Interviewed by Katharine Eliska Kimbriel
Alma Alexander has the resume to be a storyteller. She was born on the banks of the blue Danube in a country whose name is but a memory. She left that home at ten, and lived in five countries on four continents before setting up shop in cyberspace.
When asked about her life, all she will say is that she was born six years before men walked on the moon, and is married to a man who wooed her in cyberspace and lured her to America. Alexander confesses only to being owned by a pair of cats, and being both a Cancer and a Water Rabbit.
But if you want to know about her stories, ah, that’s something else entirely. She can talk all day about storytelling, and about these children of her heart. From the shores of Syai, an Asian culture that she will convince you exists somewhere, through werewolves that will stun you and leave you open-mouthed, she has traveled to more than one far country of her own making. Nearly a score of novels and volumes of short stories attest to her joy in “dreaming for a living.”
Book View Cafe is happy to release her latest short novel, AbductiCon, where SF conventions and time-traveling androids collide!
1) You’ve been writing for a while—how has your work changed since the first story you wrote? Do you think your ‘voice,’ the thing that stamps your writing as uniquely yours, changes from book to book, story to story?
A.) Yes, the voice changes, if only because most of my stuff is taken as ‘dictation’. All I do is sit down in front of a keyboard and type as fast as I can to get down the story that is being told to me by a protagonist of any given tale.
I’ve never been able to write a story set in ‘Placeholder Location X’ with ‘Placeholder Character Y’, names to be filled in later, because all of those things are intrinsic to my story. The story’s voice is very much tied to those things.
In fact that’s being proved as a case in point right now, when it comes to my new YA series, ‘The Were Chronicles’. It is not so much a trilogy as a triptych, each book covering some of the same main story arc.
Each book is told from a different POV, by a different POV character with a different ‘voice’. Although some of the events in each book overlap, they are such different characters, with such radically different responses to what they are seeing and taking part in that even seemingly familiar events suddenly take on a life of their own. This is not a novice trick, though. The three characters who tell each book—Jazz Marsh in Random, her brother Mal in Wolf, and Mal’s friend, best known as Chalky (read the book and you’ll find out why) in Shifter—are some of the best characters I’ve ever had the privilege and joy to work with. But in too many ways to count, it is the gathered experience of over a decade as a full-time writer which has made them so.
The handling of character is a specialized skill, partly of it simply the ability to listen to their particular ‘voice’ and convey it to the reader. The true test of whether a character is alive and leaps off the page is when you can write a page of dialogue without any attribution whatsoever and your reader will KNOW who is talking, even without being TOLD.
Getting this right is an amazing feeling for me a writer; this is the moment I know I’ve created people who could step out of my book and pursue a perfectly independent existence somewhere else. The ‘voice’ of every story they tell is theirs, not mine.
One of the most valuable things that the ‘voice of experience’ can tell you is when to step out of your story’s way. As the author, you are there to dig ditches and build walls, but the story that you are writing is not your version of the how-to manual on how to accomplish this—the LAST thing you need to have in any given tale is an overwhelming sense that you are in the presence not so much of its protagonists but of the author who is telling you of the protagonist’s experiences.
2) What is the lure of the coming of age story for you? You have examined many variants of it in your stories, from the Worldweaver and Were Chronicles books to the Syai Empire Tales and The Hidden Queen.
A) Life is change, and my stories reflect that. There is a particular age when change can be monumental, can place you between heartbreaking choices, can alter your circumstances or you, as a person in a fundamental way, so as to leave you in an entirely different space, both inside your own head and in the world around you. The story then becomes how you have evolved to fit those changes.
Hopefully they will have been for the better—they should make you wiser, better, or even just simply give you an ounce more understanding of something or somebody else. That is the crux of the coming-of-age story, this evolution, and watching human beings change fascinates me. There are just so many possible individual responses to any given stimulus, so many alternate futures waiting, that it’s a breathless thing to wait and see which road a particular character will choose to take and how that choice will affect everyone else around them.
3) Has writing taught you anything you didn’t expect?
A.) Well, I grew to realize that nothing is a given, and that everything can change in the blink of an eye. But I’m not sure if that is an entirely UNEXPECTED realization.
It wasn’t unexpected, but I recognize that language, and the ability to use language to express the world, is a gift. One which I have always been grateful to have been granted.
4) A reoccurring theme in your stories is the expectations of family. We have loving family ties (The Secrets of Jin-Shei), what appear to be strained family ties (The Were Chronicles), monstrous family expectations (Worldweavers), and cutthroat family interaction (The Hidden Queen). What draws you to that point in family dynamics?
A.) Tolstoy famously wrote: “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” The corollary to this is that happy families that are all alike are by definition not a place where stories are born—or at the very least, it is always the SAME story.
With families in crisis, however, anything can happen and usually does. There is also the fact that nobody can slaughter you quite as efficiently as someone who loves you best, simply because they KNOW HOW.
So family dynamics, especially when it comes to dysfunction, are a deep well of stories which are both affecting and on some fundamental level recognizable by the reader. That recognition can range from a heartfelt ‘there but for the Grace of God go I,’ to a bewildering incomprehension of any given character’s motives but a strong sense that even though those characters are very different from the reader and may be making very different choices from those that the reader would make, there is a connection there, if only that of a grudging acceptance of those choices as inevitable for that person under those circumstances.
We all bring our own family baggage to our reading of any given story. The simple word ‘Mother’ can mean such a number of so very different things to different people who encounter it—the loving Mama, the smothering Mama, the selfish or the downright evil Mama determined to have things her own way to the detriment of anyone in her path, the selfless Mama who will sacrifice herself so that her children may prosper, the submissive Mama who will defer to her husband on everything including her children’s fates or the subversive Mama who will work against EVERYONE so that her children can have their best chance.
They are legion, the Mothers, and until they are nailed down by the story in which they appear, they can be anyone’s mothers. Every person alive has had one—reading about a fictional one can leave you anything from envious to relieved that yours is not like that. Families are something that we can not escape and our place in those families quietly but utterly defines who we ourselves grow up to be (and how we pass on what we learned from the families we were born into to those we go on to create for ourselves in our adult lives).
Families always but ALWAYS have expectations, some of which are obviously impossible for their children to ever meet. Handling those expectations—from both ends—and handling the ways they are met or failed is story gold.
My own oeuvre alone covers such a gamut of families and their expectations; and there are so many, so many others out there, breaking their own trails. How does one NOT write about all the impossible things that the people who love you best will burden you with, expecting you to succeed brilliantly at?
5) Why writing to communicate your vision, and not art, drama, etc?
A.) Well, because words are my medium, and one which I use best. I can’t draw, not really—I have the image in my head, but it doesn’t get communicated through an actual visual imprint—I can paint with words and make a reader see vividly something that I am describing but I wouldn’t be able to stick two lines together to convey that idea in terms of a picture.
As for drama, I’ve done some community theater (as actor and as director) and I’ve LOVED it. I’d do that again if given the chance. This after all is the living interpretation of those beloved words of mine—it’s seeing them come to life in the eyes and the expressions and the gestures and the voices of actual people, seeing those words walk and talk. But in the end drama is interpretation, the words HAVE to come before the interpretation, and I’m already at the words. So drama, while fun and interesting, is not the real game for me. The real game is writing the words on which the interpretation is based. And so here I am, back at the keyboard.
6) In your latest book, AbductiCon, you jumped to not only science fiction but added in a healthy dose of humor. What prompted you to tell this tale now?
A.) In answer to the perennial question of ‘where do your ideas come from’–I don’t know. As all of my books, this one arrived as a notion, the notion took on a life of its own, and off we went around the moon (in this case, literally….) In one sense the humor in this one was an escape valve from a particularly difficult period in my life—the story gave me permission to laugh, in real-life circumstances which did not allow for much of that—and the world I escaped into to do this is the world I love, the world of conventions and fans and writers and nerds and people who know everything there is to know about the canon for abstruse shows and movies, some of which only those on the inside know anything about at all.
In the end this is a book which turned out to be my love letter to that world, and conveys my gratitude for it, and to it. And it’s ALWAYS a good time to acknowledge something you love for having been there for you… and hope that, in return, you offer a shot at something at least a little bit like immortality.
7) What have you learned from your own writing? To what concepts, intentional or not, do you think you’ve exposed your readers?
A.) That there is always time to stop and hold your breath in homage for a moment, at a sight that stops your heart with beauty. That no matter how much you know there is always more left to learn. That the world is not a simple place and that there is no division into white and black or good and evil but rather everything is a sliding gray-scale and living a good life is learning where on that scale you fit best. That there is no light without shadow. That there is always something to love, and something of which to be afraid. That you cannot be true to any man or any idea if first you are not true to yourself.
I don’t write books with messages, or lessons. But I can only hope that some of the eternal questions are inside my stories… and I know that every reader who picks one up is likely to end up with their own—and very individual—answers. And that is just as it should be.
8) You have visited multiple worlds in your fantasy tales. Are any of those worlds whispering another story to you? Will we see another tale of Syai, or the Worldweavers, for example?
A.) I think the Worldweavers books are DONE now, and I’ve waved Thea Winthrop goodbye.
Syai… exists in a wider world of its own, and there are stories which take place in that wider world in which Syai is known of but is at most peripheral in the way that many exotic geographical destinations are peripheral to our own everyday lives although we acknowledge their actual existence in the world in which we live. There is at least one novel written which is set in the same world as Syai, and yet that land is mentioned only in passing, as an exotic trade destination. There is another novel pending which is set in that same world but perhaps at a slight remove, both temporal and geographic. But in my head these are stories that come from the same ‘planet,’ much as stories of, say, Sherlock Holmes and Scheherezade and Tom Sawyer portray different experiences and locations in our own world.
I am hoping to build a set of works which all fit with one another in the way a set of jigsaw puzzle pieces fit together to reveal a world. But that’s a very long-term plan.
Some of my novels are stand-alones for good reason and they will stay that way. But there is a good possibility that we will travel further in the world in which the Were Chronicles exist—and the three books in that series might turn out to be merely the FIRST three books in that series. Watch this space, as it were.
There are, of course, always and eternally other worlds, new worlds, just waiting to be explored. But that, in a very real sense, is a different story.
9) Have you decided yet what writing means to you?
A.) It is, quite simply, the Meaning of Life. I am what I am—The Writer—and there is a part of me that has always known that, and always believed that, and cannot possibly conceive of being anything else.
This is what I do. This is who I am. This DEFINES me. If you cut me, I will likely bleed words. If I have a gravestone that will live on after me, that is possibly the only word that will appear on it: WRITER.
Writing is, in the end, the only faith to which I can profess devotion, and my stories are my only prayers.
10) What is it about Book View Cafe that made you want to be a member?
A.) The sense of community and cohesiveness, the sense of a distillation of what it means to be in that ‘tribe’ to which I belong–a sense that we are on a journey together and we understand one another and help one another on our way as best we can. And it doesn’t hurt that at this stage of my life and my career so many of my colleagues are my *friends,* and so many of THOSE are already in Book View Cafe.
11) What’s next? Are you looking at strange new worlds, returning to well-trodden ground, or weaving worlds together into something that is almost but not quite familiar?
A.) I will always live with one foot in our world and one foot…someplace else. If I forget what day of the week it is OVER HERE it’s because OVER THERE something is happening that’s holding my attention right now. And there’s always something happening OVER THERE. I have many roads that I need to explore. I will report back, with travelogues, and anthropological and archaeological research, and maps. If you’re here when I step off the train or get off the bus, if you buy me a drink sometime at a travelers’ inn, I’ll tell you all about my journeys. I’ll always be coming home.