James Rice, author of Alice and the Fly
James Rice is a first-time novelist whose debut novel, Alice and the Fly, was released this year having won (for the first chapter) the Writing On The Wall festival’s Pulp Idol competition. James has written since he was a teenager and also has a strong interest in music. Having studied Creative Writing at Liverpool John Moores, he now works part-time as a bookseller while working on his writing.

Alice and the Fly is James's first novel. Already being compared to The Shock of the Fall, it follows an isolated teenage boy as he struggles with mental illness while trying to win the heart of a girl and facing all the normal challenges of adolescence. The idea having come to James as a teenager, the story’s form was refined over the years until it was picked up by Hodder & Stoughton.

You can read my review here: Alice and the Fly by James Rice

Your central character, Greg, has been diagnosed with schizophrenia and contends with a phobia throughout the story – what made you want to write about a character with mental health problems?

I wanted to write from the POV of someone with a very distinct way of viewing the world. His phobia and his hallucinations are a big part of who he is – they were my starting point in terms of his character. Also the stigma that comes with mental illness sets him up as an outcast. There’s a lot of prejudice and I wanted to try subvert that. Greg’s society sees him as this dark menace – they’re all just waiting for him to do something awful. And he doesn’t help himself; he lives up to a lot of their stereotypes (unintentionally). But, because we see his motives, we know the real Greg – the harmless, romantic Greg. We know that he’s a product of his situation, that it’s not his fault.

How much would you say Greg is a typical teenage boy with typical concerns, and how much is his life shaped by his mental illness?

His concerns are universal. He just wants to find someone who accepts him for who he is – which is what we all want, right? He fixates on his phobia, which causes his isolation – but his isolation makes him fixate on his phobia. It’s a horrible cycle.

What would you say to anyone who is concerned about the portrayal of mentally ill people as potentially dangerous?

That it’s a completely understandable concern. But that’s not what I’m doing. Greg’s story is a self-fulfilling prophecy – it’s people’s expectations that force him towards the incident that occurs in the final chapters. (I won’t say any more to avoid spoilers.) Also, the world around Greg is much more violent and corrupt than he is. I’m aware Greg behaves oddly throughout the book and that his actions can seem… uncomfortable, but that’s the point. People are free to make their own judgements (and will, I’m sure).

Most people around Greg are so wrapped up in their own lives that they fail to connect with him on any meaningful level – how much did you want the novel to be about Greg’s story, and how much is it about the world around him?

We’re all wrapped up in ourselves all the time. That’s how we live. We are such a selfish species. We don’t like to admit it, but we are.

The first draft had a lot more about Greg’s family and classmates, but I cut a lot of it to focus on Greg and Alice. I was revelling in his view of the world too much, when I needed to concentrate on the main plot. But hopefully there’s enough left to give a taste of what was lost.

The language of repression, obsession, and Metaphorical Phantoms could just as easily be hurled at many of the characters not labelled as mentally ill in the story – would it be fair to say labels sometimes hide the truth of reality, that perhaps normality is a shield that deflects attention away from many of the characters and towards the more easy targets in the novel, like Greg?

Yes, exactly. Well put. It’s Greg’s label that sets him apart as an outcast. I think any kind of labelling is just bad for the world in general. (Except maybe on like, tinned goods.)

On this topic: I think mental illness is this obvious theme that everyone picks up on because it’s such a discussable subject – but I don’t think it defines Greg, or the novel. This is not a book about what it’s like to live day-to-day with schizophrenia (I’d recommend The Shock of the Fall if this is what you’re looking for [though chances are you’ve already read it]). It’s a story about what it’s like to be an outcast, what it’s like to be a teenager, what it’s like to be in love. I don’t want to focus on the themes of mental illness too much.

The landscape of the novel is almost dystopic and is undoubtedly bleak, from the social conditions of many of the characters to the internal struggles that they face. Is there room for hope in Alice and the Fly’s world?

I hope so. It’s bleak, yes, but so’s life. And just like life, there’s love in the novel, if you look hard enough for it. You have to hold on to that.

Parenting in the novel is pretty roundly poor – we know from the dedication that this in no way reflects your upbringing, so what led you to examine parental duties in this way, and should the reader assume that when Greg’s dad claims that ‘someone is always to blame’ it is an indictment of not just parents but the wider society when children (and others) are not cared for?

And Sarah says the blame lies with ‘all of us’. I agree; everyone lets Greg down. Even Miss Hayes, who is trying her best to do the opposite. In a lot of ways Greg is the least to blame – he just wants to be with Alice.

In terms of examining parental duties – you’re right, Greg’s parents are pretty awful. And I do hope readers take note of that dedication because people tend to assume debut novels are largely autobiographical, and my parents are lovely. Greg’s mum is one of my favourite characters though because she is an obscene exaggeration of all those middle class sensibilities and I thought it would be interesting to see how she dealt with Greg (not very well, it seems).

Inevitably, Alice and the Fly is going to be compared the The Shock of the Fall and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. You’re probably sick of reading comparisons in reviews already (good company though those books are), so give us some better comparisons – which books did you think of while you were working on Alice and the Fly?

They’re the recurring comparisons, yes. And it’s understandable, with them both being so big right now. I didn’t read Curious Incident… until very late on in the writing of Alice… (after being told I should by a lot of people) and The Shock of the Fall wasn’t published until after I’d handed in the manuscript, so it’s impossible to credit that as an influence (though this doesn’t stop the press from doing so).

The main influence was my own teenage years (I came up with the general concept in school). Once I started writing Alice… I read a lot of other novels with teen narrators. I’d single out Howard Buten’s When I was Five I Killed Myself as an influence. Richard Milward’s Apples and Joe Dunthorne’s Submarine too, as they’re the books I think of when I think back to the beginning of the writing process.

A word on the cover of the hardback edition of Alice and the Fly – it is gorgeous. Who’s the designer?

Yeah, Hodder did a great job. I would have chosen a terrible, glum cover if they left it up to me, and nobody would have ever bought a copy. The illustration is by Yan Qin Weng – www.3daysmarch.net

Alice and the Fly exists in a space between YA and Adult fiction, I would say. Where would you pitch it, or what market were you thinking of when writing it?

I was writing it for me, really, so wasn’t thinking too much about marketing. But you’re right, it could be either. Although I sort of believe YA is a strange label to put on a book; once you’re a teenager you’re reading adult books anyway, and half the people who read YA are adults. I’d class Alice as adult, but I don’t mind when people refer to it as YA.

You’re a bookseller at the moment – it must be fantastic to be surrounded by books every day, but how do you ever find time to write?

I don’t really write enough. I try. I only work part time (usually) so I find days or odd hours to write. Alice took me about three years but I didn’t have a clue what I was doing and made a mess of the whole process. I’m a better writer now, I think.

Do you think working as a bookseller has improved your writing, or helped you along the way to publication?

It hasn’t helped me get published, but it’s helped me be a better writer in that it’s helped me be a better reader. To be a good writer you have to read a lot. Working in a bookshop you tend to buy at least one book per shift.

You’ve done both an undergraduate and postgraduate degree in Creative Writing at Liverpool John Moores – it’s a subject that has had some high-profile critics (Hanif Kureishi wrting in the Guardian, for example) but how do you feel the courses helped your writing?

I understand the criticism on one level, because there are fundamental parts to being a writer you can’t teach. But the discipline and the techniques and even just basic stuff like formatting is all stuff people need to learn. I owe a lot to the courses, particularly the MA. I know I wouldn’t have written the book without the help of my peers and the routine of regular deadlines. Before you’re published it’s hard to get anyone to take you seriously as a writer and having an MA group is your one place you can feel like you’re doing something worthwhile. I think that’s important.

Music seems to be a big part of your life – how does this affect your writing?

It distracts me quite a lot. I spend days sat round writing songs instead of working on my novel. Sometimes I need the distraction though. Also, Alice started as a concept album – which is a little factoid I always enjoy telling people. It’s an amusing image, I think – a 16 year old me, sat in my bedroom, Pink Floyd T-shirt, hair down to my ass, recording 8-minute long songs on my laptop using an Encore guitar and a Casio keyboard. It works better as a book.

What are you working on at the moment?

My second novel. It’s essentially two friends walking and thinking and talking for two hundred or so pages. It’s set in Wales. It’s better than I make it sound (I hope).

Which authors / books do you enjoy reading?

Nicholson Baker, David Foster Wallace, A.M. Homes, Hubert Selby Jnr, George Saunders, Haruki Murakami, Raymond Carver, Charles Bukowski, John Fante, Don Delillo, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Cormac McCarthy, Margaret Atwood, Lydia Davis, Deborah Kay Davies, Niall Griffiths… etc. I’ll read anything. I’m a sucker for a list. Like I’ll find a list online of '20 Best Books about Farming Set in Rural Wales’ and I’ll try to work my way through. But I’ll never make it because then I’ll see a list of '50 Best Debut Novels about Animals’ or something. The cycle never ends.

Favourite word, and why?

Right now? ‘Bed’. Because it’s late.

If you'd like to find out more about James Rice and his work, you can follow him on Twitter. Alice and the Fly is available now, in both hardback and e-formats.

Useful Links
Alice and the Fly on Amazon (UK)
Alice and the Fly on Amazon (US)
James Rice on Twitter

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