Interview with Alma Alexander

Jen: Readers, please help me welcome Alma Alexander to Book Talk this week. Alma, will you please share a short bio with us?
Alma: I was born the day after America, on July 5, six years before man first walked on the moon, in a country that doesn’t exist any more but used to be known as Yugoslavia. When I was ten my family followed my father’s work to Africa – first Zambia, then Swaziland, then South Africa – and I was to spend the next 20 years of my life there while pursuing my education in Yugoslavia, South Africa, and the United Kingdom. I obtained an MSc degree in Molecular Biology and Biochemistry from the University of Cape Town, and then decided to first segue sideways into writing about science instead of practicing it and finally became a full-time novelist when the century turned and I moved to the United States to get married. I now live in the Pacific Northwest with my husband and my two cats, and the assorted wildlife that beats a path to my back yard.

Jen: Tell us about the Worldweavers trilogy and where it’s available.
Alma: Thea Winthrop, the young heroine of the Worldweavers trilogy, became my American answer to the hugely British (so hugely that even individual book titles had to be ‘translated’ to be comprehensible to an American audience) Harry Potter phenomenon. Thea, far from being the Ultimate Wizard and the Boy Who Lived, starts out life as the Girl Who Couldn’t – in a world where magic is as commonplace as breathing, she, a Double Seventh child (seventh child of two seventh children) and supposed to be deeply magical, cannot seem to do the simplest magical thing. The three Worldweavers books are about Thea and how she finds her place in this world – and the story is built on Native American mythology, a race of elves called the Alphiri who have the souls of Star Trek’s Ferengi in that they think everything is for sale and they want Thea, The FBM or the Federal Bureau of Magic, a bunch of misfit kids in the school known as the Last Ditch School for the Incurably Incompetent (where those who can’t do magic in this world are sent off as a last resort), Nikola Tesla, elemental magic, cybermagic, spell-contaminated spam email messages, chasing pigeons in New York, friendship, trust and betrayal, the making of difficult choices, growing up and growing wise.

The books are available in many places online as well as brick and mortar stores like Barnes and Noble and probably your local independent bookstore (who, if they don’t have a copy on hand, can order one for you).

Jen: At what age did you discover writing and when were you first published? Tell us your call story.
Alma: I have ALWAYS written. My first (preserved) poem is somewhere in my father’s files, and it was written when I was five (Its subject is a broken alarm clock. No, I have no idea why.) I wrote my first execrable and derivative novel-length manuscript before I was ten years old, in my mother tongue. Then I moved to Africa, learned English, and began writing in that – and wrote my second novel aged eleven or twelve. I wrote my first DECENT novel aged fifteen. But before that I was winning writing prizes and getting short stuff published in school magazines and such, as well as newspapers, and commercial magazines. I don’t remember how old I was when I was first published, I honestly don’t – but to date I have had ten books, more than a thousand book reviews, lots and lots of poetry, dozens of short stories and a whole bunch of non-fiction article type stuff published in everything from the London Magazine (a UK literary magazine of long standing and stellar reputation) to women’s magazines to online sites (articles and reviews).

Two “call” stories come to mind.

I say I have always written but I think the moment that I knew that I wanted to “be a writer” came when the school I was currently at brought in Lynne Reid Banks as a visiting author, and she came and talked to us in the school library one evening. The weather outside was wet and miserable, but the wood-paneled library was a haven of warmth and light – and this woman stood there before us, and told us about the writing life. She told it as it was, warts and all, the frustrations, the waiting, the rejections, the failures, the blood and the sweat and the tears – but she also spoke of the joy and the exhilaration and the touch of power when everything came together just right, and she spoke of it ALL with the light of angels in her eyes that made it obvious that she loved it fiercely and would not trade it for any other life on this earth. And I looked at her and I saw that and something in me broke and I was flooded with something utterly incoherent – but if I had to put it into words, it would have been a soft voice that whispered in my ear, “THAT. Yes. THAT. I want that. I want that life. That is who I want to be.”

I was fifteen years old.

The second story comes from some years after that, when I had already been writing with concentrated fury for some time. I attended my first science fiction convention in Auckland, New Zealand, in April 1995 – where the guest of honour was a writer called Roger Zelazny, one of my personal literary gods, and someone I could not believe that I would get the chance to meet face to face. I got into the writing workshop which he and his fellow GoH, Vonda McIntyre, were chairing at that convention, and when it came time for him to give me his critique on the story that I had sent in… he did no such thing. Instead, he sat there and looked at me out of steady grey eyes, smiling a little, and said, “I have two questions.”

I consented to answer them.

First he asked how long I had been writing, and I said that I had been doing so as long as I could remember. And he nodded. And then he said, “Do you read and /or write a lot of poetry?”

And I said I did.

And he said, “It shows. You have a voice all of your own. Nobody else will ever quite write like this.”

Roger Zelazny died of cancer less than three months after this workshop, but his words live on in my mind and my heart. Whenever the black crows of doubt come home to roost, I remember them… And I pick up my load, and stagger forward one more time.

Banks showed me the way. Zelazny keeps me on it.

Jen: How does your family feel about your career?
Alma: It started with my grandfather, long before I HAD a career – he was a poet, and he instilled in me a love of language and the written word since babyhood. He did not live to see my biggest successes, but I remember one time that I did a poetry reading that he attended, and I don’t believe I will ever see another human being glow with such an incandescent inner light of love and pride as long as I live. He is gone now, has been for many years, but I still bring every new success to him in my heart, and I know that he still glows with that light.

My father has always been a pillar of strength to me, and my mother, although occasionally mystified, makes it a point of conveying her own pride (even when it’s wrapped in a maternal cocoon of apprehension about a future built on creative endeavour alone).

And my husband’s proposal more or less contained the words, “Marry me, and you can write and I can do the housework”. He’s done that, and more – he is my first reader, and my first-line editor, and the first person who claps eyes on anything new that I write. I have never had any doubt about his unwavering support and pride in what I do.

I don’t have kids, but I swear, sometimes I think my cats are out to sabotage me.

Jen: How does your family handle the time that you write? Are they supportive or disruptive?

Alma: If I announce I am writing, I am seldom disturbed. Except by the cats.

In point of fact, that is the sort of advice that I would freely offer any prospective writer. Get a cat. I am serious. A cat will keep you humble by virtue of the simple feline conviction that they are the center of any universe and therefore you cannot be – but there’s nothing that brings you back to earth faster than a cat who INSISTS that a litterbox be cleaned, like, RIGHTNOW, and the cat couldn’t care less if you are in the grip of complete and incandescent inspiration which may or may not ever come your way again. Litter box. Now. Inspiration when you have discharged your duty.

Jen: Describe your writing in three words.
Alma: Breath of life.

Jen: Do you have a writing routine?
Alma: Well, I drink a LOT of coffee…

(But no. I am not the kind of writer who sits down to work at 8:30, takes an hour for lunch, and then works until six. If I wanted that kind of routine I would have taken an office job. I am not saying that I only write when I am “inspired” – no professional writer can do that, you cannot build a career on it – but I will get it done, in my own time, in my own way. Deadlines REALLY help, by the way…)

Jen: What kind of research do you do for your books?
Alma: The Worldweavers books are less research intensive than some of the stuff that I’ve written (“The Secrets of Jin Shei”, “Embers of Heaven”) but even for this I am obsessive about getting the details as right as I can. I read up on the Anasazi, I read several biographies of Nikola Tesla, I called up people in New York to tell me about Bryant Park in winter, I even stayed at the New Yorker Hotel, and slept in the same room that Nikola Tesla lived and eventually died in. I need to know far more about the books that I write than ever really makes it into the finished novel. Some of my “research notebooks” look frightening – full of flapping Post-it tags, underlined and highlighted in different colours, written in shorthand, sometimes containing nothing more than a reference to which to go if I want more detail – and about 20% of all this makes it into the actual novel. But knowing the rest of it – knowing the rest of it is THERE – makes all the difference for me.

Jen: What’s the most challenging aspect of writing? Easiest?
Alma: Most challenging – revising and rewriting. I hate doing that. I really do. Particularly if I had written a novel with a sense of internal structure which may not matter to anyone else but it matters to ME, dammit, and if a revision or a rewrite knocks this internal structure awry it can sometimes take me a long time and a lot of effort to regain my equilibrium. Easiest – well – just sitting down and WRITING is easy. For me, it’s like opening a faucet somewhere, and the words come pouring out…

Jen: What’s the most rewarding aspect?
Alma: Sometimes a sentence or a paragraph or a scene will just… come out RIGHT, without any effort on my part, and I’ve learned to recognize a raising of the hackles when I sit back and re-read it because it becomes hard to believe that I have just typed that onto a blank page. That’s a real high. The other thing, of course, comes a long time after publication – and that’s readers who contact me to tell me how much they liked something of mine that they’ve read. I frequently get teary at those notes, particularly if they come from thirteen-year-olds or fifteen-year-olds and I get a sense of that whispering voice that told me once that the writing life is what I wanted and I realized that these kids have just heard that voice… and that for them, the voice was mine.

Jen: What did you do to celebrate the sale of your first book?
Alma: Wept and screamed. Toasted it with wine. Cried some more. Trembled. Learned what unconditional joy tastes like.

Jen: Where do you draw your inspiration?
Alma: The world around me. Eh, sorry, but I really cannot be more specific than that. A girl who started her writing life by writing a poem about a broken alarm clock has no right speculating on where inspiration comes from.

Jen: What do you do in your free time?
Alma: Read. Watch movies. Do needlework (I just finished a mammoth tapestry it took me ten years to complete…) Travel. Go out with my camera and take photographs.

Jen: What’s next for you?
Alma: Just finished a historical fantasy doorstop weighing in at close to 200,000 words. Am working on that to make it a shade less huge. In the meantime, I’ve started yet another novel, and there are two more waiting on the back burner for when there is time. I won’t be bored for the next couple of years, that’s for sure.

Jen: Where can you be found on the web?
Alma: I have two websites – the first, http://www.AlmaAlexander.com , is a kind of general writerly website where all kinds of news and commentary can be found and which has a bibliography, bio, and a selection of my writings (essays and stories and such); the second, http://www.WorldWeaversWeb.com, is dedicated to the Worldweavers trilogy and contains excerpts from the three Worldweavers books, ordering information, a readers/teacher’s guide in PDF format, and more. I also blog on LiveJournal (http://anghara.livejournal.com/) and I am a regular on two group blogs, http://www.sfnovelists/ on the fifth of every month and http://www.storytellersunplugged.com/ on the thirtieth of every month – these latter two blogs are frequently focused on the art, craft,and lifestyle of writing.

Jen: Is there anything you’d like to ask our readers?
Alma: What makes you, the reader, call something a “good” or a “bad” book? What makes you call a book unforgettable? What makes you throw it across the room?

Jen: Readers, Alma is giving away a signed copy of Worldweavers: Cybermage, book 3 of the worldweavers books (plus signed bookplates for books 1 and 2 if the winner already has them or has plans to get them). To enter the drawing, first leave a comment or question for Alma. Then you must either leave your email address with your comment or send an email to admin.bookblog@gmail.com letting us know to enter you in the drawing. A winner will be chosen on Thursday, July 9 around 5pm PST.