“There is time to write, you just have to find it.”
by Gill Sherry
Having read Claire Alexander’s debut novel ‘Meredith, Alone’ I’d been looking forward to meeting the author and finding out what inspired her to write about this curious, complex character.
“I was brainstorming with myself,” Claire tells me. “Initially I was thinking that I might write a psychological suspense with a slight thriller or sinister element. That’s when the character, a woman who hadn’t left her house for a very long time, just popped into my head. I was intrigued by her back story and why she was in this unusual situation. What’s kept her inside for so long? Where does she go after that? So I just started to write.”
The answers to those questions, and more, are revealed gradually as you read your way through this captivating book.
“I realised quite quickly that it was going to be much more of a character driven, emotional story. Meredith had been through a massive trauma and she has to work out a way to get back into the real world.”
Claire researched the concept of anxiety disorders and mental health issues and sought advice from a therapist and social worker. She also drew on her own experiences when writing about Meredith’s situation.
“We all have our ups and downs,” she says. “I’ve had to make my own mental health a priority for a long time. I wanted Meredith’s experience to be authentic and believable. I think it’s also really important to know and to acknowledge that everybody’s experience is different.”
This awareness resulted in Claire deliberately avoiding going into too much detail when it came to Meredith’s affliction.
“When it comes to her not leaving the house, she’s never actually diagnosed with agrophobia. She doesn’t have a diagnosis. I’m happy for readers to take what they want from that.”
Meredith’s back story is revealed slowly in what is a suspenseful but entertaining read. But what about Claire’s back story?
“I was born in Irvine, grew up in Troon. I went to Glasgow Uni to study English literature. But English is one of those degrees where, if you don’t want to be a teacher, there’s not an automatic path into anything else. I just took it because that was my best subject in school and I just loved to read.”
Her admission makes me smile. It’s a candid response and, much like her book, I’m interested to know what happens next.
“I did some freelance writing. I had a column… the tiniest column… about club and bar toilets. I basically went round with a photographer to find the coolest, quirkiest toilets in Glasgow!”
Unsurprisingly, it didn’t take long to establish that most of them were not worth writing about. Soon after, she moved to Manchester and began to study law.
“I realised quite quickly that as much as I loved studying it, the reality of working in an office just wasn’t for me. I think I thought it would be like Ally McBeal or something!”
She went on to run a gift shop in Stockport but decided to move back to Ayrshire when she became pregnant with her son, Benji.
“I wanted to be close to my family… so I sold the business and moved back up here. Prestwick initially, but when I separated from Benji’s dad, I moved to Troon.”
She now has three children (15-year-old Benji, 12-year-old Elizabeth, and Alice, aged four) plus Teddy the cavapoo and Ziggy the cavachon.
“I started freelance writing on health and parenting full-time when I was pregnant with Elizabeth, but in terms of my own creative writing, I’d let that slide. I’d given my thirties to my children. I got to the point where I just thought, get out of your own way, stop making excuses. There is time to write, you just have to find it.”
Determined to write and finish a full-length book, she enrolled on a six week writing course. That’s when the idea of ‘Meredith, Alone’ was born.
“I had no idea where it was going,” she admits. “I’m not a planner when I write. It was almost like I was led by Meredith. Sometimes you have to just give your characters some space to take you in different directions.”
She began writing the novel in October 2019 and had finished the first draft by the following summer.
“A lot of it was written in swimming pool car parks or in the viewing gallery of all the swimming pools in South Ayrshire, because my son trains with South Ayrshire Swim Team.”
As someone who prefers a quiet environment when writing, I find this scenario almost impossible to imagine. But Claire says she’s happy with a little noise.
“I work better when there’s background noise. It takes the pressure off. If I’m sitting in silence and the words aren’t coming, it just feels overwhelming.”
It helps that she finds other people inspiring.
“I love to people watch. We’re all so different and so complicated. That’s one thing I wanted to get across with Meredith. She obviously has mental health issues but she’s so much more than that. She’s funny, she’s bright, she’s a great friend and she’s interested in people. She’s got so much to offer the world.”
Once Claire had come to the end of Meredith’s story, she spent the next few months perfecting it.
“I spent the summer revising it, reading it over, polishing it. I’d done lots of research on agents, the kind of agents that I thought might be a good fit… and I sent it off to six, initially. Two of them requested the full manuscript and the following month I got two offers of representation.”
Claire still sounds astonished by this turn of events.
“It did happen pretty quickly for me. I don’t think that’s the norm. I think a lot of it is to do with timing, what a particular agent is looking for at that time.”
That might be the case, but the manuscript still has to be something special. Claire concedes this with a modest smile before continuing the story.
“I worked on the book with my agent for a few months before it was sent to publishers. This was the first significant edit and I struggled with it. There was one thing in particular she wanted to change and I was quite resistant. But she was absolutely right. It’s a collaboration… a team effort to get it out into the world in its best shape. I’m so glad now that I listened and we did make those changes. It was definitely the right thing to do.”
‘Meredith, Alone’ was published in hardback by Penguin Michael Joseph in June 2022 and was released in paperback on 27th April this year. I’m delighted to hear that Claire is now working on her second book.
“There are similar themes – love, family and connection – but the main character is the opposite of Meredith. It wasn’t intentional, but there’s quite a lot of me in this book two character. I feel I can relate to her on a lot of levels. She’s a single mother who finds it hard to ask for help. Something big happens in her life that changes everything and makes her question her own identity. She has to try and piece a puzzle together so it’s about how she does that while caring for her children and her elderly mother.”
It’s another character driven story, categorised I’m told as ‘uplit’.
“Uplifting fiction,” Clare clarifies. “It’s fiction that’s life-affirming, with empathy at its core. It might have dark themes but ultimately you finish the novel feeling uplifted.”
It’s a perfect description for ‘Meredith, Alone’. But I also feel uplifted talking to Claire. She has a certain honesty that is both charming and inspiring. It prompts me to ask what advice she has for other hopeful authors.
“Just write. Find those little pockets of time where you can write and it will grow and grow. If you keep writing, you will end up with a first draft. It might not be a good first draft but it’s a first draft that you can edit and improve. A few years ago, I heard someone call the first draft the ‘trash draft’ and I think that fits. It’s just the bare bones of the story but you can turn it into something beautiful.”
‘Meredith, Alone’ is indeed something beautiful. But despite the similarities, Claire insists that the idea came to her long before Covid was even heard of.
“She’s basically self-isolating so it’s a natural assumption to make… but I started writing the book months before Covid. I do find it quite surreal that I was writing about this character that hadn’t left the house… and was doing lots of things that many of us went on to do. She was doing jigsaws, she was baking, she was chatting to people online. Six months later I found myself doing those things. And I’m terrible at jigsaws!”
It’s been a pleasure talking to Claire. It’s been uplifting and enjoyable, exactly like her book.