Adam Interviews...Alma Alexander!
It's the last Monday in June!
Can you believe it?
Where did the month go?
Oh, I know - interviewing great authors!
Today I have Alma Alexander with me.
Alma Alexander's life so far has prepared her very well for her chosen career. She was born in a country which no longer exists on the maps, has lived and worked in seven countries on four continents (and in cyberspace!), has climbed mountains, dived in coral reefs, flown smallplanes, swum with dolphins, touched two-thousand-year-old tiles in a gate out of Babylon. She is a novelist, anthologist and short story writer who currently shares her life between the Pacific Northwest of the USA (where she lives with the obligatory writer’s cat) and the wonderful fantasy worlds of her own imagination. You can find out more about Alma and her books on her website (www.AlmaAlexander.org ), at her Amazon author page (https://amzn.to/2N6xE9u ), on Twitter (https://twitter.com/AlmaAlexander ), at herFacebook page (https://www.facebook.com/AuthorAlmaAlexander/ ), or at her Patreon page (https://www.patreon.com/AlmaAlexander )
1 When did you first realize you wanted to be a writer? As a child, what did you want to do when you grew up?
I didn’t “realise I wanted to be a writer”. I WAS one. From the beginning. From the days that I taught myself to read (age 4)… to the days when my grandfather read his poems to me when I was five (and I told him they didn’t scan, and I was right)… to the days I scribbled my own first poems and stories… to the days of my first (horribly derivative) novel when I was nearly 11 to the first GOOD ORIGINAL novel when I was 14… all the way. ALL THE WAY. I never “wanted” to be anything – I was born that thing, and it was something I would do as naturally as breathing. There was no decision, there was no realization, there were no “Career aspirations” as a toddler – I was a writer, and I would write. That shapes, forms, and defines me. It isn’t so much WHAT I am as WHO I am.
2 What would you say is your interesting writing quirk?
The fact that I don’t outline, and I don’t really do a zeroth or a first draft on paper (or on screen) – the story forms and percolates inside my head. And when I pour it out in a form that is shareable with other people it’s draft number four or five, and very rarely requires major editing. Except typos. Wretched typos. I type way too fast and my fingers sometimes run away from me and typos just breed on pages when you aren’t looking. So I have to proofread carefully, in the end, because otherwise there is an infestation of “teh” and similar abominations in the MS. Some still – always – make it into the finished product. I am considering issung a “teh-swatter” with every published book.
3 When did you write your first book and how old were you?
First novel length work at 10-and-three-quarters. It does not (perhaps happily) survive. My first good novel – it still has good bones and I may fix it and publish as “juvenilia” – at 14. (It was, for the record, written longhand, in pencil, in three hardcover notebooks, and it is remarkably “clean” as far as manuscripts go. That’s because even as early as that I was already cleaning up and fixing my prose in my head before I ever wrote it down…)
4 What do you like to do when you’re not writing?
Read. A LOT. Also, photography, and various aspects of needlework. My latest project was creating knitted scarves to go with individual books of mine (for instance, a dark blue yarn with sparkles in it created a matching scarf for “Midnight at Spanish Gardens”, a similar red one was paired to “Embers of Heaven” – these have been a ROARING success) Also, cat cuddling. That is something that is always on the menu.
5 What does your family think of your writing?
My grandfather thought I was his legacy, and he was overjoyed that a descendant would take over his ‘writer’ mantle. My father always encouraged me. My mother… received my first hardcover novel and turned it over in her hands and said, “it looks… just like a real book…” Enough said.
6 What was one of the most surprising things you learned in creating your books? Do you hear from your readers much? What kinds of things do they say?
That I have absolutely no control over the things that readers find in my books, which I often have no memory and certainly had no conscious intention, of putting in there. I just recently got a piece of fanmail from somebody who got really involved with my Were Chronicles novels, and poured out to me the reasons why – and told me that one of my characters in those novels was a “light in his darkness” and showed him the way. That… is humbling. And exhilarating. And I hope that I continue to create characters like that, characters who speak to real people and help to address real issues in real lives.
7 What do you think makes a good story?
Putting characters through difficult times, and issues, and having them come through if not triumphant then at least as a survivor. Sorry, but I find reading pretty prose, the hearts-and-flowers stuff, the only-the-good kind of story, both boring and unbelievable on the page. I want to know if there were problems, and I want to see them being suffered through, and I want to see how they were overcome (or else how they became something that could be lived with). A good story, for me, needs drama.
8 What literary pilgrimages have you gone on?
I once made it a point, when in Oxford, to go and find Tolkien’s grave, and say thank you for everything that he and his stories have meant to me. It meant a lot to me to be able to do that.
9 What is the first book that made you cry?
There is a very underrated writer by the name of Howard Spring whose books I cherish. His “My son, my son” made me sob when I first read it – and has never failed to bring tears to my eyes on re-reads. Spring may be “old fashioned” in modern times but I swear on my WORDS (and that is a high oath) that he should be required reading for anybody who has ever wanted to write a book, or create living breathing characters.
10 What is the most unethical practice in the publishing industry?
There are plenty that could be cited – that the author, who created the primary product, only gets 7% (10%, for a hardcover, if you’re lucky) royalties per book in a traditional publishing milieu which means that a hardcover that often sells for upwards of $30 frequently nets less than $3 per book for the writer. Advances have gone by the board and royalties are often all that there is – and they can be abusmal. And one of the primary practices in the industry which happens in very few other industries (if any) is the principle of “returns” and if the book is not “Returnable” it won’t get stocked in a brick and mortar bookstore at all. What that means is that instead of ordering wisely and selling the stock they order bookstores can order a bunch of copies and then simply send back the unsold ones when shelving room is needed, for the books to be pulped or otherwise disposed of. For many smaller presses (with no massive warehouses to store stock) this is an active act of sabotage because they simply cannot sell books in stores. I know this is a “business” but the way the business is run it often feels like there is an underlying assumption that everyone in it must make a profit somehow… except the writer, the foundation of the whole thing, the person who often labors alone while holding down at least one other job to keep themselves fed and housed and whose basic worth seems to be calculated to be so much less than everyone else put together. The writer is neither paid a salary, nor is all too often paid up front (like, for instance, a cover art designer is) – the writer is the only one who, having created the book, then sits beside that accomplishment collecting pennies in a hat to ensure that everyone else receives their wages on time. I would have thought an evolution to a more equable distribution of revenues from book sales – where the creator gets the lion’s share because without them there would BE no product for anyone else in the industry to deal with – was way overdue.
Wow. I opened my mouth there and rather more came out than I anticipated.
11 Do you think someone could be a writer if they don’t feel emotions strongly?
Well… they might be able to string words together into sentences. That’s always teachable and doable. But those who do only perfect scintillating perfect cold prose without a delve into the emotions beneath… I am not particularly interested in their perfection. Their writing might be pure diamonds but without a setting and without a context even the most shining diamonds are just pretty sparkly things in a heap. You need to be able to feel an emotion before you can write something that elicits an emotional response in the reader.
12 What other authors are you friends with, and how do they help you become a better writer?
LOTS and it’s sometimes a full time job just to keep up with the latest releases from my friends. We exchange ideas, thoughts, lessons learned. ALL of us make our peers better writers, one way or another – either they have written something incandescent that makes us want to emulate it, or (sometimes) they have not accomplished what they tried to do and our response is along the lines of ‘I can do better than that’ and we do and sometimes amazing things have come of this. Let me just say that a writer never stops learning, and that we all serve as one another’s teachers, in so many different ways.
13 Do you want each book to stand on its own, or are you building a body of work with connections between each book?
Some, yeah. But my historical fantasies (“Secrets of Jin Shei”, “Embers of Heaven”. “Empress”) are all set in the same alternative-history world and I am building up a body of those works – there are at least three more historical fantasy novels on the drawing board which will exist in the same general milieu. It’s fun creating a whole new history and timeline.
14 What was the best money you ever spent as a writer? What did you do with your first advance?
My advance for “Secrets of Jin Shei” helped buy my house. I consider that a very good investment. As for the other thing, the first thing I bought with money I earned from writing… was a ring. A diamond ring with an arc of tiny diamonds. That was more than thirty years ago. I still wear it daily and it reminds me of my beginnings and of how far I have come.
15 What was an early experience where you learned that language had power?
When I found myself responding viscerally and emotionally to what was nothing more than printed words on a paper page. Somehow those tiny printed words reached out and extruded tiny strong fingers and wrapped them around my heart – and I knew they would never let go. There are words, sentences, passages, from various books I have read at various stages in my life which I remember verbatim because they engraved themselves onto my soul. The cuts made by words bleed harder and deeper than those made by blades; and some of them never heal. There are scars left by word wounds which you will bear forever. That is true power. And sometimes the meaning that blossoms in your mind is so much more than just the words – it just hides within them. For example, the single sentence that redeems ALL of Narnia, spoken of Aslan: “But he is not a TAME lion.” There is fear in those words, and awe, and also a sense of wonder so huge that it is impossible to believe that it can fit in just seven words…
16 What’s your favorite under-appreciated novel?
There are plenty. I might include one or two of my own… (But the bottom line is, if you found something in it, it is no longer unappreciated –and it’s really up to you to tell people about it. Lots of people. All the time…)
17 As a writer, what would you choose as your mascot/avatar/spirit animal?
No contest – wolf. I had the privilege of meeting some, even of being ‘kissed’ by a wolf who turned unexpectedly and plastered a wet kiss from a face-sized wolftongue squarely on my nose. People say they are frightened of wolves – I am not, never have been. I respect them, that is different. But I am not afraid of them, and I find in their eyes a whole lost world of wonder and power. (I wrote about my encounter in my blog – look up “Day of the Wolf” to find the post on www.AlmaAlexander.org...)
18 How many unpublished and half-finished books do you have?
At least five. I need to get back to writing…
19 What’s the best way to market your books?
When someone else does it. Seriously. If I were a salesperson I would be making a living doing that. I am so not. I write the books – I *wish* someone else would sell them for me…
20 What do you have coming next?
I should get on with thenext novel. It’s EITHER going to be a new SF novel, a new historical fantasy tied into my alternate-history world, a stand-alone borderline fantasy/horror book, or a contemporary fantasy about a poison witch in New York City. I haven’t decided yet. (if anyone wants to weigh in on the matter, you can always join my Patreon…)
** How many books have you written? Which is your favourite?
You can’t ask an author that, it’s like asking which of her children is a mother’s favourite. But my basic answer is, whatever I’m currently working on, because that is by definition the closest to my heart. The last book I put together, which will be out in June 2022, is a memoir of love and loss and grief called “Forever is shorter than it used to be”, written in the wake of being widowed a year ago. After that… I’m still waiting for a direction. (Oh, and I have twenty three books published by this stage, and bunches of short stories and the like. So yeah, I”ve been piling them up)
** Do you have any suggestions to help someone become a better writer? If so, what are they?
Read. Read a lot. Read EVERYTHING. The bad stuff will teach you how to do better. The good stuff will give you something to aspire to. But never stop reading.
** Does writing energize or exhaust you?
Depends on my state of mind, and/or on how much coffee I have had. There are times that I have written 10000 words in a single day; there are days I struggle to put a page together. Ask me again in a week and you’ll get a different answer than what you might get today. I hate to do this but the real answer is… it depends.