When the proof of The Polar Bear Explorers’ Club landed on my desk, I did something of a double take. Could this snowy middle-grade romp really be penned by the same Alex Bell who, according to her bio, “happily dwells in a make-believe world of blood, madness, murder and mayhem?”
“Yes, I’ve ducked around a little bit,” laughs Bell when we meet near her Hampshire home. After the publication of YA horror Frozen Charlotte, Bell found herself out of contract. “One of the benefits is that there are no deadlines. I felt a freedom to be able to do whatever I wanted to do. There was no sense of having to hold back.”
The result is a magical adventure of friendship, bravery and derring-do in a richly imagined world of snow and ice, populated with such perils as frost fairies, snow queens and carnivorous cabbages. Stella Starflake Pearl’s dream of going on an expedition with her explorer father has finally been granted, but disaster strikes when her group of junior explorers are lost and must survive the frozen unknowns alone. Bell initially wrote it as YA, but “it wasn’t really gelling. I wanted it to be quite sparkly and magical, and in YA it felt there would be more of an expectation of gore and grit.” She rewrote with younger readers in mind. Faber pre-empted, signed Bell for a three-book deal, and sees it as “a very, very special book”. Editor Leah Thaxton calls it “eye-wateringly beautiful, confident and assured”.
It’s evident that Bell had a marvellous time creating this world. “Oh, I had so much fun. Some stories are easier to tap into than others and Polar Bear... just seemed to be there in my brain.” Protagonist Stella “appeared fully formed in my mind. I wanted a female lead who was adventurous and brave but also something of a girly girl with sparkly dresses, tiaras and unicorns.”
Shay, Ethan and Beanie are Stella’s fellow junior explorers and will return in future books. Bell loved the tight-knit friends of Enid Blyton adventures, and wanted to emulate that. “There’s something very reassuring about that when you’re a child, to return to that same cast going on a new adventure.” Bell’s enthusiasm is infectious and I sense this is the genre she feels most comfortable in. It’s by no means a fluffy read; Stella and friends encounter plenty of peril, from breathtaking ice-bridge accident that separates them from the adults to the sly frosties with a penchant for snacking on human fingers. What it did allow for, though, was a happy ending, a luxury after writing horror where “the expectation is that it’s not going to end well!” The finished copies are just in when we meet and it looks spectacular: foiled and embossed with artwork and periodic double-page illustrations by Croatian artist Tomislav Tomic.
Alex was born and grew up in the New Forest, where her father fuelled her love of books. Favourite reads included Enid Blyton, Dick King-Smith, Harry Potter and Terry Pratchett. “I was always writing stories,” says Bell, “becoming an author was the dream”.
An English Literature degree tempted, but she took a pragmatic approach and enrolled to study Law. “It was the back-up plan. Law seemed like it could get you into more jobs.” Despite her legal intentions writing just wouldn’t leave her alone. By the time she started university she had completed her first full-length novel, and signed with agent Carolyn Whitaker aged 19. That first book didn’t find a publisher but her second did.
Gollancz published The Ninth Circle in 2008, followed by supernatural thriller Jasmyn a year later. A deal with Headline for two Lex Trent books, Terry Pratchett-inspired comic-fantasies, followed. All were well reviewed, but sold moderately. In a world where shiny débuts and celebrity names dominate, it’s all too easy to forget that the story is very different for the majority of authors. Getting published, Bell acknowledges, was relatively easy, “staying published has been the challenge”.
Then in 2014, Stripes contacted Bell’s agent about a new Young Adult horror list. A fan of both horror books and films - particularly the Point Horror series in her teens - Bell’s interest was piqued, and she submitted a proposal for a spooky thriller about cursed antique dolls. The book became Frozen Charlotte, one of the launch titles of the Red Eye imprint early in 2015. At this point I confess to Alex my absolute dread of dolls - thanks to my grandmother’s terrifying ghost stories - but fortunately her readers proved more hardy and the book quickly attracted a fervent fan base. Why does Bell think horror stories are so potent for teenagers? “The highbrow answer is that they explore hidden psychological fears but they also offer such a thrill. There’s an air of the forbidden about them. I was allowed to read whatever I wanted at that age, but if there’s strictness from schools or parents, the ‘not suitable for younger readers’ tag is very enticing.”
A year later came the game-changer: Frozen Charlotte was picked for the second Zoella Book Club, with all the ensuing publicity and nationwide promotion in W H Smith. “I was so lucky,” says Alex, “It felt wonderful. There are so many books out there and trying to stand out is so difficult. The Zoella Book Club had a big impact and brought the book to a much wider audience Suddenly so many more people had heard of Frozen Charlotte and Red Eye, and there was lots of interaction and feedback on social media, which is the best bit really. ”Initially lukewarm to the idea of a prequel, Bell was convinced after feedback from teenagers. “Readers contacted me to ask where the dolls had come from and why they were evil.” Set in Edwardian times, again in the foreboding Dunvegan House on the Isle of Skye, Charlotte Says is published this month.
Bell is now in the enviable position of having book deals with two publishers: two books in a new “dark fantasy” YA series for Stripes and two more Polar Bear Explorer adventures for Faber. For most authors this might be the moment to give up work and write full-time, but not Bell. “I was a full-time author when I left university but it really didn’t suit me. I’m too much of an introvert and I became a hermit.” Bell decided to use her legal skills “for good instead of evil” and works part-time for the Citizens Advice Bureau. She enjoys “the balance of working and writing - and the security of a regular pay cheque”. Focus is key in her writing process; she works to a daily word count on her two days off and, far from being daunted by juggling projects as diverse as Polar Bears and YA horror, finds it adds variety and keeps her writing fresh. “It’s all happened at such a good time and it’s something I’m hugely grateful for. It’s all a matter of luck and persistence really.”