Excerpt from Alice’s new novel, for which she is about to seek agent representation (followed by Q&As):
Last Star Standing
by Spaulding Taylor
When I wake, I’m looking up several hundred metres into a patchwork square of sky.
The crook of my elbow, crusted over with dried blood, still aches from the ropes used to bind me. My feet remain fixed, but I can still twist my torso and I doubt that any bones are broken. There are steel barriers against each ear, but I can just manage to check out that distant inch of sky.
Otherwise, I’m still wearing the same clothes, feel parched enough that my lips crack like dry glue and feel conscious of an empty stomach beginning to object to its situation.
My head feels strangely fuzzy, yet I clearly remember my arrest.
I was teaching — those fat little pundling faces lifted to mine — when the Testers entered, shuddering the ancient door back on its hinges. There were maybe five of them, all wearing that tangle of black and silver insignia on their jackets. It was odd how I could still almost immediately determine their leader: some trick of stance, perhaps.
‘What are you doing here?’ I asked, but one had clearly pinned me — deadening my every tendon, immobilising my every muscle.
I felt a sudden remorse for all the times I’d fiercely objected, ‘But why didn’t they fight?’ It was utterly obvious to me, in that moment, why the others hadn’t fought. Not only is fighting back not an option but even breathing feels almost impossible. Every breath had to be dredged upwards, as if each molecule of oxygen had been temporarily petrified inside of me.
Yet my mind remained pretty clear. I suspect that it was nerves alone that crowded that entire class of pundlings into one: 3034, middle of the front row, the one who had always used to pinch his pen so anxiously, a lad with rounder eyes than most. Though most of my attention was reserved for the leading Tester, who had certainly pressed a button, releasing his eel-like zuge, oiled and glittering, as if bent on escape. (It couldn’t escape, of course. Instead, it curled itself sulkily around the Tester’s muscular arm.)
Alice on her new book:
The idea for this trilogy has been with me for a while. Since my two (contemporary) novels were published by Orion, I’ve always known that I would come back to my own fiction, meanwhile working at developmental fiction editing / ghostwriting, plus a bit of freelancing on the cello. I also enjoyed having my first play (Beating Time) put on at the Lewisham Theatre and my non-fiction book published (All Risks Musical, with cartoons by Noel Ford).
However, I remained determined to write a completely different novel: something accessible, high-concept, plot-driven and funny, whose hero — bizarrely inspired by Holden Caulfield — had been in my head for years.
This is that book.
Aiden, the hero, first showed up while I was meditating. I sometimes ‘see’ colours when I do this — but, in this case, I saw something far stranger: metallic walls soaring above, ending in a square of clouded sky. I was also conscious of being bound.
Only later did I recall that I’d been male.
This brings me to the pen name.
Well, it is mine, my two middle names. It was lucky that I liked the name ‘Alice’, because my parents very inconsiderately wished a family name (Spaulding) on me as a runner-up, while Taylor was my maiden name.
The reason? Hilary Mantel — one of my favourite writers — can flip airily through different genres but I think that most readers like to know what they're getting, in terms of brand . . . I’ve flirted with the notion of what Spaulding Taylor might look like — hunky and black, just to make a change? — and even with the idea of conjuring up a website for him. But I have to be honest: he’s as much a part of my imagination as Aiden is.
And Aiden is certainly part of my imagination: mercurial, witty, damaged.
Briefly: Aiden, an assassin for the underground rebellion, struggles with his untrustworthy leader, with his unfaithful girlfriend and — above all — with himself. Through his challenges, ordeals and missions an entire old/new world is evoked, tied together by Aiden’s own sardonic voice and by the reader’s determination that he eventually triumph. Which he does, after 113,000 words, in a tidally tumultuous, feel-good ending.
There are so many amazing agents out there, that I'm having a hard time cutting them down to a shortlisted handful . . . Wish me luck!
Alice (Spaulding Taylor) McVeigh
Q & A
What is speculative fiction, anyway?
‘A genre of fiction that encompasses works in which the setting is other than the real world, involving supernatural, futuristic, or other imagined elements.’ Or: ‘an umbrella genre encompassing narrative fiction with supernatural or futuristic elements.’
What’s so great about it?
It gives you the freedom to imagine, within the context of reality. I like one foot to remain in the real world, and I think that readers prefer having something that they can personally relate to. Imagination is liberating but, if there's too much of the new, the reader will flounder. The writer, too!
Which of these types of writers do you most admire?
Margaret Atwood, Iain Banks, Barbara Kingsolver, Erin Morgenstern, J G Ballard and George Orwell are currently on or near my desk. But I love writers in every genre!
Why did you write Last Star Standing?
I’m lonely: think I’ll make me a world . . .
Oxford University has a lot to answer for. Had they not accepted our daughter (Chinese Studies, Wadham, if interested) I would probably not have a new book to flog.
No woodwind quintets to drive her to, no National Youth Orchestra. No friends’ houses to pick her up from, no boyfriend to collect from the tram. Above all, a terrifying silence — along with a still more terrifying mess — in the Bedroom No One is Allowed to Enter, on pain of excommunication.
Waking up at six and being able to make noises. Allowing the dachshund to bark at the binmen without worrying about waking the exam-burdened one. Not cooking exclusively vegetarian. Not continually running out of green tea.
Here’s a taste of that world, from the Glossary:
berthiat: an unusual hybrid vegetable, a delicacy
bheik: Tester-speak, rude (meaning: fool)
eaglatics: a sport, involving trained hybrid eagles. It started in the late 22nd century, and is pursued mostly at posh private schools
globster bites: basically, insects fried in fat
netty: slang for non-essential terrestrial personnel (NET), the underclass
qadrills: a unit of Xirfell currency
tebroks: a form of book that can be eaten, and thus committed to memory, depending on species
yengij singer: the kind of alien that can cover the range from deep bass pitches all the way to coloratura range
Sounds fascinating, but it does seem a radical departure from your literary novels, and from classical music.
It is. I even made my hero/anti-hero tone-deaf. I still adore classical music but it’s a sales turn-off. So, for me, really a whole new world.
Isn’t speculative fiction a hard sell, in terms of top agents?
Can be. Some agents won’t even look at it. But this is a genre-bending book, and, if something works, someone out there will give it a chance.
Spaulding Taylor sounds like a man.
And not a bad thing at all, in this kind of fiction. Did you know that J.K. Rowling is published as J.K. and not Joanne because some men are innately resistant to picking up books by women?
You don’t describe all your characters in detail. I’d like to know what a Blurg looks like.
That's true, because I sometimes get annoyed when other writers do. What’s an imagination for?
Have you already written the other two books in the trilogy?
I haven’t finished the second one, but it’s in my head. Like Aiden.
How many times have you edited it?
At least 25. And, every time I do, I lose about 1000 words. Less is more!
Your bio says that you sold the film option to your first novel, While the Music Lasts. Why didn’t it happen?
Money. Channel 4 was attracted but it had a whole orchestra in it. Not a shrewd move on my part . . . but still fun getting money for nothing!
I heard you lived by the sea in Crete?
For several months a year. It's peaceful, relaxing and stunningly beautiful.