I am honored to have Piers Alexander, author of The Bitter Trade (reviewed on Monday) on the Back Porch today for a little Q & A!
In 1688, torn by rebellions, England lives under the threat of a Dutch invasion. Redheaded Calumny Spinks is the lowliest man in an Essex backwater: half-French and still unapprenticed at seventeen, yet he dreams of wealth and title.
When his father’s violent past resurfaces, Cal’s desperation leads him to become a coffee racketeer. He has just three months to pay off a blackmailer and save his father’s life - but his ambition and talent for mimicry pull him into a conspiracy against the King himself. Cal’s journey takes him from the tough life of Huguenot silk weavers to the vicious intrigues at Court. As the illicit trader Benjamin de Corvis and his controlling daughter Emilia pull him into their plots, and his lover Violet Fintry is threatened by impending war, Cal is forced to choose between his conscience and his dream of becoming Mister Calumny Spinks.
About the Author
Piers Alexander is an author and serial entrepreneur. After a successful career as CEO of media and events companies he became a Co-Founder and Chairman of three start-up businesses. In 2013 he was awarded the PEN Factor Prize for The Bitter Trade. He is currently working on the sequel, Scatterwood, set in Jamaica in 1692.
For more information visit Piers Alexander’s website. You can also find him on Facebook, Twitter, and Goodreads.
1. How did you get the story idea for The Bitter Trade?
My wife had come up with an idea for a futuristic conspiracy involving coffee, which had been swirling round my mind before it reappeared when I was writing my diary one day. I found I was describing a rebellious redheaded character called Calumny Spinks, who was watching the hustle and bustle of Restoration London from a rooftop when he fell through the tiles and into a stash of contraband spices...
I didn't have an exact year to set it in until I happened to take a break outside the wonderful London Library. There's a statue of William of Orange in St James's Square: I saw it and took out my smartphone, and realised that the Glorious Revolution made the perfect backdrop for a tale of conspiracy, racketeering and lusty adventures!
2. Having lived in more than one country, how many languages do you speak?
Italian, delightfully (grammar and vocabulary limited; hand gestures perfect)
3. What draws you to the book's time period?
The exuberant, breathtaking pace of social, scientific, philosophical and political change. 1688 was the start of the Long Eighteenth Century in England, and to me it's when our modern way of thinking and living emerged, so it's fascinating to me. Most importantly, I think it would have been an amazing time to live: you could walk into a coffeehouse and match wits with great minds; and an ambitious person could make something of themselves, crossing social boundaries. Plus there were pirates.
4. What are your views on the institutionalized religious intolerance of the time?
The same as my views of today's religious intolerance! I think there have always been people who want to make others belong to their organisations and power structures, and there have always been free thinkers - who are generally persecuted and killed even more than followers of rival religions. In The Bitter Trade, I make it pretty clear that I am with the free thinkers.
One thing that's fascinating about the Restoration and the Glorious Revolution is that acts of toleration (including James II's Declaration of Indulgence) were enacted in order to shore up support on one side or another: political instability had the effect of decreasing religious intolerance and putting toleration on a legal basis. That's something that is fundamental to English civil society, and I hope it never goes away.
5. If you could be friends with one of your characters, whom would you choose and why?
The leprous coffee-woman, Mistress John Hollow. She's strong and wise, but unafraid to insult and challenge, and would make great company on a cold and muggy London evening.
6. Do you drink coffee? If so, how do you take it?
Oh yes. I take too much of it, usually in the form of a flat white, which is an Australian/NZ innovation that has taken London by storm. Bitter as experience, milky as innocence, with rich chocolatey depths!
7. What is a 'hunt saboteur mature student'?
He was a fellow student with sincere left-wing views who used to go out into Yorkshire of a weekend and disrupt people's fox-hunting. Quite a dangerous occupation, and he was arrested more than once for it.
8. Is Lulu your only pet?
She is. I do tend to monopolise other people's animals though...
9. What do you hope readers take away from The Bitter Trade?
I love it when readers say they lost themselves in seventeenth century London. To me that's the best thing about writing and reading historical fiction: you get into a time machine and lose yourself in history.
I do also have some quite fierce things to say about women and outsiders and how our habit of medicating ourselves (legally or not) tends to leave a destructive wake. So perhaps a little of that might linger in a reader's mind.
Most of all, I hope they enjoy the adventure, and Calumny's sheer cheekiness.
10. Which writer from history (including the present) would you most like to meet?
From history: The emperor Marcus Aurelius. To be the most powerful man in the world, and take the time to muse on life, death and the temporariness of experience: I'd buy him a flat white for sure.
From the present: I'm lucky enough to have married my favourite contemporary author!
Thank you for visiting today, Piers, and for your time in answering the questions. Best of success with this tour and I'm looking forward to "Scatterwood"!