Blog tour: Q&A with Alis Hawkins

Book spotlight

None So Blind
Alis Hawkins
The Dome Press

15th November, 2018

None So Blind by Alis Hawkins is a stunning historical crime novel, which I have had the pleasure to read and ask Alis questions about!

Hi Alis, thank you for agreeing to answer some questions about your book and writing for my stop on the blog tour. I am excited for the beginning of a new historical mystery series which is thrilling and gothic.

Thanks for having me, Sophie – I’m delighted that Romantics, Rebels and Reviews is part of the blog tour for None So Blind.

Firstly, give me a bit of background about yourself and how it influenced the nature of this book.

I was brought up on a dairy farm in the Teifi Valley where the book is set. Our farmhouse’s windows look out on three counties – the farm is in Cardiganshire, Carmarthenshire’s to the south and the Preseli Hills of Pembrokeshire rise to the west. Like my central character, Harry Probert-Lloyd, I grew up speaking both Welsh and English and, until I left to go to university, didn’t ever stop to ask myself which I identified with more. Identity and the way it’s affected by birth, upbringing and circumstance is very much at the heart of the book as Harry’s insistence that social hierarchies are meaningless and that all men can be equal causes havoc amongst those he is closest to. And, as he fears when her remains are found, his attitudes and the actions they lead to, have played their part in the death of Margaret Jones.

What have you tried writing previously, and how did you come to write a historical mystery series?
I’ve been writing fairly continuously for over twenty years. My first published book, Testament, was published by Macmillan in 2008 under the Macmillan New Writing imprint. The deal with MNW was that they bought the book in hand and had first refusal on your next work. My editor didn’t like the book I’d almost finished by the time Testament was acquired and, by the time I was well into the next one, the imprint had folded and my editor had moved into writing non-fiction. Without a publisher, I was back to the drawing board (or, more accurately, the slush pile).

As for why I decided to start writing historical crime, Testament was set during the fourteenth century, a time I’m particularly fascinated by. I’d always loved reading crime fiction but had assumed that you needed to be a fearsome plotter to be a crime author. However, things changed when I heard Ian Rankin being interviewed on Radio 4. ‘I never plan my books,’ he said. ‘I never know who’s done it. All I know is, there’s been a murder and Rebus will find out who’s responsible.’ Fine, I thought, if Ian Rankin can write crime books without plotting, I’ll give it a go. I’d always wanted to write a book which was set during the Rebecca Riots, so I decided to combine the two. A period of riots, rebellion and insurrection is a great time to hide a murder. And the aftermath, when everybody’d rather not think (or talk) about what they’ve done, is a difficult, and
therefore interesting, time to be have somebody investigate that murder.

Can you explain how this series is unique in the world of crime thrillers?

As far as I’m aware, nobody else is writing crime fiction set in nineteenth century Wales. Or, indeed, in any historical period in Wales! Also, my investigator, Harry Probert-Lloyd, is blind. Well, partially sighted. He has a condition called Stargardt’s disease – juvenile macular degeneration – which means he can’t see anything in the centre of his vision where fine detail gets processed. He can only see things in his peripheral vision
where things are a bit indistinct and muted. (Humans don’t have as many cones – the colour-vision retinal cells – in our peripheral vision.) So he can’t really see or analyse faces unless they’re right next to him and he can’t read or look at things closely.

Finally, I hope I approach crime fiction set in a previous er in a bit of a different way. I didn’t want the series to be too heavily historical, to groan and creak with all the research I’d done, all the ‘look
how different it was then’ detail. So I made myself a promise – I’d only describe things like clothing or furnishings if I would choose to do the same thing in a contemporary novel. And descriptions of landscape are never there as simple background – they’re always doing something extra, whether it’s Harry trying to remember what things look like and being frustrated when he can’t, or John, his side-kick, looking out from the top of a hill and thinking how cold is its with the wind blowing at him.

How many books do you anticipate in this series?

The second – In Two Minds – will be published next May and I’ve already written the third, due for publication in May 2020. After that, I certainly have ideas for another two and I hope the ideas will carry on coming. I’m as interested to see how the characters grow and change and how relationships between them develop as I am in their investigation of sudden deaths in the Teifi Valley as the Coroner and his officer.

Will all of the books in the series have the same main character, or do you plan to switch it up and why?
Harry Probert-Lloyd and John Davies will be the central investigating duo in all the books, though other characters – like the eccentric Dr Benton Reckitt who is introduced in In Two Minds – will also be developed. And there will be some what you might call romantic interest as time goes on, too. As an avid reader of crime, I know I like to get to know characters and see them developing and changing. So, for me, it’s going to be important that readers see Harry and John’s relationship develop along with their complementary sleuthing skills. But I’ll also be introducing new characters
to provide interest and conflict.

How did you go about researching such a neglected historical time period?

It was difficult, particularly because I started researching the Rebecca Riots almost twenty years ago when the internet wasn’t the vast research machine it is today. I started by reading all the books I could find on the Riots. They provided me with different things – an academic study, more of a tabloid take and an almost contemporary account, written by somebody who had interviewed surviving rioters. You can also read – if you can get to one of the copyright libraries – all the despatches written by the Thomas Campbell Foster of The Times, the world’s first investigative reporter who was ‘embedded’ with a Rebecca band and wrote largely sympathetic reports. Once I’d digested the books and some of Foster’s reports, it was a case of finding information which wasn’t directly linked to the riots but had a bearing on life in the area at the time. So there are descriptions of the way people lived in the writings of travellers at the time, there are memoirs and diaries of contemporary people who lived in the area and huge tomes like the ‘Report on the State of Education in Wales, 1847’ also known in Wales as ‘the Treason of the Blue Books’ which goes into huge detail about the way Welsh communities lived in the late 1840s. Ceredigion County Council’s online museum collection was also a fantastic resource for everyday objects, their uses and construction.

Can you give us some end of the year/2019 book recommendations?

I’m a big fan of Ann Cleeves’s Shetland series. The latest in the series, Wild Fire, recently published in hardback, will be the last so that’s a must for me. Liane Moriarty writes a very different kind of crime novel – not least because hers are set in Australia – but they are every bit as compelling as Jimmy Perez’s Shetland adventures. The most recent, Nine Perfect Strangers, is out now. And if you fancy something set in Wales, try Rosie Claverton’s latest – Hard Return – featuring her cyber-sleuth Amy Lane and her ex-con sidekick Jason Carr. If this one tickles your fancy you can have the pleasure of reading the first four in the series to see how Amy and Jason got into the pickle we
find them in!

What are you working on right now?
Two things – I’m polishing the third in the Teifi Valley Coroner series, ready to send off to my publisher at The Dome Press next year (working title, Those Who Can) and I’m writing the second in a medieval trilogy which will be published by a different publisher, next year. Swapping between the fourteenth and nineteenth centuries keeps things interesting!

Thank you so much for participating in this Q&A as part of my stop on the blog tour. I look forward to reviewing your book!

Thanks for having me, Sophie and I hope you enjoy None So Blind.

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