A Conversation with Anna McPartlin, Author of Alexandra, Gone
In your introduction, you mention that Jack Lukeman and his fans were a source of inspiration for this novel, in particular the relationship that the fans develop with Jack and the band without ever knowing them personally. What do you think it is about music that lends itself to creating those kinds of relationships? Do you believe the same thing is possible for authors and readers?
I think people respond to others’ talents. I don’t think an author can possibly have the same relationship with the reader as a performer—whether it’s a good singer, actor, or comedian—has with his or her audience. I’ve been at gigs that Jack has played and you literally could hear a pin drop, the audience was so enthralled. It was fascinating to witness.
Alexandra, Gone was originally released in Ireland under the title So What If I’m Broken. What led to the title change? Were there other things changed to adapt the book for a U.S. audience? Does the title shift change the book for you, personally?
I hated the title So What If I’m Broken, but my publishers in Ireland really liked it, as did the buyers and retailers, so I didn’t get much of a choice. I’m much happier with Alexandra, Gone. The title was changed to suit the market, so it gets a little confusing. I find it difficult to keep up, never mind my poor readers!
What led you to choose a missing person as the pivot point of the novel? Have you experienced a disappearance in your own life?
When Maddie McCann went missing while her parents were on holiday in Portugal, like everyone else I was completely horrified, and as time went on I started dreaming of this poor child. Her face was everywhere, and I remember watching out for her and doing a double take whenever I saw a little girl who matched her description. Alexandra came from the feelings Maddie stirred in me.
Art and music are an integral part of Alexandra, Gone, and are clearly topics close to your heart. How do these interests inform your writing process? Do you listen to certain musicians, or surround yourself with certain artists’ work?
Music informs everything I write. Every book I’ve written has its own soundtrack. When I get the idea for a novel, I upload between five to ten CDs onto my computer and I listen to them, and only them, until the book is finished. The music is my way in and out of the world I’ve created.
You start each chapter with a verse from one of Jack Lukeman’s songs. Describe the process of putting together the lyrics and the novel.
I listened to all of Jack’s albums for six months solid before I even typed one word. Elle came to me during one of his shows. He was performing a capella; it was a heartbreaking song and the audience was still and silent; then he burst into this huge up-tempo big-band song, and the audience started to dance and sing . . . and in my mind Elle was born. The rest of the characters all came from particular songs. Tom comes from “Lost in Limbo,” Jane was born with “Keep Dancing,” and Leslie comes from “I’ve Been Raining.”
Alexandra, Gone highlights many complicated issues—mental illness, addiction, cancer, missing persons, and teen pregnancy, to name a few. Which did you plan to address, and which cropped up during the course of your writing? What kind of research was involved to get all the small, essential details?
I never plan to address any subject or issue. I dream up characters and the story comes from them. I knew the moment I dreamed up Elle that she was bipolar although I never actually diagnose her in the book. I knew that Leslie had lost her entire family to cancer and I knew that Jane was living a kind of half life and that Tom was experiencing a living hell. After that, the story told itself.
Do you lay out your plots beforehand, or are there surprises in the writing process? Did you know from the beginning what had happened to Alexandra?
I have a brief story outline, but because I know my characters inside and out, I know what they are capable of and the decisions they’ll make; it makes sense to me to write that way. As a result my stories are character and not plot driven. I had no idea what happened to Alexandra until one day I was midway through the book and Jack’s “Rooftop Lullaby” began to play. It’s such a sad song. I shed a little tear or two because in that moment, I knew she would be found dead.
The novel shifts viewpoints from character to character, revolving around Jane, Tom, Elle, and Leslie. Which character was the hardest to write? Which was the easiest? Which is your favorite?
Elle was the greatest challenge because I had a lot of research to do before writing her. Her mental struggle needed to feel real so I worked really hard to ensure she didn’t become a silly cliché. She’s also my favorite character because I worked so hard on her and I feel closest to her.
Who are your influences as a writer?
My single biggest influence is Roddy Doyle. When I read “The Snapper,” I fell in love with all his characters and their warmth, and I knew I wanted to write stories just like he does.
Are you working on anything new that you can tell us about?
I’m working on a movie about five kids who break into banks during the Irish matches during the 1990 World Cup. Its working title is The Football Five.