Author Alma Alexander writes stories which are roadmaps to places people never knew existed but always believed had to be there. Please welcome her to No Wasted Ink.
My name is Alma Alexander, and I am a writer. I taught myself to read before age 4 (because my mother wouldn’t re-read a favourite book to me, so I just picked it up and started reading for myself…) and I haven’t stopped reading since. My house is built of books (sometimes quite literally – I have an entire room all of whose walls and every available vertical surface of which is covered in bookshelves with (sometimes triple stacked) books. When not reading, I am writing; when not writing, I do gold embroidery (that’s the opulent stuff, with silk and gold and pearls) and I run around taking photographs of beautiful skies and other things. When not doing that, I sleep and I dream – and when I wake, I often make stories out of the dreams that visited me in the night.
When and why did you begin writing?
I didn’t “begin writing”. I always wrote. Since I knew how. I wrote my first poem aged 5 – first novel aged 9 – first GOOD novel aged 11 – and I currently have more than 3 million words in print. It’s always been a core part of me – I didn’t choose it, it chose me, and I’ve been its handmaiden all my life.
When did you first consider yourself a writer?
See above. You could say, when I won my first writing award aged 12. You could say, when I published my first word. You could say, when I was nominated for a major national writing award or two. You could say, when I published my first dozen novels. All if it is true, and none of it is. I have never “considered myself a writer”. I AM one. That is different.
Can you share a little about your current book with us?
There are currently several projects on the go, but I am generally uncomfortable talking about the projects I am currently in the process of writing – simply because I am an organic writer in the worst way and I don’t necessarily KNOW what is going to happen next in any given story. The next published works that are coming out are a reissue of “Midnight at Spanish Gardens”, which I call my Novel of ‘Choice’ and what it means to make one (and there are ALWAYS consequences…) originally published to very high reader approval and involvement but now re-edited, re-covered, and re-issued for a new readership – and a brand new book, a short story collection under the name “Untranslatable” which is going to be a very special book indeed (the conceit being that there are words in multiple foreign languages which mean thing that it takes sentences, even paragraphs, to describe in English – there is simply no equivalent single-word concept. And sometimes the best way to understand these words… is through stories. That should be out in time for Christmas 2018.
Do you have a specific writing style?
No. Although I’ve been accused (jokingly but still…) of having swallowed a dictionary when I was a baby. I DO like language, and I write lush; in my household my husband (also a wordsmith) it has been posited that he writes like Hemingway and I write like Steinbeck. I tend to write very strong female protagonists, sometimes multiples ones in the same book (as in “Secrets of Jin-shei”. But my writing “style” as such changes with every book – and I never write the same book twice.
Is there a message in your novels that you want readers to grasp?
I don’t write novels with “messages” as such – but if there is one, then it might be encapsulated in the prayer my Simonis makes in “Empress”: Give me the life I am meant to live. Take that as a guiding principle, and you’ll inevitably end up gravitating to the things that you want, the things that are meant for you. This doesn’t mean that you will always be happy, or even that you are guaranteed a “happily ever after” ending (I don’t really believe in those…) It does mean that you will live a life that matters. I can hardly do better than that.
Are experiences in your books based on someone you know or events in your own life?
Some. “Midnight at Spanish Gardens” includes things that I do have direct experience of, yes – the ‘Spanish Gardens’ of the title used to be a real place, one I frequented when I was at University, the description of it in the book is pretty much exactly what the real place looked like, and some of the events described as taking place there really did occur. But that’s the least “fantastical” of my fantasies – and in many of the others, the events of which I write are tied into a fantasy milieu where real-life experiences as I or my contemporaries would know them would seem direly out of place.. I’m sure I do some distilling in my own mind and some stuff can inevitably be traced back to things I may not have even consciously been aware of when writing the story – but I don’t regurgitate reality. If I occasionally reimagine it, that would be plenty.
What authors have most influenced your life? What about them do you find inspiring?
Oh, lawks-a-mercy, this question is never answerable. Tolkien. Le Guin. Guy Gavriel Kay. Roger Zelazny. Sharon Penman. Rebecca du Maurier. Howard Spring. Ivo Andric. Mary Doria Russell. Matt Ruff. Mary Stewart. Spider Robinson. Octavia Butler. They have all taught me things – about how to build worlds, how to understand people, how to think when wearing a different mind, how to speak, how to act, what is ethical and what is moral and how far would I go to remain those things. That is not an exhaustive or a final list. You might say my answer to that question is Yes, writers have influenced my life hugely and they continue to do so. And they all bring different things I find inspiring.
If you had to choose, is there a writer would you consider a mentor? Why?
My grandfather started me off in the love of language – a poet, he started me reading poetry when I was almost too young to comprehend it. But it left a lasting mark, and maybe it’s the reason I write so poetically even today. No, I don’t have a ‘mentor’. But in one writing workshop I was fortunate enough to attend, the last one that Roger Zelazny did before he died, Zelazny asked me two questions. How long had I been writing? (and I said, forever) and Did I read or write a lot of poetry? (And I had admitted that I did). And he said to me, “It shows. You have a voice all of your own. Nobody else will ever write like this.” I take those words as something uttered by a master to an acolyte. If you want to call that a mentorship – although it is encapsulated in a single sentence – there it is.
Who designed the cover of your book? Why did you select this illustrator?
This might be changing in today’s publishing culture but I still belong to the generation which, when published, did not “choose” their cover artists and have no direct links or contacts with them, even, in most cases. For something like “Empress” I did commission the cover myself – from Hugo-Award-winning artist Elizabeth Leggett – because I love her work, and she and I worked together on a concept that I had for the cover. For my Book View Café-published novel “AbductiCon”, a humorous science fiction novel about science fiction conventions, the cover designer was… myself. But more often than not authors are presented with a cover during the publication process, and have to hope we like it…
Do you have any advice for other writers?
Read. Read FIRST. Read before you write a single word yourself. Writers who begin by saying that they don’t have time to read… have not done the training required to write. Read first. Read EVERYTHING. And learn from all of it, the good, the bad, and the ugly. Learn about what kind of person, what kind of WRITER, you want to be.