I’m very pleased to welcome Neil Alexander today. His debut novel The Vanishing of Margaret Small has been getting a ‘lorra, lorra‘ love and that will make sense when you read what it’s about!
Ten Things about Neil Alexander
I worked for Mencap, the learning disability charity, for 12 years, which is when the idea for Margaret Small first came to me. I used to book the bands for their series of acoustic benefit gigs called Little Noise Sessions, curated by Radio 2 DJ, Jo Whiley. The sessions took place in November each year, in the beautiful Union Chapel in Islington, attracting huge names: Adele, U2, The Killers, Coldplay, Katy Perry. It was a very magical, creative time for me, and it felt like anything was possible. One day, it was either 2007 or 2008, I was on a break backstage at the chapel, and this voice popped into my head. It was a woman telling me about how she had to learn to travel on public transport, and the challenges she faced. I scribbled a few words down on paper. These words turned out to be the beginning of Margaret’s voice.
Music is a huge part of my writing process. I can’t listen to music while I’m sat at my desk writing, but I like to create playlists for each book (sometimes even for each character). I listen to these on plot walks. Often, I find that songs help me get to the heart of whatever emotion I’m trying to convey.
Margaret Small is a Cilla Black superfan and it was only when I was researching Cilla for the book, that I really began to appreciate what a phenomenal singer she was. Like a lot of people from my generation (I was born in the mid-1970s), she was best known for being an entertainer on ITV, where she presented big, weekend primetime shows, like Blind Date and Surprise, Surprise. It was in the sixties, however, that she made her name, as a singer. She has an incredible back catalogue of music, and I would encourage readers will check some of her songs out, as they are reading the book.
It took me six years to land a UK publishing deal for ‘The Vanishing of Margaret Small’ (the book sold in Italy and Germany, in translation, first). Over the years, I’ve learned to accept that rejection is simply part of the publishing process. Back in 2015, I submitted a partial of my manuscript to a handful of literary agents, all of whom rejected it. As cliched as it sounds, the trick is to keep going. Eventually, some of those agents may give you feedback. Listen to what they’re saying – and learn from it.
First drafts are always dreadful. I tend to write mine very quickly, over a short period of time, no longer than 6-8 weeks. I set my alarm for 6am every morning over the school holidays (I’m a teacher) and write until lunchtime. It’s an intense way of working, but it means I keep a firm grasp of the story’s thread.
When it comes to plotting, I’m a panster, not a planner. At the start of a project, I usually have a vague idea where I’m going, but I like my characters to surprise me. It keeps the writing alive.
I’m not a fan of overly flowery writing, so you won’t find pages and pages of description in my work. Simple language can be just as powerful.
‘The Vanishing of Margaret Small’ is, in part, a love song to Whitstable in Kent. I moved here at that tail end of the pandemic, having lived in the town as a student back in the nineties. Most of the book, however, was written during the twenty-year period I was living in London, and it was the process of writing about Whitstable that made me fall in love with it all over again. I like to think that I wrote my way home.
I was born and raised in Northern Ireland, during the height of ‘the troubles.’ At the time, when I was growing up, I can’t say I was overly aware of violence. Like everyone else, I got used to seeing armed soldiers patrolling the streets. It’s only when I look back, that I realise what an unusual place it was, to spend my childhood. I’ve been revisiting this period in my life for my second novel, which comes out later in 2023.
If I wasn’t an author, I would’ve loved to have been a radio DJ. Sadly though, there weren’t many opportunities for young people in Northern Ireland when I was growing up, and I lacked confidence. I was one of those kids who used to sit in the bedroom with a tape recorder, making my own radio shows, with my teddy bears lined up in a row, as pretend listeners.
The Vanishing of Margaret Small is published by Embla Books and
available now on digital, paperback and audiobook.
Buying link: The Vanishing of Margaret Small
More about the book
Meet Margaret Small: 75, plain spoken, Whitstable native and a Cilla Black super fan. Shortly after the death of her idol, Margaret begins receiving sums of money in the post, signed simply ‘C’.
She is convinced it must be Cilla, but how can it be? To solve the mystery of her benefactor Margaret must go back in her memories almost 70 years, to the time when she was ‘vanished’ to a long-stay institution for children with learning disabilities.
An absorbing and page-turning mystery with a dual timeline, The Vanishing of Margaret Small takes readers into a fascinating past, and introduces an unforgettable literary heroine.