Q&A with Keir Alexander, author of The Ruby Slippers

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Questions by Harriet

1.  With such an unusual and imaginative plot, the first question has to be – where did the idea for The Ruby Slippers first come from?

It started with a dream I had in 1988; an actual dream, I mean. I was at home and nearly asleep one night, when I heard a man’s voice say as clear as day: ‘Do the red shoes’. It was as if someone was in the room speaking loud and clear. I later found out that it’s called a hypnagogic hallucination and is quite common, but the message was mystifying. I had no connection with red shoes and no creative outlets at this time, but the words were exactly as I had heard them. The experience stayed with me and I remained curious from then on.

I got hold of Hans Christian Andersen’s story ‘The Red Shoes’ which is all about a girl who is so vain and obsessed with dancing, that when she puts on a pair of magic red shoes, they take her feet over so that she can’t stop the dance. In the end she is only saved from dancing into damnation when a woodcutter comes along and cuts off her feet. It’s a story with a vicious moral, so I wasn’t drawn to it at all. Next, I had a look at the Powell and Pressburger film of 1947 of the same name; it’s about a young acclaimed dancer who falls in love with a gifted composer and falls under his spell and the whole thing ends in tragedy. But once more it didn’t do much for me, so I went back into the dark. Then, in 1992, I heard that Kate Bush was bringing out an album called The Red Shoes. I was really looking forward to hearing it, but when I finally got hold of it, it came as a disappointment – inferior to her earlier stuff and containing nothing meaningful for me – so I carried on none the wiser.

It wasn’t until twelve years later that anything significant came up. I met my eldest daughter one day, who was wearing a badge which had an image on it of the Ruby Slippers (from the film), and I just said out loud ‘That’s it’. I had no idea why, but I knew absolutely. I ought to point out that the slippers in The Wizard of Oz held no special meaning for me and I’ve always been impervious to most of the sentiments expressed in the film. My mother took me to see it when I was five, in the little cinema that used to be at Oxford Circus. I remember watching it up to the point where the wicked Witch of the West appears, then shot out of my seat and ran out of the door and into the street, never to return. Notwithstanding the early trauma, I decided to check it out on the web and so discovered some intriguing facts about the iconography and the paraphernalia, – the ones in the Smithsonian, the ones had been stolen or sold for fortunes and the replicas you can buy cheap and wear in your own home, that kind of thing. Particularly noteworthy was the gay interest which extended to Judy Garland herself. As soon as I had browsed it all, I sat down and wrote a synopsis – as simple as that. It kind-of wrote itself spontaneously.

2. An important theme in the novel is the migration to America of people from Europe – in this case Latvia – and the difficulties and dangers involved. Is this something that has always interested you, or did the interest develop in the course of writing?

My father’s ancestors on his father’s side came, as I recently discovered, from Bohemia, in the mid 19th Century; they were German Catholics and my great grandfather was a glass engraver. My mother’s parents were respectively Russian and Romanian Jews who met on the boat, both intending to go to America but ending up in London, so there’s clearly an ancestral connection here. Latvia has a tragic and fascinating history because of the way in which the Soviets and the Nazi’s took it over in quick succession and then back again. Rosa and Michael are two characters I kind of know, even though they never existed as such.

3. This is your first novel, and we know you have worked in theatre and film and are now a school teacher. But have you always had ambitions to be a writer?

Not always, but as a child yes, though these ended up being side-lined for over forty years. I started writing as soon as I could read, which was aged five. There wasn’t any real quality to my writing because my reading was pretty trashy on the whole and came from comics, annuals and library books, so was very mixed. Every now and then my mother forced a ‘classic’ on me, so there was some good stuff mixed up in there. I ended up burying my writing pretensions for nearly forty years when I decided to become a film writer/director. That in turn led me to start writing in earnest, but that’s another story altogether.

4. Can you tell us something about what the writing process is like for you?

I work in a small study cum spare room in our small house in a village near Hastings. It’s cosy enough and Helly, my wife, made great curtains and decorated it to make it bright and pleasant to work in. That said, I’ve always been able to write anywhere – in cars and on trains, buses and planes. I could do it on a beach, but it wouldn’t go down well with Helly who already puts up with me ‘going absent’ on her in all kinds of situations. I used to toy with the idea of being sent to prison where I could not only write in peace but would acquire excellent credentials. The trouble was I couldn’t work out a guaranteed victimless crime to get me sent down.

5. What’s next for Keir Alexander? Is there a second novel in the pipeline?

I’ve been working for ages on what to write next – testing out this idea and that, until I feel committed to enough to go with one. There’s been at least six rattling around in my head during the past year and I’m still not decided on a ‘winner’.  The sensible inclination would be to try and to follow up on The Ruby Slippers but I couldn’t write this kind of book twice, nor would want to. As for genre, it’s people, I suppose, in all their bewildering existences: the hopeless and the hilarious, the tired and the inspired, the mundane and the magic.

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Harriet is one of the Shiny editors and reviewed The Ruby Slippers here.

Keir Alexander, The Ruby Slippers (Corsair, March 2014), 432 pages.

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