30 July 2013

Author Interview: Alice Peterson

Yesterday, I reviewed Alice Peterson's new novel By My Side, and it was certainly my stand out read of 2013 by far, a really stunning book. Alice was kind enough to answer some of my questions about the book, and other things I was curious about, so I hope you enjoy the interview! My biggest thanks go to Alice for taking the time to answer my questions.

Q1. Please tell me about your new book 'By My Side'.

Firstly By My Side is a love story and I’d say it’s probably one of the most romantic & emotional of my novels.

It’s narrated by Cass, who thinks her life is over when she has a car accident that leaves her paralysed from the waist down. She gives up her passion to be a doctor, her boyfriend leaves her and finally she has to move back home to live with her parents – not what you want in your twenties! Her mother, determined not to let Cass give up, secretly arranges a visit to Canine Partners – a charity that trains dogs to transform the lives of those with any kind of disability. Cass has always loved animals, so it’s here that she meets the most loyal golden Labrador called Ticket. It’s love at first sight, and from then on, with the support and friendship of Ticket, Cass rebuilds her life. Soon she’s skiing in Colorado, returning to London and falling in love again. What she thought was the end, is now only the beginning.

Q2. The topic in 'By My Side' is not one you read about every day in Women’s fiction - what made you choose to cover the subject of paralysis in your book?

I read an article about Canine Partners (caninepartners.org.uk) and knew I had to write about these amazing dogs. As you probably know after reading Monday to Friday Man, a dog walking comedy, I am a massive dog lover! I contacted the charity to see if I could watch some training sessions and when I met these bouncy puppies opening doors and pedal bins my heart melted! At this stage I wasn’t at all sure of the outline of the story, but obviously if I was going to write about a Canine Partner my character had to go through a life-changing event. Through my research I came across a woman called Sarah Orr, who had been in a wheelchair since she was 16. She is incredible – beautiful, self-assured and determined to lead as fulfilling a life as possible. She inspired Cass – so really, the story came about naturally, after meeting Sarah.

I am also drawn to disability through my own circumstances. I was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis aged 18, which turned up life upside down overnight and my own experiences have definitely influenced my work. Often I have a disability theme running throughout my books; in Monday to Friday Man it’s Gilly’s sister, Megan; in Letters From My Sister, it’s Bells, born with a cleft lip and palate. Disability doesn’t have to be gloomy – it’s real and gritty, but there’s always humour too. Humour often comes from the darkest of places.

By My Side isn’t about paralysis or disability. It’s a love story where the character happens to be in a wheelchair. We all go through very tough times in completely different ways, and I think that is why a reader can relate to Cass whether they have a disability or not. We want to root for our heroine and see her get that happy ending.

Q3. I absolutely loved Ticket, Cass’s assistant dog. In the back of your book, you talk about a real organisation that does such things, it isn't something I haven’t heard of before so how did you come across it?

In a weekend magazine. I too had no idea such organisations existed; I’d only ever thought of guide dogs. Canine Partners is a wonderful charity that shows how dogs truly can change people’s lives. I came across a woman called Eileen who had been in hospital for 20 years. 20 years! It’s unthinkable. Then she came across Canine Partners, was matched with a golden Retriever called Sailor, and is now living independently with Sailor and a carer. She’s one very special person. That’s why I kept the name, Canine Partners – why make it up? I want as many people as possible to know about this charity.

Q4. Cass is such a strong character. Despite all she goes through, she seems to want to work through it where as I think I'd want to hide away from everyone and everything. Did you base her on anyone you met through research or was she purely a figment of your imagination?

Sorry Chloe, I got carried away and answered this one earlier! It’s loosely based on Sarah. Sarah and Cass’s lives are completely different, but their fighting spirit is the same.

Q5. How much research did you put into writing this book, and was it hard to talk about such things with people? I found it very emotional to read, so it must have been the same to research?

I don’t think I’ll ever write another novel where I need quite so much research! Along with Canine Partners I worked closely with another charity called The Back Up Trust (Back Up – backuptrust.org.uk) who support thousands of people with spinal cord injury (SCI). They understand an injury can be devastating but they also believe it shouldn’t prevent someone from leading a full life. They have been incredible too, letting me talk to people who have been on these skiing courses and I was able to watch some of the wheelchair skills sessions.

It has been emotional, you’re right. I have become friends with many of those I spoke to. Towards the end of my research I met an ex Royal Marine called Jon Flint. He walks with an aid and has a handsome dog called Varick, his little black shadow as he calls him. When I asked him about his life now, so different to what it used to be, I could see he was in constant pain answering my questions, but his sense of humour and character shone through. I went away moved and humbled. I feel lucky to have met such wonderful people.

Q6. You've had an amazing reaction to the book on lots of reviewers sites and Amazon - how does it feel to have a book be so well received by readers?

It’s lovely – I have been so overwhelmed by the reviews. Thank you, thank you, thank you!

Q7. What do you do when you aren't writing?

Dog walking! I love cooking too and have just booked myself a week’s holiday on a cooking course in Puglia – surely good writing material?

Q8. What sort of books do you enjoy reading? What was the last book you read, and what's your favourite read of all time?

I enjoy all kinds of different books but one of my most favourite contemporary authors is Jojo Moyes.

I last read a Light Between Oceans by M. L. Stedman.

Favourite book of all time has to be Pride and Prejudice. I named my dog after Mr Darcy, after all!

Q9. How do you feel about the digital media age - Kindles, eBooks, Twitter, Facebook etc. Do you think it's had a positive effect on people's reading habits, and do you enjoy the interaction with readers on social media?

I am a big fan of eBooks. It’s often so hard to get your books into shops so it’s a relief for me to know that people can access my work on-line. I am sure it’s encouraged more people to read too, which is fantastic.

I really like Twitter and Facebook. Nothing gives me more pleasure than someone contacting me to say they loved one of my books! It¹s a solitary job so it¹s great to have that contact with readers. I really enjoy following other writers too.

I also feel I have met some of the loveliest bloggers through Twitter ­ and what a great job you do helping authors firstly by reading so much and then reviewing our books on your sites. I feel, for this book particularly, the on-line community has really embraced By My Side - I¹ve had some of the most heart warming and emotional reviews and responses ­ I won¹t forget any of them and it honestly means so much to me.

Q10. What is next for you? Have you started your next book?!

My next book is nearly finished. I’m excited about it. It’s full of drama, twists, romance, love, betrayal…

Thank you, Alice!


Photo credit to Paul Donnellon.

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