Alex Pavesi is a former bookseller for Waterstones. He holds a Ph.D. in mathematics and is currently a software engineer for Microsoft in London. The Eighth Detective is his first novel and he recently agreed to talk about it with Daryl Maxwell for the LAPL Blog.
What was your inspiration for The Eighth Detective?
The Eighth Detective combines two things I'm very passionate about, which haven't been put together as often as you'd expect. That is, classic detective fiction and experimental narrative structures. I've wanted to write something like this ever since I first saw the film Clue on television, which had three different endings shown back to back. Tarantino's early films were a formative influence as well, with his habit of telling stories out of order. There's such a thrill in piecing together a story like a jigsaw puzzle. And in my opinion, it sits perfectly with the other types of puzzles you encounter in classic detective fiction.
Are Julia, Grant, or any of the other characters in the novel inspired by or based on specific individuals?
Characters are the thing I find hardest to write, so I usually work backward. I start with what they need to do to make the plot work, then I try to get an idea of what kind of person would do those things and what they'd be like. There's a bit of back and forth because sometimes when I'm halfway through that process I see an aspect of a character that I'd like to make more of, so I have to make adjustments to the plot. But basing a character on a real individual wouldn't really fit with my process. Of course, there are small details that I do sometimes borrow from real people, but nothing significant so I will preserve their anonymity!
How did the novel evolve and change as you wrote and revised it? Are there any characters or scenes that were lost in the process that you wish had made it to the published version?
Originally the book included another one of Grant's stories. It was a classic country house mystery where an aristocratic patriarch is murdered. He has three sons, each with a reason to kill him. That story only exists as a first draft, but there was a lot I liked about it. I cut it because it was the longest story and the most conventional. When I was planning the book I'd envisioned it including twelve stories, so in that respect, it changed quite a lot!
You have now joined a notable list of mathematicians that are also known for their fiction writing, including Lewis Carroll and Bertrand Russell. Is there a particular mathematician that inspired you to write The Eighth Detective?
My favourite results in mathematics are the ones that bring in new ways of looking at familiar things. A perfect example is Descartes' invention of two-dimensional coordinates, which is something everyone is used to nowadays but of course, had to be invented like everything else. The legend says that Descartes was watching a spider crawl across his ceiling when he came up with it. Another example is Alun Turing's redefinition of 'computer' to mean a certain, specifically defined 'calculating machine,' where previously it had only meant 'someone who does computations.' Both of those ideas led to whole new areas of study.
What’s currently on your nightstand?
I'm approaching the deadline for my second book, so I am currently only reading things that are familiar and easy. At the moment that's Four Past Midnight by Stephen King.
What was your favorite book when you were a child?
Guards, Guards by Terry Pratchett. But I didn't read a huge amount until I was older.
Was there a book you felt you needed to hide from your parents?
Both my parents taught English Literature, so they were very open-minded about books.
Can you name your top five favorite or most influential authors?
Jorge Luis Borges.
What is a book you've faked reading?
I've (genuinely) read and enjoyed the first half of Ulysses, but never managed the second half. I may have omitted this fact in conversations.
Can you name a book you've bought for the cover?
I have a neon pink early 2000s paperback edition of Generation X by Douglas Coupland. I love it, it's the only bright pink book on my bookshelves.
Is there a book that changed your life?
One Hundred Years of Solitude had a huge effect on me and made me want to be a writer.
Can you name a book for which you are an evangelist (and you think everyone should read)?
There's a book called Death And The Seaside by Alison Moore that I absolutely loved and frequently recommend to people. It's a strange mystery story that keeps its cards very close to its chest. You don't know what's real and what's not until the end.
Is there a book you would most want to read again for the first time?
The Secret History by Donna Tartt was an unforgettable reading experience for me. I read it at a rate of about fifty pages per day over two weeks and was captivated the whole time. When I wasn't reading it I was thinking about it. So I'd choose that.
What is your idea of THE perfect day (where you could go anywhere/meet with anyone)?
I love to be the first person in a coffee shop and to sit and read while it's quiet. Then I'd take a walk through the countryside (woods, leading to the sea) and end up somewhere remote for lunch. Then I suppose I'd want to get back home in time for a dinner party with all my friends and favourite authors.
What is the question that you’re always hoping you’ll be asked, but never have been? What is your answer?
Do I have a favourite line from the book? Why, yes I do! Thanks for asking. "She'd had to march a whole crowd of young girls—twenty-five or so—from the train station out to the Roman ruins, their bobbing heads a mosaic of precocious haircuts." It's talking about a school trip to St. Albans. I went to St. Albans once and the main thing I remember is a perfectly preserved mosaic on the floor of one of the Roman buildings, so I was very pleased to be able to include it in metaphorical form.
What are you working on now?
I am writing a second thriller, which like The Eighth Detective is another modern reimagining of the classic detective story. It's set in a single evening in a single house, with a small cast of characters, so it's quite different from The Eighth Detective.