Based in the Hunter Valley of New South Wales, Todd Alexander first came to prominence upon the release of his debut novel, Pictures of Us. After spending the past few years writing how-to guides as an extension of his corporate life, he has taken the plunge back into fiction with his second book, Tom Houghton.
A coming of age story with a twist, Alexander’s novel introduces us to Tom Houghton, a twelve year old boy fascinated by the Golden Age of Hollywood. Different from the rough and tumble boys that make up the students of his public school in the western suburbs of Sydney, Tom finds himself the victim of bullies. Intent not to let his peers get the better of him; he strives to rise above the torment and carve out a life for himself beyond the cocoon of Seven Hills.
First and foremost, Alexander is a purveyor of human character. When asked who from history he would invite to dinner, he rattles off the names of some of the most prominent names in pop culture today: Jane Fonda, Stephen Fry and Cyndi Lauper, all of which he believes would insert their own uniqueness into dinner party conversation, but it is the story of screen siren Katharine Hepburn and her decision to imitate her brother Thomas Houghton Hepburn, after his tragic suicide that inspired Tom Houghton.
“I didn’t want to write a story about Katharine Hepburn and I didn’t want to write a story about Thomas Houghton Hepburn but I thought that the whole concept of emulating your brother to, I guess, sustain his life beyond his death was a fascinating idea that I wanted to explore,” he says. “I wonder what would have happened if someone wanted to emulate him just like his sister? That kind of started the initial idea. I thought: What if a young boy found out about Thomas Houghton Hepburn and was really intrigued by this just like I was as an adult, and as a child I thought: I wonder what impact this would have on that kid.”
“For me, the characters came first, particularly the character of young Tom Houghton. Once I started exploring that character development, it posed a question to me as a writer: What impact would this have on his life? He’s just on the cusp of puberty and at school. When that behaviour [his obsession with Hepburn and her brother] crosses over into his school life, it was inevitable for me that his differentness would attract attention from his peers. That took on a life of its own. His own behaviour contributes to his social standing and he’s a bit too blinded by what’s happening at school that maybe he’s contributing to the bullying. For me, that’s a fascinating spiral for kids to try and comprehend,” he says. “I wanted the reader to feel that angst.”
Told through the perspective of Tom over two time frames – first as a twelve year old boy and also as an adult – this exploration of character allowed Alexander to examine the concept of bullying that had developed over the course of the initial story more deeply than he had before. “I wrote the first draft purely from the young Tom’s perspective and when I got to the end of it, I was happy with it [but] I took a step back, and something was missing for me. I felt that the journey wasn’t complete. By overlaying the adults scenes, what then started to develop for me was the concept of what happens to a kid who is severely bullied. What happens to a kid who lives a life cocooned by fantasy? What kind of adult does that child turn into? It helps round out his character in a way that just leaving it as a childhood book may not have been able to achieve.”
It is perhaps through his previous career as a bookseller, that Alexander is able to take a step back from his own work, as other writers sometimes struggle to do, and examine it for any pitfalls or elements that need to be improved. “It’s critical to my understanding of what being a writer is. The thing I loved about book-selling was influencing customers when they come into a store. You begin to appreciate what kinds of things readers are looking for. We always say, ‘Don’t judge a book by its cover’ but some people very much do judge a book by its cover … For me being a bookseller and having worked in the industry and having met a lot of publishers over my time in the industry, gave me an indication of how to write a book that I wanted to write.”
Tom Houghton is published through Simon & Schuster.
[Editor/Author Note: This article was first published by cargoART Magazine in 2015.]