When I first Skype Piers Alexander, he asks me to wait a few minutes – he’s just moved house and trying to make a vegetarian shepherd’s pie in his new oven is taking longer than anticipated. Half an hour later, we’ve gone from talking about shepherd’s pie to seventeenth-century conspiracies, the focus of University of York Politics graduate’s newly-published first novel, The Bitter Trade. It’s a gripping historical thriller with a satisfyingly knotty plot and a memorable narrator – Calumny Spinks, a foolhardy but ambitious sixteen-year-old who gets embroiled in a web of lies revolving around the coffee houses of London in the run-up to the Glorious Revolution of 1688.
Although Piers has wanted to be a writer “since [he] was six or seven years old,” after he graduated he “created situations where [he] was putting solvency in opposition to creativity”. He worked in the corporate world while trying to write various novels on the side before, along with his screenwriter wife Becky, whom he met at York, remortgaging their house to set up two businesses, which they ran while he was writing The Bitter Trade. Work is a crucial theme in the novel, linked to Calumny’s relationship with his silk weaver father, whom he both resents and wants to emulate. “My Dad is an extremely good craftsman,” Piers says. “He learned wood-turning a year ago and he’s just created a perfect gearstick for a vintage MG. He’s got that in his bloodline somewhere. I work with my brain and my bullshit, and of course my Dad’s a lot smarter than me, but he’s got that craftsmanship as well, so I was sort of exploring what that means. It sounds a bit pretentious, but it was quite emotionally powerful.” As Piers points out, the novel’s title refers not just to the coffee trade, but to the compromises and inner betrayals all the characters make to get ahead. “My editor said to me after the second draft ‘This is really about fathers and sons, isn’t it?’ and I was like ‘No’ -” he guffaws – “‘where are you going with this?’ But then I was like ‘Yes, it is.’ The real bitter trade is to do with pretending to be someone you’re not, and the emotional violence within that. Part of accepting who you are is accepting who your parents are.”
The real bitter trade is to do with pretending to be someone you’re not, and the emotional violence within that. Part of accepting who you are is accepting who your parents are.
The relationships between his characters are so convincing because of the amount of effort he puts into developing them. “I take great attention to ‘Is the life and arc of my characters credible?’ I talk to them in my diary.” He sees fidelity to his characters as more important than total historical accuracy, and The Bitter Trade borrows a trick from one of his favourite sets of books, the Flashman series by George MacDonald Fraser, by having an afterword which humorously admits that Calumny’s perception of events doesn’t always match the historical books. “I’d rather mess with the geography and the historical record and be true to the characters”, Piers says.
That said, he has read in detail about the seventeenth century, which he talks about with furious enthusiasm. “It felt like one of those times in history when someone, maybe not without an education but not of high birth, could make their way, and I find that quite appealing. Not that I’m really an outsider – there’s no way I’d ever be utterly destitute – but I still feel a little bit like an outsider, and I like periods in history that reward them. By the way, I don’t think this is one. I think there has been one – I guess the mid-80s to the 2000s – but the cost of entering into serious life, like politics or home owning or all those things that have given people a chance in the past, has got so high.”
The Bitter Trade ends on an ambiguous note, and Piers is already planning two more novels to tell Calumny’s story, which take the novel’s themes of exploitation and greed onto a global scale. The second novel, Scatterwood, is set on the plantations of Jamaica, where “Cal becomes an indentured servant, and not only has to escape but has to carry out a rather nasty mission.” Taken together, the trilogy will be based on three different products of seventeenth-century trade: “The first book is about coffee, the second is about sugar and the third is about tobacco. To me there’s a very interesting connection between addictive substances and plantations and colonialism and the exploitation and extermination of natives.” Despite Piers’ vibrant prose and gift for crafting narrative thrills, the themes of the series look to get darker as it develops, an uncomfortable reminder of the injustices that founded America and the modern global economy: “The whole trilogy’s called Calumny’s Republic – in other words, a republic of lies.”