I am really excited to announce that Alma Alexander, the Duchess of Fantasy, was kind enough to stop by the blog and answer some questions from me. Including the first one, which I snuck in there just because I love to hear her answer it.
1. What got you into writing?
This either calls for a one-word answer or a screed. The one-word answer is “Nothing”. The screed begins with the explanation that nothing “got me into” writing. I was hip deep in it and wading ever deeper from the very beginning.
At a writer’s workshop once the Grand Master and my personal literary god Roger Zelazny asked me when I had started to write – and I told him that I was writing things down from as soon as I knew how to hold a crayon and form a letter. And before that, I made things up anyway. I guess you could say that I began with the simple syndrome of being too big to be contained in my tiny child’s body and a mind not yet filled with the experiences necessary for me to believe in a magical reality that HAD to underlie this wonderful world I was learning about every day – and so I simply imagined it. I told stories. It *took*. I simply never stopped.
The first piece of my actual writing which was collected by my pack-rat father (who collected EVERYTHING I wrote) was a poem on the subject of a broken alarm clock (don’t ask. I have NO idea.) I was five years old. The faucet opened, and words haven’t stopped falling out ever since – oh, there have been gaps and lacunae every so often but the well fills again and there they are once more lapping at my feet waiting to be picked up with both hands and poured out onto the page. I didn’t “get into” writing. Writing was in me. I think there must be an appreciable percentage of ink in my blood.
2. Your style of prose has a very classical feel from the very first page. Which authors do you think have had the most influence on your writing style and why?
In my house, there was no reading bar. There were books. If I could pick them up, if I was interested enough to pick them up, I was free to read them, no questions asked. Yes, I read a lot of stuff that you might consider “classical”. I honestly truly do not remember EVER reading “picture books” – no “see Spot run” for me – I went straight into the real stuff. No candy. I was a meat and potatoes kind of girl from the get-go. I was reading Nobel Literature Prize winners like Pearl Buck and Henryk Sienkiewicz by age eight, unabridged John Galsworthy (in English, which was my SECOND language and which I only learned to be fluent in when I was ten or so) by thirteen.
I read the whole long original nineteenth century monsters like War and Peace and Les Miserables *in their original form*. I read the original fairy tales of Hans Christian Andersen (and I will never accept Disney’s Ariel as MY “Little Mermaid”. EVER.) I read novels, and I read history, and I read biographies, and I read… I read… I read. Where many teenage girls collected shoes or boyfriends, I collected books. My rooms were always wallpapered with words.
I guess if you grow up in this literary miasma it becomes something that you begin to instinctively both crave and practice. I don’t know that I could produce a distinctive list of people who have influenced me, and not only because people STILL influence me TO THIS DAY and it isn’t a list which can be closed and put away to gather dust, it’s a living thing. But on such a list, if I had to make a start on one, would be writers like Howard Spring, Ursula Le Guin, Roger Zelazny, Tolkien, Guy Gavriel Kay, Oscar Wilde, Lewis Carroll, Mervyn Peake, Matt Ruff, and many many others, and the list goes on.
I don’t have a single common criterion by which people land on this list, either. Some of these writers are masters at using exquisite language, of the kind that makes me gasp and tear up; some create characters whom I end up believing I have known all of my life; others create worlds which are more real – at least at the time that I am immersed in them – than the one I am sitting in physically while holding their book in my hands. They ALL shaped me. They all made me. They all make me giddy with a sense of wonder. And I love every golden word of theirs.
3. When did you first get the idea for 2012: Midnight at Spanish Gardens?
Spanish Gardens, the place, is real. WAS real. The little bolthole at the end of the alleyway in its little blind courtyard, unheralded and unsignposted, was the worst kept secret of my University – passed on from one generation of undergrads to the next, and we all went there. Those words that Olivia writes about the place in the book, they are real, they are MINE. This is a place that lives on in my heart and mind thirty years after I last saw it, and long after its physical avatar has been replaced by something else, something new.
The “real” Spanish Gardens is just a memory now – but it is odd that if you talk to myself, or to someone else of my generation who maybe doesn’t even know me at all or else hasn’t seen me for decades (in other words we haven’t “got our stories straight”) these people would describe Spanish Gardens to you in almost the exact terms that I did, in that novel. It was the kind of special place that stuck in your memory like an ancient insect gets preserved in amber, perfect, unchanging. Yes, dammit all, there was magic living there – some sort of magic – and if I myself never ended up speaking to an Ariel there that’s not important. Because I sensed his presence. Sooner or later there would have been a story about this place, which I have carried around with me for so long. This book happens to be it. I carried the idea around for years before it really crystallised – and I guess what I really hung it on is the Mayan apocalypse thing – once those two concepts married in my head I had the story all laid out like a glittering mosaic. But it was there, waiting to happen. Waiting to be told. It just needed a gentle poke to wake it up and let it become.
4. This novel and many of your past works, such as The Secrets of the Jin-Shei and WorldWeavers series, have strong themes of personal empowerment and finding one’s own place in the world. How much of that is intentional, and how much just creeps in on its own?
It may be something that I myself have always been subconsciously aware of – this “finding one’s own place in the world”. I am not sure I ever quite achieved it, really – I am not sure that any creative type ever really does, because we live in so MANY worlds, by definition, that the actual “place” that we seek keeps shifting underfoot. Or maybe we’re just standing firmly on that bedrock, and letting the world, the many worlds, swirl around us like currents in the ocean while we are the one solid stable fixed point in the universe. No, it wasn’t intentional because I don’t write “teaching” books – I can’t show someone how to reach for that empowerment, how to go about finding that place. I can just tell stories about it, and hope that the someone who is seeking answers finds enough clues in those stories to piece them together with.
There is a dichotomy in two characters from “Jin Shei” which I have always felt to be important and may shed a light on the subject – I have talked before of Nhia and Khailin, and of how they were in one sense two faces of the same coin. One (Nhia) was Wisdom; the other (Khailin) was Knowedge. And in that particular novel what emerged as a truth, for me, was that both of those things had a price, and that the price could be high – but that Wisdom runs deeper than mere Knowledge, because you can run out of things to absolutely and empirically KNOW without ever running out of things that you can UNDERSTAND. For all of their different and disparate statuses in their lives, with Nhia being so much “lower” than Khailin on the social scale of things, I think I ended up making the case that it was Nhia who came away with the greater treasure. So you might say that I am the acolyte in search of understanding, of empowerment through empathy and an ability to look at a world through a different pair of eyes, step into it with a different pair of blistered and broken feet, and find things to learn from this. I have a background in science – my own education contains an advanced postgraduate degree in science – and yet I am still more awed by the simple vision of a flower opening up into a morning full of sunlight than by knowing exactly how this was accomplished… but more about this, perhaps, in your Question 6…
5. The characters’ pasts in this book tangle and overlap in many places. Did you plan out most of that history before you started writing, or is it just something you allowed to grow up during the writing process?
I don’t outline. Seriously, I don’t. I write an outline with sufficient detail to be called that, and my back brain assumes I’ve already written that story, and simply gives up on it. I tend to find out “what happens next” in my stories the same way my readers do – by going “You did WHAT?” as my character performs some unspeakable thing on the screen. I’ve just typed it all up and I end up staring at a paragraph like I have never seen it before and wondering, “just where in HEAVEN’S NAME did this all come from?!?” These lives, the Spanish Gardens lives, they were a twisted ball of yarn from the very beginning. It was more a question of teasing them apart to find out where individual skeins led, after being presented by my subconscious with the tangled Gordian Knot of it all, than actually inventing the yarn that went into the mess in the first place. I have never yet written about a character whom I have planned or created with a self-conscious “profile” – they all come out of the woodwork, give me a distracted handshake by way of introduction if I am lucky, and then demand I take dictation. There are those to whom I have told this thing who have described it as a form of possession. This may be true.
6. Given that she opens and ends the story arc, it could be argued that Olivia is actually the main protagonist in the novel. Would you agree with that assessment? Why or why not?
Uh, inevitably, probably, yes. I gave Olivia some of my own life’s crossroads. That business with the bunny in the lab? That happened to me. Exactly that. In almost the exact format that I presented in the book. So yes, there is a great deal of me in Olivia – and she is the common denominator, the one who keeps on recurring in everyone else’s realities, no matter which reality it happens to be at the time. She is, if you like, a Doctor Who – a fixed point in time around whom everything else eventually falls into orbit. She is perhaps not the most vivid character in that novel – I would think that THAT particular epithet far better fits John or Quincey – but she is the tie that binds, the thing that holds it all together. THEM all together. Sometimes even by her absence.
7. You create some intensely personal portraits of the characters in 2012: Midnight at Spanish Gardens that really tap into each of the individual characters’ subconscious needs and desires. How do you know when you’ve reached the “guts” of a character, and what advice would you give to new writers seeking to create the same sense of depth in their own work?
If I can borrow a quote from a very unlikely source, may I toss in a line from Rocky Horror? “Don’t Dream It. Be it.” A good character is intensely self-aware; the character may be placed in a specific time and place by you, the author, but you should have a sense (even though it might NEVER be required to be shown) of how that character might react if you pulled it out of your story and placed it into the middle of a Kafka novel, or a Tolkien novel, or an Austen novel. It’s a sort of “character instinct”.
Some people have this insight, have always had it, have never questioned its existence. Some can maybe learn it from repeated practice (write enough characters and they will start cutting their marionette strings and doing things that a Real Live Boy (peace, Pinocchio) would do – and you know precisely the moment when they come to that life in your story. Some – sadly – do not learn the trick. There are published novels out there which are perfectly adequate in terms of plot and purpose but which are peopled by characters straight out of Hollywood Central Stereotype Casting (if you’re lucky) or who have just been cut out of the nearest magazine to fill an empty character slot (if you are not). You don’t have to be bosom buddies with your characters in order to tell their story – in fact, sometimes it is imperative that you are not – but you have to learn to know when to let them take their story and run with it because they know better than you.
And for some writers this is a near impossible thing to do because it is such a loss of control. Strict outliners may have particular trouble with this aspect because they have to make their characters jump through very specific hoops in order to achieve Story in the way that the author initially imagined it, and I am certain they have their own methods of dealing with this, But from this chair, from this desk, from this keyboard, from THIS mind and this imagination, I can give you a monumentally unhelpful, “I have no idea”. My characters are born real. All I do in this scenario is act as middleman between THEM and their readership. They need an amanuensis to set their story down, and that’s my task. There are times this frustrates me deeply. And there are times that the rewards are greater than I can begin to tell you.
8. I’d love to see more of Ariel and this world you’ve created. Are there plans for a book 2?
Well, there might be NOW, now that you’ve put the idea in my head! Actually, the question that I might like to see answered myself is what happens at the moment that Spanish Gardens itself is due to be shuttered – and if Ariel HIMSELF is given the choice that he gives the five in the original novel. Would he choose wisely? Could he choose at all?
9. What is the one most important thing you hoped to convey in writing 2012: Midnight at Spanish Gardens?
As always, I tell a story. The messages that the story carries can be very different for different people. If anything, that “choose wisely” motif can be taken to be something that frames this particular story – and in many of the reviews the reviewers could not help going there, thinking about the crossroads in their own lives, where they went, where they could have gone. I think this is a human thing, a universal thing, something that we all understand instinctively because we’ve all been there at some point in our lives. I myself can look back at the times when I zigged instead of zagged and wonder where I might be today if I had made that other choice. Would it have been better? Worse? In so many fundamental ways, would it have made no real difference at all – is reality self-correcting and is predestination real and do we all end up where we are supposed to whether we want to go there or not? What of that story of the man from Aleppo who was told that Death was looking for him, so he fled to Damascus – only to meet Death in the street there – “But that is impossible!” the man said. “I ran away from Aleppo!” – “Well, that is strange,” Death said, “because I was told to seek you out on this day on the street in Damascus…” Life – and death – are where you find them. You are free to choose the road by which you travel, perhaps, but are you free to also choose your destination…? YOU decide. Choose wisely.