A Look Behind The Book With Lex Coulton.

LexCoultonWhile being dubbed a “true new talent” must be flattering, I can’t help but think it probably adds to the pressure for a debut author – although Lex Coulton more than lives up to the hype.

I was lucky enough to read an advance copy of her stunning novel, Falling Short, at the start of the year and I remember thinking: ‘I can’t believe I’ve got to wait until June to start raving about it’.

Thankfully, June has finally arrived and I will post my review on Thursday, which is publication day (spoiler: I loved it – pre-order now).

Just after I finished reading, Lex and I got talking (via Twitter) and, after gushing about how much I enjoyed her novel, I was very cheeky and asked if she would take part in my Behind The Book series. I was pleased when she said yes but absolutely delighted when I read her answers.

Before we get to them, here’s the blurb for Falling Short:

Sometimes getting it wrong is the only way to get it right . . .

Frances Pilgrim’s father went missing when she was five, and ever since all sorts of things have been going astray: car keys, promotions, a series of underwhelming and unsuitable boyfriends . . . Now here she is, thirty-bloody-nine, teaching Shakespeare to rowdy sixth formers and still losing things.

But she has a much more pressing problem. Her mother, whose odd behaviour Frances has long put down to eccentricity, is slowly yielding to Alzheimer’s, leaving Frances with some disturbing questions about her father’s disappearance, and the family history she’s always believed in. Frances could really do with someone to talk to. Ideally Jackson: fellow teacher, dedicated hedonist, erstwhile best friend. Only they haven’t spoken since that night last summer when things got complicated . . .

As the new school year begins, and her mother’s behaviour becomes more and more erratic, Frances realises that she might just have a chance to find something for once. But will it be what she’s looking for?

If you have any interest in writing (and reading) I know you’re going to love what comes next.


Having read your brilliant debut, I was struck by just how perfect the title of the book is. Was it something you came up with? If so when and how?

There was quite a lot of internal debate about titles, as it happens, and at one stage I despaired of ever finding the right one! Because there is a lot of imagery in the novel connected with water, because of Frances’ father’s disappearance at sea, I initially wanted to focus on that in the title, but eventually it became clear that what was really engaging people about the book was its more immediate human concerns, and because some of it happens in a school, we felt it would be great to have a school-report sort of approach with the title. One of the ironies for me as a teacher is how often pupils seem to be more worldly and wise than their teachers, and I think it’s fair to say that Frances and Jackson, as teachers, are often a bit more like naughty pupils themselves, who would probably get fairly poor reports in some areas!

You studied English at Oxford and then went on to teach in secondary school for many years before going back to do an MA in creative writing. Had you always thought you wanted to write? What inspired you to go back to university?

I was literally writing from the age of six onwards – but as a teenager it was a most luxurious form of escapism: I wrote the life I wanted to have, with all my Jilly Cooper fantasies regarding racehorses and tennis players completely fulfilled! My dad gave me an old desk-top computer when I was fourteen, which was the best present ever. I can vividly remember printing out reams of auto-fiction on that old-fashioned printer-paper with all the holes down the side, and although it may sound a bit narcissistic I actually still love reading what I produced then. It feels like a doorway into the past.

Regarding the MA, I went back to university really having reached the age of 34 and feeling as though I needed some concrete goals with my writing, and also because I missed the intellectual stimulation of study. My friends were mostly getting pregnant or promoted, or both, at that stage, and I felt I needed to create my own path and my own goals.

After your MA you took a year-long sabbatical in Paris (#jealous). What was that like? How did you stop yourself from simply wandering the city, visiting galleries and sitting in cafes every day instead of writing?

The sabbatical was a result of an unhappy professional year in teaching, where I was made to feel continually as though I was really ‘falling short’ in most of what I did. My husband sat me down one evening and basically told me life was too short to be this miserable, and asked me what I’d most like to do to be happy. I said I’d like to write my novel. So we came up with an action plan to save as much money as possible, I handed in my notice at the end of the school year, and off we went, dog and all.

I think what gave me real focus was first of all having someone who really believed in my writing and was not as risk-averse as I am (my husband), but also, having made quite a public statement of intent about writing – it was no longer a private whimsy, it was a documented intention – my pride made me realise I had to deliver, not least because so many people had been so very patronising about those intentions and clearly saw them as a smokescreen for not being able to cope with professional life: ‘Oh, you’re going to write a novel. Bless your little heart,’ was something I heard a lot, before people turned away raising their eyebrows and mouthing ‘Poor thing,’ to one another!

I did do some wandering around the city at the weekends, but I spent much more time walking with my dog in the vast and beautiful Bois de Vincennes on the east side of the city, near where we were staying. Like so many writers, I find the rhythms of walking very helpful when drafting, and I ended up walking between 5km and 10 km every day. The dog and I got very fit, which was useful for counteracting all the lovely bread and wine we consumed (more bread and less wine in the dog’s case, obviously!)

fallingshortCan you talk some more about Falling Short? How long did it take to write? How did the characters take shape for you?

I came up with the character of Frances Pilgrim in 2011 after a truly disastrous and quite surreal dating experience with a man who turned out to have quite literally fabricated every detail of his identity and then disappeared. I’d been seeing him for almost six months and I was a bit gutted, to be honest, but increasingly more curious about the real-life narrative which would lead someone to behave like that. I started constructing all sorts of stories to try and make sense of it all, and Frances’ narrative at various stages has been a psychological thriller and a much bigger, more multi-faceted mystery story. I even tried to write it as a film script, which was frankly disastrous…. Eventually, in 2015, I sat down and wrote the first draft of a new version over my first three months in Paris.

A lot of editing and paring down then happened with both my agent, Sue Armstrong, and then my editor Mark Richards, and I do think that the less-is-more approach to plot is good for the sort of writing I do, which is very voice- and character-focused.

The novel as it stands now is really about people and the losses which shape them, and I feel the reader has room to appreciate what is funny as well as bleak in the story that exists.

I had intended to have another scene at the end, but somehow when I wrote what is now the last line I felt that more would be over-kill. I like the fact that some questions are not neatly tied-up with a ribbon, and have been massively reassured by reading the work of writers like Adam Thorpe, Elizabeth Strout and Jon McGregor, where it is the characters rather than a neatly-folded narrative which remain with the reader after the last page.

You deal with some sensitive issues (very honestly and well done, in my opinion) some of which (Jackson’s thoughts about his students) make for uncomfortable reading (well, it did for me, anyway). Did you feel uncomfortable writing it? Did you ever wonder what the reader would make of it?

It’s such an interesting question isn’t it? And as a teacher myself, yes, I think I am acutely aware of the responsibilities incumbent on us as professionals to behave appropriately, so writing about Jackson – who I adore as a character –  was interesting and challenging. I think it’s important to state that what both my editor and I wanted for Jackson was for him to have a sufficiently compelling arc as a character, and one which would require him to move forwards as a man and grow up over the course of the book. And I would also say, quite unequivocally, that what I think is crucial is that although he is very aware of one or two of his more flirtatious sixth form girls, he is also very clear that he doesn’t want to act on this sensation of awareness and so he is constantly in an almost comic cycle of self-monitoring and self-censure.

I grew up in a rather different age really, reading and loving the work of Kingsley Amis, Martin Amis, early Ian McEwan, and Muriel Spark, all of whose work is characterised by a rather dark and transgressive humour, and this aspect of their books has undoubtedly affected me in my writerly development. However, I’m also keenly aware now that, back in 2015, I was also writing into an essentially pre-Harvey Weinstein world, and I think in the current climate we are much more aware of the potential for people in positions of power to misuse their positions, so it’s my hope that readers will understand that Jackson is really meant to be a bit of a victim himself: rather bumbling and lost with women, and consistently being made a fool of by all the females in his life, rather than being a risk factor himself.

What about Frances and her dad? Without giving anything away, did you ever think of finishing their story in a different way? I remember at the time I pondered whether, had it been a film, and they had done one of those audience previews, they would have asked you to change it (although I think its perfect). 

I did have a completely different ending to begin with. Without giving things away, my instinct as a writer is often to tend towards the sentimental. There were numbers of options on the table for Martin Pilgrim, and I still find myself pondering the might-have-beens. Dog originally had a rather fuller role, too, and one version the novel did have a more conventional, tied-up-with-a-ribbon ending involving all the characters, Dog, and a beach. But life isn’t always like that, is it? And I think I’ve been quite affected by something Francis Spufford (of Golden Hill fame) wrote in an essay, which is that the difference between fiction and reality is the way in which fiction has a tendency to fold life neatly down the edges – too neatly, perhaps, sometimes. But I think a new breed of fiction is on the rise at the moment – you’ve only got to read Jon McGregor’s staggering Reservoir 13, Adam Thorpe’s Missing Fay, or Elizabeth Strout’s My Name is Lucy Bartonto see masters at work, playing deliberately with our very deep-laid expectations of plot and resolution and those neatly-folded edges. Of course, I’m not implying that I’m writing fiction of anything like their quality, but it’s something to aim for, I think!

What about your path to publication? When did you know it was time to submit? How did you find out they loved it?

Having time off from work meant I had time to get organised and enter writing competitions, and this was a massively helpful part of the process.

I had a boat-load of rejections for short stories in the autumn of 2015, but finally got a couple of long-listings and then a tiny flash fiction accepted online in November of that year.  The next communication I had in December 2015 was from Literature Works, informing me I’d won their First Page Prize for 2015 for an extract (subsequently cut!) of Falling Short, which of course was a massive confidence boost.

By that stage, Falling Short was resting in a drawer before a proper edit, but after a final sweep through, I took the plunge with agents in January 2016. I had some nice positive responses from the get-go, but feedback on the full ms made me go back and do some further tidying. In the end, I was very lucky that three agents were keen to offer representation, more I think on the overall premise and on the voice/writing than by the fact that the product was anything like shelf-ready.

I chose Sue Armstrong because she had such a great list of writers whose work I had read and enjoyed, I felt we would work collaboratively – and also because she and everyone at C plus W Agency made my dog so welcome at Haymarket House! I think it’s important to remember that many agents are very happy to be very hands-on editorially, and are genuinely excited by ‘a hot mess’ of a manuscript, so sometimes even if the ms isn’t quite ‘there,’ agents will spot potential. I think being humble and prepared to take advice and keep editing with an agent is the most important thing.

Falling Short has had some lovely reviews pre-publication. What was that like? Are you still worried about it post-publication? How do you cope with the fear that people won’t like it – and I ask that because I’m pretty sure that’s what’s stopping me writing my own at the moment.

Nothing can prepare you for the experience of people reading and reviewing your book. And I won’t lie – when someone says they love it you basically want to fangirl them and send them flowers, but when they say it’s rubbish/they didn’t get it/ it didn’t meet expectations it can feel like a big old slap-down.

However, what I’ve found really constructive is looking up the Goodreads reviews of writers I love who are hugely successful, and seeing that they, too, get some 2 and 3 star reviews, and some pretty fierce/blunt criticism. None of us are immune to bad reviews, because which book ever written has been loved by everyone? So I’m learning to distance myself, and try to regulate how many times I check into sites to see what people are saying.

As far as anxiety about starting to write goes, you have to remember that we all write about human experiences, and usually, let’s face it, the things which have been challenging or humiliating or even heart-breaking. And as readers, we love reading because, in the words of a character in the film ‘Shadowlands’, we read to know we’re not alone. So writing a novel is really like joining a conversation. You just have to take a breath and step away from the wall and start talking!

I know you’re writing a second book. Can you talk about that? Do you feel less pressure now you’ve already had one accepted for publication?

On the contrary, writing book two has felt harder in some respects because I know more about what I got wrong the first time around. What has been nice is knowing as I started that I was capable of seeing it through, but delivering even a skeletal first draft has taken me almost a year, and many, many, many thousands of words written only to be cut. I feel this time around that I’m really writing it wrong on my way to writing it right, but the fact that I am able now to make those sorts of judgements tells me I’m developing as a writer.

In terms of content, book two is again focused around a school, but the character who really keeps me going and constantly surprises me as a writer is a sixth form pupil, who sets out to solve a mystery involving the death of a former pupil at her school back in 1992. What is becoming more interesting to me as writer as I go along is her motivation for ‘finding answers’, most of which is rooted in the fact that her own family has fallen apart fairly spectacularly, leaving her with unanswered questions about why people behave in the way they do. Again, I’m returning to that idea of needing to use narrative as a way of re-orienting oneself in an unstable world – but the problem for Finn (my MC) is that she begins to work out, in a rather Francis Spufford kind of way, that real life doesn’t always fold neatly down the creases in the way she wants and needs it to….so it’s a coming-of-age story in one way, but still a very adult story, I think, rather than YA.

Lastly, do you have any tips for struggling writers?

Yes! I once heard a school chaplain describing the process of prayer to pupils as being more about listening than talking.

Lex Coulton quote.jpg

Don’t put words in their mouths: let them speak!

Also, with regard to rejection, everyone fails. A lot. Even the prize-winners (probably especially the prize-winners.) So keep sending out the stories, the poems, the flash fictions. Try and learn from the rejections, and last but not least – remember that Twitter/Instagram is only what people choose to broadcast……


Told you! Weren’t they brilliant answers? I feel very inspired. I want to pack up and go to Paris right now – although I’d probably take Freya as I don’t have a dog (not sure a four-year-old would be quite as happy to walk 5km minimum a day though).

If you’d like to know more about Lex you can follow her on Twitter or you can pre-order Falling Short via Amazon here.

If you’re not already convinced, please pop back on Thursday to read my review.


A Look Behind The Book With Julia Roberts.


If you think Julia Roberts looks familiar then she probably is – especially if you’re a fan of televised home shopping.

While she’s had a long and varied career in the entertainment industry – including parts in Dr Who and The Price Is Right – Julia is perhaps best known as a presenter on QVC.

There since its launch in the UK in 1993, she continues to front programmes for the channel. She also does voice over work and other TV appearances as well as supporting various charities.

As if that wasn’t enough, she has also realised a long-held dream to write books, with a popular trilogy, a standalone novel, various short stories and a memoir to her name.

Her latest book, Alice In Theatreland, is about to be made into an audiobook but, before that, I am absolutely thrilled that she agreed to let me quiz her for my new Behind The Book post.


You wanted to be an author from the age of 10 but it was another 47 years before that dream became a reality. You’ve obviously done a huge amount in between but was the dream always there in the background? What finally made you put pen to paper?

It’s funny you should ask this question. I am currently doing a series of blogs to celebrate the upcoming 25th anniversary of QVC in the UK, the research for which has had me looking through lots of boxes of saved mementoes and paperwork. I came across an article in a magazine that QVC used to circulate, prior to having a website, and in the last paragraph I was asked what else I planned to do in my career. My response was, ‘I have some great ideas for books I intend to write when I find the time.’ The article was from April 1998… twenty years ago. In a way, that answers both your questions. Working full-time at QVC and bringing up two children took precedence but once I had seen them off to university I began to write, initially a memoir entitled One Hundred Lengths of the Pool, which was published by Preface in 2013, before trying my hand at novels.

Your first novel was part of a trilogy. Did you plan it as such before you started writing?

The idea for the Liberty Sands trilogy came to me while I was on holiday in Mauritius, directly after the publication of my memoir. We were there for 10 days, during which time I copiously scribbled enough notes to fill a whole notebook. I immediately realised that the story was too much for one book with all the twists and turns, so decided to create three standalone books, which don’t necessarily require the reader to read on or have read the previous ‘installments’ – although it is intended to be enjoyed in its entirety.

Is it nice going back to the same characters (and adding new ones into the mix)? Are you ever tempted to add a fourth?

I got to know the characters so well over the course of the trilogy it was almost like writing about friends, but I also enjoyed introducing the new people as the story unfolded. I have been asked by many people who have fallen in love with Holly, Harry and co., if I will write a fourth book in the series but I’m not sure if I will revisit them and certainly not for a while.

Can you talk about your path to publication? Did you submit to many agents/publishers? What made you go the route you did?

As I mentioned above, my memoir was published by Preface, an imprint of Random House. When I had finished Life’s a Beach and Then… I sent it to my contact there who passed it to a colleague for consideration. Apparently, she loved it but it wasn’t suitable for her list at the time.

I also sent the manuscript to half a dozen agents, and had positive feedback from a couple saying they liked ‘my voice’ but clearly not enough to want to represent me.

I find the whole business of trying to sell myself and my work quite daunting, which is strange considering I can sell almost anything else and it’s what I do to earn a living, so I decided to follow a friend of mine down the self-publishing route.

I must admit I like the control I keep as a self-published author and I’m very lucky that I have a fantastic working relationship with my editor, Justine Taylor, who I’d worked with on One Hundred Lengths of the Pool. The only drawback for me is the marketing side of things and the lack of time I have available while still working full-time and trying to write.

Do you ever get mixed up with the other Julia Roberts? Were you ever tempted to change your name before you published your book?

I don’t really get mixed up with the Hollywood actress. A friend suggested that maybe I should write as Julia G Roberts but I decided against it as I didn’t want to confuse people who already know me as Julia Roberts through my work on television.

On a similar note, did you ever feel like it was a risk, because you were so well known in a different career, to publish a book? Or was it helpful that people already knew who you were?

I think it was helpful that I already had a public profile. There were a few people who left reviews on Amazon along the lines of, ‘You should stick to presenting,’ after my first novel came out, but the majority of reviews are positive and think my writing style is similar to my presenting style. As long as I’m certain that I’ve made each book the best it can be I’m happy – you can’t expect everyone to love your work.

ALICE in TL CoverYou’re turning your latest novel, Alice In Theatreland, into an audio book, which sounds very exciting. Can you talk about why you decided to do it? What was the process like?

I’ve had a lot of requests to turn my books into audiobooks but it was a bit tricky committing to do all three books in the trilogy. Alice is completely standalone so I thought it would be a good way to test the water and see if there is any interest. To be honest, I have hit a bit of a delay with the voice artist/producer who has agreed produce it for me through a company called ACX so it now won’t be available until July at the earliest. The process of putting a piece up for auditions on ACX is fairly straightforward, even for a technophobe like me, and listening to the auditions and choosing the right voice to bring your characters to life was great fun. It’s a watch this space currently though.

From the hundreds of Amazon reviews, the majority of which are five stars, it seems like readers adore your books. That must be an amazing feeling? Does it add to the pressure for the next book though?

I’m extremely grateful for every review and I must confess that it gives me a warm glow inside to know that readers have liked what I have written. I’ve even been moved to tears on a couple of occasions because writing is still quite a new experience for me and also I’m a bit of a softy at heart! I think it does add to the pressure but mostly because you don’t want to disappoint readers who’ve spent their hard-earned cash on your book. That’s why there has been more of a gap since the release of Alice in Theatreland last year. Although I wrote a Christmas novella, Christmas at Carol’s, I haven’t been able to dedicate sufficient time to my next full-length novel and don’t want to release an inferior product.

Can you talk about what you’re working on next?

I am actually working on two full length novels at the moment. One is set around Bonfire Night so I will be looking to publish in October, the other I might submit to agents and see if it generates any interest. I’ve also promised a sequel to Christmas at Carol’s so I will need to get started on that around September time.

You still seem incredibly busy with work and also your charity events, how do you find time to write?

I’m fortunate that I have a set shift pattern at QVC that gives me a five day break every fortnight after working eight days out of nine. They are my writing days although I do also ‘tinker’ with my manuscript before going in to work if I’m not on air too early. I only do a few events a year for Rotary International and British Polio.

Do you have any writing tips you can share please?

My main tip is the most obvious, just sit down and do it. I think all writers are different in their approach.


The final chapter of Alice in Theatreland happened because I wasn’t satisfied with the ending I had written. The book had already gone to Justine for editing and I rang her up to say I’d had an idea for a different ending. She was totally supportive and we both agreed it worked so much better, a view echoed by the reviews on Amazon, many of which comment about it. The only other thing to add is that I write from my heart.


Thank you so much to Julia for letting me interview her. It just shows that it’s never too late to follow your dreams. I’m so pleased she managed to achieve hers – and so successfully too.

If you want to read some of Julia’s work, she has a free short story to download via her website. You can also follow her on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook. All her books are available via her Amazon page here.

My new friend thinks I am a stalker.


We recently made some new friends at the park who, as it happens, live just around the corner. Ok, ok, when I say “we” I mean Freya did all the leg work, I was just there in a supporting role the same as the other little girl’s mum.

They got on so well and as we lived so close together a playdate was arranged at their house. When no one fell-out or made anyone else cry (and that was just the adults) it was our turn to host.

About three minutes before they arrived I had a frantic tidy up. It takes Freya a good four minutes to make the living room look like a bomb has gone off so when they came in it looked, what my mum calls, “lived in”. The only trouble was, in my haste to clean up all her stuff I had left my notebook (if this is your first time here you might want to read this) on the dining table, closed but with the page I was writing on marked with a pen.

Everything was going really well until the small ones decided they wanted to do some colouring at the table. I let my new friend put her child in the booster seat as Freya is suddenly all grown-up and likes to sit on a normal seat. I thought it best to remove the cups and plates from the refreshments we’d had mid date (I am the hostess with the mostess) so while they settled in I popped into the kitchen.

I came out just in time to see her pick up my notebook to move to a safer spot away from Picasso and Monet and…take a quick peek inside.  Her eyes widened in confusion followed by a look that said: “We need to leave. NOW.” She quickly put it down as if it was suddenly burning her fingers.

Oh dear.

I keep that notebook in the living room so I can jot things down during the day when I don’t have access to the laptop, otherwise I end up scribbling on anything to hand, but it also contains pages and pages of photographs.

Of faces.

They are mainly famous, as they tend to have more photos available, and either torn from magazines or printed. I use them when I’m writing because I struggle a bit with descriptions (is that cheating?). When a character pops into my head, I then search for a face that fits to help me visualise them on the page (isn’t the Internet wonderful?). I don’t know anything about them in real life other than their name because they become my character. I once had to convince a hairdresser to let me rip out a page of her magazine for a face I liked – although I told her it was because I wanted to keep the story.

On the opposite page to the photos I write all the character development stuff the creative writing books say are necessary. That day my pen was bookmarking the photos and details for the character of Alex, although the lady above is Emma and I could tell you all about her, right down to her shoe size, if you wanted (I’m a lot of fun at parties).

But my new friend? She doesn’t know any of this and I accept, on the surface, that having lots of photos of random peoples’ faces stuck in a book might seem a bit…strange, bordering on weird, maybe. Hence her reaction.

I stood there for a couple of seconds and pondered what to do. Do I let her know that I had spotted her being nosy which is potentially embarrassing or ignore it and hope she didn’t hold it against me? And if I did call her out there was then the question of how to explain what was in the notebook.

Is it better to be considered a stalker or seem pretentious by announcing to someone I don’t know all that well “I’m a writer, dahling”?

I went with stalker.

She knows I am a journalist but I still struggle with saying the words “I’m writing a book” out loud (clearly I have no trouble telling you over and over again). I’m hoping it might come up in conversation, you know, if she doesn’t start blocking my calls and avoiding me in the street.

And if she finds out the truth and that doesn’t put her off… wait till I tell her I’m a blogger!