A Q&A with Helen Smith
Question: The clever title of your book is a direct reference to Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. How has that book and its genre of smart, literary "nonsense" influenced your writing?
Helen Smith: I adored Alice's Adventures in Wonderland when I was a child. I loved the clever wordplay, the absurd situations, and the strange characters--not all of them sympathetic. I have to warn Lewis Carroll fans that any direct reference to his work in my book begins and ends with the pun in the title, but I have no doubt that I have been influenced by everything I have ever read, including his books. I was lucky that I read a prodigious amount when I was younger.
Q: Alison Wonderland has been praised for its unique cast of characters. Are you particularly fond of any one character, and what was your inspiration for him or her?
HS: I like all the characters, even the baddies, but Alison is the one I'm most fond of. She likes to think she has the measure of everyone else, but she doesn't have much insight about her own situation. She's flawed but funny--a grumpier version of me.
Q: The idea of genetically altered food is a little scary and has been in the news a lot. What drew you to use that concept as a backdrop for the plot?
HS: Most of my characters are on a mission of some kind. I'm impressed by people who are drawn to a cause, so I was very interested when I read about young people protesting about genetically modified vegetables. Many of us care deeply about the treatment of people and animals, but of all the things to get exercised about, a vegetable is not the first that most would think of. There's a very good argument that genetically modified crops, if they can be bred to be more resistant to disease, will help people in the developing world fight famine. But it's also true that we take the advances of science and use them too lightly, without considering the consequences. I love the passion and commitment of young eco-warriors who care enough to call those in authority to account.
Q: Taron greatly influences Alison's actions and brings out her more adventurous side. Is there anyone in your life whom you have adventures with?
HS: I traveled all over the world with my daughter when she was small, and I have been fortunate to have some very good friends who have got up to all sorts of mischief with me over the years--but there has been no one quite like Taron. If there's anyone out there like her, I wouldn't mind an introduction.
Q: You are very well traveled, but you set the novel in London and Weymouth. What made you choose those locations?
HS: I live in London and I love it. I wanted the city to feature almost as a character in the book, and I was keen to introduce some landmarks that readers might not be familiar with, like the Peace Pagoda in Battersea Park and the eccentric little alleyways in Brixton, where the doorway to Mrs. Fitzgerald's detective agency is located. I spent my teenage years near Weymouth and my parents still live there, so I wanted to use some of those locations: the Cerne Abbas Giant, for example, and the Weymouth pier--though, sadly, that has now been pulled down.
Q: Alison seems to be anti-marriage. How do you think she would have responded to the royal wedding craze in her hometown of London?
HS: I think she'd probably have responded much as I did: pretended to have no interest at all, then got caught up in the pageantry and enjoyed the occasion. It was a lovely sunny day here, and almost everyone had the day off. There were street parties and house parties, and the celebrations were incredibly good-natured. Alison can be a bit curmudgeonly, but even she would have found it difficult to resist the charms of the day.
Q: Alison's interaction with the baby, Phoebe, seems to affect her deeply. How has being a single mother impacted your writing?
HS: A line in the book, "I never realized before that taking care of someone makes you love them more than when they take care of you," describes my experience of being a parent. I had my daughter when I was very young, and it was the strangest and still the best thing that has ever happened to me. The insights and wisdom that I gained--and my sense of wonder at having a child who just turned up in my life but was never anything less than wanted and fiercely loved--permeate my writing.
Q: Is there anything else about the book you think an American reader should know? Are there really tunnels under the Thames?
HS: I've been working with a theater producer to find the perfect setting for a play I'm writing, and we have investigated underground venues. There are World War II bomb shelters that have been turned into archive storage facilities, abandoned tube stations, foot passages and railway tunnels still in use under the Thames, and a Royal Mail network crisscrossing under London that was recently decommissioned. But I don't think any of them are used the way the tunnels are used in the book. I hope not, anyway!