Friday, April 3, 2009

A chat with Alma Alexander, fantasy author

Alma Alexander was born in what was then Yugoslavia and lived there to age 10. She spent the rest of her childhood and teenage years in various African countries because her father worked for international aid organizations. Her education was in the United Kingdom and South Africa.

Although her degree was in microbiology, she returned to her passion: writing. Her first fantasy novels, The Hidden Queen and Changer of Days were published in New Zealand, where she moved in 1994. The Secrets of Jin Shei has been published in eleven languages (and counting). She now lives in the Pacific Northwest with her husband, R. A. "Deck" Deckert. The final book in her Worldweavers trilogy came out in February of this year.

Alma is also a member of Broad Universe (see previous post or link on the right), Mythopoeic Society and SFWA (Science Fiction Writers of America -See link on right).

Alma, thank you so much for allowing me this opportunity to share some insights from an imaginative, talented fantasy author with my readers who comprise speculative fiction fans, writers and aspiring writers of all genres.

When did you first know that you wanted to be a fantasy

I've always been a writer. The fantasy angle probably came in from a very early involvement with the mythology of a bunch of different cultures (I had a set of wonderful books when I was a kid - the mythology of the Greeks and the Romans, of the Celts, of the Norse, of the Slavs, of the Arabs, of the Americas - I cut my teeth on Loki and the Coyote, on Zeus and the Dagda, on Scheherezade's stories, on the Wild Hunt) as well as the original and unadulterated fairy tales by Andersen, and the Grimm brothers, various unnamed Russian tale-tellers, Oscar Wilde.

I liked it dark, even then, and the purely saccharine happy ending never quite cut it for me (I kept on asking, yes, but what happened then? It was never enough for me to leave the story in the middle. Nobody lives completely happily ever after. Even as a child I had an instinct for that.) When I started writing, seriously writing, these worlds that had been stored away inside my head all came alive and clamoured for attention. I have written other things, apart from fantasy - but I keep returning to that well because that was always the purest draft for me, the greatest joy. The strange worlds. The worlds where the fae walked, and stones could talk. A part of me has always lived there, will never leave.

Who were your early influences?

Apart from the ones already [mentioned] above, the myths and legends and fairy tales, there were CS Lewis, Tolkien, Lloyd Alexander and Madeleine L'Engle. After, there were (and remain) Mary Stewart (in her Hollow Hills persona), Ursula le Guin, Guy Gavriel Kay, Michael Moorcock, and others too numerous to mention. I have far too many books in my house.

I know you love interacting with teenagers. Do you ever mentor any?

That's only just starting to happen. I have a couple of candidates who might well be taken under wing soon. But yes, I do - somewhat unexpectedly - love the teen scene. There's no gift as precious as a young reader's unbridled enthusiasm; some of the smiles I've taken away from school visits stayed with me for a very, very long time.

Did someone help you either with your writing or with the process of getting published early on?

That's a hard one, because I come off as ungrateful if I say not really, no - I never went to a writing workshop like Clarion or Odyssey, I didn't have a mentor who held my hand and told me everything would be all right. I had a lot of luck along the way, and I did meet people who occasionally offered me a helping hand - but
that was only after I had already met them in a writerish capacity. I went to a writer's workshop at a convention, once, and got wonderful and valuable crits and insights - but that was once. I was part of a writing group of people as novice as myself for a few years, but they were all novices just like myself. I didn't go to classes, I didn't do anything to "learn" writing other than... write.

There were people who inspired me or did or said things that pointed me in certain directions - but I never had a "mentor" in the industry, not as such. Nobody except my immediate family (my parents and my grandparents) and then, later, my husband "nurtured" me as a writer. I won my stripes the hard way, joining the writer army as the rankest private and camping out in the muddy fields with the rest of the tribe, and muddled through as best I knew how.

Yes, there were a few individuals whose presence in the right place at the right time turned out to be a blessing - and my current agent is also my friend, and has sold five books for me, in thirteen languages, within the six years we've been in partnership. But these are business relationships which were built when I was already in the field.

From where do you draw most of your inspiration?

Everywhere. Sometimes I dream things. Sometimes I overhear a fragment of a sentence from a conversation on a plane or a bus and I'm off and running. Sometimes I miss entire panels at conventions because one of the panelists said something that set me off - that was largely how the Worldweavers trilogy came into being, when I wandered almost by accident into a YA writing panel because it had writers I liked on it and emerged from it ignorant of anything they might have said on the panel topic but with an entire story and fully fleshed characters in my head. One of my university professors once stopped talking in mid-sentence, glared at me, and said to the person he had been talking to, "You'd better be careful what you say around her, it'll end up in a novel somewhere, sometime."

I am observant, particularly of things that seem odd or off-kilter or can be interpreted as such. I love people-watching. I can drown my senses in a scene or a place and come up for air with the sort of details that people don't normally notice. I travel, and can write 40,000 words of travelogue when I return from a ten-day trip (no kidding, I've done it) and the travelogue will have the sort of detail that the people who had been traveling with me will suddenly recall with
preternatural clarity only after they have read it in my descriptions. I'm sensitive to the atmosphere in houses and on haunted old battlefields. I can talk to ghosts. I can talk to butterflies.

Did you want to ask me again why I write fantasy....? [grin]

Do you outline, make lists and notes?

I make notes, yes, but they are usually chaotic and completely unintelligible to anyone but me. Not only do I not outline, I can't outline - outlining a story kills it for me, stone dead. I sold at least one novel on the strength of an outline, though - but that was dragged out of me word by bloody word by my agent and my editors who kept on wanting to know what happened next and I kept on telling them
that I didn't know what happened next, I hadn't written that part yet. I am a completely organic writer who puts a story seed into the soil of inspiration and waters it with an initial dose of dream - and then watches with interest as great as any outsider's to see what comes up out of the ground, a sequoia or a cabbage.

People who outline their works scene-by-scene tend to hate me when I tell them this.

Do you know how the story will end when you're still working on chapter 3?

I often don't know how the story will end when I'm working on the final chapter...

Do you always write linearly?

No. It very much depends on the book. Some books came together rather more like a jigsaw puzzle than a linear development. But I have written linearly in the past, and no doubt will again. When the story wants to be approached in that wise.

Which of your books are you most proud of?

When I reach for the The Secrets of Jin Shei these days, years after having written it, the book still sometimes feels to me as though someone else might have produced it, not me - I could not possibly have written anything this layered, this complex. There are moments when you're writing something that you sit back from the
screen or the page and you feel the hair standing up on the back of your neck at something you've just written down, something that you have no clue where it came from, a fragment of sentence or even just an image of such profound and world-altering power that it is hard to believe that it just came out of your own brain - there were at least two such moments in Jin Shei for me, that was the book written with all of me, mind heart and spirit, and I remain astonished by its

Having said that... I'm working on something new right now. And that has the potential to be something really good. Time will tell.

Do you have any publishing horror stories?

Of course. Doesn't everybody? But I'll let the bodies stay buried...

Funniest book signing moment?

Not signing, but I can use a reading event for this one. One time when I was giving a reading in my local independent bookstore - this was for the release of the paperback edition of Jin Shei - a bunch of teenage boys, perhaps fifteen, sixteen years of age, came filing in with notebooks and pens in hand, and parked themselves in the second row. They even drove away another patron or so, saying "Someone's sitting there," when someone else attempted to crash their row. I
said to my husband, "This is so not my demographic. I wonder why they're here?"

I started the reading. Within less than three minutes my lost boys had scrambled up with indecent speed and practically fled the place, which was suddenly too full of girl cooties for them to bear. I don't know what they were expecting, but perhaps they thought that The Secrets of Jin Shei would tell them how to practice a new and deadly martial art or something like that...

Most poignant signing moment? When a (white) woman brought a copy of Jin shei to me to sign and asked me to sign it to a person with a Chinese name. When I did so, she hugged the book to her chest and said, "Thank you. This is for my daughter who was adopted from China. I will give it to her to read so that she can know her culture, where she came from."

"How old is she?" I asked.

The woman smiled, "Four," she said. "And I will keep this for her until she is ready for it."

I cried.

What advice can you give to the novice?

Read. Read. Write. Write. Write. Write Write. Read some more.

Know what others have written, and keep writing your own stuff. You really do need to give yourself permission to write badly before you can write well - that's what the practice is for, and, later, your first drafts. Anything is allowed to suck as long as you can get to a point of knowing that it sucks and having an inkling as to how the suckage can be fixed.

And for that... you need to read. Read. Read. And then write. And then write some more.

And then read again. Never stop reading. Reading is your friend and your classroom; you would be astonished at how much you already know, if you've been reading lots of books thus far.


Unknown said...

Thanks for a lovely interview. I often turn to Alma's blog when I get discouraged about how long and arduous the process of getting my fiction out there has been.

Ann Wilkes said...

Sarah, Thanks for reading. Yes, it is a long, hard road.