Interview With an Author: Alex Hay

Daryl M., Librarian, West Valley Regional Branch Library,
Author Alex Hay and his debut novel, The Housekeepers
Author Alex Hay and his debut novel, The Housekeepers

Alex Hay grew up in the United Kingdom in Cambridge and Cardiff and has been writing as long as he can remember. He studied history at the University of York and wrote his dissertation on female power at royal courts, combing the archives for every scrap of drama and skullduggery he could find. He has worked in magazine publishing and the charity sector and lives with his husband in London. His debut novel, The Housekeepers won the Caledonia Novel Award, and he recently talked about it with Daryl Maxwell for the LAPL Blog.

What was your inspiration for The Housekeepers?

The idea for this novel came back in the summer of 2020. I had been noodling with the idea of trying to write a heist novel because I wanted to poke around in the clever engineering of that plot structure. And I’d been circling the opulent, enterprising 1900s for a while, pondering whether I could set a story in a fictionalized version of a dazzling West London mansion. These were huge, impressive houses staffed by a seemingly endless supply of obedient servants. But what if those servants weren’t so obedient? What if they wanted to grab a bit of privilege for themselves? And thus the world of The Housekeepers began to take shape…

Are Mrs. King, Mrs. Bone, Alice, Winnie, Hephzibah, Jane 1, Jane 2, Miss de Vries, or any of the other characters in the novel inspired by or based on specific individuals?

They’re all completely fictional. I’ve given them traits I admire—leadership, ambition, compassion, loyalty. And things I don’t—but probably come from me! Envy, irritability, disagreeable moods. But of course, we’ll glide merrily over THOSE traits…

How did the novel evolve and change as you wrote and revised it? Are there any characters or scenes that were lost in the process that you wish had made it to the published version?

I wrote a detailed scene plan, building the plot from the ground up, and wrote a first draft as quickly as I could, just to fling the story down. But there were all sorts of holes, mostly to do with character motivation and emotional stakes. So I had to do lots of paring back and honing and rebuilding of the people in my story. My fierce financier and incognito servant Mrs. Bone started life as two separate characters, glued together in the second draft—but she is so real to me now I find it almost impossible to remember her former self. I lost one character I rather enjoyed: the sardonic and suspicious household secretary, Miss Bernier—who possessed a rather useful photographic memory. She wasn’t carrying enough story so she had to go, but I wonder if I could recycle her one day…

How familiar were you with late early 20th century London and the running of a large house like Park Lane? Did you have to do a bit of research? If so, how long did it take you to do the necessary research and then write The Housekeepers?

I’d absorbed a lot by osmosis by reading around the period over the years but I did lots of research for my own satisfaction, to try and gather authentic and immersive details about the house at the heart of Park Lane. This is a book about a robbery, so getting the furnishings right felt rather important! As the story evolved, I also went digging into the darker side of the period, for example reading poignant and provoking accounts of the dark side of the service trade. J Mordaunt Crook’s The Rise of the Nouveaux Riches provided fantastic detail on the economic tensions of the era. Novels from or set in the era were hugely instructive. I read The Well of Loneliness by Radclyffe Hall a year or two before starting The Housekeepers—and there is a novel full of characters who instantly feel ‘modern’ and real: driving motor cars, forging careers, grappling with their sexuality—all threads in my book too…

What was the most interesting or surprising thing that you learned during your research?

Really, how many of these opulent and extraordinary mansions, once strewn all across West London, have now been lost to redevelopment or the Blitz. You can see smidges of them on the horizon—for example, the high-gothic turrets of Brook House still stand on Park Lane, now dwarfed by the Dorchester Hotel. But most of the rest are gone.

Do you have a favorite real heist that was attempted or pulled off?

Oh gosh, this is a great question, but no—the joy for me was playing in an entirely imaginary world, making up the most audacious heist I could muster…

Do you have a favorite heist novel, movie, or television show? A least favorite? (I realize that you may not want to address this one and if that is the case, please don’t. But I also realize it might be so bad that it could be fun to answer.)

The Housekeepers ( has been described as Downton Abbey meets Ocean’s Eleven and this is high praise indeed, as I think Ocean’s is an absolute masterclass in the form. I love the 2001 film, which is so beautifully constructed. I’m sure it inspires everybody who aims to write a heist!

Do you have an idea or theory regarding why it is that we find heists so fascinating and compelling?

I think it’s twofold. First, heists have such gorgeous and compelling architecture. Clear movements: gathering a team, laying a plan, surmounting a million obstacles, going for gold at the end. The protagonist is seeking a wonderful, splendid, glittering prize—and it’s ALWAYS satisfying to chase riches and fine rewards. And secondly, the beauty of a heist is it’s often about metaphorical treasure as much as literal—about chasing emotional truth. It’s about righting wrongs, serving justice, upending norms/rules/hierarchies. That holds immense appeal.

What’s currently on your nightstand?

I’ve just started a historical debut called The Other Side of Mrs. Wood by Lucy Barker, which has just been released in North America and I think would rather appeal to readers of The Housekeepers. It’s witty, acerbic, thoughtful, full of rich period detail—all moving in the highly competitive séance scene of the late nineteenth century. I can’t wait to get back to it!

Can you name your most influential authors?

I admire Kate Atkinson immensely: she just builds the richest, most dizzying and inventive plots, with an unutterably clever, gripping voice. Her novel Life After Life is probably one of my most gifted books ever.

One of my all-time favourite authors is Ruth Rendell, author of masterclass novels like A Dark Adapted Eye and Live Flesh and The Tree of Hands. She’s just extraordinary: so prolific, with such immaculate prose, and you can tell she crafted and recrafted her stories with art and discipline and skill and great care.

Ditto Daphne du Maurier, Donna Tartt, so many others…

As a debut author, what have you learned during the process of getting your novel published that you would like to share with other writers about this experience?

I do think it pays to be clear on the ‘hook’ at the heart of your novel—to make sure the story has coherence and to help agents grasp what you’re trying to do (if agent representation is your goal). When I look back at my query letter from November 2021, I see phrases that have rippled all the way down to the blurb on the back of the book today, so I think that time and consideration on the query package was helpful.

Working with editors on both side of the Atlantic has been immensely instructive. From them I learned so much about building a robust framework for a story, creating good strong underpinnings to the plot, and trying to get the right level of detail and coherence to hand-hold the reader through a sometimes complex plot and a rather wide and dizzying cast of characters.

What was your favorite book when you were a child?

I loved the melancholy and strangeness of The Princess and the Goblin by George MacDonald. E Nesbit was a favourite, especially Five Children and It and The Story of the Amulet. I raced through Enid Blyton, then Harry Potter, and in my teens started on big eighteenth century doorstoppers like The Mysteries of Udolpho by Ann Radcliffe and Cecilia by Frances Burney. I was given an extraordinary gift as a child, which was freedom to read widely and wildly and in any direction I liked. It gave me a love and joy and need to read, and it underpinned my imagination and academic abilities, and I am certain it set me up for life. Helping children to read with confidence and skill and joy is so important.

Was there a book you felt you needed to hide from your parents?

I don’t think so, although my mother raised an eyebrow when I ordered a triple box-set by Jilly CooperRiders, Rivals and Polo.

Is there a book you've faked reading?

No! Life is too short to be ashamed of the things you haven’t read yet…

Can you name a book you've bought for the cover?

Ooh, what a fabulous question. The Binding by Bridget Collins was stunning. So was The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton. Probably those two.

Is there a book that changed your life?

No one single book, but reading changed my life—it gave me imagination and empathy and the ability to communicate clearly and confidently which is a game-changer for a child. I had shortcomings in other academic areas, but reading was a superpower, and I’m forever grateful for it.

Can you name a book for which you are an evangelist (and you think everyone should read)?

I love The House of Stairs by Barbara Vine (nom de plume for Ruth Rendell) because it’s my ‘catnip’ book—big house, bad people, an undertow of dread, a slow-burn build to catastrophic reveals. But I sometimes dare not recommend it to people because when they don’t enjoy it I feel sort of furious.

I press Nora Roberts on a lot of people. She gives me a sense of well-being and joy, and I’m kinder to my friends and family when I read her books. A big chunky suspense novel by Nora is an ideal holiday read for me.

Is there a book you would most want to read again for the first time?

Life After Life by Kate Atkinson.

What is the last piece of art (music, movies, tv, more traditional art forms) that you've experienced or that has impacted you?

I’ve been reading a lot of fin de siècle fiction, full of moody, dangerous, strange imagery that underpinned the first draft of a new novel.

What is your idea of THE perfect day (where you could go anywhere/meet with anyone)?

A morning of uninterrupted writing time with a pot of black coffee. A long walk with my husband or dear friend. An hour to read a new novel. A glass of prosecco and the latest episode of Ru Paul’s Drag Race.

What are you working on now?

I’ve drafted a standalone novel set in the same world as The Housekeepers. but starring a fresh cast and a new dastardly scheme.

Book cover of The housekeepers : a novel
The Housekeepers: A Novel
Hay, Alex