StJean’s Interview with Novelist Alana Woods, Australian Author of Imbroglio and Automaton

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Alana Woods, author of Imbroglio, with one of her UK grandsons, with Sydney Harbour Bridge in the background. The Hyatt Hotel where Noel Valentine has dinner with her boss William T Hall is tucked under the bridge, far side left.

After reviewing her book a few weeks back, I was fortunate enough to catch author Alana Woods with a few minutes to share her thoughts on writing, and her native Australia (where Imbroglio is set).  She was even kind enough to send along some snapshots of locations used in her latest novel.  Ms. Woods has plenty of experience in the craft, and has even published a handbook, 25 essential writing tips: Guide to writing good fiction.

Your title seems a bit risky in the marketplace, given that it’s not a very common word.  I, for one, had to look it up.  Given that the cover helps suggest the genre, can you offer  more than the dictionary definitions some reviewers are?

My first thought is that it intrigued you enough to look it up, which means you took the time to investigate at least that far into the book. Then you bought it. What more could I ask for from readers?

But to answer your question, I’ve found the two explanations that satisfy people who ask are firstly the dictionary one of ‘A complicated affair’. The second is  my pointing out of the maze on the cover and saying that the situation the main female character find herself in is one she’s going to have great difficulty finding her way out of, hence the maze to illustrate the theme.

It seemed to me the real strength of Imbroglio was the deep psychology of the major characters.  I recall a scene in which Noel Valentine is performing an everyday action to the extent of hurting herself, but not stopping.  Is she a masochist?  Or are some other forces driving her?

I’m so pleased you say that about the characters as I think of myself as an author who writes character-driven novels. Which scene in particular are you talking about? Because the whole story is about her trying to resist self-destruction while also seeking it. She isn’t a masochist; she’s being driven by wanting/not wanting to exist. Very primal. Therefore it’s impossible for her to avoid hurting herself.

I’m a classic literature nut, so certain elements of David, your male protagonist, reminded me more of Hamlet than of the thick-skinned tough guys it often takes to survive alongside thieves and murderers.  Why not give readers what they expect?

Again, I love that you think he’s complex.

But isn’t that, really, what readers want. They may expect the usual stereotypical treatment but they love it when they get more. I’ve had people go to the trouble of emailing me—I’ve even had phone calls—to tell me how much my characters, or a particular one, has affected them. To the extent that they think about them for weeks after finishing the book and to the extent that they’ll read it again for the pleasure of being in that character’s company again for a while. Love that. J

You hail originally from England, correct?  What should everyone from the Northern Hemisphere (or at least readers of your books) know about Australia?

I was born in Leicester in the UK midlands but my parents emigrated to Australia when I was four. Everything in the tourist ads are true—as they are of every country to some extent—but there’s so much more. Australia is diverse and real, as are its people, so expect the country and its folk to also have faults. I kid around about wanting to live in other countries—check out my Amazon bio which says I’d love to buy a masseria and live in Puglia, Italy—but if being able to bring the world into your living room on the nightly news has done anything for me it’s to reinforce that Australia is one hell of a good place to be. Other than to escape floods and bushfires there’s no risk of having to leave your home because of danger, you can drink straight from the tap, emergency services respond to your calls; there’s a general good work/life balance, there’s crime but overwhelmingly you’re very safe, and the country is so big you can choose what kind of climate you want to live in ranging from snow and sub-zero temperatures to the tropics. Take your pick!

PS: I live in Canberra, the nation’s capital. It’s endearingly referred to as The Bush Capital because it is so treed and has a lot of nature parks. My house backs on to one and I get kangaroos peering over the fence at my vegetable garden every morning and evening. So far they haven’t been tempted to jump in for a tasting. What’s not to like. J

A few of your “bad guys” struggle to be totally bad (I’m thinking of Walter, but he’s not the only one.)  This is less expected than when good guys struggle to be good.  Are you some kind of sentimentalist about human nature?

Sentimentalist? Definitely not. At the risk of repeating myself, the nightly news disabuses me of the inherent goodness in human nature. No-one is perfect, including the best of us, so I’d put money on even them slipping up occasionally. As for the bad guys—ruling out the truly evil—I believe there are things that would give them pause for thought or have them examining their consciences. So to have my bad guys thinking twice about doing something, or having regrets, is part and parcel of characterisation for me.

It’s been roughly ten years since you published your first novel, Automaton, while managing to bring out a collection of short stories and some other material in between.  Tell us how either your experience of writing or publishing (or both) has changed in this volatile decade.

Shawn, you make it sound like I’ve been busy with the writing but I have to say I feel very guilty about the time I spend away from the keyboard. Life gets in the way, as it does for everyone, but I’m not good at ignoring it and getting on with writing.

But the biggest impact on both my writing and publishing has been electronic publishing. I feel safe saying many writers would place the blame very squarely there. I’ve been wanting to rewrite my third novel for two years but since I published AUTOMATON, IMBROGLIO and the others on Amazon I spend hours every day on the social media sites promoting them. I resist saying I’m addicted because I’m not doing it because I want to or because I enjoy it. It very much has a purpose. However, I’m going to try very hard to reduce the amount of time I spend on it so I can put some quality time into the next book. Famous last words? Hopefully not.

It seems that many suspense thriller writers are women, a genre that is not historically kind to its female characters.  Any comment?

Mm. Hadn’t thought of that before. Could it be, sensible creatures that we are, that we prefer vicarious danger to the real thing? Therefore, living it through our writing is an enormous amount of fun.

 

Alana Woods’ blog can be enjoyed at http://alanawoods.com/

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Night shot of Darling Harbour where Noel Valentine (heroine of Imbroglio) has lunch with Nick Donaldson and David sees her for the first time. Jordan’s, the restaurant, is towards the left, looking over the bridge. (courtesy Alana Woods, author)

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Day shot, Darling Harbour, Sydney (courtesy Alana Woods, author of Imbroglio)

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The Life You Save May Be Your Own: Imbroglio, by Alana Woods. Book Review by Shawn StJean

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Book Review by Shawn StJean

If the title of my review seems far less original than that of the novel it explores, that’s because there are some clichés that well-earn their familiarity.  For example, if overheard conversations, mistaken and assumed identity, and misdirected letters (nowadays more prevalent as lost or stolen e-mail correspondence and hacked computer files) are not fresh enough for your taste in fiction, then the entire suspense/thriller genre probably isn’t either.  Alana Woods deploys them all–there’s even a diary–but recombination is everything.

 

Far more compelling than these stock conventions are the book’s two main characters, David Cameron (you may need a pen handy to keep track of his several aliases,) but more especially Noel Valentine, a heroine worthy of a series–though Woods doesn’t appear to be setting us up for one.  Among all of fiction’s many self-made detectives, few are given a motive for their investigations–which lead them into all manner of professional and personal hazard–more credible than simple money.  The universal catalyst, serviceable for everyone from Sam Spade to Jim Rockford.  Oh, other reasons have been invented among the better writers: egomania for Sherlock Holmes, or the occasional impressment into service (Rick Deckard.)  Woods’ David, like Hamlet, was bequeathed the task by his dead father.  Good thing for audiences, too–for it doesn’t always wash, that the motives of those seeking truth are the identical ones held by those seeking to cover it up.

 

For Noel Valentine, the impetus necessary for the pursuit of semi-comatose David’s nearly successful assassins, leading to discovery of several convolutions of corporate wrongdoing, surfaces from the depths of her very plausible, damaged psychology.  “Why not go to the police?,” she’s asked at several points, and the answer simply lies outside the realm of logic and reason. 

 

Sure, she wants to ensure the man she dragged from a fiery car wreck heals, she wants a prestigious account at her PR firm, she wants the perks of her boss’ favor.  It all makes sense, yet none of it is really accurate.  In fact, one of the latent enjoyments of the novel is witnessing how many different misogynistic interpretations of her behavior can be put upon Noel by the old boys’ network, projecting their own malfeasance onto a vulnerable target.  “If there’s one thing I hate, it’s a dirty, double-crossing dame,” says one of the villains of the Hollywood noir classic The Killers, and apparently little has changed in three-quarters of a century.  Woods’ heroine must also endure multiple layers of claustrophobic pressure: from the confines of her tiny flat invaded by her healing counterpart, to sexual pressure from her boss and a nefarious client, and finally to the crushing depths of the sea itself.

 

No, for Noel, investigation is first about living dangerously–perhaps subconsciously attempting to carry out a long-time suicide wish of her own–and later, about simply living.  In fact, when the bad guys provide her with the perfect opportunity to slip quietly into that good night, guiltlessly in the world’s eyes and her own, it’s only then can she recover the id-energy to carry on and survive that her efforts on David’s behalf have been attempting to revivify all along.  That scene of crucible is worth the price of admission alone, straying so far as it does from the strictures of the genre, and invoking naturalistic archetypes from more high-brow literary fiction like Kate Chopin’s The Awakening, and even some Hemingway.

 

What difficulties there are can be faced down within the first half of the novel, which gathers much steam afterward–though thankfully eschewing many of the predictable action-elements we may expect (no car chases, and just a little obligatory gunplay.)  Sex, naturally, plays its role, though not overdone.  Woods provides several of her majors with fully stocked families, and various minor characters fill out the cast, necessitating full attention to relationships.  As for the geography, the locales of Cairns and Sydney, while well-described, may feel less familiar to non-Australian readers than we’d like.  However, it’s exactly this transportation of time, place, and generally stretching beyond the constricting neighborhood of the known-comfortable, among landscapes ranging to the deep psychic, that many will appreciate most.

 

 

 
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