Born in Yugoslavia on the shores of the river Danube and educated in England, Alma Alexander is the author of the Young Adult fantasy series, the Worldweavers trilogy, published by Harper Collins. After earning her Master of Science degree in Microbiology, she decided to leave the lab and write about it instead. She has worked as a literary critic for various publications and also as an editor with an international educational publisher. In this interview, Alma talks about her fantasy series and also about various aspects of the writing and publishing process.
Thanks for being here today, Alma. Why don’t you begin by telling us a little about yourself?
I’m a writer. That short, simple sentence covers a vast amount of material about me – I practically knew how to read before I could properly talk, having taught myself how to do it when not much older than three, because my mother refused to read a favorite book to me yet again – so I just went off and learned to read it myself. I’ve been in love with language all my life. I kind of detoured into other waters for a while and hold an Master of Science degree in Microbiology and Molecular Biology as my highest academic qualification, but I worked in that field for only a short while before I realised I would rather write about science than practice it. So I did that for a while, segued into straight editorial work with a commercial/educational publisher, and then started to write full-time which I have now been doing for a decade. I’ve lived and worked on four continents, and certainly visited all of them except South America (I do plan to remedy that); I currently reside in the beautiful Pacific Northwest region of the United States, with my husband and two cats.
When did you decide you wanted to become an author?
When someone asked Ursula Le Guin what she would be if she wasn’t a writer, she answered succinctly, “Dead.” The same applies to me, really. I made no conscious decision to “be a writer” – I was mugged, hauled off into a dark alley, and presented with a stark choice – write or die. I’ve been writing since I was five years old; I wrote my first (unspeakably bad and thankfully deceased) novel when I was eleven, and my first reasonably GOOD and wholly original novel (which still exists, all 500-odd handwritten pages of it) at 15. I started winning writing awards at 12.
But perhaps that is a double-edged question. I always knew I was a writer. I realised I wanted to become an author – a writer who makes writing her sole career – when my then school brought in Lynne Reid Banks as a visiting author one rainy autumn evening, and I watched her talk about all the furies and frustrations of the writer’s life – all the rejections, the writer’s-block, the waiting, the endless revisions, the frustration, the bad reviews, did I mention the endless waiting…? – with the light of angels in her eyes and I realised that she was telling us the unvarnished truth but also that she could not live any other kind of life. And the little hairs on the back of my neck lifted in a kind of superstitious awe, and I thought to myself, “Yes. That. I want THAT.” You might say that was the moment I knew what I wanted to do with the rest of my life.
Do you have another job besides writing?
Used to, but not currently – unless you count things like the freelance reviewing I do, or the writing classes I teach. But it isn’t anything like a full job with benefits and a chunk of my waking hours that needs to be strictly devoted to it. I am a full-time writer.
Were you an avid reader as a child? What type of books did you enjoy reading?
Oh yes, and the answer to the second part of that question is “absolutely everything”. In the days before YA [Young Adult] was a category I simply read adult books when I was 12 or 13, and had no trouble with them. I cut my teeth on fairy tales and mythology, and segued into novels at a fairly young age – I did go through a searing stage of Barbara Carland worship but it didn’t take me long to realise that I was in effect reading the same book over and over again, just transplanted into a different exotic setting and with the characters renamed to suit – and then my tastes took a sharp left and I started craving complexity., My reading material needed to have a certain amount of substance to it, a “memorability” factor, if you will; if I find the book forgettable even as I am reading it the thing doesn’t last very long with me. No matter if it is humor or drama – I have the same amount of affection and appreciation for T H white’s Sword in the Stone and JRR Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings or Guy Gavriel Kay’s Tigana.
Tell us a bit about your latest book, and what inspired you to write such a story.
My latest book is the second in a YA trilogy from Harper Collins – the Worldweavers trilogy, the first book of which (Gift of the Unmage) was released in hardcover in March 2007. It appeared in a paperback edition this spring and the second book, Spellspam, made its appearance in hardcover at the same time. Book 3 is due out next year, in March 2009, with #2 coming out concurrently in paperback at that time.
The books were born out of a panel on YA ficton at the World Fantasy Convention of 2002. It was the height of Pottermania, and the panel struggled valiantly for all of ten minutes without mentioning Harry’s name… until someone from the audience put up a hand and asked the inevitable question. “What about Harry Potter?” One of the panelists, Jane Yolen, heaved a deep sigh and said, “I was wondering how long it would be before that particular elephant entered the room…” She then went on to say something about not liking the way that the Potter books had, so far, treated girls.
I heard very little of the rest of that panel, having been forcefully introduced to my own next protagonist – Thea Winthrop, the failed Double Seventh (seventh child of two seventh children), supposed to be the most magical creature in her world… and someone who could do no magic at all. Not “The Boy Who Lived”. The Girl Who Couldn’t.
Until she learned more about herself, her world, her instincts, her abilities.
Along the way she meets the ancient Anasazi Indians, the vanished tribe of the American South-west; the Alphiri, an Elf-like race with the avaricious souls of Star Trek’s Ferengi; a handful of avatars from the legends and mythology of America’ s First Nations; and, in the third book, Nikola Tesla.
I never expected to have so much FUN writing these books. Yes, they are often pointed, sometimes painful – failures happen and are not glossed over, they are there for a reason and Thea needs to learn from them; mistakes are made and their results have to be lived with in the aftermath; there are some dark choices that need to be made – but they are leavened with a touch of humor and if not precisely a happy ending then certainly a sense of closure. I believe the trilogy, as a whole, paints an honest picture of a girl who is doing her growing up before the reader’s eyes – not certain of where she is ultimately headed, but aware of the fact that there is in fact a destination waiting for her, if only she can find her way there, one step at a time.
How would you describe your creative process while writing? Stream-of-consciousness, or do you write outlines?
I NEVER write outlines – at best, I write occasional notes to myself, often in freakish shorthand that even I sometimes find hard to decipher later. I find that the minute I write the story down as an outline it’s kind of “done” in my head, written, out of my system, and I find it hard to muster up the enthusiasm to go back and write the REAL story afterward. There is also the fact that I all too frequently find out what’s about to happen next even as I am typing the scene on the computer screen, with my characters choosing that moment to reveal the next development to me. I am an immensely organic writer whose method pretty much involves pushing a story seed into what I hope is fertile ground, watering it well, and seeing what grows. Cabbage or sequoia, I have no way of knowing until the first words push their way out of the earth and show me their shape.
Did your book require a lot of research?
The YA books, some, certainly – I did read up on the Anasazi, and certainly on Nikola Tesla, before I wrote about them. I even managed to snag a stay in Nikola Tesla’s room at the New Yorker Hotel, the room where he spent the last years of his life and where he in fact died. But these are, in the end, fantasy books, and much of it came out of my own imagination which requires no research to build castles in the air,
With some of my other books – The Secrets of Jin Shei and Embers of Heaven, my two “grown-up” novels, were both based in part on various historical incarnations of China, the former an Imperial China of the ancient past and the latter the China under the Cultural Revolution. Those books, particularly the second, required a great deal of research – I must have read more than 100 books, in total, to write these two. My current work in progress is another adult historical fantasy, and this too required copious research reading before I could start writing it. I am a stickler for detail, even if that detail must be woven into a wholly fantastical setting – I know what kind of thing makes my worlds SOUND real, and it takes a lot of good research to achieve that.
What type of writer are you—the one who experiences before writing, like Hemingway, or the one who mostly daydreams and fantasizes?
Well, I write mostly fantasy. If I experienced much of what I write I would be a very unique human being indeed…
Agatha Christie got her best ideas while eating green apples in the bathtub. Steven Spielberg says he gets his best ideas while driving on the highway. When do you get your best ideas and why do you think this is?
I often dream mine. Sometimes I serial-dream, simply picking up a dream where I left it off the previous night. But that is hardly the primary source of ideas.
For a writer, ideas are everywhere. Kudos to Christie and Spielberg for being able to nail down where and how they get theirs – but mine come at me from unexpected places and inconvenient times leaving me to scribble them down on bits of paper or try to remember a single shorthand phrase which will be a trigger for the thing to unfold into a full-blown idea which presents itself to be written about. I have very little control over this. I’ve been known to interrupt conversations to scurry off and grab my little notebook – without which I go nowhere – and scribble furiously as some new thought or wonderful story idea mugs me and won’t let go until it is at least recorded well enough to be recalled at a later stage when I’m actually at a keyboard and can do something about it.
Do you get along with your muse? What do you do to placate her when she refuses to inspire you?
I’d like to say sacrifice white kid goats, but alas it isn’t that dramatic. The muse and I have an uneasy truce. Sometimes she won’t take no for an answer and I write for ten hours a day – and the ship of story fairly flies forward at ramming speed as I row furiously under her whip. Other times I have to beg her to come for a visit, after I’ve been stuck at the same scene for a week. But we come to an accommodation, somehow, she and I. I think that the sacrificial libation of choice is coffee, personally – because once the juices start flowing I can sit and drink coffee in quantities that would probably kill a normal human being and simply… write. I think she siphons off much of that coffee. And everyone’s content.
From the moment you conceived the idea for the story, to the published book, how long did it take?
For which book? The fastest it ever happened, it was 6 months from idea to book-in-bookstores. But more often, on average, it takes about a year to go through the publication stages – if all goes smoothly and all parts of the process go without any major hitches. I’ve hit hitches before; I try to do my very best to deal with problems, if they arise, as quickly and professionally as I can – but there are often times or circumstances that are beyond one’s control, and then you just have to grit your teeth and hurry up and wait.
Describe your working environment.
Home office, with a sliding door that opens into cedar woods and where I often get visitations from passing deer. Large oak desk with hutch containing copies of my books in all their myriad languages and one stuffed white beanie-baby dragon. Messy desk which gets cleaned up only in between actual projects but DURING a project the accumulation of notes and papers and books I’m using for research purposes and pens and Post-It pads and all the paraphernalia of a working writer often makes it hard to see the surface of the desk at all. It isn’t chaos, really – it just looks that way. I know where everything IS. Ask me to put my hands on any specific piece of material in that pile of stuff, and you
Do you write non-stop until you have a first draft, or do you edit as you move along?
A little bit of both, depending on the project. I’ll often do it a chapter at a time, writing a zeroth draft, fixing the bloopers in that sufficiently to produce something like a smooth first draft, and then forging ahead – with the final edit reserved for when the entire work is complete.
They say authors have immensely fragile egos… How would you handle negative criticism or a negative review?
If SOMEBODY doesn’t hate what I do, not enough people are reading me…
As a writer, what scares you the most?
When writing, what themes do you feel passionate about?
Honor, courage, making (the right) choices. All the sort of stuff we so badly need to have and understand in the real world…
Are you a disciplined writer?
I’ll take the Fifth on that…. Seriously, though, I’m a PROFESSIONAL writer. That means that I take deadlines seriously and will never miss one if I can help it. I do, however, have a medal in the time-honored writerly sport of procrastination – I can procrastinate at an Olympic level sometimes, particularly when I’m in the position of being stuck at that scene I mentioned earlier and waiting for the muse to deign to drop in again and give me a shove in the right direction. Funny, though. I never procrastinate when things are going really well…
When it comes to writing, are you an early bird, or a night owl?
Night owl. I’d rather stay up until four o’clock in the morning than get up at that time – I’m quite unable to function if I am made to wake up or get up too early in the day.
Do you have an agent? How was your experience in searching for one?
Yes, a wonderful one – and my experience of getting together with her was the one-of-a-kind “do as I say and not as I do” sort of thing. Still, it could only work ONCE, and I’m lucky that it did. I’m a writer, I can write a story – I’m awfully glad that she has taken on the burden of the commercial aspect of this…
Do you have any unusual writing quirks?
Not especially, not that I know of or that anyone’s pointed out to me. I HAVE been accused of swallowing a dictionary when I was a toddler, though, because I tend to use words – in conversation as well as in writing, though – that most people would swear don’t exist. I’m a mean devil at Scrabble.
What is your opinion about critique groups? What words of advice would you offer a novice writer who is joining one? Do you think the wrong critique group can ‘crush’ a fledgling writer?
In order – critique groups can be immensely valuable, and not just as you’re starting out. Exchanging opinions and ideas with other writers adds an extra dimension to your work which it is simply not possible to achieve in isolation. It can be hard for a novice writer joining a group, especially an established group, to keep hold of their own voice – but the rule of thumb is, if several people agree that there is an issue or a problem with your work – even if they don’t agree precisely on what it is – then you would be well advised to take another look at the passage in question. A single opinion you can take or leave, depending on how much you trust that particular person, or how much respect you have for their opinion – but remember that it is just that, a single opinion. You are welcome to accept it at face value, seek a corroborating or dissenting second opinion elsewhere before making up your mind, or set it aside altogether. Not everybody gets everything, after all. And be very aware of the sort of critique that sets out to change not your work but your writing voice – the people who don’t necessarily want you to write something different, but to write what you’ve already written in a way that they themselves might have written it. That can be immensely damaging to a fledgling writer still struggling to find their own feet. But I honestly think that a writer with a true vocation is crush-proof. You’ll dust yourself off and start again with grim determination. And the best advice is – if you have the faith, keep going. Sooner or later, if you lean against a brick wall long enough, it will fall down.
Have you ever suffered from writer’s block? What seems to work for unleashing your creativity?
I simply stop work on the project that is blocked and work on something else instead. I find that when I return to the original project I have magically “unblocked” myself somehow, and am able to proceed.
Technically speaking, what do you have to struggle the most when writing? How do you tackle it?
If I type “teh” for “the” one more time I’ll shoot myself… Seriously, sometimes it seems like someone has rearranged my keyboard when I wasn’t looking and I keep on transposing letters as I type. Because it bugs me to see that on-screen I keep going back to fix the typos – and throw myself out of the story again and again and again. The frequency of this increases when I get really tired and my fingers start slipping more – I don’t “touch type” as such, but I’ve done so much typing in my time that I literally don’t need to see the keyboard when I am typing but rather stare at the screen as the words appear there. Sometimes I do wonder if I would do better if I had formally learned to touch type in some sort of class, though.
How was your experience in looking for a publisher? What words of advice would you offer those novice authors who are in search of one?
Look in the right places, and persevere. It is said that Stephen Donaldson, author of the Thomas Covenant books, sent his novel out to every publisher in the directory, going from A to Z – and when they had all rejected it, started again at the beginning. At which point somebody picked him up and published him and the rest is history, with the books out there on the bookstore shelves as we speak. Do not, however frustrated and impatient you are, break any rules – if the publisher says they don’t want simultaneous submissions then don’t send them any, and don’t rely on the fact that they might not find out. Editors talk to each other. A lot. You don’t want your name to come up in those conversations too often in a negative connotation. Play by the rules but remember – never give up, never surrender…
What type of book promotion seems to work the best for you?
Bookmarks handed out to potential readers work well; so do personal contacts and appearances. I find that people who have actually met me or spoken to me or heard me talk at a convention panel are far more likely to go out looking for the book. Blogging has become a very valuable tool in recent times – both my own blogs and the occasional guest blogs I do at other sites, as well as blogs I do on a regular basis for several sites (www.SFNovelists.com on the fifth of every month, and www.storytellersunplugged.com on the thirtieth of every month). Writing these blogs keeps my writing muscle honed, my muse at home, and my name out there on the Net where people might be looking for new authors to read.
What is(are) your favorite book/author(s)? Why?
Too many to mention, both writers/books and reasons why. That’s a whole other interview. But I will talk about some of them on my blogs – so come visit them, and find out in a more organic way…
What is the best writing advice you’ve ever received?
Two, really. #1 is simply to READ – that might seem obvious but I’ve met any number of people who swear they want to write a book but when asked what they like to read reply, “I don’t read much”. It is simply not possible to be a good writer without also being a great reader – at the very least you need to know what’s already been done in the genre you’ve chosen to practice in. #2 is harder: Don’t Give Up. There are times that even I still find it difficult to live up to that one.
Do you have a website/blog where readers may learn more about you and your work?
In addition, I blog regularly at my own LiveJournal blog and, as I mentioned earlier, once a month at SFNovelists and Storytellersunplugged, and at both those sites you can find a lot of other great writers who also regularly blog for them. Hope to see you there!
Do you have another book on the works? Would you like to tell readers about your current or future projects?
Too early in the day to discuss the work-in-porgress right now – but watch those blogs! That’s where I'll talk about it – at length! – when it becomes possible to do so.
Anything else you’d like to say about yourself or your work?
You were VERY thorough! Thank you!