Welcome to my weekly Author Spotlight. I’ve asked a bunch of my author friends to answer a set of interview questions, and to share their latest work.
Today, A.L. Lester – Writer of queer, paranormal, historical, romantic suspense. Lives in the South West of England with Mr AL, two children, a badly behaved dachshund, a terrifying cat and some hens. Likes gardening but doesn’t really have time or energy. Not musical. Doesn’t much like telly. Non-binary. Chronically disabled. Has tedious fits.
Thanks so much, A.L., for joining me!
Hello everyone! Thank you so much to Scott for having me here today. I am the world’s absolute worse person at the moment and completely forgot to return my questions, so I’m slinking in the door with my had hanging in shame. These are really cool questions and it’s been a delight to answer them!
J. Scott Coatsworth: LOL… you made it in plenty of time, and I’m thrilled to have you.
Do you use a pseudonym? If so, why? If not, why not?
A.L. Lester: Yes, I do. I’m sort of closeted in my meat-life and I live in a little village in the middle of nowhere. Although I don’t really mind people knowing what I write, I’m pretty open about my life online and having that modesty-blanket of a pen-name was comforting to start with when I was less confident. Ally is a nickname I’ve used before and Ally Lester just seemed right. Also, I decided on Lester as a pen-name when I was about twelve and I didn’t want to disappoint past-me.
JSC: Do you ever base your characters on real people? If so, what are the pitfalls you’ve run into doing so?
ALL: I’ve done it once, with a half-finished post-plague-apocalypse thing I began about five years ago and ground to a halt with well before covid struck. It’s shelved now, possible for good, but the hero was based on a good friend of mine. I asked him first and I think he was flattered, but also slightly freaked out because obviously it was a romance and obviously there would therefore be shagging. I probably won’t do it again!
JSC: How long do you write each day?
ALL: At the moment I try and write for two for three hours in fifteen minute sprints. My friends Nell Iris, Ofelia Grand and JM Snyder and I have a loose arrangement where we meet in a chat-room in the early morning European time and work together. It’s hell to get up and start, but it’s great once I’ve begun. It’s really encouraging to have that peer support.
JSC: What is the most heartfelt thing a reader has said to you?
ALL: Just recently, a reader told me that they are rereading Taking Stock as a comfort read. No-one has ever said that before and it was a lovely feeling!
JSC: What are your least favorite parts of publishing?
ALL: Blurbs. Writing blurbs. I hates ‘em, I does. You’ve spent fifty thousand words telling a story. How can you possibly distill that down into three paragraphs and end it with a question? Particularly for romance. I mean…it’s got to have a happy ending, else it’s not a romance, is it? Will xyz solve their issues and get together with abc? Of course they flipping will! It’s a romance!
So, yes. I think it’s fair to say I don’t like that bit.
JSC: How did you choose the topic for The Hunted and the Hind?
ALL: It’s the last book in a trilogy, so it was a bit of a no-brainer really. The first in trilogy, Lost in Time, was the first book I’d ever written or published and I wasn’t terribly sure what it was. A time-travel story? A detective story? A romance? It was a bit of a splat-on-the-page type of thing to write and the ending was definitely Happy-For-Now rather than Happy-Ever-After. So the sequel, Shadows on the Border, was supposed to deal with all of that. And although it took Alec and Lew, to a happy ending, I managed to introduce another pairing, between Fenn, the hunter from beyond the border, and Will Grant, Alec’s deputy. This is the trouble with discovery writing. The characters just get away from you and take on a life of their own. Shadows ended with Will and Fenn disappearing, probably back to Fenn’s world.
I left them there for a bit and got on with other stuff, but they were nagging at me constantly. I had several goes at drafting out what was happening to them, which involved a lot of world-building of Fenn’s Outlands and their people, the Frem. However, none of that stuck. I was unhappy writing a fantasy novel as the third in a trilogy that was basically historical. I ended up chopping out about a third of the otherworldly stuff and getting them back to our world as soon as I could, because that chimed much more cohesively with the preceding storyline.
Both and Will and Fenn had a lot of angst around their respective siblings, so it seemed very natural to me that the focus of the book should be around that.
JSC: What were your goals and intentions in this book, and how well do you feel you achieved them?
ALL: I wanted to bring the series to a satisfactory conclusion and tie up all the loose ends I’d left hanging all over the place at the end of Shadows. It’s really hard to write a happy-ever-after ending for a story set in the inter-war years; or I find it so, anyway. World War Two is this big, looming problem on the horizon, overshadowing everything. I found myself counting all the time…. We’re in 1924, that means they’ve only got fifteen years. What are they going to do in the coming war? Will they still be working? Will they still be together? Will they have been outed and imprisoned? Will they end up dead in the London Blitz?
However, setting that aside, I think I managed what I set out to do. I feel like it’s a rounded, balanced series of three books with an over-arching thread running through them all.
I was very green when I started the first book and I think the development of the story probably shows that. However, I do feel like I managed to tie it all up satisfactorily. And I learned never to start a series without at least having a vague idea of what’s going to happen in each book!
JSC: What secondary character would you like to explore more? Tell me about him or her.
ALL: Okay, I’m going to blatantly cheat with this one. I have a novella called Inheritance of Shadows (that has actually just come out in audio, plug plug!). It’s sent in rural England in 1919, in the Lost in Time universe, with paranormal shenanigans and gay romance and what-not. And it has a secondary character called Sylvia Marks, who I love so much she is getting her own trilogy. She’s a doctor and she was part of the women’s medical effort in France in the First World War. She’s come home to take up her father’s medical practice in the village, but she’s haunted by the mysterious disappearance of her ambulance-driver lover in France in 1917. She wears trousers and rides a motorcycle and can do field blood transfusions and is generally extremely forthright and amazing. Imagine a young Miss Marple, but gay.
JSC: What are some day jobs that you have held? If any of them impacted your writing, share an example.
ALL: Erk. I have a long list. I grew up on a smallholding and the first thing I ever did to earn money was keep hens and sell the eggs at the local market. And I baked cakes and sold there as well—that’s how I got my pocket money until I left home to for college. And then I learned to type and became a Very Expensive Secretary ™. I used to do a lot of temping, because I did an archaeology degree and quite frankly unless you want to live in a tent and smoke a pipe, the career opportunities are limited. At once point—we’re talking the early 90’s—I was the only person in town who could use a spreadsheet and I was getting an exorbitant hourly rate. Then I went back to college and did a course in Geographical Information Systems and had a few years working for a big telecoms company doing that; but I got bored of wearing a suit to work and also got poorly. So I swapped back to admin for a bit and then ended up teaching Computers for the Terrified in community education centres locally. Then I met Mr AL and swapped to work with him doing technical audio-visual stuff for conferences., which was fun, but incompatible with pregnancy. People get really upset when you try and climb ladders with a bump. So at that point I went back to breeding babies and hens and got another market stall to sell eggs and started writing. The oldest kid is thirteen now, and here I am.
I think everyone you meet and every situation you come across is food for your writer-brain.
JSC: What qualities do you and your characters share? How much are you like them, or how different are they from you?
ALL: I’m writing a lot of non-binary characters at the moment, which is obviously a similarity. It’s nice to be able to give that part of myself an airing, because it’s not something I get to do in my meat-life very much. And my characters tend to be mature—I don’t find it as easy to write characters in their twenties as I once did.
And now for A.L.’s new book: The Hunted and the Hind:
Sequel to Shadows on the Border
Inadvertently tumbling through the border after Fenn and then thrown into the middle of the internecine political disputes of their people, Sergeant Will Grant of the Metropolitan Police has spent three months in prison in the Underhalls of the Frem. When Fenn comes to free him and return him home through the border, he has very little time to work out what’s going on before the sudden appearance of Fenn’s missing younger sibling Keren throws Fenn for a loop.
Instead of returning them to London as planned, the trio step through the border to the Egyptian desert. Once they work out where they are, it’s a two week trip back to England with the possibility of pursuit both onboard ship and when they reach home.
Will the journey give Fenn and Will time to resolve the feelings they have been dancing around since the day they met? How will they keep Keren from recapture by the faction who tried to persuade Fenn they were dead? And has Will’s friend Alec forgiven Fenn for lying about their motives when they first traveled to London four months ago?
“Can I ride the one over there, please, Will Grant?” Keren called across the yard, pointing at a creature with a white stripe down its face that they’d become enamored of earlier.
Will Grant nodded and came across the courtyard toward them. “You may. That was my intention, anyway.” They looked at Fenn. “Do you have animals you ride in the Outlands?” they asked.
Fenn stroked Olive’s nose. “Not like these,” they said. “These are beautiful creatures. We sometimes ride the antacas we use for pack animals. Some people breed them for meat, too. They have horns and a very sharp spine. And are extremely bad-tempered. They’re smaller than these, though. Bumpy.”
Will Grant leaned against the stable door next to Fenn, as Keren took themselves across the yard to quiz the horse-keeper. He rubbed at Olive’s ears absently. “You’re not bumpy, are you girl? No-one would dream of accusing you of such a dreadful thing!”
The horse shook its head and buffeted Will Grant’s stomach. He staggered a little against Fenn’s side and blew out a laugh. It was very strange to see them like this, out of their city clothes, in what Fenn assumed were special clothes for riding. The humans seemed to have a variety of different clothes for each task, rather than sensible clothing that would serve for most things. Here in private, both Fenn and Keren had donned the extra clothes made for them in Port Said, patterned more or less on their usual loose trousers and robes.
It was even stranger to see Will laugh like this. After the conversation with their parent this morning, Will had seemed to let go of a little of the tension that had gathered round them since this trip had been mooted. It was a nice look on them, Fenn decided. Underneath it all was the tension and sadness that was Will’s permanent signature. But a little of that had eased. Fenn wondered what it would take to ease the rest of it.
“Come on, then,” Will Grant said, straightening. “Let’s get Keren up and we can go out for a wander through the woods and down to the lake. And once we’re there we can try our kias out near the water. We’re lucky Mama has kept the stable going, with no-one but her here to ride.” He glanced around. “The men coming home needed the work.”
Fenn nodded. “Your parent is a good person,” they said, cautiously. “They reminded me of Ana. Very…,” they searched for an accurate, polite word.
Will Grant laughed. “Very, yes,” they said. Their eyes had softened. “I haven’t done right by her,” they said. “I’ve been too wrapped up in my own head. I should have come home before.”
“It doesn’t sound like you were ready,” Fenn replied. “Home is a difficult place to be, sometimes.”
Will Grant shook their head. “But still. She’s my mother and she lost all of us. Father died a few years before the war and she missed him dreadfully. It was a love match, I think. They spent a lot of time together, anyway.”
Both of them were leaning against the stable door now, talking quietly whilst they watched the bustle as the horse-keepers got animals out for them all to ride.
“Is that not always the case, here?” Fenn asked, curiously.
Will looked at them over Olive’s nose. “For Mama’s generation, not always. Sometimes, marrying well is more important than whether you have strong feelings for your potential partner. Making the marriage and producing children is the thing, you see.”
Fenn looked at him.
“Not for me,” they hastened to add. “Mama has given up trying to marry me off. She made it clear this morning that she has no expectations in that direction at all.” They hesitated. “She said, you are welcome to visit here, too. She knows that I…have feelings…for you.”
Fenn was silent for a moment. “I would be honored to visit them,” they said. “Whether or not you have feelings for me, Will Grant.” They felt the shiver of embarrassment in Will’s kias. Humans did not talk about this sort of thing, apparently. Probably because most of them didn’t have kias and had to articulate everything verbally. It was very graceless and left a lot of room for misunderstanding. How did people without any kias at all between them manage?
They gently opened the edges of their kias to Will Grant and allowed their own feelings to be felt. Admiration, friendship, desire, love. All of it. Will glanced over and smiled, clearly picking some of it up without even trying to reach back.
The two of them stood against the door in amicable silence until the chief horse-keeper called across the yard, “Ready, Mr William? I’ve got Peter tacked up for you, here!”
Will Grant started. “Coming, Ralph. Thank you.