Todd Alexander – Tom Houghton – Podcast

Todd Alexander discusses his latest book Tom Houghton with the Co-op chat.

Todd Alexander discusses his latest book Tom Houghton. So who is Tom Houghton? As a boy growing up in the western suburbs of Sydney, Tom Houghton escapes the harshness of the schoolyard by cocooning himself in the cinema of the golden age of Hollywood. When he discovers that his favourite actress, Katharine Hepburn, modelled herself on her brother, Thomas Houghton Hepburn, Tom sinks deeper into his fantasy life. Determined to reveal his true identity to the world, Tom is propelled on a torturous path with disastrous consequences…
www.coop.com.au/tom-houghton/alex…odd/9781925184556


Rob:
Back talking to Todd Alexander to the Co-Op Chat. Hello, Todd.

 

Todd:
Hi, Rob. Thanks for having me.

 

Rob:
Todd, it’s a sense of deja vu interviewing you because we’ve both been in the book industry, and been across various things together, but you’ve done various things in the book industry, from a bookseller to a nonfiction author, and of course your latest book, Tom Houghton. Is it interesting to go across different areas of bookselling?

 

Todd:
Absolutely, it’s really informed my career. When you sit down to write a book, it’s a very creative process, beginning to end. That’s all you, and it’s all just words coming out on paper, but then when you actually start thinking about who to pitch it to, whether it has a sales angle, et cetera, having experience in the book industry really informs the next part of the process. I think it’s tiered me up quite well from finishing something to then getting it out there. It’s been really helpful.

 

Rob:
Tom Houghton is your second fiction book. Who is Tom Houghton?

 

Todd:
Tom Houghton is a 12-year-old boy growing up in the western suburbs of Sydney, and he’s a bit of a different kid. He’s pretty obsessed with films, the golden age of Hollywood films, and he really likes to immerse himself in that escapism of film. He comes from a broken family, so it’s a bit of a rough past in their family, and because he’s a bit of a different kid, when he goes to school, he is a natural target of the bullies at school. He deals with this fantasy life at home where everything is cocooned and lovely, and then the brutal harsh reality of what’s happening to him at school. 


It’s how those two clashing, which really creates his character, but the book is also about Tom the 40-year-old, who’s a bit of a prickly guy. He’s pretty self-destructive, not the most committed of friends in the world, and I really set about creating a character that was going to be a challenge for people to get to like, but I wanted to show that what happened to him as a child has contributed to what kind of character he turned into, and hold that up to the reader and go, “Rather than be quick to judge who he is as a man, have a think about his history and see how that impacts your feelings towards him.”

 

Rob:
Do you think there’s an age where you have to reexamine your childhood?

 

Todd:

I think for all of us, it’s constant reexamining. I think through out your daily life, things pop up that remind you of something that happened in childhood. You might see someone who reminds you of someone or is actually from your past. I think there is a constant reexamining. The question for me is how many of us have let go of childhood in the sense that maybe trauma happened, and it’s no longer impacting you, and how many of us are still living a life where we haven’t dealt with things that happened to us in our childhood? It’s certainly different for different people, but I think we’d be crazy to let go of our childhood years altogether, because they absolutely have informed who we are as adults. I think to a large degree, they’re keys in understanding who we are, and being better people.

Rob:
A lot of bullying in your book. How did that come about? Why do you think?

 

Todd:
I didn’t deliberately set out with the theme of bullying. I came up with the idea of Tom the character first, and Tom, because of his differentness, and because of his determination to live a more exciting life, he really thinks that his identity is destined for something great. I suppose that is an outcome of all of the mediocrity around him, but his differentness makes him a natural target, as I said. I think if I was to explore the character and only showed his home life, it would be a pretty biased view of what kind of life he was living. 


When I started thinking about a 12-year-old boy in the western suburbs who is a big caught up in the fantasy world of film and actors and magazines and all those kind of things, it was almost inevitable that his peers would turn on him and single him out as being different. That’s I guess the challenging thing about bullying, is that the person who bullies is doing it for a reason, and sometimes we’ll never know why that’s the case, but one of my theories is that people hide behind bulling. There could be some really bad stuff going on at home, or you might have a few insecurities of your own. 


The best way to hide behind that is to put someone else down for theirs, so that’s how that evolved the young Tom scenes. Bullying was pretty central into shaping who he was as a child, and therefore informed who he was as an adult.

 

Rob:
How much of you is in Tom?

 

Todd:

A bit. It’s certainly not autobiographical. I liked film as a kid. I didn’t need film to escape any of the realities of life. I probably watched more films than the average kid because I just really enjoyed the art form and different actors and different directors, but when I started writing the book and the bullying things started evolving, I was reminded of quite a few kids that I went to school with who were really severely bullied. I was picked on at school. In those days, we were just taught that it was teasing, and to get over it, and to develop a thicker skin, but I remember a really good week for me was getting to Friday and not having anyone pick on me from Monday to Friday, and think, “Hey, that was a really good week.” 


It was very, very rare that that continued much into the second week. Every five, six, four days, I was generally singled out, but I think that’s where the similarities end. This isn’t a book about me, it’s a book about someone who’s quite different to me, and I never really escaped into a world of fantasy. I always knew what I wanted to do and where I was going, and if people picked on me, then I always felt that there was a pretty firm path, a direction for me to follow to get out of it. The oldest scenes of Tom, you know we’ve all been a bit self-destructive. Certainly in our 20s and early 30s, I think most of us go through that invincible period, and we don’t really think about the consequences of our behaviour. 


I’m certainly not the adult Tom, and anyone who knows me would tell you that there aren’t many similarities between us.

Rob:
You heard it here first in the Co-Op Chat. Now, one of the major relationships Tom has in the book is with Hannah. Tell me about their relationship.

 

Todd:
Hannah and Tom met at university, fresh out of school, when both of them felt a little directionless. They were studying degrees but weren’t necessarily setting them up on a straight career path, and they discovered each other when Tom was feeling a little bruised and fragile, and taking life a bit too seriously. Hannah’s a real pragmatist. She’s straight to the point, and Tom really liked that. I guess what’s bonded them together throughout their whole life, they’ve known each other nearly 20 years or so, is that Hannah has always been straight to the point with Tom. She doesn’t beat around the bush. 


She’s quite happy to point out his flaws, but at the same time, she loves him for who he is, so it doesn’t expect that he’s to change. I think with Tom being an actor in his adult life, he’d be surrounded by superficiality nearly day in, day out and people who may want to get to know him for advancing their own careers, but Hannah is not like that. Hannah just holds the mirror up to Tom and says, “This is the brutal reality, so what are you going to do about it? I’m not going to stand for any of your shit.” I think he likes that.

 

Rob:
There’s been some comparisons made with you and Kristoff Socos. Tell me how does that feel?

 

Todd:
Flattery is the first word that springs to mind. He’s an awesome writer, and I’ve read most of his work, and I think for me, if people are comparing us, I would like to think it’s about the brutal honesty in our work. I wanted to present characters and a slice of life without sugarcoating any of it. Some people have faced great adversity, and there are some pretty ugly Australians out there, and I do want to shy away from those characters, much like Kristoff’s never does. I didn’t want to censor myself. I didn’t want to censor my characters, either. I think that’s probably where people are drawing the similarities between Kristoff and I, and I like that about his writing. 


I just like that not all of his characters are lovable, but I like that his writing holds the mirror up to the reader so that we critically assess our own lives and character.

 

Rob:
As you know, a lot of our audience are either at university or about to finish university. What was uni like for you?

 

Todd:

Very different to school. It was almost a revelation. I worked really hard in the HAC. I studied my guts out, and I would spend my weekends inside memorizing essays, etcetera. When I got to university, I said, “I’m not going to work my guts out as severely as that.” The other revelation for me is that there was just everyone accepted everyone else at face value. There wasn’t teasing, there wasn’t bullying. Everyone was just there to sort out the next phase of their life. I really loved university. I studied arts and law. It’s weird, I knew I wasn’t going to be a lawyer almost from day one. It just wasn’t the right career for me, but I loved what the degree did and how it challenged my mind. 


I wouldn’t trade those years. I was there at uni for five years, but I think a lot of people are at uni saying, “I don’t know what my next step’s going to be.” I think that’s quite all right, and I certainly wouldn’t relive my uni years going, “Right, on day one I’m going to be doing this when I live, after five years.” I think it’s quite okay to let those years unfurl before you, and then make your next decision after that.

Rob:
Tell me about writing for fiction versus nonfiction.

 

Todd:
They’re quite different processes for me. Nonfiction is a very structured, almost chapter by chapter, subheading by subheading breakdown of information. There’s a certain amount of information that has to be included in the book. There’s a certain amount of information that you have to go into great detail, and there’s a language. If I’m writing books about using certain websites, there’s a language that I need to use to make sure people can follow it, and so it has to be quite methodical. For me, writing fiction’s the complete opposite. I sit down, and I start on page one, and I finish on page whatever, and I never, ever interrupt that flow. 


I have to write chronologically, and it’s a pure escapism for me. I don’t really censormyself during those early drafts. I just let all the writing come out, and it’s a great escape. I can sit down and write, and then after a few hours go, “I can’t believe I’ve been sitting on my desk for three or four hours,” whereas nonfiction is more like crossing points off a checklist and making sure they were all included.

 

Rob:
What’s plan next?

 

Todd:
I’m working on another novel. I never say never, but I’m not sure that nonfiction and writing Internet guides is where my future lies. I no longer work in the ecommerce world, so I would like to continue writing fiction. I’ve just started the next one. My characters are pretty well = formed in my head. I don’t know if you’re aware, but I run a property in the Hunter Valley, so I have a lot of tractor time, and sitting on a tractor is where I do a lot of my character development when I’m just going up and down the rows, or mowing, or something like that. Characters are very strong, and I’ve got the sense of the plot, and I’ve also got the next idea after that, which involves a bit of research. 


I’ve just started laying out how to get that research done.

 

Rob:
You heard it here first on the Co-Op Chat. Could be a rural romance.

 

Todd:
No, it won’t be. Love’s a very important part of a lot of my work, but no, won’t be rural romance.

 

Rob:

Good. I’d like to thank Todd for joining us on the Co-Op Chat, and we look forward to grabbing a copy of Tom Houghton from the Co-Op Store or online, and seeing what comes next.

Todd:
Great. Thanks very much.
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