Belinda Alexandra is an international bestselling author with a whole string of blockbuster historicals to her credit, but she has taken a new path with her latest book, The Mystery Woman.
It has been characterized by one reviewer as “Australian Gothic”, a story of secrets, lies and unexplained death in a 1950s country town. In some ways it has a few similarities to Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, or hints of it.
Hi there, I’m your host, Jenny Wheeler and today in Binge Reading Belinda talks about her long road to publication, her passion for cats, and why psychopathic personality traits seem to be more evident today than ever before.
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Six things you’ll learn from this Joys of Binge Reading episode:
- The long road to publication
- Writing books with a fulltime job
- The family story that gave Belinda breakthrough
- Why cats are a life long love
- Is psychopathology a sign of our times?
- The writers she admires the most
Where to find Belinda Alexandra:
What follows is a “near as” transcript of our conversation, not word for word but pretty close to it, with links to important mentions.
But now, here’s Belinda.
Introducing Belinda Alexandra
Jenny Wheeler: Hello there, Belinda and welcome to the show. It’s so good to have you with us.
Belinda Alexandra: It’s so good to be speaking with you, Jenny.
Jenny Wheeler: You are a bestselling and highly successful author. When I started this podcast and asked around amongst my friends, a lot of times they said, “get Belinda Alexandra on”, so your name is really well known.
The latest book we are going to be talking about today is The Mystery Woman. It has been called “Australian Gothic” by one reviewer, and you have said that it’s a bit of a departure from some of your earlier books. Tell us about how it’s different.
Belinda Alexandra: A lot of my earlier books were big historical sagas – sweeping generations and across countries and so on. But I think there comes a time in every author’s life, especially when we have written quite a few books, when there is that other book inside of us we want to write.
I had been very influenced by classic noir mystery stories. My mother used to gobble those down and I used to watch them with her when I was a child, so I think I always had that desire in me to write something more contained.
It was an opportunity to do that. I think we like to stretch ourselves as authors and to do something a bit different, so I wanted to create a story that was in a more claustrophobic environment in a small Australian town – the sort of thing that you could imagine you would watch on TV, looking through your fingers, with a sense of suspense and an atmosphere about it.
Shades of du Maurier’s Rebecca
Jenny Wheeler: As you’ve been talking, and as I was picturing you with your mother, it does have shades of Rebecca, doesn’t it?
Belinda Alexandra: Yes. I wanted to give a nod to that because that was one of the books I’ve loved, but also the classic film by Alfred Hitchcock was so wonderfully done. When we talk about Gothic, a lot of the time people get confused by that term.
They think it might mean vampire novels or horror fiction, but a classic Gothic story is a story that has elements of suspense, and usually a setting that could be naturally beautiful, but it has a sense of foreboding about it.
You’ve got a damsel in distress and always the troubled male protagonist and a beast somewhere. It can either be a beast within or an actual physical beast – a wolf or something else that is creating terror. One of the best descriptions I have ever heard for Gothic fiction is when they call it pleasurable terror.
Jenny Wheeler: Yes, that’s a great description. As you mentioned, The Mystery Woman is set in small town, rural Australia in the 1950s. There is a slightly historical element, but it’s a rather modern historical. Rebecca retreats to a fictional place called Shipwreck Bay to escape a scandal in Sydney, and discovers that it’s not what it seems beneath the bucolic beauty of country life. How did that particular aspect of the story develop for you?
Pretty but foreboding real terror
Belinda Alexandra: Continuing on with this sense of the Gothic and the foreboding, I personally feel that if I saw a house that looked haunted or scary, I wouldn’t go near it. To me, it has obviously got some dark past to it, and I wouldn’t be the person you see in the horror movies who always goes down to the basement. That would not be me. That would just be sending signals.
What I think is really frightening is when something looks friendly and inviting and completely safe, as this lovely small town in a very picturesque setting on the New South Wales coast does. To me, when it has got that sense of the darkness or the foreboding underneath such a pretty and inviting place, and such lovely people on the surface, that holds much more terror than a place that looks obviously frightening.
Jenny Wheeler: That’s right, and without giving anything away, some of your characters, although they seem really attractive, even at the beginning you have a little bit of a sense that maybe it isn’t all quite as it seems. You do that very cleverly.
I have seen a quote somewhere where you said this is the age of psychopaths, and without giving away any spoilers in the story, I wonder if you could expand on that statement a bit.
Belinda Alexandra: It is something I give quite a lot of thought to because, apparently, studies have shown that one in 20 people is a psychopath, so your chance of coming across one is a lot higher than you think.
Is psychopathology sign of times?
Psychopath, when we are talking about the personality disorder, is a cluster of behaviors that may have a number of causes. Not all psychopaths are going around living in basements, smelling of dead bodies and all of that.
They can be destructive in other ways, and they can come across as quite normal initially. Lots of people have married them, lots of people have hired them in their companies and so on.
Getting away from this medically diagnosed psychopath, there are other things that could be considered psychopathic attributes.
If we look at the fact that for some psychopaths it’s the environment, then we can look at the environment we’re creating in society and say, what is it about our environment that is creating people with psychopathic attributes, not necessarily the full-blown personality disorder.
Those sorts of attributes are a complete lack of empathy for others, an incredible sense of entitlement, and that one is special in a way that makes it okay for them to manipulate and use other people. I think we are seeing an increase in that for a number of reasons in our society.
One, because we have become the Me society. That attitude is encouraged. We may think the way our grandparents were brought up was terrible in many ways. They were not overly praised and so on, but it also, in many ways, made them stronger and gave them a greater sense of community. The whole community had to come together in order to survive.
Instant gratification another sign
Now, in many ways, we have become disconnected from each other. People are lacking connection. Social media can be a very positive thing, and here we are using technology to speak across the ocean to each other. It can be a very positive thing, but if we don’t nurture real connections, then we have the possibility of becoming very self-absorbed.
We also have instant gratification in our society. People go into meltdowns because their fast food or their Uber delivery is taking much longer. We are going into an age where we have people behaving like psychopaths, even if they don’t have the actual disorder.
One of the themes of The Mystery Woman is domestic violence. This is one of the things we are coming to understand.
A lot of the time we thought that men in particular who committed domestic violence were men who were out of control. They couldn’t control their alcohol consumption. They were perhaps traumatized by the war, and they had come back and been abusive.
But as we study men who are abusive now, we see that it’s quite deliberate and it’s coming from a sense of entitlement and a very conscious sense that they actually enjoy controlling and destroying a strong woman, or a woman who loves them. They despise the fact that somebody loves them and trusts them.
That is very much a characteristic of a psychopath, and so I think it’s important for us to be aware of what those characteristics are, and to make sure we’re not fostering them, especially in our children, but in each other and in ourselves.
Double standards for men & women
Jenny Wheeler: The Mystery Woman also deals with the double standard that applied in the 50s anyway, where if there was a political scandal of some sort, it was always the woman who got the blame, and the man was almost admired for being a naughty boy or a sort of red-blooded male. Do you think those double standards still apply today?
Belinda Alexandra: Do you know, up until 12 months ago, I would have said absolutely, in a scandal of any sort. We have some TV personalities, male TV personalities, who behave atrociously, they get taken off TV for two weeks, and then they’re back on with their own TV show, whereas a woman could make a slight mistake and then her career is over. She’s never heard of again.
Up until very recently that has been the case, but I’ve seen a massive turnaround in Australia.
Our New South Wales Premier, as much as the media tried to foist a scandal onto her and destroy her – using terms for the man she was involved with, because she’s an unmarried woman, like her ‘lover’, and trying to put a seedy side to what was just a normal, casual relationship, which she is fully free to have – it was women who defended her and said, every woman has made a mistake and ended up with some dodgy guy that wasn’t worthy of her.
I think it’s been a change in women, because women were quick to condemn and judge and destroy other women. We have seen that with women in high offices in Australia before, but I think women have changed now.
Australia’s whaling history
Jenny Wheeler: That’s wonderful. There is another subplot that runs through it, and that is the history of whaling in Australia. Until relatively recently, Australia was one of the active whaling nations. I know that you’ve got a very strong commitment to animals and Australian wildlife, and I wondered if you liked to bring in that thread because of your personal convictions in that area.
Belinda Alexandra: It was a good thread to bring in, because on a larger scale it reflects the cruelty in town. Whaling is extremely cruel and it’s still cruel today. There is no humane way to whale. Basically, a grenade is shot into the whale and it’s blown up from the inside, which is horrific.
But it was really reflecting the cruelty of the town. A lot of Australians weren’t aware that Australia had a whaling industry right up until the late seventies.
What was interesting about it was that long before whaling was eradicated, there were alternative products to whale oil and products that were easier to produce.
That would have benefited Australia if we had produced them. It was very hard economically to have a whaling industry, whereas to grow grains and produce oil that way would have benefited our farmers much better.
It was really a bloody mindedness on the nations, that we are not going to give up whaling, and it was this activity that shows how powerful we are. In Britain, they were using submarines and helicopters and World War II technology to hunt whales.
Two schools of thought on whaling
The reason I bring that in is there are two schools of thought when we look back on our history. The first school of thought is something like, thank God we’re not like that anymore, and the other one is God, we haven’t changed at all, we are exactly the same.
I bring up that cruelty because people are repelled by it. But if you think about now, there are so many cruel things we still do to animals, and we’re still bloody minded. All the reasons people used to keep whaling, we still use. We still say our economy needs it, it’s what we’ve always done, it’s our tradition. We give all these excuses and how will history look back on us in 100 years?
A lot of people who write popular fiction say they should just be about entertainment. Nobody wants a social message in it. But for me, I can’t see the point of writing a book unless it gets people to think as well. Not just be entertained, but to think.
Jenny Wheeler: That’s wonderful. You have talked quite a lot about your journey to publication. From the outside anyway, it looks like you are sitting on the top of the mountain now. You have got a whole back shelf of really successful, blockbuster style books, but it took you quite a long time to get started. You had a lot of dedication to it at the beginning, didn’t you? Tell us about that journey.
Belinda Alexandra: I think I grew up being a writer. My mother, from the time I could hold a pen, was encouraging me to write my stories down. But in Australia at that time, we were very much, you have to get a real job. I didn’t know anyone who was a writer. I grew up around engineers and people with very practical professions.
Learning from California view
But then I ended up going to university in California, and California is a very special place because the people around me were very much like, but you’ve got to go for your dream.
They were very encouraging, so I was very lucky. I came back to Australia fired up with the idea that I will be a published author and that’s what I will do, but it’s not like in the movies where you have this little montage and one minute later, after all these scenes, you’ve written a book and you’re a best-selling author.
I spent the next 10 years with everything I wrote being rejected. I wrote a novel, I wrote nonfiction, plays, letters to the editor, magazine articles. All of them were rejected. But I had this strong desire. I can’t say I had terrific self-confidence in myself, but I had a strong desire and I just kept going.
Eventually my novel White Gardenia was auctioned between all the publishers who previously rejected me, so I am glad that I did stick with it.
Jenny Wheeler: I wondered if White Gardenia was your first breakthrough book, because it had a very personal aspect to it, didn’t it? Tell us about your own family history and how White Gardenia fitted into that.
Belinda Alexandra: With White Gardenia I used a lot of my family history. My mother was a Russian born in China, in Harbin.
My grandparents had fled the revolution in Russia, and they had moved to China and they couldn’t go back to the Soviet Union. Then my mother had to flee China when the Japanese invaded and there was a communist takeover. She had to go through the Philippines and eventually ended up in Australia, so it was an incredible journey’s story.
Breakthrough with White Gardenia
But I think the magic of White Gardenia was that there were not a lot of women writing historical fiction at the time, but also it is a sort of love story between a mother and daughter, because they’re separated from each other. It wasn’t so much the love story between a man and a woman, it was a mother-daughter love story. This mother and daughter struggled to find each other, and I think that hit a note.
It was also at a time before Ancestry.com. People were sending off their DNA and people were doing their family trees and all of that.
It was an idea of looking back at your history and learning about who you were. I think all at that time, people were starting to think about their own histories and their own family ancestral stories, and how they may have affected them.
Jenny Wheeler: You have also got a love for cats. In fact, as we have been talking we’ve got the video on, and behind you one of your cats has jumped up on top of the cupboard and settled into a basket there. It’s really lovely. I gather you have got three cats, and you have written a nonfiction book called The Divine Feline about that love. Tell us about where that passion developed.
Belinda Alexandra: I have loved cats since I was a child. I love all animals, but cats have been the animal I’ve grown up with. It occurred to me that there is that stereotype of the crazy cat lady, and I wanted to challenge that because I think it’s taking away joy from something that gives women a lot of joy.
A lifelong love of cats
I also think the stereotype is an attack on women’s independence. There is that horrible story of, if you don’t get married and have children you’re going to end up this bat crazy woman, who is going to be living by herself with just her cats, then you’ll die, and no one will know you’re dead and your face will be half eaten away by your ravenous cats. It is sort of this warning about women being independent.
Studies have actually shown that women who love cats, far from being hoarders and loners, are actually quite social. They are socially aware, they’re cultured, they tend to be educated, and so I wanted to break that stereotype.
In The Divine Feline, I go through the history of women and cats from Ancient Egypt through the Middle Ages to the present time, to show why that strong bond is there and why it’s been denigrated because, in a sense, it’s not just women who love cats that are attacked by that image. It’s women in general.
But there is also lots of fun in the book. It’s a compilation of things that cat lovers in general would love. There is the history of cats from Ancient Egypt, there are my own personal memoirs of growing up with cats, there is all sorts of humor about famous people and their cats, and advice on cat behavior and other tips.
Jenny Wheeler: As you were talking, I was thinking about the stereotype of the witch and the cat. Often witches were associated with cats as well, weren’t they?
Amazing shared cat lives
Belinda Alexandra: That comes from Ancient Egypt where cats were associated with the gods of women. The way cats were domesticated was they were African wild cats living in the desert, and when the Egyptians finally settled and weren’t nomadic anymore, they were storing grain. Of course, the grain could be destroyed very quickly by mice and rats, as we are seeing in Australia at the moment.
The Egyptians tried to attract the African wild cats to their grain stores to keep the rodents down. They would give them milk and offer them warm beds, and eventually the cats decided to stay because they knew they were onto a good thing. Because it was associated with food, the cat became associated with women and eventually was associated with the gods of women.
Then in the Middle Ages, when you get the church that wants to denigrate the power of women, they did a very good propaganda case that women who had cats were witches. That is why women and cats were burned at the stake together.
Jenny Wheeler: Terrible. Moving along from talking about your individual books to looking at your wider career, when you were writing for 10 years you were also working in a full-time job. What were you doing in that time?
Belinda Alexandra: I worked in publicity and public relations. I also worked for a conference company. This is what I say to encourage people who are working full-time, but who have a novel in them they want to write.
Writing at all hours to get it done
When I wrote White Gardenia, I was working for a conference company. I was constantly in New York, I was constantly on planes, in hotel rooms. I lived with five other girls and my room came off the kitchen, so I never really had a quiet place to write. But I was passionate about telling the story.
And so I tell people, don’t worry so much about having the perfect environment or lots of blocks of time to write. Fire up the passion, find a story you’re really passionate about telling, because White Gardenia was written on airplanes. It was written on the subway coming home from work. I would get up at five o’clock in the morning before my roommates got up, when I had that little hour of quietness to write.
I think find a story you’re passionate about, fire up the passion, don’t worry so much about the time management or how you’re going to do it or whatever. You will find a way if you’re really passionate about that story.
Jenny Wheeler: Is there a point of either talent or a decision you made that helped you come to that breakthrough, something that was the turning point for you, do you think?
Belinda Alexandra: None of us can see ahead of us, and so you do battle with your doubts, because you can’t see that you’re going to be successful and yet you’re spending all this time on your own, working on this book for years and on your weekends, and you never know what is going to happen.
My thing is not so much a turning point. It’s habit, or a way of looking at things. I would sit down every writing session, and I had the ring that had belonged to my grandparents. It was their wedding bands melded together with my birthstone. My mother had given it to me, and I would put that out next to me, and I would look at it and I would think, help me to be the best I can.
Putting the best of yourself into it
I don’t know what’s going to happen in this story. I don’t know if I’m going to be published. I don’t know what my future is, but just allow me to create and offer the very best I can. Then I let go of the outcome. With anything, I think that’s when the magic comes – when we don’t hold on so much to the outcome, when we are more concerned about who we are, and who we become through doing what we’re doing.
We don’t know what is going to happen. We can’t control that part, but we can control putting the very best of ourselves into something.
Jenny Wheeler: That sounds incredibly wise, Belinda.
This is The Joys of Binge Reading are we are starting to come to the end of our time together. Tell me about your reading pleasures and passions in the past and today. Who are your favorites and who would you like to recommend to people?
Belinda Alexandra: My reading started probably with Charles Dickens. It was Charles Dickens who really encouraged me to want to write a book. I loved his coming-of-age stories, and I loved the way the characters would begin somewhere, they met bad people, they met good people, they learned about themselves, and they were very different people at the end of the book.
They might have been a bit bruised and battered by life, but they were wiser and deeper people for it. I thought his way of looking at society and looking at people’s weaknesses and their strengths was very insightful, so he was a huge influence on me.
What Belinda loves to read
Today I read a lot of nonfiction for research for my books, but I think we’ve got some fantastic contemporary female authors. Someone I’m reading at the moment is Natasha Lester. (Natasha Lester is on Binge Reading here.)
She writes fantastic historical fiction, very well researched. I love Kate Morton’s stuff as well. I love her sense of place and that rich detail. She writes such classic stories, but she has an element of the contemporary and the modern as well. I really enjoy her stories.
I like to read widely, and I like to have recommendations of books that I may not otherwise touch. I like Liane Moriarty’s books, because I think they are a great take on modern society. My book is set in a small town, a claustrophobic environment, but that’s not necessarily because I believe that small country towns are claustrophobic.
I have visited many beautiful country towns where the people are beautiful. It’s more the mentality of a small group, and I think Liane Moriarty brings that out very well. It’s the mentality of this small, tight claustrophobic group – whether it’s a mothers’ group in a prestigious, affluent area, or whether it’s people at a health farm together, she brings these groups of people and the dynamics together very well.
Jenny Wheeler: You mentioned earlier that when you started there weren’t so many historical novels being written by women. There has been an absolute boom in historical fiction in the last decade, hasn’t there?
There are myriads of great female writers doing historical fiction, and you have a sense that history is being rewritten in the popular fiction area. We are looking at so many events from the female viewpoint now that have never really been considered from a woman’s viewpoint before. Why do you think that has become so popular?
History is about people
Belinda Alexandra: If I look back to my school years – and people are quite surprised by this because a lot of people say to me, you must have loved history at school – I hated history at school. I was bored out of my head by it because the way history was interpreted as a series of events, and it was all about political events.
But to me, history is made by every single one of us. Even if we look at the Second World War, we can go through these political events and we can say that Hitler caused a lot of things, but to me, that is not really the truth. A person like Hitler could not have come to power without a culture that would allow someone like Hitler to come to power.
That makes me think, what was the person in the street thinking and what were people saying at universities and what were people saying in magazines? What was the culture that allowed someone like that to come, and then why would people be influenced by that? Because if the culture was completely different, he would have just been a mad man standing on the corner, shouting things.
So for me, history is about people, and that’s empowering. I think that is what women are doing so well. History is not about what people in Parliament House are deciding. History is about what we’re deciding on the street, what we’re thinking, what we’re deciding to believe, how we’re deciding to act.
Bringing the personal to history
I think we are all fascinated, when there’s a massive world event, by what it is about a person who will suddenly become heroic, and another person will denounce their next-door neighbors that they’ve lived next door to you for years, just so they can have their apartment and their furniture, if they want to denounce a Jewish family.
Women are much more bringing out that personal side – the relationships that bring those catastrophic events to a head.
Jenny Wheeler: We are coming to the end of our time now, so what are you working on? Have you got any new projects? What does your next 12 months look like?
Belinda Alexandra: My next three months will be extremely busy as I’ve got to finish my next manuscript, which will be another classic mystery, but it will bring in more elements of a historic novel as well. I am really enjoying doing that. I am also looking at the possibility of doing another non-fiction that will be around history. That’s an exciting project I’m working on developing.
I am also doing master classes in screenwriting, so I hope I can turn one of my books into a film script. That is an aim I have got, and again that is going back to, we don’t know what the future looks like, but sometimes we’ve got to give something a go and see how it turns out.
Jenny Wheeler: I know you enjoy interacting with your readers, and I’m wondering how you have been affected by this last 12 or 18 months with our worldwide pandemic. Has it affected the way you can interact with your readers, or have you found other ways to get in touch with them and be in touch with them?
How the pandemic has changed us
Belinda Alexandra: What I thought was really interesting, especially about the publishing industry and about writers, was how quickly we adapted to changing circumstances.
Many of us were about to go onto book tours when the pandemic hit, and we can often be critics of technology, but I think technology was there like a savior for us in so many ways. When I finish a book, I have spent so much time on my own that I love to go out and meet my readers at events and so on, but we just couldn’t do that.
I did find that the technology actually brought gifts in so many ways, because I was now able to do talks that were going out to regional Australia. Where it wasn’t practical for my publisher to send me to a country town with six people, by technology, I could.
What was really good was that a lot of times everybody over 50 had tried to avoid technology. Not everyone, but a lot of people had, and they more or less had to get their grandchildren and children to show them how to use it, and it has opened up the world for them.
My 90-year-old father does Zoom sessions. We do need personal connection and there is a difference when we have that energy of people in a room together, but in order to make do and reach each other, it has turned out to be a blessing. I think going forward in the future, we will have in-person events, but we’ll also be able to reach each other through technology.
Where to find Belinda online
Jenny Wheeler: Where can your readers find you online?
Belinda Alexandra: I am on Facebook and Instagram. They’ll find me under Belinda Alexandra author. I have a very snazzy website, which is belinda-alexandra.com. If they go on there, they can sign up for my newsletter. I do a newsletter that is so much fun. I usually interview other authors on it, so you will find out books that I’m reading.
I also give writing tips for people in the newsletter, and we have some cat advice in there and some humorous articles and competitions and so on. If readers go to my website and sign up for my newsletter, they will get lots of fantastic little things there.
Jenny Wheeler: That’s fun, and we will put those links in the show notes that go with this podcast so they will be there for people to find. Thank you so much, Belinda. It’s been great talking.
Belinda Alexandra: Great talking to you too, Jenny.
If you enjoyed Belinda’s tale of small town secrets and scandals you might also enjoy Alexandra Joel’s Fleet Street to Palace.
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