How a dyslexic child turned into a best selling author
I am delighted this week to invite author Sara Alexi onto my blog. Author of The Greek Village series, Sara’s journey from child ‘misfit’ to bestselling author is astonishing, moving and deeply inspiring.
What were you like as a child?
As an undiagnosed dyslexic, my childhood was tough – I didn’t quite ‘get’ the world and I was labelled stupid.
I didn’t feel stupid, but there were simple things that involved left and right, for example, that I just couldn’t do. For some reason, even though my parents were not Catholic, they sent me to a convent school from the age of four and I was daily humiliated by the nuns as they tried to teach us to cross ourselves and they found that I could not follow a simple instruction about which hand to begin with and which shoulder to touch first.
As I got older and classes were more academic words became a mystery, the black board Chinese hieroglyphics. I was classified as either thick or purposely disruptive by the teachers and weird by my peers. If I said something bright my teachers were shocked, and looked at me if I was the spawn of the devil. It only got worse as I got older and by the time I was a teenager, I was classed as odd by both teacher and peers and spent as much time as I could in nature, walking and drawing, away from people. I was called to the head of year to explain how I achieved my GCSE results and asked if I had been taking the mickey out of the teachers for the two preceding years?
This crippled my self-worth and I found myself floundering. One of the reasons I moved to Greece was to give myself relief from this focus; being in Greece changed how people saw me. Instead of ‘strange dyslexic’ I was just ‘displaced ex-pat’.
How would you like to envisage yourself in old age?
I hope, and I am working towards, my old age being pretty much like life is now. With that in mind I intend to live to at least one hundred and between now and then I will travel a great deal, write a good many more books and challenge myself to do things I have never done before – whatever those things may be. I hope with age I will grow ever kinder and in a better position to be of use to other people
At what stage in life did you realise you wanted to be a writer?
I never aspired to being a writer, nor did I ever intend to be a writer. Dyslexia ruled that sort of thing out of my world and it never entered my mind. At quite a young age I do remember being asked for an essay on ‘What I Did In My Holidays’ for school and the joy and excitement I experienced in the writing was second to none. I handed it in with such enthusiasm and energy. I wrote about spending a week in a holiday cottage, the owner of which was German. Every morning she would greet us with a cheery ‘Goodmornink.’ Well, this thrilled me and this was the way I told it and spelt it. My homework came back with red pen through all the spelling mistakes and every Goodmornink was corrected, and I was made to write out ‘good morning’ ten times. I was about seven or eight I think. That killed my new-found joy of writing dead for the next forty-three years.
How did dyslexia affect your confidence in your abilities and when was it diagnosed?
Having never been diagnosed (My father thought if I was diagnosed I might use such a diagnosis as an excuse not to perform as well as school.) I have never known anything other than growing up with dyslexia, thinking I was stupid and different and generally not fitting in. As I did not understand what was going on when certain subjects where being discussed I became very good at reading body language and facial expressions – every tiny nuance. This was so I could work out the right way to react to what was being said, and I became very good at covering up my struggle. I felt crushingly different from my school acquaintances and when they did show that they liked me I wondered why as it was such a remarkably different response to that of the teachers. I doubted their sincerity. I definitely felt there was something I was not being told or something I was missing. I had very low confidence as a child and this left me struggling as an adult.
You have published a large number of novels with great success. Can you tell us something about your initial journey to publication?
I have sold over a million copies now of The Greek Village Series, which is tremendous. But back when I started and was about to publish the first novel I was terrified. I self-published it on Amazon and waited to see how many copies would sell. Amazon have a tracking system that updates every hour. I sat for the first day and sold precisely none, zero, not even one. So the next morning I had very little hope but just in case I checked and I found I had sold over three hundred copies of The Illegal Gardener! Soon the reviews and emails came and I was so thrilled I immediately started writing a second book. This was in 2012 and Amazon was tweaking its system almost daily, it felt.
The second book started selling well, and then suddenly my sales were halved overnight, for no clear reason. I guess Amazon had altered their algorithms. I could have given up then but I thought to myself that if I had four books instead of two then I would have enough income to call it a job. Ideas were just spilling out of my head so I wrote two more. Amazon must have tweaked again as sales took off again and I was approached by the first of three traditional publishers who wanted to take on my books.
We looked into the process and we did the maths. It seemed I would still do all the marketing and the media work but with only a 20% royalty, compared to the 70% Amazon pays. A couple of the publishers told me straight out to stick to what I was doing – I would be worse off if I went with them.
So I stuck with self-publishing and over the years Amazon have tweaked and re-tweaked their algorithms and the sales have gone up and down.
I have tried other platforms but from what I would lose on Amazon for not being exclusive to them I would not make up on other platforms. So all in all Amazon and I seem to work well together. They have noticed me now and they have pushed the books and made them more visible and they often write to me asking if I want to be included in their promotions. At the moment we are working well together so as they say, if it’s not broken don’t fix it!
If you had to describe yourself in three words, what would they be?
Passionate, motivated and inquisitive.
How did you fall in love with Greece?
Two friends booked a holiday to Crete and asked if I wanted to come too. It meant sleeping on the floor of their apartment but what the heck! So I went and the moment my feet touched Greek soil it was love. I loved the people, I loved the pace of life, I loved the countryside, the towns, the villages. It was only a two week holiday for me, three for my friends, so I waved them goodbye and flew back to the UK where it was raining so hard, the bus from the airport was travelling at about thirty miles an hour on the motorway. When I landed in my hometown I went straight to the travel agent’s, bought a ticket back out for the next day, cleared out my back account and flew straight back. My friends were somewhat surprised to see me, but even more surprised that at the end of their third week I was waving them off and I stayed until I ran out of money.
But I was enraptured by Greece and when I did finally have to leave, my whole life was about how I could go back and live permanently.
What is the proudest moment of your life?
When my daughter spoke out against injustice aged 14 I thought to myself: good job. I have raised someone with integrity.
What is your favourite place in the world?
I have two: The real Greek village where I live so much of the time and the virtual Greek Village. Not that they are so very dissimilar. But then again put me any place where nature is thriving and people are kind and it will quickly become my favourite place.
What is your favourite one (or two) books of all time and why?
I never struggle with this question.
Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro and Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte.
At first sight they look like very different books, but both explore the divided mind. In Remains of the Day, Stevens the butler fights with his natural desire for the house keeper and his sense of duty.
In Wuthering Heights Cathy fights between her natural self that loves Heathcliff and her learnt, refined self that loves Linton. We have all been in places where our thoughts and hearts are divided and indeed Eric Berne based his psychotherapy theory, ‘Transactional Analysis’ on such divisions and how these cause impasses.
The whole area of study fascinates me; it is the conflict between nature and nurture, the natural self and the social self, the very essence of what keeps society working and indeed breaks it apart.
What advice would you give people with dyslexia who love writing?
I have three suggestions.
a) I have just uploaded the Siri app onto my computer. What an amazing aid! Dictionaries are fine if you know the order of the letters in a word and Google does its best to guess what the word is that I am trying to write but with Siri I can just say the word and Siri writes it. It is making my world so easy.
b) Get someone you are close to to read through what you have written. If they understand you they will know what you want to write when it all comes out backwards and be able to correct it.
c) Remember that you see the world in a unique way, that your learning and coping strategies are unique and give a view no-one else holds. So when your dyslexia gets you down turn it on its head and celebrate, this uniqueness might just be what makes your writing exceptional.
Sara, thank you so much for joining me. For more on Sara, visit her website here, follow her on twitter here and join her in her virtual Greek village on facebook here, a highly engaging and interactive experience.
Complement this blog post with the incredible story of how it took bestselling author Angela Marsons twenty years to get published (click here) and 5 top tips for aspiring writers (click here).
I have been reading Sara since the Illegal Gardener, her first Greek Village story which had me hooked. Whenever I read any of Sara’s interviews, I always seem to discover new facets to Sara’s character, which I love. Long may she continue writing her enthralling Greek stories. I always felt in awe of people like authors, but Sara is so kind and generous to her readers, we feel like special friends. Thank you Sara.
Hi Anne. I have been blown away by Sara’s story – her courage and resilience in the face of such difficulties. She is a very talented writer and special person.
Loved this! Sara is amazing and an inspiration!
Hi Renita, isn’t she just! An inspiration to those with dyslexia, but writers everywhere