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.
Thanks so much, A. L., for joining me!
JSC: How would you describe your writing style/genre?
ALL: Very difficult to categorise is probably the kindest phrase people seem to use most when they talk about my books. Oh, and very niche. I think of the Lost in Time books as queer–historical-paranormal-romantic-suspenseand I’ve been using that as a marketing strapline for a while because it just seems to cover everything. I take pride in my historical research for each book – in particular The Flowers of Time took me ages to write because it was a completely new historical period for me. Many years ago now I did a degree in history and archaeology and I still think of myself as a historian, which is probably makes me a bit up myself for clinging to it after all this time (do Americans say ‘up myself’ or is it British?) but it does mean that I become obsessive about things like getting the style of the lamps right and did they actually wear knickers under those wide skirts? Plus, everything I write seems to end up with a big splosh of the paranormal in there. I’m trying to write a 1970s historical romance with no funny business at the moment and I’ve got a sneaking suspicion that there’s mysterious sounds in the night on the horizon. Someone once described one of my stories as pretentious and full of unnecessary words and not enough romance and I guess… they probably do have lots of words? And the romance is not the main plot-driver. I definitely don’t see myself as writing specifically in the MM-romance genre, which seems to be the place a lot of writers of gay romance place themselves. Some of my books are MM, yes, but I definitely see myself as writing queer stories, rather than romance per se.
JSC: Do you ever base your characters on real people? If so, what are the pitfalls you’ve run into doing so?
ALL: One of my characters in a work in progress I’ve had on the go for ages is based around a lovely friend of mine who fit the bill perfectly for the sort of superficially sanguine but underneath very highly strung personality I needed. I asked him if it was all right to use him and he was both flattered and slightly scared. The whole thing is on hold now because it’s a post-pandemic-apocalypse story and I’ve just lost my enthusiasm for the whole thing. Every so often my friend pings me and asks how it’s going and is disappointed when I say I’m still jammed. The work in progress I am actually working on – and am hoping to get out for the end of July – has a disabled farmer who has suffered a stroke. Some of his experiences and frustrations are based on those my Mama suffers – she had a serious stroke in November and is very angry that she can no longer farm her own smallholding. I guess I’m working out my feelings about both that and my own inability to work my own garden and look after my own livestock through my writing.
JSC: Do you read your book reviews? How do you deal with bad or good ones?
ALL: I try not to read them. I’m a big believer in reviews being for readers not authors. Plus, before I got a contract for Lost in Time with JMS Books, I self-published it, without an editor. It was a very steep learning curve in all sorts of ways and some of the reviews were brutal – some deservedly, some (I like to think!) a bit less so. I learned very quickly after that to protect my own mental health and to a) not look at them and b) if I do look at them not to take them personally. I can deal fine with people not like liking the books or thinking they don’t hang together, all that stuff – who likes everything, after all and there is always something to criticize about everything! – but there are a tiny handful of people who make it a personal thing rather than reviewing the work and that can be very painful. If I do get sucked in and read them, I never, ever respond unless I’m tagged in, to say thank you; and people tend to only tag you in if they have positive things to say, thankfully. I also have all my titles as muted phrases on twitter so I don’t accidentally come across things.
JSC: Are you a plotter or a pantster?
ALL: I’m a pantser. I get a scene pop in to my head and then I throw about 30k words at the page, and then there’s a story. I use Scrivener, so I write in small chunks that I can move around easily. Once I’m at the 30k point I usually have an idea of what is actually going on and who my characters are, so I start at the beginning again and fill in the gaps. I think that shows with Lost in Time – first book and all that – but the others I’m much happier with, particularly The Flowers of Time and Inheritance of Shadows. However… back in January I did #5DaysTo20k with Tasha L. Harrison, where you start off with a blurb – you literally write your blurb – and develop the characters and story from that. You do that the week before and then you spend five days writing 4k a day. I didn’t manage the 20k, but I did get to 10k and my current, untitled WIP is the result. I want to give it a go again this coming week, but I’m not sure I’m going to have the time.
JSC: How do you combine all the different worlds of your life in your works?
ALL: Apparently I just write and my life creeps in to my stories. I’m a bit spooky in my real life and the Border and the way the energy works is reminiscent of my experience working with energy and energy moving around. My experience and realization about being non-binary informs the character of Jones in The Flowers of Time. Laurie in my current work in progress is extremely frustrated at not being able to work his own farm because of his disability – those feelings of his are mine, and also incorporate a bit of my mother’s current situation. All these years people have been telling me write what you know, write what you know and I thought I’d need to write bucolic stories about making bacon from scratch or how best to kill a chicken. I had no idea I had other things to write about. It came as a bit of a shock.
JSC: How did you choose the topic for The Flowers of Time?
ALL: I saw a photo-article of plant collectors from Kew Gardens in the foothills of the Himalayas in about 1920, with old fashioned tents and horses and what-not. I grew up on a horticultural nursery and my Mama went to a Crazy Ladies Horticultural College in the 1950s and worked for a little while at the Botanic Gardens in Dublin, so I come from a plant-y of background. It all sort of came together in my head and exploded out as a story. Initially I was going to set it in the 1920 and tie it in a bit more strongly with Lost in Time, but the characters fought me and I ended up in 1780.
JSC: What secondary character from The Flowers of Time would you like to explore more? Tell me about him or her.
ALL: I have a sequel to Flowers planned around Bennett Carruthers, the East India Company captain who is recording the geography of the Himalayas and looking for cost-effective routes across the mountains between India and China for his masters. He has a bit of a thing going for Henry Merton, Edie’s brother, who is also traveling with Edie and Jones as a botanist. I want to write more books with MCs who are not cis men, so I’ve kind of got Bennett and Henry on the back-burner at the moment, despite being invested in their story. I might go ahead and do it anyway before all my historical research for the period slips out of my head.
JSC: As a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?
ALL: A writer. I planned never to marry and to live in a cottage with a duckpond, a lot of ducks and geese, some goats and chickens, a productive vegetable garden and a polyamorous web of visiting lovers (although I didn’t have a word for that, then). I have achieved some of these things and not others. I like to leave it to people to guess the specifics!
JSC: If you had the opportunity to live one year of your life over again, which year would you choose, and why?
ALL: The year Littlest was born – 2008. I’d like to do it again without the post-natal depression, please. We call it The Year of Hell as a nod to Star-Trek Voyager. We had one tiny baby, I was pregnant again, our business went bankrupt because a big client hung us out to dry and we lost our house and had nowhere to live three weeks before Littlest was born in the October, Mr AL’s parents went a bit bats and were quite unpleasant to us, my Pa died, two friends in their forties dropped dead suddenly and through it all I was so depressed I couldn’t stay with the baby by myself without constantly crying. It was grim. It would have been much less grim without the hormonal fluctuations and I’d have been much less permanently scarred, I think.
JSC: What meds are you supposed to be taking?
ALL: I’m adding this in as an extra eleventh question that Scott can delete if he doesn’t have the space, because there’s still far too much stigma around depression and there should be no shame in taking meds to balance your brain chemistry. I take a SSRI in a moderate dose and I have for nearly twenty years. Sometimes more and sometimes less than I am at the moment. I also take meds for fibromyalgia.
JSC: What are you working on now?
ALL: I’m half way through a book set in the early 1970s. It’s set on Webber’s Farm, the same as Inheritance of Shadows and the characters in that book are referenced, but there’s probably not going to be any paranormal aspect to it. It’s the story of Laurie, a 30-something farmer who had an unexpected stroke and now cannot work his own farm without help. That help comes in the unexpected form of Phil, a disgraced 40-something stockbroker who is hiding out in the country and nursing a bruised ego caused when his younger boyfriend committed fraud and framed him. It’s about found family and asking for help when you need it and working with your limitations to find a happy ending. It’ll be out at the end of July if I get my act together. You can find a map of the farm on my website, drawn by the lovely and talented Elin Gregory.
And now for A. L.’s latest book: The Flowers of Time:
Jones is determined to find out what caused the unexpected death of her father whilst they were exploring ancient ruins in the Himalayas. Along with a stack of books and coded journals, he’s left her with the promise she’ll travel back to England for the first time since childhood and try being the lady she’s never been.
Edie and her brother are leaving soon on a journey to the Himalayas to document and collect plants for the new Kew Gardens when she befriends Miss Jones in London. She’s never left England before and is delighted to learn the lady will be returning to the mountains she calls home at the same time they are planning their travels. When they meet again in Srinagar, Edie is surprised to find that, out here, the Miss Jones of the London salons is “just Jones” the explorer, clad in breeches and boots and unconcerned with the proprieties Edie has been brought up to respect.
The non-binary explorer and the determined botanist make the long journey over the high mountain passes to Little Tibet, collecting flowers and exploring ruins on the way. Will Jones discover the root of the mysterious deaths of her parents? Will she confide in Edie and allow her to help in the quest? The trip is fraught with dangers for both of them, not least those of the heart.
Edie was still washing when she heard the commotion. The sheep and goats were making a dreadful racket, baaing and wailing much louder than she had ever heard them, even when they were on the move. Then the herd dogs joined in, giving tongue like Edie had never heard before. She didn’t have her stays on. Or her chemise. Or anything. She hastily pulled her dress over her head, grabbed up the pistol she kept by her camp bed and dashed out toward the noise in her bare feet, hair flying.
She ran without a thought. She didn’t know where anyone else was, but she assumed Henry and Bennett and the young men had already started the day of surveying they had planned last night. She and Jones had discussed riding out to look at the ruined caravanseri they had glimpsed from the hilltop yesterday as they were riding down into the valley, but Jones was usually up and about well before Edie emerged from her tent each morning, as were her men.
When she reached the little flock of sheep and goats, she stopped in horror. She wasn’t at first able to make out what she was seeing, but then it came into focus sharply, with scents and sounds and colors. There was a tiger in among the goats. It was eating one of them. Margery, the leader of the herd. The three herd dogs were going berserk, barking and making short forays toward the tiger, before backing off again. The goats couldn’t get away because they were tied. The tiger was sat in the middle of them, with its kill. It was peaceably eating Margery for breakfast.
Edie screamed. The dogs barked. Distantly she heard voices shouting, but they were a long way away.
The tiger looked at her. Or perhaps through her. It had big, black, bottomless eyes and looked annoyed that she had disturbed its breakfast. It stood up, ponderously, and growled. If anything, its eyes became darker and more menacing.
“I really don’t want your breakfast,” Edie said. “I liked Margery, I’m not going to eat her.” The dogs were still barking like mad.
The tiger growled again, sniffing the air. It took a step forward.
Edie raised the pistol. She was pretty handy with it now. Henry had made her practice and practice at home before they had set out on their journey. She could shoot a musket as well, although she wasn’t very good at loading. Her pistol was loaded. Henry had said that it was dangerous to keep a firearm loaded but that at night, fumbling in the dark to load one if the camp was attacked would take too long and might get her killed. Generally speaking, Henry had been very brutal in his explanations before he had agreed to bring her along. Edie spared a brief second to be grateful to her brother, although not too grateful, because a proper brother would be here at this point defending her from the tiger.
The tiger took a step forward. Edie said “I really don’t want to shoot you. Please take Margery and go away.”
The tiger growled some more.
Edie swallowed. She was going to have to shoot it. She had no idea how easy it was to kill a tiger, but she had a vague idea that shooting it and missing or shooting it and only wounding it would be a bad outcome.
It had Margery’s blood all around its mouth and down its front. It looked like it was a male tiger. It had a beard and lots of muscle. It was very large and its eyes were completely black. It probably came up somewhere between her waist and her shoulder. She really hoped it wasn’t going to kill her and eat her. She didn’t have her stays on. She didn’t want to die without her stays on. Her mother would be mortified.
A. L. Lester likes to read. Her favourite books are post-apocalyptic dystopian romances full of suspense, but a cornflake packet will do there’s nothing else available. The gender of the characters she likes to read (and write) is pretty irrelevant so long as they are strong, interesting people on a journey of some kind. She lives in the south- west UK with Mr AL, two children, a permaculture vegetable garden and a dachshund.
She sees herself as: parent, queer, gardener, author, spouse, daughter, beer- maker, disabled, ex-goose-keeper, carer, procrastinator. Short tempered non-binary control freak.