21 April 2022

Author Alex Hay & agent Alice Lutyens on The Housekeepers

by Katie Smart Author Interviews, From Our Students, From the Agents, Writing Tips

Alex Hay (pictured left) was a student on our three-month Writing Your Novel course in 2015. So far, 2022 has been a brilliant, monumental year for Alex’s writing journey! He was awarded the 2022 Caledonia Novel Award, for his unpublished debut heist novel The Housekeepers. After winning the award he went on to sign with Caledonia judge and Curtis Brown literary agent Alice Lutyens, who sold The Housekeepers to Headline. The novel will be published in 2023, both in UK and in the US by Graydon House (HarperCollins).

We caught up with Alex and Alice to talk about the process of writing, editing and selling this energetic and engaging historical novel…

Alex, you studied on our three-month Writing Your Novel course in 2015, how did your time on the course impact your approach to writing?

Alex: Before CBC I’d only shown my writing to a handful of people and had no intention of submitting to agents. I knew instinctively I was good at some things, but weak on some of the biggies – structure, motivation, pace. I’ll be forever grateful that Erin Kelly tutored our group. She’s a phenomenal novelist and such a thoughtful teacher – she intuited so much about my taste and style and what I was trying to do, and gave so much practical advice about how to make a story work on the page. Anna Davis and Norah Perkins were also both encouraging and candid, and hugely supportive post-course.

I really valued the insight we gained from guest speakers, too. Clare Mackintosh visited with Sheila Crowley not long after I Let You Go had become a huge smash. Normally I was rubbish at posing questions in these sessions – they always occurred to me after we’d all gone home! – but that evening I remember asking Clare how she knew when a draft was really done, i.e. ready to send to her agent or editor. I asked because I was trying to work out how best to interrogate my own work and instincts. And Clare gave such a thoughtful answer on the iterative and evolving nature of rewrites and working with her editor – it really stayed with me. That was the special thing about CBC: a sense of fellowship with other writers (whether fledgling or superstar), as you worked out your own identity and possible path.

Many of our students find a real community on our courses – are you still in touch with any of your course mates?

Alex: Yes! In fact we’re on for drinks this week! I adored our group – the connection felt special from the start. So much has happened over the years, and I really treasure the continuity of our friendship, as well as the time and advice they’ve given to me and my work. They are without exception fun, kind, bursting with talent – I feel very lucky to have that community.

Alice, you were a judge for the 2022 Caledonia Novel Award, which Alex went on to win, what first struck you about The Housekeepers and made you want to read on?

Alice: The opening was so compelling:

‘Mrs King laid out all the knives on the kitchen table. She didn’t do it to frighten Mr Shepherd, although she knew he would be frightened, but just to make the point. She kept good knives. She took excellent care of them. This was her kitchen.

They had scrubbed the room to within an inch of its life, as if to prevent contamination. The tabletop was still damp. She could feel the house straining, a mountain of marble and iron and glass, pipes shuddering overhead.’

How could anyone not gasp with delight?

I was praying the rest of it would live up to it, and it did! For me, it is the absolute sharp perfection of each sentence that does it for me. The writing is so good, that you feel you are inside the heads of the characters straight away. For me, that is key.

Do you have any advice to share with the aspiring authors reading this, particularly those who are thinking of submitting to competitions or perhaps applying to a writing course?

Alex: I’ve entered competitions MANY times without being longlisted, and I think they’re a helpful way of testing whether your story has appeal. It’s helpful that competitions are increasingly offering sponsored places or reduced entry fees to improve access. Being shortlisted and then winning the Caledonia Novel Award undoubtedly propelled my book: it caught Alice’s attention as the judging agent, and accelerated things with others who had the opening chapters or had already called in the full MS. The community around the prize is also so friendly and supportive.

I think courses can have huge merit, and certainly I found CBC to be transformative – it gave me a valued community and helped me find my sense of identity as a writer. But it took another six years (writing several books and abandoning several more) to sign with an agent and get a deal. So I think it pays to assume there is no silver bullet, to be clear-sighted about what you want to achieve, and to seek out free advice and support where accessible. Assuming your goal is to be traditionally published, I always recommend listening to the Honest Authors podcast, hosted by Holly Seddon and Gillian McAllister. Christina Sweeney-Baird’s agent submission strategy (on the CBC blog!) was quite literally the blueprint I followed when I sent The Housekeepers out – thank you from afar, Christina! Sarah Pinborough is exceptionally transparent in interviews. Will Dean offers thoughtful advice on YouTube. The indie author community is also rich in imagination and entrepreneurialism – Joanna Penn is a marvel, for example.

And it sounds reductive, and I roll my eyes when other authors say this too, BUT…reading. It is THE THING.    

The relationship between author and agent is a special one. Was there any point before signing the client agreement where things ‘clicked’, and you knew you had to work together?

Alice: For me, it was as soon as I read the book! I knew anyone writing with such humour, verve, and brilliance had to be someone I’d really like as a person (essential top tip by the way for fledging agents and authors: never work with someone you do not like a lot!). When I then had a Zoom call with Alex, he was so smiley and enthusiastic I was even more sure.

Alex: Alice was fun, frank and supportive from the start, and she said in her first email that she wanted to get down to some hardcore editing, which I loved. Of course I felt some trepidation before our first call (and I’m guessing it feels intense on the agent’s side too, handling new authors’ fizzing hopes/dreams/fears with grace and good humour!) But we had a great discussion. Alice set out a phenomenal editorial letter, a submission strategy that gleamed from every angle, and – to break the ice – pictures of Edwardians turned into paper puppets. Can you imagine my delight?! Alice was also super-straightforward, the perfect blend of infectious energy and total pragmatism, and I felt instantly that this was someone I could trust.

Can you tell us a little bit about the work you did together on The Housekeepers before sending the book out to editors?

Alice: We did not do too much at all – two edits, and they were fairly light. The most wonderful thing is how I would say the tiniest thing, and Alex would take it and run, and come back with something magical and way beyond my suggestion.

Alex: ‘The tiniest thing’?! No, I won’t allow that! Alice generated the most sparkling ideas and her instincts for structure, movement and motivation are immaculate. When I bungled something she didn’t let it pass, and oh my gosh, her eye for detail – hawks could never! At Alice’s urging I lopped and cropped the wordcount, tightened character motivations, and upped the ante at the climax. It was a creative and collaborative process and so energising, I loved it.

Since winning the 2022 Caledonia Novel Award, you’ve been swept off on a bit of a whirlwind journey: you signed with Alice and now you have a phenomenal book deal with Headline. Can you talk us through how it felt when Alice delivered the news that you were going to be published?

Alex: Well, I was in a work meeting, blissfully unaware that we had an offer. So I have a text from Alice that I will treasure forever, followed by four or five missed calls, saying ‘PICKK UPPPP YOOOURR PHONE!’ By the time we finally spoke we had to move fast. And honestly? I think I went into a sort of shock. I remember feeling that things had just become very, very serious, and asked about 5,000 questions (sorry Alice). There were a couple of points to be ironed out, and so I thought we probably wouldn’t hear anything else that evening, and decided to make dinner (terrible timing). Alice called with an update! Promptly burned everything. Husband fuelled me with prosecco. Paced endlessly around the room. Exchanged many texts with Alice. Final one said: ‘Done. CONGRATULATIONS!’ Had a little cry. Typed lots of jumbled FEELINGS in reply. Then literally flew to the pub. Such a momentous and incredible evening, I’ll never forget it.

The Housekeepers sold to Headline for an exciting six-figure sum – as an agent what makes you get the sense that a book is going to be a hit with publishers?

Alice: Oh my goodness. Ask me the meaning of life why don’t you?! For me, it is a gut sensation based on the characters, and how they and the story make me feel. I don’t look particularly analytically. I just know. So it involves a fair bit of trusting oneself, but that instinct has not let me down yet. I did also think that this was ‘different’ and joyous – both things I am asked for in every editor meeting I have at the moment.

The Housekeepers is an Edwardian heist novel with a group of servants at its heart. You started writing this novel in 2020, just before the second lockdown. What was the initial inspiration for the novel and how did you keep up momentum during lockdown?

Alex: It’s hard to pinpoint exactly when things fell into place. I love the Ocean’s Eleven films and that plot structure was singing to me; I’d been itching to poke around in the machinery of a heist and figure out how it was put together. And separately I’d been poring over a book called The Lost Mansions of Mayfair, full of ostentatious, glorious houses scattered all the way down Park Lane – long-since lost to the Blitz or redevelopment. I think I was washing the dishes (apt, in hindsight) when I began picturing the people in those houses who lived ‘below stairs’, and characters started sidling out behind the green baize door in my mind: a gang of servants with a grudge against their corrupt employers…

I worked up a detailed scene plan over the summer and got a very lean first draft down as quickly as possible, which meant I had something to wrestle with during the long, brutal lockdown of winter 2020. I’ll always be grateful I lit upon The Housekeepers when I did. It was a solace and a joy to write in that strange and unsettling year.

The novel is set in the 1900s, can you tell us a bit about how you tackled the historical research?

Alex: I am quite pragmatic about research: I start with the story and then work out where I need to fill the gaps. That being said, I could VERY happily lose myself for hours in old magazine advertisements, currency exchange calculators, tube maps and manuals for household servants. Some of my most helpful reading was around the dark side of the service trade and the rise of the ‘nouveaux riches’. Technology was evolving so rapidly at the turn of the century, and you can find such strikingly modern photography and snippets of film. Those snapshots of people – often women – dodging traffic, meeting friends, running errands, all gave me a sense of life and movement and humanity which was so helpful when writing this book.

Without giving too much away, what is it about The Housekeepers that you’re most excited for readers to experience?

Alice: Oh my god everything. I cannot wait for them to experience an all-female (go girls!) heist set in the utter decadence of 1905, and to love Mrs King and Mrs Bone as I do.

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