WRITERS TELL ALL
Alex Marwood is in the Building: THE POISON GARDEN, Cults, and the Interview You've Been Waiting For
It's rare I get to interview someone so important and essential in the literary industry, and it's rare that this person gets to be a part of my life. I won't gush, even if I want to, but I will acknowledge that Alex Marwood has had one of the greatest influences on my life, and I'm so incredibly thankful she writes and is in my life. Every book she writes is incredible, and I cannot wait until you discover her.
I also want to thank Erin Mitchell, an essential part of the literary industry and the person THE POISON GARDEN is dedicated to. The dedication is there for a reason. Erin is a rockstar. No one does it better--this is true for both these women.
Buy the US version of THE POISON GARDEN here, and purchase her other books here.
Matthew Turbeville: We’ve talked about cults, and I’ve read some of your interviews and thoughts and research on cults, and it all seems really relevant to what’s going on in the world today. People thinking in this binary black-and-white pattern, a commitment to one way of thinking without questioning any of their beliefs, etc—I’ve seen a lot of people contribute a rise in the popularity of cults in media as just a fascination with groups pictured more in horror movies than they are in real life. What are your opinions as to why cults are so popular, and why did you choose to make this part of the subject of The Poison Garden?
Alex Marwood: I’m not sure that popular’s the right word for it. Prevalent is more like it. And there’s no question that cults, or at least a rigid and often aggressive, cultish adherence to belief systems, are on the rise at the moment, and I think the whys will be the subject of hundreds of PhDs in the future.
My own theories: governments and other bodies the world over have been inflicting social engineering on their populations for decades now – see, for instance, the way smokers have gone from ordinary people to wicked villains in the course of a generation – and social engineering necessarily involves the employment of slanted information, half truths and misrepresentation intent. It’s hardly surprising that a population that’s been trained up from birth to allow themselves to be gaslit should fall for the same techniques used by less well-intentioned organisations. Postmodernism and the moral relativism it promotes have left a lot of people casting about for stability, but ill equipped to tell the difference between an objective fact and an opinion. And the internet, far from exposing us to other people’s views as we believed it would, has made it increasingly possible to convince yourself that “everyone” thinks the way you do. There are 4.13bn internet users worldwide. If you hold a view that’s held by, say, 1% of the population, that still gives you the ability to find 14.3m people who think like you. Honestly, you’d get greater variety of thought and opinion in your local bar than in most people’s follower lists on social media. Add on top the fact that every conceivable organization on the planet, from political parties to flat-earthers, has adopted the bullying tactics of denunciation, deliberate miscontrual, word salad and hyperbole formerly generally seen in teenagers, Stalinism and Scientology, and you’ve something close to a perfect storm of gullibility and conformity.
MT: You have this haunting effect on people--hat do you think about your books disturbs people in particular?
AM: I don’t really set out to gross people out, but I don’t think there’s much to be gained from shying away from accurate description, especially in books that are, after all, addressing some pretty disturbing topics. So, you know – I just describe stuff. That, after all, is what Stephen King does, and he’s the best of all at this. And I keep qualifying words – my adjectives and adverbs – to a minimum. If you have to tell the reader that something is disgusting, or frightening, then you’re failing at describing it properly. Also, I research. And I tend to employ all five senses in my descriptive writing; people often leave one or more out, and most things one experiences involve the full sensory bag.
MT: There’s a lot of talk about how to make unlikable characters “likable,” whatever you take that to mean. Yet your books are some of the very best, and people often comment there are no likable characters in the books. The same goes with so many of crime fiction’s best novels. Where do you draw the line with likability, and what do you think is so attractive about a character who isn’t perfect?
AM: It’s like that great Tolstoy line “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way” – still up there in my top ten opening lines. It’s as simple as that. And realism. Unerringly nice people don’t exist, except in their own heads. One person’s “nice” is another person’s “prig”. One person’s heroic soldier is another person’s fascist. But it’s also true that the unerringly evil person is also a very rare thing. Many a gulag guard has been a loving parent; the serial killer Harold Shipman’s patients (he was a GP) still sing his praises to this day.
I think this really came home to me when I read Anne-Marie West’s memoir of growing up with her father Fred and stepmother Rose, two of the UK’s most horrific serial murderers. When Fred committed suicide in prison, Anne-Marie, who had been abused throughout her childhood, was absolutely devastated, just as most ordinary children are at the death of a parent. I’m interested in the fact that people are complicated. I don’t really care, honestly, if some people find it hard to deal with that reality.
MT: Continuing on the idea of “unlikability,” is there an exercise, method, or trick you use to help us follow along a story with such unlikable characters? (I’ve stopped using quotes by now, I think. They’re annoying.) It seems few people have problems buying your books and speeding through them, and yet they don’t like characters they feel aren’t redemptive in some way. Do you think this is a trick of yours, a secret relationship between the reader and the character, a combination of the two or something else?
AM: I think most of my books are redemptive, in their own rather elliptical way. Certainly I think all my books before The Poison Garden contain a character or characters who grow in some way, learn about love, or sacrifice, or forgiveness, or simply about themselves. The Poison Garden is a bit different: it’s certainly the bleakest book I’ve writer, but the world of cults is a bleak one and the path we’re going down as a society is a bleak one too, if we don’t manage to correct. And even in TPG, Romy gets what she is seeking. But it’s a book about obsession and broken minds, so Romy’s sense of fulfilment might well not be to most people’s tastes. But look – with this book I wantto scare us! I really want people to wake up and start questioning all their assumptions, before it’s too late! So if I’ve sent shivers down your spine by the end of that book, I’ve done as well as I can.
I don’t really have a trick, as such. I just… if I’m getting bored myself, it usually means I’ve gone wrong somewhere, so I’ll go back and pick what I’ve done apart until I can continue without doing so.
I think a lot of people mistake redemption for “being caught and punished”, by the way. If you’re that sort of person, I’d humbly suggest that my books aren’t for you!
MT: This book was a particularly grueling process for you, or so it seemed from the outside—it produced this masterpiece, but it was taxing. Can you talk about your process in creating The Poison Gardenand how you got it to the place it is today, where we can see it in print?
AM: It took me three years to write. Partly because I went down a bit of a rabbit-hole with the research – honestly, I could read about cults for the rest of my life and still not know all there is to know. Partly because seeing the stuff you’re writing about playing out in front of you all over social media is quite a disturbing sensation. But mostly because I was prescribed a drug that had horrendous side-effects that left me basically non-functional for eighteen months. Anyway, it’s done now, and I don’t really want to go back there. But one day soon I shall murder an arrogant doctor in a novel, and everyone who knows me will cheer.
MT: In my opinion, your darkest book—for me, the one I actually felt sick while reading, but couldn’t stop because it was so good—was The Killer Next Door. I remember repeating to myself, “Wow, she isn’t afraid to go there.” Is there a place you are too afraid to go to, and if you don’t mind sharing, would you explain why?
AM: Oh, plenty of places. Paedophilia. And torture porn. And on a personal level, I’m unlikely to do anything that sparks my quite horrendous levels of claustrophobia. I keep a pair of scissors in every room at home, and in every suitcase, in case I have to get out of constrictive clothes in a hurry – no, really, and I’ve used them, several times, and needed a lie-down with a beta blocker afterwards – and the one type of horror movie that is guaranteed to really pump my adrenalin is caving movies. Can’t do it. Nope.
MT: Which of your Alex Marwood books has not necessarily been your favorite but perhaps your most personal? You don’t need to share details, but I’m interested in what book pushed you hardest, and perhaps made you examine parts of yourself you didn’t think to look at before. What book threw you for a loop?
AM: Different questions! The one that pushed me the hardest was The Poison Garden. The most personal? The Darkest Secret. Mila is the character the most like me – or me at that age anyway – I’ve written, and though I didn’t start out intending to, I spent a lot of time working through my own history, and my grief at the impending death of my father, through her. I’m still really fond of her, and wish her well.
MT: Is there a book or subject you haven’t written about yet which you want to write, and possibly can’t wait to write about next? What interests you the most right now, and quite honestly, what do you find scariest about the world today?
AM: So much. It’s always a question of fining stuff down to something that will actually make a book at the time when you’re embarking on the next one. At the moment I’m a bit obsessed with grooming. Not the way you’d think, though. Like I said, I don’t do paedophilia. But it’s a huge issue, particularly here in the UK, and I really want to explore what happens to the groomed, what becomes of their lives afterward, because there are many ways to be so.
MT: How did you get started writing, and what were your formative books? (I say “formative books” like I know what this could mean, what age range this would be, and I think it’s something our beloved Laura Lippman mentioned to me once—but however you take that, what were your formative books, what were the books which shaped you to be the great writer you are today?)
AM: Oh, God, literally everything. I was a lucky kid with an adult library card, and a rural (ie, long periods of boring) family home stuffed to the rafters with generations of books, so my reading was constant and eclectic. Stephen King, obviously. But I think James Herbert’s The Ratsreally got me going down this path. And Jaws. And several dozen horror anthologies – I really started out as a horror enthusiast more than crime. But then, you know – Agatha Christie (the whole of my tenth summer), Kurt Vonnegut (over and over again, all of my teens), Thomas Hardy, Charles Dickens and George Elliot. But also Rider Haggard and MR James and the First World War poets and the Victorian Gothics and Isaac Asimov and Patricia Highsmith and Daphne de Maurier and Dorothy Parker and Saki and Wodehouse and my granny, Margaret Kennedy. And tons and tons and tons of non-fic: memoirs of derring-do, histories, murderers’ biographies, war stories, explorers’ tales, psychology books, pirate yarns, anthologies of disasters and inventions and unlikely deaths. Here’s the No1 thing with getting to be a writer: read. Greedily and adventurously and taking your time before you dismiss an entire genre as not your sort of thing.
MT: What is the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given, and what’s the worst piece of advice you’ve ever been given? What do you think—for struggling debut writers, or those just beginning a work in progress—is essential for any writer to know when beginning this sort of life—a life of writing, of creativity, of loneliness at times, and joy and love at others?
AM: Best: you will never write anything that everybody likes, so stop worrying about it.
Worst: write what you know. Seriously, stop with that. If we did that, the literary world would consist of nothing but navel-scratching (and mostly dull, as writers often lead quite small lives) memoir. If you don’t know about something, find out about it. We live in a wonderful world where you can find out about anything.
Essential thing: for me, I’d say be careful who you show your work to. I only ever show my uncompleted stuff to people who have (or might have) a vested financial interest in its success. This is for two reasons: one, the people who love you might well mislead you about the quality of your work from entirely good intentions, and you’ll never improve that way. Two, more people want to put hopeful creatives down, for a million different reasons, than you realise. Why put yourself in a position where someone who isn’tout for your best interests (or whose best interests don’t combine with your own) can take a bludgeon to your tender heart and leave you sobbing on the floor?
Other essential thing: you need to be tough in this game. If you can’t handle rejection and criticism, even the unfair kind, you’re probably best off out of it.