Interview with Alex Pearl

Author of The Chair Man

Back in the distant mists of time, Alex spent three years at art college in Maidstone; a college that David Hockney once taught at, and later described in a piece for The Sunday Times as the 'most miserable' episode of his life. Here, Alex was responsible for producing - among other things - the college's first theatrical production in which the lead character accidentally caught fire. Following college, he found employment in the advertising industry as a copywriter. He has turned to writing fiction in the twilight years of his writing career.

His novella, 'Sleeping with the Blackbirds' - a black, comic urban fantasy, was initially written for his children in 2011 and published by PenPress. It was longlisted by the Millennium Book Awards 2018 and selected by the Indie Author Project in 2019 for distribution to public libraries across the US and Canada.

In 2014 his short story, 'Scared to Death' - the fictionalised account of the first British serviceman to be executed for cowardice during the First World War, was published in an anthology ('The Clock Struck War') by Mardibooks along with 22 other short stories to mark the centenary of the Great War.

Alex's psychological thriller, 'The Chair Man' set in London following the terrorist attack in 2005 was published as an e-book by Fizgig Press in 2019 and as a paperback in 2020. It is his first full-length novel, and was a Finalist in the Wishing Shelf Book Awards 2021.

His comic murder mystery, 'A Brand to Die For' is set in the world of advertising in 1983, and is only the second murder mystery ever set in London's adland. The first being 'Murder Must Advertise' by Dorothy L Sayers back in 1933.

Alex's claim to fame is that he is quite possibly the only person on this planet to have been inadvertently locked in a record shop on Christmas Eve.

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How would you describe The Chair Man to a new reader?
  • 'The Chair Man' is a thriller based on the terrorist suicide bombing on London's transport system in 2005. its protagonist, Michael Hollinghurst is an innocent victim and survives the blast but is left in a wheelchair as a tetraplegic as a result. He has to come to terms with his injuries while also a sense of guilt having survived, while so many others were less fortunate. He also begins to harbour feelings of deep-seated anger and a real need to seek retribution for the sake of society. It's this desperate need to hit back that drives the narrative that builds in part two.
What was the inspiration behind 'The Chair Man' ?
  • My inspiration was my wife who is a wheelchair user, and a desire to write a thriller whose protagonist is a tetraplegic. There are, after all, hardly any disabled characters in thriller literature, let alone central characters. So I wanted to redress the balance with a fast-paced story that hopefully hooks the reader in and keeps them guessing right up to the very last page.
Which authors do you admire? How have they influenced your writing style?
  • There are so many. In this particular thriller genre, I have to take my hat off to John le Carre who died recently. For me, he was the master storyteller whose characters were so utterly believable and human. His writing is flawless and lyrical. Frederick Forsyth also deserves a mention as another grand old master of the genre. Other writers I admire include the likes of Ian McEwan, Markus Zusak, Thomas Kenealy, George Orwell, Scott Fitzgerald, Harper Lee and John Irving - to name just a handful.
Can you tell us a little about the locations in your book?
  • The locations in 'The Chair Man' are primarily around North London. Hampstead. Hampstead Garden Suburb, Alexandra Park and Highgate are all featured. Ilford and Wanstead in northeast London also feature. There are also locations outside London including Maidstone in Kent, St Albans, and somewhere close to Bury St Edmunds. The final scene plays out on the tiny island of Iona in the Outer Hebrides, off the West coast of Scotland.
What advice would you give to aspiring authors?
  • Enjoy your writing. And don't be put off by agents' rejection letters. We all receive them. Listen to criticism when it is constructive and take it on board. Never give up.
What's your writing process?
  • The process for me is fairly straightforward. First of all I need to nail down the story in some detail from beginning to end. This will require me to write a detailed synopsis with some ideas around the characters, who they are based on and basic character traits. Then I will have to do a fair bit of research. With 'The Chair Man' there were many aspects to the novel I had no real insight into. I didn't know, for instance, how terrorists communicated over the internet in 2005. But I was fortunate in tracking down a fairly obscure publication written by academics that covered this rather specific subject in some detail. I didn't know how MI5 recruited and worked, so again I had to find reliable accounts of which there are remarkably few. The workings of GCHQ are, of course not made public, but there are certain facts and figures that you can glean online if you look hard enough. Once I felt I had enough raw material to work with I feel confident enough to start writing. But the writing is, I have to confess, slow and undisciplined
Which character in 'The Chair Man' has had the greatest impact on readers?
  • It's an interesting question because the two characters that get the most attention from readers are Michael Hollinghurst, our protagonist in the wheelchair, and Qssim, the converted white Islamist who has a remarkably complicated backstory. While some have a great deal of time and sympathy for Hollinghurst, others see him as a manipulative and devious character who is privileged, reckless, and morally questionable. Qssim, on the other hand, does tend to get a lot of sympathy from readers who see him as an unfortunate victim of circumstance. He was abused as a child by his father and ends up murdering his father, for which he serves time in prison. And it is here that he becomes radicalised.
If 'The Chair Man' were to be adapted for TV or film, who would you see in the lead role? Who did you have in your mind’s eye when you wrote him/her?
  • Hugh Laurie would be my ideal Michael Hollinghurst. He has all the right character traits. He's urbane, charming, middle-class, but can also be very convincing as someone who is also slightly deranged and manipulative. He's also the perfect Englishman, which Hollinghurst is. He's also a brilliant actor with real screen presence. He'd be my first choice.
How have readers responded to 'The Chair Man'?
  • The response has been overwhelmingly positive. People have gone out of their way to let me know that they really enjoyed the book. Many have said that they didn't see the ending coming and were taken by surprise by the twist in the tail. So I'm very happy with the reception it's been getting. The only criticism from some has been over the number of characters that appear in the book. And some of the exposition, which some have found overly detailed. But then, others have really enjoyed the backstories and exposition. This, of course, is a subjective issue. as a writer, I enjoy giving my characters as much depth as I can to give them credence.
Where next? What are you working on now?
  • I'm now looking at writing a sequel to 'The Chair Man' and am at the early synopsis stage, which I find the hardest part of the writing process.
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Michael Hollinghurst is a successful corporate lawyer living a comfortable, suburban life in leafy North West London. But on 7 July 2005, his life is transformed when he steps on a London underground train targeted by Islamist suicide bombers. While most passengers in his carriage are killed, Michael survives the explosion but is confined to a wheelchair as a result. Coming to terms with his predicament and controlling his own feelings of guilt as a survivor conspire to push him in a direction that is out of character and a tad reckless. In a quest to seek retribution, he resorts to embracing the internet and posing as a radical Islamist in order to snare potential perpetrators. Much to his surprise, his shambolic scheme yields results and is brought to the attention of both GCHQ and a terrorist cell. But before long, dark forces begin to gather and close in on him. There is seemingly no way out for Michael Hollinghurst. He has become, quite literally, a sitting target.