Author Interview: E. S. Alexander



JMR-Welcome to the Books Delight, Liz. Tell our readers where you live, what you do for fun and what does the perfect day look like?

LA- Thank you, Jean, for inviting me into your community! I have been living in Tanjung Bungah on the glorious island of Penang, Malaysia since 2017. My condo overlooks the sea where the fishing boats go out to make their catches each morning, and I often see container ships and (once upon a time) the cruise ships taking tourists to and from George Town, our World Heritage Site capital. I hear the call to prayer from what’s known as the Floating Mosque nearby, and because my neighbours are a wonderful mix of Chinese, Indian, Malay, and European (with a few North Americans here and there) the food smells are always varied and delicious.

How I got here is a story in itself, lol, having been born in Scotland, raised in England, and then living in the U.S. for almost 20 years!

I like to walk, especially to the Botanic Gardens to see the monkeys, monitor lizards, and assorted birds; I read voraciously, visit the local shops for produce, and cook and bake. I’m a big fan of Netflix. There’s a café/restaurant in Straits Quay whose outside wall has shelves housing “pre-loved” books. I visit there often to swap mine with some of theirs and have discovered all sorts of authors I’ve never read before, which is great fun.

Honestly? I’ve had so many “perfect days” here – and all of them are different. It just involves doing whatever I feel like, in that moment.  

JMR-What’s your favorite historical time period? Why?

LA- As a child I was very drawn to Ancient Egypt, and I wrote a play when I was 15 (that the Lower Fifth Drama Society put on one year) about the myth of Osiris and Isis. Some of my earliest recollections were of reading Homer’s The Iliad and The Odyssey. So anything with “ancient” in front of it works for me. In a past life, I would have loved to have been a scholar at the Library of Alexandria.

JMR-Who is your favorite historical figure? Why? If you could ask them one question, what would it be?

LA- I’m going to pick one that few people have likely heard of: Hannah Snell. She’s given a brief mention in my novel as her “ruse” is relevant to the plot. She was one of many women of her age who ignored the restricting expectations that women be good little housewives, bear children, and sit in the corner and do needlepoint. Hannah (1723-1792) disguised herself first as a soldier, then as a marine and served in the British navy for five years, ostensibly to find her errant husband who’d abandoned her and their child (who died in infancy). Under the pseudonym “James Gray,” she proved herself to be just as strong, brave, and enduring as any man. When she went home, and after revealing her adventures, she made quite a name for herself on the London stage and apparently ran a pub in Wapping. Women’s liberation, 18th century style!

What I would like to ask her is how she managed to keep her true sex a secret for so long, especially after being wounded in the groin! (Jean: I have a blog post here about Snell and other women from the past who took on the guise of men for various reasons, if you’d like to include the link.)

JMR- How did you come to be a writer of historical fiction?

LA- Shortly after arriving on Penang I met a publisher friend for coffee and he told me a story about Captain Francis Light, the “founder” of George Town. As an agent of the East India Company, Light had risked everything by duping the island’s legal owner, a Malaysian sultan, into thinking he would get military assistance from the EIC in exchange for leasing the island to them for trading and ship repairs. That was never going to happen, as I discovered once I began digging into contemporary records and 19th and 20th books about the exploits of Light and his fellow “country traders.” I love research, almost as much as writing, and my curiosity was piqued. Once I began on that track, it was impossible to stop.

I’m now developing a series of talks about him called The Darker Side of Light.

JMR- You’ve been writing non-fiction for a long time. What is the biggest challenge in switching to fiction?

LA- There are obvious similarities between the two skills. I’ve always wanted to ensure that my non-fiction books—as well as those I co-authored with clients—were entertaining reads. But I’d say the biggest challenge in writing fiction is crafting compelling characters. I had a head-start since my antagonist, Captain Francis Light, is a historical figure. But my protagonist and the character one might call “the villain” were products of my imagination. So, I’d say developing true-to-life characters and composing realistic dialogue were the biggest challenges for me. For which I sought a lot of help. Writing fiction is a lot like raising a child—it takes a small village, a long time, and quite a bit of trial and error, especially when it’s one’s “debut.”

JMR- Did you visit anyone of the places in your book? Where did you feel closest to your characters?

LA- One of the big advantages of writing this book is that I live on the same island: Pulau Pinang, Malaysia. There is a special joy for me walking down streets laid out in the grid pattern that Francis Light determined would be the best way to design George Town. To walk under the “five-foot walkways” that front the shophouses here, to protect us from the monsoon rains and the sun—again, designed in his time. And, of course, to wander around Fort Cornwallis where Light and his military contingent lived and worked. It’s rather worse for wear now (despite being rebuilt in stone rather than the original wood, sixteen years after Light’s death), but wonderful to stand on the ramparts and look over the Straits and imagine what that view must have been like when filled with East Indiamen, ships belonging to country traders, and the smaller, local boats called “prahus.” 

JMR- Liz, tell us about your new book, Lies That Blind.

LA- I’ve been practicing reducing my story to a couple of lines (it’s the one thing we authors struggle to do with a full-length novel, right?). So let me start with that and then go into a little more detail:

1788, the island of Penang, Malaya. Against the backdrop of East India Company (EIC) politics, a naïve aspiring journalist, desperate to free himself from his wealthy father’s bullying ways, inveigles himself into the world of an ambitious trader-turned-EIC governor who has a captivating story to tell. But even after the deception behind his new employer’s success comes to light, and threatens to lead to a massacre of innocents, the young man must remain on the island and help save legacy of a man he has come to despise. 

My protagonist, Jim Lloyd, is a conflicted young man. He is desperate to leave Calcutta where he labours as a lowly clerk for the East India Company but can’t afford to defy his wealthy father until he can make his own way in the world. Jim also harbours a secret ambition to become a famous journalist, obsessed with writing a biography like his hero, Dr. Samuel Johnson, that will take the literary world by storm. So, when presented with the opportunity to become assistant and chronicler to Captain Francis Light, Jim seizes the chance. He sails to the island of Penang, confident that by the time his father in England hears that he’s left his secure employment in Calcutta, he will have the riches and reputation not to care if the old man cuts him off.

Then everything goes “pear-shaped”, to put it mildly.

In writing this novel I wanted to play with a number of themes: the risks we overlook when obsessed with fame; how that obsession can bring us perilously close to infamy; and whether—as John Milton poses in Paradise Lost—it is better to serve in heaven or reign in hell.

JMR-What projects do you have in the pipeline?

LA- I tell everyone who asks that I’m planning to do a Harper Lee and make this my one and only novel (let’s forget about Go Set a Watchman). It’s a big commitment to write a book and I’ve got my hands full engaging in all sorts of creative ways to market and promote Lies That Blind. I’m having way too much fun at that, plus there are blog posts to write expanding on all the fascinating historical minor characters and cultural topics that came out of my research. I bet few people know what a “keris” is, for example. They’ll find out when they read the novel – and by watching the short podcast I’m preparing. But who knows? I don’t have another idea for a novel. If, like Lies That Blind, one comes to me serendipitously, I might just end up following that fresh trail.

JMR- Tell our readers how to find you on social media and the web.

LA- My pinned tweet on Twitter (@ES_Alexander7) lists how to find me on Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, BookBub etc. My website is

JMR- What question were you hoping I’d ask but didn’t?

LA- I love this question; it was one I always asked at the end of interviews during my time as a journalist.

I have a whole bunch of questions that I’ve posted on my website for book club members to discuss. How about this one: What do you hope readers will come away with, after reading your novel? The short answer being some understanding of the culture of Malaysia (Malaya as it was back then), and specifically the history of Penang which, given Light’s foothold, let eventually to the colonization of Malaya by the British. So often historical novels are concentrated on places and periods in time (like Regency England, for example), and people (such as the Tudors), that are very familiar to us. I want to take readers out of those comfort zones and present them with a very different setting and circumstances to what they’re used to reading about.  I would also love for someone to read my book and, once we can travel freely again, come to visit Penang to experience Fort Cornwallis and George Town for themselves. And maybe even Malacca, which has an equally interesting history, having been a Dutch enclave connected to the spice trade for something like 183 years.  

These are great questions, Jeanie – I’ve enjoyed answering them. Thank you!



  1. Such an interesting interview.
    Thank you so much for hosting today's tour stop.

    Mary Anne
    The Coffee Pot Book Club


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