Meet the Author
Alex Mellanby tells about his past and gives us insight into the inspiration for the Tregarthur’s Series.
I was a doctor, a nice safe career helping people until I one day I went for a walk out onto the wilds of Dartmoor. The dark stone peaks frowned down at me as they’ve frowned at people for thousands of years. Walk on and feel the power of the timeless moor. Soon you are lost, even with a ‘where am I?’ phone app because the rain lashes down, the wind stings your eyes blinding you to the modern world and there is no reception.
This is a primeval, ancient land. As the weather clears perhaps you may see some person striding out, are they dressed in animal skins, is that a club they carry, was that a mammoth in the distance? I found it hard not to let my mind take me to a distant age, thousands of years before when the moor was even more dangerous. Could I survive out there? No, of course I couldn’t survive but I might be able to write about someone else trying to do the same. So, doctor into writer.
The more I wrote the easier it became to see how difficult it is to write. The story is there, but where are the people who will bring it to life? I was used to seeing people with problems, surely my characters could fly from medical clinics onto the page? Not so easy. Sick people would have no chance on the moor, limping over the stony ground, leaning heavily on the stone Tors with each heart attack, and it really isn’t a good place to get diarrhoea. So I needed stronger people.
But even with my story and my characters, writing something other people may want to read isn’t something that comes easily. Along with the many rejections for my first attempts one star publisher told me it was a great story but with technical flaws. I realised that I had no idea what was meant by technical flaws – not spelling because that was sorted by spell-check. What the publisher could have said was my written text was pretty unreadable because of the stodgy, repetitive use of words and hopeless dialogue that sounded like a bad day in the supermarket and about as interesting as reading the special offers of the day. I needed help.
Back to school. I enrolled on a Creative Writing Course at the Anglia Ruskin University. I read, I wrote and I eventually understood how you could learn about those technicalities. Not learn to stifle creativity but to learn to use the framework of stories from as nearly as far back as I wanted to take my characters on the moor. Another few re-writes of the text, more rejections but now with better comments. I had more success with smaller projects and shorter stories. Finally the wonderful Cillian Press took up the Tregarthur series.
But my medical experience hasn’t disappeared. Seeing the agony and misery of illness does not leave you easily, but hangs around in my mind as I write. Small reminiscences strike down people in my stories, treatments that may work on ancient diseases, even scientific facts slide into unusual places in the stories.
I have survived the transition to writing – but will my characters survive the timeless moor or the terrible angry force of Alice Tregarthur? Well …
The first version of Tregarthur’s Promise was written in a hurry and submitted for the Times Chicken House completion. The wonderful Barry Cunningham phoned me to say they couldn’t short list if because of ‘technicalities’ but the story really had something. It took me years to discover what the technical inadequacies were (actually to be convinced that there were any!). That happened in a Creative Writing Course at the Anglia Ruskin University.
And Technicalities were nothing to do with spelling and grammar. They were structure. Having a plot is not enough. Good stories are usually pretty simple –troubled characters struggle to overcome adversity and are about to win until the awful author throws some final mess at them and we reach some compromise of a happy ending or not. I think it’s mostly called the Hero’s journey. If you want to write something different then it’s simple – either you have to be a genius or remain undiscovered. It took me years to believe I needed structure.