Interview with Alma Alexander
Known as the Duchess of Fantasy, Alexander is an unlimited fantasy writer, publishing in multiple forms and genres featuring her world travels. She also won the BBC Short Story Contest with her story, “The Painting”, in 2000.
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First off, we at Speculative Craft want to wish Alma a Happy Birthday! We know its not quite July 5th, but its pretty close…
Form: Primarily novels but the occasional short story – and a smattering of non-fiction, too.
Genre: Mostly different flavours of fantasy – I’ve done historical fantasy, high/epic fantasy, YA fantasy, what has been described as “contemporary” fantasy… But I’ve also dabbled in science fiction, as well as more mainstream fiction and creative non-fiction.
Why did you become a writer?
I hold an MSc degree in Molecular Biology and Microbiology. And for a little while I worked in that field, as a research scientist. But when it became obvious that to get anywhere in that area I would absolutely HAVE to get a PhD to get taken seriously – and that wasn’t on the cards – I kind of segued sideways into first scientific/medical writing and editing, then into more mainstream editing work, and finally into fulltime writing. Which I think is pretty much where I was headed all along. It was the true vocation, it was the only thing I really wanted to do, that I knew how to do properly and well. There are some things you are born for. This was mine.
Why do you choose to work in the speculative genres?
Part of the answer could be that I cut my teeth on mythology and fairy tales when it came to early reading – but that isn’t really it, most children do, and for many the love affair with the fantastic does not endure past the age when poor Susan’s sudden attraction for cosmetics and nylons got her kicked out of Narnia. For me, the never-worlds held a particular kind of magic – they were worlds which had their own rules, where nothing was inevitable, where anything could happen and usually did – and it was a particular kind of joy to delve into such a world and find out the secrets it held. Part of that was the sheer danger of going into places where the only extant maps said Here Be Dragons… partly for the pure incandescent pleasure of the possibility that there might actually be dragons to see.
In a manner of speaking, once I found out (by reading in this genre) that I had the sort of wings that would let me soar in these rarefied airs… why would I ever be wholly content with just walking anywhere again…? The speculative genre is not a place where the “real” and the hard and the difficult do not exist – on the contrary, it is perhaps the place where such things exist in their purest form, and as ideas can get explored, discussed, gnawed at and even possibly defanged – all while “protected” by the “fantastic” and therefore rendered invulnerable and powerful in ways that might then get translated back into our everyday reality. I truly believe that fantasy is the great power, the weapon that vanquishes anything, the knowledge that arms you against all folly and all misery. It gives of itself and of its wisdom, freely. And I am proud and humbled, all at once, to be called to call it my own.
What aspect of speculative writing do you find most challenging, and how do you address that?
A fantasy world does not need to work according to the rules of our own world – but it absolutely has to follow its own rules, whatever those rules may be in context. One of the hardest aspects of worldbuilding is to create a world which is utterly strange and yet utterly believable and self-consistent – the flowering of the idea that everything comes at a cost, and then having to work out what the cost of things is in the world that I have created and to make sure that the trade is fair, and sustainable. I work hard at my worlds – if I am writing a work of historical fiction, such as “Secrets of Jin Shei” or “Embers of Heaven”, I will read thirty books before I write my one volume, thirty books that cover the spectrum of history, geography, memoir, biography, social customs, fashions, food, climate and related issues such as possible crops and livestock, economics, everything that makes a world tick. 90% of this won’t make it into the finished book, but because I know my material it all informs the 10% that does, and there is (I hope) a real sense of stability and steadiness and verisimilitude – the sense that my worlds rest on solid ground, have deep roots, and even though they may not be real, they COULD be if they so choose. This is important to me. My fiction may be fantasy but it is also TRUE, to itself, to its story, to its genre. I dive into world creation, head first, and let it close over my head; I live in those other worlds, while creating their stories. There are times that our own reality seems dim and strange to me, when I come up for air.
What motivates you to keep writing?
The fact that I get cranky and miserable when I do not – creating stories is something that is as necessary for me, as necessary as breathing and coffee (and trust me, ask anyone who knows me, coffee is *necessary*…) Let me put it in a more graphically illustrative way. Once upon a time, two decades ago or so, I went through a truly rough emotional patch in my life – and somehow what that did was to turn off the writing spigot. The stories which coursed inside of me all of my life were simply… not there any more. I did not have the words. I could not form them into sentences that made sense to me. I had just ground to a complete and utter linguistic HALT – there was nothing left, it was all dry, it was all just waterless dust blowing away in the wind. The phase lasted almost a year, and by the tail end of it I was pretty nearly insane with it all. That was the moment when one of the still small voices I had been ignoring for so long finally broke through for long enough to whisper, “If you don’t write… we all die.” And so I took the words that wouldn’t work and hammered onto a blank page with a metaphorical hammer. Even into places where they didn’t fit. Anything, anything to get the flow started again. And somehow, slowly, it did, and the stories returned. But I *NEVER* want to go back to that place again. I know what I am, and that is what drives me – and I will always be writing, always be a writer, because that is quite simply a basic building block of what makes me… *me*.
How do you deal with rejection?
Actually, often with a bout of depression. But then I go around the rejection boulder, and start again on the far side. There isn’t really a viable alternative. The choices are you quit, or you keep going – and for me, that isn’t much of a choice. So I just go on.
What does your writing process look like?
Chaotic enough that I don’t know if you could call it “process” – I am the ultimate so-called pantser, a writer who creates story literally by the seat of the pants, I sometimes find out what happens next in exactly the same way as a reader would – except that I am in the process of TYPING OUT AND CREATING that story that I am reading, and often freaking out about it, yelling at my characters not to be so stupid and how did they expect me to get them out of THIS mess? (They don’t of course. My characters – all the best characters – have enough agency to deal with their own problems. Sometimes I feel I am just here to take dictation…) Often I will have epiphanies while sitting in a restaurant eating breakfast with my husband – and he’s learned to recognize that sudden sitting up motion I do, the change of expression on my face, as some plot bunny hops into view – and usually, if I don’t whip out pen and paper myself, offers a paper napkin with a resigned little smile. Or I’ll wake up in the morning and assault him with, “I got it! I figured it out!” and then he has to sit back and listen to me babble about the solution which just came to me in a dream. And then I’ll pour myself a large cup of coffee, go down to my computer, and start typing. I never “learned” typing, not genuine touch typing, but I’ve done so MUCH typing that I don’t actually look at a keyboard when I hit keys and I’m faster than I have any right to be – and on a good day, that’s all it takes – I open up a blank page and let my fingers fall on the keyboard and that’s the last conscious thing I do until I look up and see a couple of thousand words (once or twice 9000 or 10 000 words on a given day…) staring back at me. I guess you can call it process. But people who plan their writing and outline their novels and methodically work through things scene by scene… well… tend to hate me. Because when they ask me how I write I honestly cannot tell them. All I know is that I get a story seed – and then I stuff it into a pot of good black earth and wait for something to grow, and until it does not even I know if I have a cabbage or a redwood…
What is your favorite thing you’ve ever written?
No fair, asking a mother to choose amongst her children… I suppose I will simply say that in some ways the thing that I am currently working on is both my utter favourite (because it controls my brain at any given moment that I am working on it) and my least beloved effort (because – and I think many writers will nod violently at this – there comes a point in every manuscript that you look at it and are completely convinced that it is utter and irredeemable tripe and nobody sane would EVER want to read it at all…) But you get past both of those extremes. And in the end it’s good if you end up looking at something you’ve written and simply saying, okay, I LIKE this. With older works, it is sometimes difficult to remember or sometimes even believe that I had anything to do with writing any of that stuff. Sometimes a sentence in one of my books, published ten years ago, leaves me breathless because I have no clue where that could ever have come from. And then THAT is the favourite thing I’ve ever written, for a while…
What do you regret most in your career?
Non, je ne regrette rien, as the French would say. I cannot regret anything and still be content with being who I am, and where I am.
You have traveled extensively in your life, do you feel that this has helped your ability to create fictional worlds? Do you have any tips for people who aren’t able to travel to help them gain a similar experience?
If you can’t go there in body, go there in mind. Read read read read read read read. Long before I physically travelled, I practically lived in our local library – read through everything in the kiddies section and carried on right into the adult works – I read books by writers from different cultures and different places and they all took me with them into their worlds. I “visited” China and the Antebellum South and medieval Norway and various places in the realms of myth and fantasy and in outer space long before I was ten years old. I guess in a way that prepared me for the peripatetic travelling life, later, because I already knew how to put down roots into places and start sucking in whatever nutrients the strange earth I had been planted it could provide for me. The word-travelling, the kind you do in between the covers of a book, has the added advantage that you never have to swelter in unwelcoming airport halls waiting for a missed connection or hunt down missing luggage or find yourself frantically flipping through your phrase book to try and figure out how to say “I’m late for the train, which way to Platform 9 ¾” in Japanese. Books are a great wide wonderful world which you can visit at will without ever leaving the comfort of your living room. Read.
Can you speak a bit to your experience in having your work published in other languages? How was the process to get that to happen and how have you interacted with fans from the other countries?
“Secrets of Jin Shei” sold to an Italian publisher at an international book fair via my agent at the time, who was in attendance there. This was actually BEFORE it sold to an American house, which blew my mind. The other foreign sales followed – the Dutch, the Lithuanian, the Spanish (and the Catalan!), the Turkish, the Hebrew. Each was an adventure (that last completely threw me because of course to the Western-trained eye Hewbrew books are UPSIDE DOWN and BACKWARDS…) The Spanish edition, in particular, was amazing – because the book was a runaway bestseller in Spain and the Spanish-speaking territories, with 30,000+ copies (IN HARDCOVER) sold within the first six months of first publication. I still get notes from readers from scattered Spanish markets – Spain itself, Mexico, Chile. For some reason the Spanish speakers loved my Chinese girls. A lot. The most interesting translation experience was when “Embers of Heaven”, written in English, was translated into my mother-tongue – and it must be a fairly unusual situation to find oneself in, to be completely fluent in BOTH the languages under consideration, with the translator in constant touch via email – in both languages, interchangeably – when she needed to pick my brain about how best to colloquially render something from one language into the other and make it all feel organic. That was just *fun*.
Finally, to address my own curiosity, you state on your website that you are a Duchess by historical accident, can you expand on that?
I have an actual family coat of arms – that’s it, down below… There’s a manifesto culled from old archives – but in a nutshell, mine was originally (back in the 1100’s) a family of no real title but a reasonably wealthy landowner clan. In a very famous battle in 1389 one of the ancestors sustained a bad wound to the leg which gave him a nickname of Hromo (which literally means “gimpy”) and his family took a modified form of that as a surname from that day on (which was my own maiden name). At the same battle the wounded gimpy ancestor distinguished himself sufficiently in battle to be rewarded by a Dukedom. That’s where the title comes from. The original Dukedom is long since vanished, of course, under the weight of Balkan history – but the family is still around, and I’m a lineal descendant. Hence, Duchess. (At certain conventions where my family history may be familiar to some, I get people who know me greeting me with “Your Grace” in the corridors, which can be great fun if it is done while some newbie who isn’t in on the “secret” happens to be wandering by – there have been some spectacularly wonderful double takes in the past…)
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