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Interview with Alma Alexander

Her 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 small planes, 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 two obligatory writer's cats) and the wonderful fantasy worlds of her own imagination.

Q.1 Tell us something about yourself not many people know?
I am a creature standing with one foot in the past and another in the future. I can recreate almost physical memories from touching an object connected with a given event, with sensurround, recreating the scents of that moment and hearing words said in voices sometimes long dead and gone… and sometimes I dream things that come true. The only thing I have difficulty doing sometimes is existing in the here-and-now – because, for some reason, it often seems less ‘real’ to me than those other dimensions do. Maybe this is why I write.

Q.2 When should we expect your next book? What will it be about?
The thing that’s currently on the drawing board is a very special book - it is the 20th-anniversary edition of the fantasy novel Changer of Days. It’s a big book - close on 250,000 words, although you barely notice that given everything that’s going on in there - and when I originally wrote it, the people who were perfectly willing to publish the thing yelped ‘split that puppy’ in much the same way that the original Lord of the Rings publisher created the phenomenon of the fantasy “trilogy” by splitting Tolkien’s behemoth into three books. So Changer came out as book 1 and book 2 - in New Zealand, where it was originally published, it was simply that, but in the USA, they renamed #1 The Hidden Queen while #2 remained Changer of Days… and then the second book, the second HALF of the book, went out of print and became unobtainable. For a long time, I could not get book 1 released - but it was always the plan to reunite the two halves into the single novel it was always meant to be, and that is happening… just in time for Christmas 2021. It’s a full secondary world fantasy, and it is a book that is very dear to my heart - and I cannot wait to share it with the world in the shape in which it was originally created and give it the full impact it deserves.

Q.3 What made you write Fractured Fairy Tales?
The very first book I ever published was a slim little volume called The Dolphin’s Daughter and other stories - three fairy tales. Those stories are included in the Fractured Fairy Tale volume as bedrock, as it were - but the stories we like to think of as having a fairy tale vibe come easily to me, I have a knack for reaching for the numinous, and telling, re-telling, reinventing and reshaping stories into fairy tales was something that went on over many years. When I finally turned around and counted them, there were enough for this book (and at least three stories were written especially for it to round off the complete presentation…). It was… a calling. A thing whose time had come.

Q.4 Do you feel any competitive pressure from fantasy films? If not, why?
No, because they are completely different animals, really. I do envy the visual arts the ability to short-hand communicate something - in a single sideways glance, a turning of the head, a gesture of the hand - that would have taken a page of discourse in the written avatar. Still, the written word holds its own treasures. You’re stuck with the director’s vision in a film. With a book, you’re free to imagine your own visuals. That’s huge.

Q.5 What is one stereotype about fantasy writers is absolutely wrong? What one stereotype is dead on?
There are stereotypes? I wasn’t aware of that. And I know enough fantasy writers to tell you that the WRITERS run the gamut - in ages, in genders, in colors of hair and eyes and face. The only “stereotype” is that we have imaginations both high and deep and are capable of reaching for all the things in that range. We see the invisible, or we see the visible and make it richer and stranger for everyone else…

Q.6 Do you ever research real events, legends, or myths to get ideas?
To GET ideas? No. But I do research where it is necessary or called for. I know how, and I enjoy the process. For some writers, though, it can be difficult to know when to stop the research and get on with the writing. It is sometimes a thing that becomes rather more addictive than might have been anticipated, as you start to realize just how much you did not know you did not know…

Q.7 What is the most difficult thing about writing characters from the opposite sex?
I write HUMAN BEINGS. I don’t write “men” and “women.” Having said that, though, I’ve seen plenty of instances where a male writer tries to get into a female character’s head and offers up what he thinks she should be thinking - and it ends up being embarrassing for everyone concerned. There are ways we are different, the male and the female of the species, and staying true to that can be tricky. When you do NOT, however, it is laughably easy to spot, so there’s that.

Q.8 Where do you as an author draw the line on gory descriptions and/or erotic content?
We might be back on the film versus written word question you asked earlier - with visual medium things (when shown on camera) are inevitably more detailed and immersive on an immediate level because you are literally there in the frame, as the watcher, and you don’t have to imagine the gore or the sex because you are being shown them, real-time, right in front of you (it doesn’t matter if the blood is tomato sauce or if the actors aren’t REALLY having sex in front of the camera - that is what the visual gives you, and your own mind’s eye fills in the minutiae. In the written format… well, you get the choice to look away from the battle or to close the bedroom door before you’re treated to too much detail, and you are allowed to work at your own comfort level. This is why I, personally, give only just enough detail to matter and do not describe every slash and stab and spurt, every moan and gasp and slither of skin. *I can do it*, I am fully capable of doing it, but I like to leave a LITTLE bit of that work for the reader to do…

Q.9 How many books have you written? Which one is your favorite?
More than twenty, and you don’t ask a writer which of their books is their favorite; it’s like asking a mother to choose from her children! My usual response to that is simply the one I’m working on right now - because that’s what is currently closest to my mind and my heart. But there are pieces of that mind and that heart in every book that I have ever written - and if I go back and pick them up, I will see the shadow me who wrote them gently haunting those pages. I love them all, all my stories.

Q.10 How do you select the name of your characters?
My characters are way too independent for their own good. I do not select names for them. More often than not, they will step out of the woodwork and stick out their hand and say, “Hello, my name is [insert their name]. Now shut up and sit down and prepare to take dictation.”

Q.11 What fantasy realm would you choose to live in and why?
Middle Earth, but only if I could go back as an Elf (which is what I come out as in most of those “which Tolkien character are you” quizzes. I think I would spend a very happy eternity in Rivendell.

Q.12 Do you believe in writer’s block? If yes, how do you deal with it?
Usually, I have more than one project on hand. If I am “blocked” (and it happens) in one, it does not follow that this is the case with all of them - so I simply change horses, as it were, and keep going. Eventually, I will circle back to the project I was blocked on, and by that time, my subconscious usually has worried about the problem that stymied me in the first place, and I can see a way past or a way through - and I just pick up and keep going from where I left off. The only caveat to that is when I am suffering some deep emotional trauma, and I shut down over that, not writing at all, for the duration. But that is not strictly speaking writer’s block. That is a great silence, inside, where the stories usually live and thrive and throng. And that is quite a different matter, and there is nothing I can do about it until I have recovered from whatever it was that laid me low… and that takes… as long as it takes.

Q.13 Do you read your book reviews? How do you deal with good or bad ones?
I have gone on record as saying that if you don’t have bad reviews of your book, then not enough people are reading you (I really TRULY do not trust a book which has only glowing gushing five-star reviews across the board…) Bad reviews are thus simply opinions of readers for whom your book was not written. Sure, they sometimes hurt - especially if they are based on what you see is an egregious misunderstanding of something you tried to do. But once it is written, the book - any book - belongs to its readers, and they are entitled to their own opinions on it. The author can only listen, at this point, and be grateful for the good, and try to find a way to accept the bad in the spirit of the fact that it was that reader’s opinion and no more than that. Engaging with those reviews, trying to “explain,” is a hard no.

Q.14 Do you have any unique and quirky writing habits?
I drink a lot of coffee. And I mean A LOT. And it only gets worse when I’m actively writing something. In fact, I tell people - with a certain degree of truth to it - that I have only just enough blood in my coffee stream to be considered a human being, as it were. But that is hardly unique, and while possibly quirky, it may not be what you are looking for. Here, how’s this: I compulsively buy empty notebooks, and I have them everywhere - by my bedside, several in the living room, a number of them in my office, lurking in my handbag and going everywhere with me… and yes, I scribble in them. All the time. Whenever something strange or magical or weird or - well - story-like occurs to me. The vast majority of those stray thoughts and ideas will never grow beyond that note. But some do. Some do…

Q.15 Outside of your family members, name one entity that supported your commitment to become a published author?
A. Roger Zelazny
once told me I had a voice all my own, that nobody else would ever write that way. I have treasured those words - but by the time he uttered them, I was already a writer, and although not widely published, I was a published author in my own right. I don’t remember any teachers during my school years who were particularly involved in my aspirations - but WITHIN my family, it has always been supported and enthusiastically encouraged. Does my late husband count as “family” as such? Because in the years of our marriage, he has been my most unswerving supporter in every way, and without him, many of my books might have never been written at all.

Q.16 Who designed your book covers? How do you select him/her?
In more “Traditional” publishing, authors have very little input in choosing their covers or their cover artists. In smaller presses and in indie publishing, it becomes more of a hands-on chore for the author, and it really does help if you know artists. For the fairy tale book, for instance, I happened to know James Artimus Owen, the artist, and I knew he could do full justice to my original idea (I sent him a more or less pathetic idea sketch, but of course, I cannot draw - what he created when he took that sketch and ran with it is pure magic…) For other books, I shopped around for an artist whose work I liked - or an image which fit, whose provenance I then hunted down - and the book cover was born that way. Many of my indie-published books bear covers which were my basic ideas, only handed over to professionals to properly bring to life and give existence to my vision. I’ve been pretty lucky so far.

Q.17 Among all your protagonists, who is your favorite and why?
I can’t answer that. I can’t pick a favorite child from amongst all my children. Can I give you my husband’s? He thought that Chalky, the title character of the third book of The Were Chronicles (“Shifter”), was one of my best characters ever. But there are a lot of books out there with ‘people’ who came from inside myself, and I love them all for so many different reasons. All I can suggest is, read a few of those books, and YOU tell ME…

Q.18 Which famous person, living or dead, would you like to meet and why?
I actually went looking for J R R Tolkien’s grave in Oxford because I wanted to touch the stone that stood above it and to somehow try and say thank you for everything that he had given to me by creating his world and inviting me inside. That much I could do, and I did. But how I would love the opportunity to sit down in some lovely English library - in wing-backed armchairs beside a roaring fire - with cups of tea in our hands and the smell of his pipe tobacco lingering in the air - and talk Elves.

Q.19 What is your favorite book by other authors and why?
Guy Gavriel Kay’s Tigana is a gem beyond compare. All I can say is, I have no idea how a relatively privileged Canadian academic knows what it feels like to lose a country - but he does, he DOES. And Tigana is full of that pain. It is a pain, I understand, and this book is a mirror to my spirit. I re-read it regularly, and I own two copies of it - one which has been signed by Kay and a reading copy which is replaced as and when it falls apart so that I always have it at hand when I want it. This is one of those books necessary for my survival.

Q.20 Share the experience of your journey so far?
Back when I was fifteen years old and in boarding school in Wales, we had an author visit the school and talk about her life and her career. She did not sugarcoat a single thing. She spoke of the endless waiting… and the misunderstandings… and the rejections… and the falls, and the necessity to cultivate an ability to get up again and keep going… she gave it all to us, the unvarnished truth of it. But she also spoke of what it felt like to receive a box of copies of your newly published book… and what it felt like the first time a reader came up to you and said, ‘you understand’… and about the glory of living in worlds limited only by your own imagination… and I remember sitting up, and focusing on it all, and thinking, “This. I want THIS. I want nothing more than I want this.” And so, I have pursued that dream all of my life. I do not know what else to do. I do not know how else to live. I was born for this, for the word, for the world of the word; it is fundamentally who I am. I am a writer. That is all that is necessary, by way of explanation.

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