Todd Alexander: Tom Houghton & reinvention

Interview with Todd Alexander


Tom Houghton‘s cover is the reason I stopped to read more about it — to me, it glitters with promise, I think. But, this story — told in dual narratives — is of Tom, a 12-year-old desperate to reinvent himself and a 40-year-old who is jaded, callous and nothing like the boy he once was.

The question Todd Alexander wanted to explore is: what happens when someone wants to reinvent themself? And, Alexander uses the unexpected Katherine Hepburn to propel his Tom’s reinvention along — which I did not expect! But after reading about Hepburn and her own reinvention after her brother’s death (Tom Houghton Hepburn), it makes sense — that’s worth doing a search for in order to learn something illuminating about her.

Read on to learn more about Alexander’s Tom and how he came to be, not to mention what it was like writing the dual narratives of Tom Houghton.

Can you tell something that readers would be surprised to learn about you as a reader?

I was a bit of a reluctant reader as a kid.  I remember my English teacher telling me that I would need to read more than Stephen King novels if I wanted to be a better writer.  It wasn’t really until my university years when I studied Literature as part of my Arts degree that my reading horizon expanded dramatically.

How has your career as a bookseller prepared you for writing?

Being a bookseller put me in direct contact with readers.  During my years on the shop floor I learnt what people look for in a good book but more importantly I learnt how to sell a customer a book.  Being able to summarise an entire novel succinctly and do so in a way that convinces someone to buy it is always in the back of my mind when I write – why would someone choose to buy this book over the millions that are available.

Todd Alexander interviewHow did you come to find out about Tom Houghton Hepburn? What about him sparked the idea for your Tom Houghton?

I went through a phase of reading Hollywood biographies and since Katharine Hepburn is widely considered one of the greatest, I read a few books on her, and then her autobiography.  Her brother, Tom, hanged himself in 1921 in quite a disturbing way and it was the young Kate who discovered his body. The whole episode was incredibly tragic.  It was how the family dealt with his death (poorly) and the way the young Katharine Hepburn seemed to embody her brother’s identity that really intrigued me. That became the first little seed of Tom Houghton – what happens when a person tries to reinvent his or herself?

Tom Houghton is told through two narratives – Tom as a 12-year-old and as a 40-year-old man. Why do you think the story had to be told that way?

I originally wrote only the childhood scenes.  When I got to the end of the draft, however, there were too many questions left unanswered.  It got me thinking about the kids I’d seen being bullied at school and I wondered what adults they’d become.  This sent me back to the keyboard as I wanted to explore the concept of the facade adults often hide behind – how much of this is informed by what happened in their childhood, became the central tenet of the book.

In exploring these two narratives, what did you discover about yourself as a writer?

It challenged me to stay focused on a singular voice that had to be convincing as both a 12-year-old
and 40-year-old. In some respects I learned that I knew more about my characters than I supposed.  Often when writing you’re so focused on what’s on the page that you don’t have the luxury of creating a complete life for a character, exploring Tom as a boy and a man allowed me to do that.

What was the most important thing for you to keep in mind about Tom while writing him as a 12-year-old and as a 40-year-old?

The 40-year-old Tom does not obsess over what happened to him as a child.  He’s gotten on with his life, albeit has failed to deal with the flaws in his character.  I kept reminding myself not to refer directly to his childhood in the adult scenes as this is something Tom himself rarely does.

I’ve read reviews from bloggers who describe Tom as a 40-year-old as unlikeable as
much as Tom as a kid is loved for being the opposite – what do you think of such reactions? Did you expect them?

I deliberately set about writing a flawed and somewhat prickly adult character but I didn’t expect him to draw such strong reactions from readers!  I’ve known people like Tom in my life and I never found them so challenging, as beneath the jagged edges there is always a smooth interior full of love, some confusion and in some cases a sense of being lost.  But at the same time I didn’t shy away from showing adult Tom warts and all because these have formed as a result of his past.  As a kid his naivety keeps him a more approachable kind of character but it’s up to the reader to make the connection between that Tom and the adult one, and imagine what his adolescence must have been like.

Tom Houghton has been applauded for its honesty and frankness and I wondered, was there ever a time while writing when you stopped and thought: Should I write this?

No!  I don’t tend to censor myself when I write.  I let it come out to whatever degree of honesty and then maybe I’ll trim things up during editing and re-writes.  I suppose as a writer I’m the same as a person – I don’t have secrets or skeletons in the closet – life’s too short to harbour any of those.

How have you changed as a writer from your first novel Pictures of us?

If I was to write Pictures of Us today I think it would be a very different book.  I was about 27 when I started it and like most people, my observations of the world have changed in the past 15 years.  My writing has similarly evolved – I hope I have more impactful things to say as a writer today than I did back then.

What’s next for you?

Between shifts on the tractor and welcoming guests on the property I run in the Hunter, I’m scouring my calendar for days when I can sit and devote time to writing the next novel.  The characters have all introduced themselves to me and the basic plot has been formed – now I just need to get it all out of my head!

To learn more about Todd Alexander, check out his website.

On the surface, reinvention sounds like a perfect way to let go of the past, but I think what Tom Houghton tells us is that the past will always shape who we are. What do you think? 

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