward person in the world and the actress who played her is still alive. I just finished doing the 1971 Sense and Sensibility which is kind of fabulous in a different way. It is just a nice way to give myself something to do to get around how in this media-saturated world you often find yourself sitting in front of three different streaming services, plus two you’re on a free month trial for, looking at everything, and still not knowing what out of these million things to watch.
Then on Twitter and social media you find out you’re behind the curve or zeitgeist because I’m not watching all of these exact things at once. So I just thought, you know, fuck it, I’m going to accept that I can’t keep up with the modern world and I am going to go back and watch something of everything starting back at 1940.
I may not write fiction but I do understand the love/hate relationship writers can develop with their work, so I was wondering if there was something that gets you through the other end of that process. Other than that fear of failure and missing out on new opportunities, what keeps you going to push through writer’s block and screen headaches?
As you said, I genuinely do love doing it. One of the nice things about having the absurd schedule I’ve got is that I tend not to get too much writer’s block, and as long as the deadlines aren’t jumbled between projects it’s a good way to clear it. For the hate side of the relationship, the thing I usually say when I get asked about the single thing I find most difficult in writing is how to have a character walk from a door to a window. I’ve never had one of those, oh no, my soul has gone dry, what shall happen next in the grand narrative or that help, I’ve lost my muse thing.
What I have had is okay, so this character is standing by the door and I need to get them to the window and now I need a way to express that that isn’t ‘they went from standing by the door to standing by the window.’ Then you just sit there for like an hour endlessly iterating on this completely pointless sentence just trying to find a way to make it so it doesn’t sound really generic and derivative. Ironically those are the kind of things most readers just kind of gloss over anyway! The books that people find funny are the ones I genuinely do enjoy working on like that though, where I can spend a long time thinking in-depth about how to make a joke come across as funny as can be, and I hope that comes across.
Something Fabulous was released on January 25, 2022