In the ripping-good thriller The Yard, you will meet the child Fenn, Detective Inspector Walter Day, and the dancing man, among other unforgettable characters. A splendid look into the crimes of the times and the Yard’s newly created Murder Squad. The author’s skillfully crafted descriptive passages will leave you feeling the rainy chill of Victorian London, and shivering at the wanton, unrestrained appetites of murderers everywhere.
MaryAnne Kolton: What were your favorite childhood books? Who encouraged you to read and what was your family life like, if you please?
Alex Grecian: My favorite childhood books were often British imports or at least set in England. I loved Half Magic and Tarzan and Sherlock Holmes. But I wasn’t exclusively an Anglophile. I also loved The Cricket in Times Square and The Thinking Machine and Ralph S. Mouse (with his Motorcycle) and Charlotte’s Web. I liked underdogs who had to use their brains to better themselves. (Although Wilbur relied entirely on the kindness of a smarter stranger.) The first book I bought with my own money, though, was the new (at that time) American Heritage Dictionary. I read it from cover to cover.
Both my parents encouraged me to read. My mother because it kept me out of sight, and my father because he was a reader and wanted to be a writer. Years later, he finally followed his dreams and became a published writer, but my earliest childhood memories of him are of a puppeteer and theater director.
My family life wasn’t particularly good when I was small. My mother had no room in her life for children. My father did his best, but he was very young when he had children and didn’t really know what to do with us (I have two younger sisters). On my tenth birthday I was told they were divorcing and things were very rough for us for a few years. Reading was always an escape.
MK: Many fine authors have used reading as an escape hatch into another reality. Do you feel that the rough patches in your youth show their effects in your writing?
AG: If anything, I think I’m more willing to explore those aspects of my past, or at least use the emotions that I can remember, than I ever was before. I think my work continues to become more personal as I continue writing.
MK: Who first told you could write and when did you begin to believe it?
AG: I had lots of encouragement growing up. But all through elementary school and into middle school I was determined to be a veterinarian and write (and draw) on the side. I loved the Sherlock Holmes stories and knew that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was a doctor. Seemed to work for him.
So my seventh-grade teacher procured a pig for me to dissect. I was in a poor school district and this was a major expense for just one student. The pig had been improperly preserved and its intestines had burst, filling its body cavity with liquid shit and blood. I spent weeks alone in a little room with that dead pig and an anatomy book, trying to find and identify the internal organs, as the stench grew increasingly unbearable. I finally gave up, threw the pig carcass away and decided a career in medicine wasn’t for me.
I immediately began writing instead, and that same semester I managed to accidentally poke a sharp pencil deep into my forearm while brainstorming lines for a poem. I still have the scar. But that didn’t turn me away from writing the way the pig had turned me off of veterinary medicine.
MK: Writing must have been an easy choice after the pig experience. Why did you choose Scotland Yard as the subject of your first novel?
AG: I’m definitely a fan of the Holmes stories, but I tend not to care much for pastiches (although the BBC Sherlock series is pretty great) and didn’t necessarily want to write one. The Yard actually grew out of research I did on the migration patterns of Victorian circuses. The
crime statistics were staggering and led me to research Scotland Yard. Gradually, a picture of the Murder Squad came into focus and I realized that I wanted to explore those men and their work.
MK: And you were researching the migration patterns of Victorian circuses because…? How much time did you spend on research for The Yard?
AG: I wrote a graphic novel that centered on a circus troupe traveling in Victorian England and Russia. I ended up with too much intriguing research to be able to use it all and decided to do something else with it. That “something else” turned into The Yard.
It’s hard to say because I spent months on the research end, but much of the material I used for The Yard came from that other project and can’t properly be taxed against the book. I also continued researching as I wrote, to make sure the details were right.
MK: Will you explain the graphic novel to those who are not familiar with it? How is it different from comic books? How did you become involved in the genre?
AG: It’s all purely subjective terminology, but it mostly has to do with format and length. A comic book is a short episode in the ongoing serialized adventures of a character or group of characters. The standard American comic book is about twenty pages long. The closest equivalent is probably a TV series. But a graphic novel is a single story that can be as short as sixty-four pages or as long as six hundred. It’s more like a novel or a movie in that it’s meant to have a definite ending.
I’m comfortable calling Proof a graphic novel, though, because there was always an ending that I was working toward. It wasn’t meant to continue indefinitely.
I’ve always loved comic books and graphic novels. Scrape away all the cultural expectations we bring to the form, and the snobbery that sometimes gets leveled at comics, and what you have is a marriage of words and illustrations working together to tell stories. You can tell
any story in the comic book/graphic novel format and I think that’s pretty exciting. I have no interest in writing about superheroes, but have always had an interest in telling stories within a visual medium. But I didn’t start out trying to write comics. I wrote a crime novel and then realized I didn’t know what to do with it. I needed a literary agent and I didn’t know how to find one. So I put the novel away and wrote a graphic novel next. It was a retelling of a Chinese folktale, updated and set in the American Old West. I met a terrific illustrator named Riley Rossmo at a convention and he loved the idea. He drew the whole book. We didn’t need an agent; we were able to submit our book directly to publishers in the comic book industry and the first publisher we contacted bought it from us. So it was much easier to break into comics than it was to break into novels. Riley and I enjoyed working together, so we put together another project, called Proof, and submitted that to a bigger publisher in the comics industry. Once again, we were lucky enough to land with the first publisher we approached.
And while all that was happening, I wrote yet another prose crime novel that I didn’t know what to do with. I couldn’t stop writing novels, but after I finished them they just sat on my computer.
MK: Some writers give the illustrator a storyboard or rough images of what they would like to see. Is this the way that you and Riley worked?
Alex: I always work in a method called “full script.” That means I break every page down into panels, describe everything in each panel, and provide the full dialogue for every panel too. Riley deviated from my panel descriptions if he thought a different approach was more visually effective. I liked being happily surprised when he brought new and better things to the page, just as long as the story itself wasn’t changed. Then I’d go back in after each page was drawn and tweak the dialogue to make sure it exactly matched the illustrations.
MK: Getting back to The Yard, one reviewer mentions how important Dr. Kingsley is to your narrative. Where did the good Doctor come from?
“…Dr. Bernard Kingsley, the pioneering forensic pathologist who cleans up the primitive procedures at the London morgue and does clever things with the promising new science of “finger marks.”
“Kingsley had always imagined that his own death would come as an embarrassment, a sudden interruption as he went about some other task.”
AG: Walter Day is the center of the book and he relies on two other men, not just to help him, but to balance his personality too. Hammersmith is the emotional side of the equation and Kingsley represents intellect.
Kingsley was inspired by real-life forensics pioneer Dr Bernard Spilsbury. But Spilsbury would have been too young in 1889 for me to have included him in The Yard, so I fictionalized him and made him a bit more open and accessible. Spilsbury was a quiet loner and while I admire the work he did, I didn’t much want to write about him for the duration of a book series. Kingsley’s admirable in many ways and is someone I look forward to spending time with.
The passage in which Kingsley thinks of death as an embarrassment is straight out of my childhood. I’ve always worried about the suddenness and randomness of violence and death. Most of the time, there’s no way to prepare for it. It’s like tripping over the curb and falling on your face, only permanent, and there’s no recovery. When I was a kid, it bothered me that I might suddenly die, fall down, and other kids would laugh at me before they realized I wasn’t going to get back up. I imagine that perception would be much more pronounced in the Victorian era, when social embarrassment carried real consequences.
MK: That same reviewer also makes these pungent/salient observations:
“…it doesn’t seem to matter so much that the author introduces historical references awkwardly or that his use of the period vernacular is untrustworthy. Bounding from the workhouse to the lunatic asylum to the stinking streets, he does outstanding descriptive work on the mad and the maimed, the diseased and the demented.”
Do you care to comment?
AG: Whoops. Here’s where I start evading questions.
I really prefer not to react to reviews. Everybody’s got a different opinion and if I reply to one it only serves to legitimize it. And that reviewer wasn’t awfully specific about where or how I introduced things awkwardly, so I’d just sort of be thrashing around blindly.
MK: Your book dedication is priceless. Does your wife play a big part in your work? In what way?
AG: My wife is my first reader. She’s also my most brutal reader. If I’ve made a mistake or written something stinky, she has no qualms about telling me so. It’s incredibly annoying, but incredibly useful. I’d much rather she caught my flubs early than to have them get through
and into all my other readers’ hands.
Her support and belief in me was a big part of what spurred me on for years, writing and doing what I could to get my work into the right hands. I know I’d still be writing without her, but I’m not sure I would have shown my work to anybody if she hadn’t encouraged me.
MK: “The dancing man was already outside the back hall at 4 Whitehall Place when Inspector Walter Day arrived. Day wondered that the dancing man had thus far avoided the workhouse, but he had visited that place and had no desire to send anyone there, if it could be helped.”
Where did this character come from?
AG: I drive my wife to work every morning and we pass through the downtown area of the city where I live. There’s a man whom I assume is mentally challenged who gets there before we do most days. He stands on various street corners (he doesn’t seem to have a fixed station) and gyrates enthusiastically at passing cars. Sometimes he waves an American flag, sometimes he gestures wildly with a broomstick. I always wave, and being acknowledged by someone seems to make him happy. He smiles and sometimes he gives me a thumbs-up. Getting that thumbs-up from him somehow makes me feel good about the day. I have no idea who he is or what he does with the rest of his day (although he’s sometimes still out there when I pick my wife up from work in the afternoon), but he’s become a symbol for me.
I made a note in one of my notebooks to include him in a future novel, something set in modern-day America, but then it occurred to me that there were homeless in Victorian London too, and I could use the Dancing Man to explore that aspect of the city’s life.
I’m already planning to bring him back in the third Yard novel.
MK: What’s next? Any contacts from people wanting film rights? You mentioned a series, and said that the dancing man will reappear. We will read more of Inspector Day, Hammersmith and Dr. Kingsley. Right?
AG: You’ll definitely be reading more about the characters who survived The Yard. The three you mention are all in the sequel, called The Black Country, which I’m hard at work on now. It will be out next spring.
There is interest from other media, but I hate to jinx that sort of thing by talking about it.
About the author: After leaving a career in advertising, working on accounts that included Harley-Davidson and The Great American Smokeout, Alex returned to his first love: writing fiction. He created the long-running and critically acclaimed graphic novel series PROOF, which NPR named one of the best books of 2009. The series stars John “Proof” Prufock, a special-agent-sasquatch.
One of the PROOF storylines is set in the 1800s and inspired Alex’s debut novel THE YARD. It is the first in a projected series about the famous London Murder Squad. The second reportedly will focus on the development of photography in criminal investigation.
Alex has also designed over 80 different typefaces. He currently lives in the Midwest with his wife and son. And a cat. And a tarantula.
About the interviewer: MaryAnne Kolton’s fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in numerous literary publications including the Lost Children Charity Anthology, Thrice Fiction and Connotation Press among others. Her story “A Perfect Family House” was shortlisted for The 2011 Glass Woman Prize.
Author Interviews have appeared most recently in the Herald de Paris, LA Review of Books, Her Circle Zine, The Literarian/City Center and January Magazine. MaryAnne’s public email is [email protected] She can also be found on Facebook and Twitter.