About Alex Plumtree

How Alex Plumtree came to be

A serendipitous assortment of circumstances brought Alex Plumtree to life: a mother-in-law who reads everything; a character who wouldn’t cooperate; one book-collecting publisher; one academic publisher; and one very fine husband.

The idea for an international novel of mystery, suspense, intrigue and romance began clamoring for my attention in 1990. What could be more fun, I mused as I changed diapers, than writing an English mystery with the adventure and subtlety of a Dick Francis novel…but about books instead of horses.

If only it could be done…which was far from certain. I was well aware of the fact that I knew nothing about writing fiction. In fact, I was extremely aware of how many times I had tried and failed.

Still, I daydreamed, if it could be done, the protagonist would be the main event – far more important than plot or setting. In fact, at the heart of my novel would be a very special hero: someone with the courage to do the right thing, no matter how painful or inconvenient. Someone who would defend a friend to the end. Someone who would never, ever lie. My hero would be intelligent and well-educated; a scholar with equal parts sensitivity and grit, someone who could write about the symbolism of John Donne in the morning and row like an ox in the afternoon. Someone who could ski the Alps without fear, sail a yacht through the Greek Islands with aplomb.

But these were only personal attributes. My hero needed a fascination with making books as well as appreciating them, an obsession with artisan printing, elegant design, worthy paper, and beautiful bindings. These aspects of fine publishing and collecting I had observed in an employer in Boston – my very first employer, in fact – who not only published beautiful books, but kept a press in the barn for printing his own. This Renaissance man also possessed an extensive collection of antiquarian and rare books, which he generously showed the students learning at his feet.

It would not be enough, however, for my hero to care only about esthetics; this character would need to be a person of action as well as words. My hero would be an honorable and successful businessperson…someone whose professional life was closely tied to honor and good works. Someone who did right by employees while gracefully managing the complexities of a growing family business. My husband was this man, as was the boss at the academic publisher I worked for in London. Not only did my boss look out for his employees’ well-being and development, but he was fair, kind, and friendly. He was also very successful at what he did, proving that nice guys who take their underling staff out for vindaloo can also be great businessmen. 

All this, rolled into one, was Alexandra Plumtree. Yes!

I still remember the day I began to write about her. I had dreamed about her story for a month, day and night, and had finally started on this particular day for two reasons. My husband knew of my fiction-writing dreams and had insisted on two hours of babysitting each day, so I wouldn’t still be wondering if I could have “been a writer” when I was eighty. This was the first day that I needed to justify those two hours.

Second, my mother-in-law, whose floors groan (with satisfaction) beneath the weight of an extensive library of books and periodicals, had handed me a clipping. A publisher was announcing a contest for the best first chapter of a mystery novel. It was just one chapter, so I could complete it by the deadline, a week or two away.

But as I wrote about Alexandra and her eight lifting their rowing shell out of the water at Henley, as I described her driving back to London after banter with her crewmates, it was obvious: she didn’t work. She wasn’t real. I tinkered endlessly with her – her speech, her appearance, her voice–but never achieved the feel of authenticity. At wits’ end, having spent too many precious two-hour sessions on Alexandra, I admitted defeat.

All the fears of a first-time novelist came home to roost. If you’ve read Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones, you know all about the cruelty of a writer’s own internal editor. Who did I think I was, Ernest Hemingway? Joan Didion? What was I thinking, to have tried to write a novel?

But the moment I gave her up, Alex came to mind. He flew onto the page, immediately real. He told me what to write about him; I knew without doubt what he would say or do in any situation. That was my first lesson in a hard truth of writing: an author can’t force characters to work; they have a life of their own that demands attention until we recognize who they need to be.

Since starting a fiction-writing life, I have had many such experiences with the creative process (for more, see “On Writing”) that cause me to regard it with wonder and respect.

Thank you to the wonderful people who inspired Alex Plumtree; you continue to inspire.

Where Alex lives

You’ve agreed to housesit for Alex. He’s just been notified that part of an old Plumtree manuscript has been discovered beneath a stately home in Somerset, and he will be gone for a few days. Though you could take British Rail from Marylebone (pronounced Marralehbun, with emphasis on the first syllable), you’re already on a Metropolitan line tube train, which continues out of London to the northwest. So you stay on that train to Chess (actually Chorleywood) for the forty-minute trip that way.

You leave the train station on foot, walking past a few cars waiting to pick up commuters, though most walk like you. You stride down the hill and turn left, cross Lower Road, and carry on up a steep hill…for quite a while. You pass a gibbet sporting signs that point toward Chalfont St Peter and Chalfont St Giles, where Milton wrote Paradise Lost during the plague. You smile at the arm of the signpost labelled Lt Chalfont (abbreviation for Little Chalfont), recalling Alex’s tale of the American friend who asked, “Who’s this Lieutenant Chalfont?”

At the top of the hill, huffing and puffing, you carry on straight, though the paved road curves to the left. The signpost for the narrow lane ahead reads Old Shire Lane. The lane is named for its role as the dividing line between the counties of Hertfordshire (pronounced Hartfordshire) and Buckinghamshire. Vaguely, you recall Alex being involved in some sort of dispute over whether Chess should become part of Bucks instead of Herts…something to do with that hedges kerfuffle a while back (Unprintable).

The road is gravel.ed now, narrower, more rural; shrubs and hedges hug the road. The moist smells of the country rise up to meet you and you take a deep, satisfied breath. On the right side is a farm, and beyond the small brick-and-stone farm house, once occupied by Ian, open land stretches unobstructed.

On the left are large houses, some stuccoed in the pale country-house colours of yellow and pink. A larger brick residence called Heronsfield is set back from the road; this, you recall Alex saying, was once a monastery, and then a boys’ school. But it has long since been divided into six flying freeholds (condos; this is where Bill and I lived for our five years in Chorleywood). Huge roses, the size of cabbages, line the front of the house; a circle of hand-blown glass punctuates the rustic wooden front door.

You carry on down the lane past more beautiful homes until you come to the end of the lane, and Alex’s drive. You walk down a long, narrow driveway lined with boxwood hedges. Alex is forever trimming them, you recall, otherwise they scrape his car. At last you reach the circular drive in front of The Orchard. You stand for a moment, peering up at the triangular pedimented stone that once nearly fell on Alex and Sarah in a violent storm (Unsolicited). The house is red brick decorated with grey/white stone, and seems to blend taste and comfort; it is not overly large, but obviously old. Ivy covers much of the front brickwork. Hedges undulate in front of the house in spirited waves; at once orderly and yet mocking of order that is too serious.

Smiling, you use your key in the front door and walk in. The house smells old and lived-in at once; someone has baked recently. Fabric drapes the high-ceilinged entryway, creating a tent effect with a medieval feeling. You glance about for unicorns and suits of armour, but, finding none, your eye is drawn upward by the great, wide staircase that curves around to create a gallery on the second level. The stairway has a carpet runner that looks like a tapestry, and the wide, polished fruitwood banister shines. Maybe it’s plum wood, harvested from the Orchard at the back of the house, you muse. The ancestral portraits lining the staircase all look a little like Alex; the huge bouquet of wildflowers on the round table in the entryway looks fresh. Ah, a note, scrawled by Alex: “Thanks for staying, Harry – make yourself at home.”

Drawn to the teakettle by the thought, you move toward the back of the house, past the library door, and into the kitchen. But then you spy the garden outside. Passing the kitchen’s worn refectory table, which is thoughtfully laden with a plate of biscuits, you let yourself out into a paradise at once formal and fun. Banks of bright flowers tumble in profusion along the edges of paths – pink, yellow, purple, blue, white. In the distant background is the plum-tree Orchard, reaching over many acres in satisfying rows, but you head through the flower gardens to the more structured rose garden with its gazebo.

Stepping inside, you gaze at your surroundings and muse for a moment about how much Alex resembles his home. There is a peace here, and a comfort – as if you are very far away from ordinary, pedestrian things. It’s almost a different world; everything seems simpler here. Who, given this setting from childhood, could not act in accord with this sense of peace, and casual order? You meander round the garden for a bit, then finally put the kettle on in the kitchen. You wander to the library and collapse into one of the huge, worn brown leather chairs near the stone fireplace. That fireplace looks ancient, but then so do some of the books. At peace, you gaze around at the walls filled with artfully bound wisdom and beauty, recalling the book Alex found in a hidden shelf that nearly got him killed.

The kettle clicks off; you shake your head, smiling. Maybe it’s just as well that you’re not Alex Plumtree, considering the danger and intrigue that dog him. You sigh, knowing you have the best of both worlds: three nights here to soak up the atmosphere and peruse the bookshelves, and no masked men coming to do you mischief. But wait…what was that noise at the window? You tell yourself it’s only the wind…

Where Alex works

Bedford Square

The leafy oval in Bloomsbury known as Bedford Square where Alex Plumtree works, around the corner from the British Museum, is now something of a museum piece itself. It is known as “the best and most complete Georgian square in London.” Built over roughly two decades starting in 1775, Bedford Square is but one of the properties of the Duke of Bedford in central London. A surprising fact learned in research: you can say you own property in London, but in reality often you have merely purchased a long-term “leasehold” from someone like the Duke of Bedford. This will entitle you to a certain number of years of occupancy – perhaps fifty, one hundred or more.

Wealthy families lived in the elegant three-story buildings lining the Square; their second floor often featured a ballroom at the rear. (Alex Plumtree made the Plumtree Press ballroom into a production department.) In the 1920s and – 30s, Bedford Square became the province of the Bloomsbury Group, where Virginia Woolf, Lytton Strachey, Clive Bell and others gathered for cocoa, buns, and discussion. Wealthy aristocrats would invite authors, artists and other avante-garde bohemians to their salons, where they discussed literature, art and philosophy.

When the era of household servants had passed, in the mid-twentieth century, businesses moved in to Bedford Square – many of them book publishers. The entire area was devoted to books, possibly because of its close proximity to the British Library, then housed in the British Museum. Book dealers filled the streets opposite the British Library, and authors lived nearby in less luxurious corners of Bloomsbury.

But the publishers moved out in the 1980s for more cost-effective purpose-built buildings in the suburbs. Now Bedford Square houses chartered surveyors, law offices and tenants such as New York University’s London Academic Office, the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art, the London office of the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, the Architectural Association School of Architecture, Yale University Press, and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.

Academic tenants may have chosen Bedford Square not only for its beauty and location near the British Museum, but because the University of London is near, also not far from the British Museum. It was near the University that Ian Higginbotham kept his flat before moving to the countryside.

Let’s take a tour of Plumtree Press. Stepping up from the paving stones of Bedford Square, you face a door painted in glossy black enamel, punctuated with a shiny brass doorknocker. An arch of large, distinctive black-and-white Coade stone runs around the doorway for decoration, as on all Bedford Square doorways. Though there is a tremendous amount of traffic on Bloomsbury/Gower Street just to your left – it’s noisy – the Square itself exudes an atmosphere of tranquility and quiet. Hardly anyone is about. You ring a buzzer, announcing yourself when queried. The latch clicks and you push open the door, stepping into a spacious foyer tiled with shiny black-and-white-checkerboard marble. Your eyes are drawn upward to an elegant chandelier, which, alone with the arched window over the door, lights the entryway. After the chandelier, you can’t help noticing the beautiful carpeted staircase with its polished wood banister, rising to the first landing at the rear of the building (ballroom/production), then curving around above your head to the second landing (rabbit warren of editorial offices).

But before going upstairs to visit Alex, you stop at reception. There’s Dee, who puts down her romance novel to greet you with a cheery, “’Ello!” and signs you in because she doesn’t know you. She buzzes Alex while you step over to the bookcases to browse the Plumtree Press books displayed there…where yours might be housed one day. After a moment you hear footfalls on the staircase; with some speed, Alex rounds the doorway.

“Delighted to meet you,” he says, reaching out his hand with a smile. “Let’s go up to the conference room – bit of a trek, I’m afraid, but it keeps us in shape.” He leads the way, and as his conversational balm puts you at ease, you decide you like this gentle, yet powerful man. In fact, you like his office, too. It’s rather like him; purposeful, orderly, and just a little nicer and more interesting than you would have expected.

At the top of one flight of stairs, you catch a glimpse of what looks like a ballroom – one huge room, its huge double doors open, with a very fancy chandelier and a fireplace at either end. After another long flight of stairs, you follow Alex in to the conference room, trying not to huff and puff too badly. Alex is still asking you about your own holiday without gasping for air. In fact, he doesn’t even seem out of breath.

The editorial assistant pops in to offer coffee or tea, and Alex offers a tour. Next door to the conference room, closer to the Square, is a room perhaps twenty feet by twenty. Three desks are spaced in a rough triangle on the pale peach carpeting, each sporting a laptop computer; a larger machine on a table takes up the other quarter. Three large windows brighten the room, their lower fourths aglow with bright coral geraniums, verdant spiky palms and ivy.

A well-dressed woman with flair and confidence stands as you enter. “This is Lisette,” Alex says, and tells her your name. She beams and nods her head in a little bow of acknowledgment, her eyes smiling as much as her mouth. The two of you seem to share a private joke. “It is very nice to meet you. Congratulations on surviving ’is endurance test,” she jokes, her French accent thick and luscious as brie. Rolling her eyes with a daring moue at Alex, she turns silently back to her work.

You enjoy the view of the park at the centre of the Square over the geraniums for another moment. People are picnicking there on the grass, in the lee of the flowing shrubs and huge plane trees…perhaps that’s where the occupants of these other two obviously busy desks are at the moment.

But Alex is moving on. With a wave to Lisette you follow your host to a rabbit warren of small offices – really small offices – to meet the rest of the editorial staff, who impress you with their seriousness and dedication.

You have seen enough: you will let Plumtree Press publish your poetry anthology instead of the bigger publisher offering more money. You know you’ll be in good hands.