I think Alma Alexander will not remember this, but I met her once. It was at one of the Writers’ Weekends in Seattle, probably before I got published, or possibly the very summer I got published, in 2004 or 2005. I idled by her table during a signing, picked up her books THE HIDDEN QUEEN and CHANGER OF DAYS, and said “Oh, I’ve been wanting to read these! I’m waiting for the third one to come out!”
“THERE ARE ONLY TWO OF THEM,” Alma said somewhat stridently, which made me suspect that she had faced that particular phrase one too many times. Possibly one too many times that very day, in fact.
I said “Oh aglghlgh!” or words to that effect, bought them both immediately and had her sign them for me. :)
This encounter taught me something important, which was to never assume a fantasy story is a trilogy just because there’s more than one volume. Having now (or at least as soon as WAYFINDER is out) committed two duologies myself, I am quite sympathetic to the sudden outburst of THERE ARE ONLY TWO OF THEM!
So I was pretty pleased, more recently, to discover Alma on LJ, and I’ve been following her blog for a while now (she writes some truly beautiful essays), and today I am entirely delighted to present to you an interview with Alma in advance of the release of her new novel, MIDNIGHT IN SPANISH GARDENS.
With no further ado–Alma Alexander!
CEM: You’re the product of/have lived in many cultures: Yugoslavia, Africa, New Zealand, America–and those are just the ones I’m certain of. I know this is like asking a fish what it thinks of water, but do you think your international experiences helped guide you into writing fantasy in particular?
Alma: Inasmuch as I am a chalice that accepts being filled with new sights sounds and experiences as something that is both inevitable and something that I have grown to crave over the years after being exposed to so much of it when I was a child, yes, in a sense it did – because when you’re creating a world, as a writer, it is important that you create one which is self-contained, self-sufficient, and cohesive, no matter how fantastical or bizarre it might seem from the outside.
Worlds have rules, always, and it’s important to know what those are, even if you plan to break them later. But in order to break them convincingly or with any kind of necessary weight, you first have to know WHAT THEY ARE and WHY THEY ARE IMPORTANT. I learned early that the new worlds I might find myself in may look and feel and sound and taste awfully odd and weird to me – but that to those from within those worlds, they were the everyday, the quotidian. It taught me to accept the fact that magic may be and all too often is an indivisible part of our daily existence, if only one knows where to look for it, and how to accept it with both curiosity and grace when it is discovered.
Every one of us may have a certain place on this planet which is “home”, familiar and recognizable and instantly explainable to strangers because it is so firmly and deeply and instinctively a part of us and who we are and how we perceive ourselves. But what my world travels have given to me is an ability to put down roots in all sorts of strange places – perhaps not the deep tap roots that grow solid and strong and all the way down in the places where I first opened my eyes and learned to see, but even those shallow surface roots that I grew elsewhere have always allowed me to suck up the sustenance and moisture (in the shape of knowledge and understanding) which I needed in order to survive in the new place. Shallow roots do not mean weak plants – the great redwoods of California are reputed to have fairly shallow roots which spread very wide – and that’s enough to support a sequoia. I’ll take that.
CEM: Speaking of the many places you’ve lived–is there one place in particular you would tell everyone in the world to visit, if they could? Someplace that breaks your heart just by its existence? (Aside from Spanish Gardens, which I trust you will explain a bit about later. :))
Alma: Plenty of places. I have this innate capacity for wonder which has seldom failed me, and I have been stirred by many places on this Earth. The Alps; the Highlands of Scotland; Tahiti; the black sand volcanic beaches of New Zealand; those Californian redwoods I mentioned earlier; Serengeti; Victoria Falls; the Grand Canyon; the Yukon Territories in mid-September when they are golden with turning aspen. I love this world of ours. All of it. And there is so much more of it that I haven’t seen, but would love to go – I would love to visit the Galapagos Islands, see the Northern Lights above the Arctic Circle, see the wild horses of the Camargue, see a blue whale out in the open ocean, climb Mount Kilimanjaro, step into the City that Time Forgot at Petra, walk the eternal ice of Antarctica. There are so many dreams left to be dreamed.
CEM: Writers tend to be voracious readers. Whose books can you not live without?
Alma: J R R Tolkien, Guy Gavriel Kay, Roger Zelazny, the early seminal works that I read by people like Henryk Sienkiewicz (it’s OK, – he’s Polish, you CAN say that surname without sounding like you’re about to sneeze, but I wouldn’t be surprised if my more Western readers had never even heard of this Nobel Literature Prize winner…) and oh, so many more. My house has literally THOUSANDS of books in it, I live in a house with an honest-to-goodness library (one whole room dedicated to JUST this purpose, with wall-to-wall and floor-to-ceiling shelves). I love all of my books.
CEM: Describe your writing process a bit. Do you plot each and every arc? Do you use music to help set the mood? How do you get through any rough patches? Is your focus limited to one manuscript or do you multi-task?
Alma: In order of asking – hell no I don’t plot each and every arc. I am the poster child for the wing-it school of writing and I frequently discover things that astonish me when I start on a project, things I had not imagined were there when the initial idea first presented itself. One of the most elegant “brackets” I’ve ever done – an event that occurs early in a book, and is then echoed in another event close to the end of the book in question – was the cat story arc in “Secrets of Jin Shei”. It gave rise to one of the most affecting lines of dialogue that a story of mine has ever boasted – and for a moment, after I wrote it, I sat staring at the screen with my hands still on the keyboard and thought to myself, I never wrote that. That’s the way I write – I take dictation, as it were. From the characters. From the story.
Sometimes music is helpful particularly since I “see” things with symphonic music in a very vivid visual way. But I don’t have a “story soundtrack”, not as such.
Rough patches – er, um,, yeah. I rant, and I procrastinate, and I have been known to abandon a project that’s stalled cold and go and work on something else, and whine, and complain, and go through periods of complete self-doubt about the value of an entire project because of one problem encountered on the way. Usually when I return to the stalled project after my creative subconscious has finished having this little snit I somehow discover that there is a way through, over, under, or around the problem which has given me so much pain and suffering. So I take the road that’s offered, and off we go again, full steam ahead. I find that a little time away is invaluable for clearing the brain… so long as you keep in mind that letting a project “sleep it off” doesn’t mean abandoning it to a deep dark coma that will eventually have it slide into death. A little procrastination is JUST what the doctor ordered; too much, and it can kill a project stone dead.
Which kind of answers your LAST question, too – yes, I do multi-task, inasmuch as I can sometimes be working on at least two very different stories in tandem, as it were. And there is also other stuff that needs to be done – stuff like, oh, I don’t know, taking time out from the NEW novel (yes I am writing one – isn’t everybody?) to do a bunch of guest blog appearances and interviews in support of a book that’s just about to hit the marketplace. A writer HAS to multitask – often one book is in the process of being hatched as an idea, another is mid-way through and requires plot noodling to get it going again, and a third is just about to be released and requires the writer’s mental energy to be focused on efforts of putting the book out there, promotion, publicity, that kind of thing (particularly since publishers don’t do so much of that any more). Multitasking is not only useful… it is essential.
CEM: And, having demanded essay-style answers for the previous questions, here’s an easy one: tell us a little about your upcoming book, Midnight in Spanish Gardens!
Alma: Several things came together for this. The first of them is the what-if question, the choice that comes to so many and perhaps leaves unnoticed, the “what if things were different” moment, what if I had done this, not done that, chosen a different partner, a different job, a different life. What if I were really somebody else? What are the things that I TRULY find important in my life, the true keystones of it, the issues that define me and without which I would no longer be who I believe myself to be? What would it take to make me turn my back on those things..?
Five people come together in a place called Spanish Gardens and are offered such a choice. This is a story… of what happens next. It is also a story that LOOKS like it has five protagonists. In fact, it has six – because the sixth one, quite simply, is Spanish Gardens itself. The place exists, or once did, and if you read my descriptions of it in the book you will know exactly what it was like. People who haven’t been back there for thirty years and who haven’t seen one another for almost that long or have never personally met at all will describe the place to you in eerily similar terms – it’s as though something… IMPRINTED… back there. This was a place that held true magic, and it didn’t just lie in the fact that it concocted the best Irish Coffees ever made on this world.
I truly believe that everybody has a place like this in their lives, or once had one – a place that lives on unchanged in memory, a place that you could speak only truth in, a place that held up an uncompromising mirror to what and who you truly were – that made you take a long hard look at those what-if questions, and forced you to give honest answers to them, no matter what the cost.
And finally – the end of the world. It seemed fitting that the most appropriate time to question your own existence is on the eve of what might be Apocalypse Now – in some ways choices become even more important when you’re basically out of time to make them, when you have to decide NOW NOW NOW because otherwise the decisions will be forced upon you anyway.
It all came together – the place that I loved and still treasure in my memories, five incredible characters with secrets and issues of their own who produced a story which is not just lightweight froth and foam but tackles some real contemporary issues, and the perfect timing of the Mayan calendar which gave me a timeline I could not ignore.
So – come in – have an Irish Coffee – take a look around – and then, when you’re done reading the book, when you’re sitting there in the aftermath, there’s going to be one last question left on a slip of paper that slips out from the back of the book or you find lying on a table somewhere – what would you choose?
In closing – a few words about me, and a few more about the book –
My main website is at AlmaAlexander.com (take a look at the bibliography page!) and I also have a website dedicated to my YA series, Worldweavers, at AlmaAlexander.com/worldweavers/ , and you can find a book trailer there, as well as excerpts from those books and also ordering information. I blog regularly at anghara.livejournal.com and if people want to get to know the real me that’s the more dynamic site right now. I’m also on Facebook (facebook.com/alma.alexander , or facebook.com/pages/Alma-Alexander/679380
If you want to look into purchasing any of my books, you can go to several places:
Smashwords for other ebook editions (and go there to keep an eye on the Alexander Triads project, themed collections of short stories…)
Or visit your friendly neighbourhood indie store and ask them to get my books for you if they don’t have them…
(x-posted from the essential kit)