Blending Art and Fiction: An Interview with Alex Connor

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A connoisseur of fine art and a marvellous artist herself, Alex Connor’s meticulous eye for detail and ever-present eagerness for a new challenge has taken her from writing non-fiction and historical books, to producing captivating thrillers such as The Rembrandt Secret and Legacy of Blood. Alex’s deep interest in the history of the art world and the Old Masters manifests itself in fictitious fashion as we explore the lost secrets of artists such as Hogarth and Rembrandt. With her latest novel, The Memory of Bones, released last November, we catch up with Alex and ask her a few questions. 

B: When did you first become aware of your appreciation for art, and were there any particular reasons that it came about? Was art always the subject you appreciated most at school?

I was an odd kid, always hanging around art galleries and peering into windows at anything with a frame around it! 

I don't know why - I genuinely believe that is something in my DNA - like other people are good at sports - which draws me to art. And when I realised I could recognise a painter by his colours, his brushwork, his technique, even his positioning of sitters, that was a fabulous moment. It's like recognising birdsong, or a piece of music. 

That's what art appreciation resembles. The recognition of a particular hand, a peculiar skill. And the artists you admire the most become old friends to you, their work as familiar as your own face.

B: Your own art is simply spectacular. At what stage did an appreciation of art and the Old Masters transform into a need to try painting for your own, or did it seem to happen simultaneously?

First of all, thank you for the compliment! 

Mine was a unique apprenticeship, because I was stalked and beaten up, which lead to my being hospitalised. It's amazing what trauma can do.

I was desperate to put my focus - and considerable ambition - into something. And I chose art because I had always been fascinated by the history of art. I'd had little facility before my head hit the Kensington pavement! But apparently it loosened something and after a huge amount of hard work and diligence, I found success. 

Aware that I could see easily be dismissed as an autodidact, I learnt the demanding techniques of the Old Masters, starting from a position of total ignorance, and learning, brush stroke by brush stroke, how to master my craft.

B: With a successful career as an artist and a writer, and with successful appearances on television and regular contributions to radio, could you have ever envisioned that you would have the chance to be involved with so many different opportunities?

Well, if I'm honest, I have to say that I have ferocious ambition and a very low boredom threshold! I love to experiment, and I adore learning new things. In fact I'm scared of not doing ENOUGH! Opportunities should be pursued, grabbed, and used. Never be afraid of failure, humiliation never killed anyone.

B: What inspired you to take the leap from historical and non-fiction books to writing fast-paced thrillers? Was it simply the need for a new challenge, or did you perhaps feel that you could bring your knowledge of the art world to a wider audience?

I wanted to write about the art world because it's fascinating. It's also a very closed world, one which most people would never get to experience. As a writer, I think we all want people to share and enjoy what we most love. 

Besides, the art world deals in beauty, and there can never be enough of that. 

Of course, to counteract the beauty, I write about the dark side. We all want to experience that. Not at first hand, but once removed, like watching Niagara Falls from the safety of the railed platform. 

Thrillers should excite, frighten, intrigue and haunt us. 

Q: With these novels paying close attention to detail, I imagine your experience in studying the art world for many years was invaluable. How much new research was needed to make these books possible? Or was it mostly knowledge that you already had from previous experiences?

Much of what I write is knowledge gleaned over the years, but a chance fact or painting might set me off. Then I work out if there is enough of a story to make it into a book. Could I create good characters? Could I make the story memorable? 

You see, taking huge figures from the past - like Rembrandt, Hogarth, Goya and Titian - you have to make sure that the contemporary story and the contemporary characters don't pale into insignificance beside them.

Then I weave what I know together with what I imagine, to make the novel. Incidentally, it sounds easy, but it usually takes a month to do all the planning and research before you even write the words - CHAPTER ONE.

Q: With a busy schedule painting and writing, do you get much time to read recreationally? If so, who are some of your favourite authors or some of your most enjoyable reads? Do you tend to stick to the world of thrillers or is your taste more eclectic?

Great question! I love the Russians, old and not so old. Turgenev, Pushin, Solzhenitsyn, etc. and the powerful French writers like Balzac and Zola. My favourite book is Therese Raquin, and not just because it's a story of a doomed relationship which leads to murder. But because Zola writes in a very modern way. It's a story which could be written now. 

I also love Dashiell Hammett and Pete Dexter. Oh, and I can't stop reading - and buying - art books!

Q: Similarly, when it comes to music does your love of the Old Masters in the art world equate to a love of the classical composers such as Mozart and Bach? Or do you have a taste in music slightly more unexpected?

I play music when I work. Prokofiev for plotting, Joe Cocker for sex scenes (!) and the old Sinatra Rat Pack for pacy dialogue. When it comes to eerie music, you can beat Ravel. Or, if it comes to that, Mussorgsky. 

(And my guilty pleasure in music? The Scissor Sisters....)

Q: With such a varied and established career, what would be the key piece of advice that you would give to an aspiring writer or even artist, looking to make it in the future?

If you want to be a writer, buy a pen. I'm not kidding, that's all you need. Just be grateful you didn't want to be a tennis player or a bassoonist, with all that equipment to carry around. A writer needs a pen, and their imagination. And a longing to say something to the world. Oh, and you need persistence. Loads of it.

Writers write. All the time. Don't be afraid of what you're putting down, just put it on paper, or computer. Just write. Train your mind to think like a writer. Listen, watch, absorb the world and let it speak through you in your own words.

As for being a painter, art is a career you have to worship. It's heart breaking, full of rejections, competition, injustice, lack of money and criticism, but that's what makes a painter into an artist. Because when you're really pushed and you don't give up - just push back harder - you're half way there. 

The rest is endurance and that ephemeral belief in oneself without which no one is a success at anything.

Q: Lastly, your next novel ‘Memory of Bones’ was released last November. What can you tell us about it? Are we in for another mysterious journey deep into the murky depths of the art world?   

Few people know that Goya's head is missing - that was the starting point of this book. Then I asked myself what would happen if the art world's greatest relic was found?  If the skull turned up and unleashed mayhem?  I also wanted to write about Goya because of his Black Paintings. You see, no one believes they have a meaning - and that intrigues me. Why was this artist buried without his head? And what did these astonishing late works really mean? 

Well, I've lived with The Black Paintings for eight years, studied them, reproduced them (illustrations in the book) and I've come up with a theory of my own. Of course I could be wrong.  But I don't believe Goya - the most human and humane of artists - was an embittered old man, broken by the world. I don't believe he was a madman either. I think he wanted to tell us something and chose the only means at his disposal - paint. Forget that the Black Paintings are pictures. Instead READ them. Because they do have a structure to them, a story line. Or so I believe.

That was why I wrote THE MEMORY OF BONES, and now I leave it up to the reader to judge.


Be sure to purchase Alex Connor’s thriller The Memory of Bones here, you certainly won't regret it.

Ben Johnson

"There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed." - Ernest Hemingway.

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