Bill Chats with Alma Alexander

Recently I had a chance to chat with Alma Alexander, author of the young adult epic WORLDWEAVERS. Please find synopses, cover art, and my reviews of Alma Alexander’s WORLDWEAVERS novels here. Alma Alexander’s website is here.

How much of a “plotter” are you before you start — do you have detailed outlines of where you are going, a general sense of conclusion? Have you ever found any of your characters “getting away from you,” in the sense that they end up involved in ways you hadn’t anticipated?

I’m a seat-of-the-pantser and I often find out what happens next in a book pretty much at the same time that my readers do when they hold the finished book in their hands. I find that detailed outlines destroy my desire to write the actual STORY, and my editors will weep when they tell you about my utter inability to provide a decent synopsis of the story I’m writing before I’ve actually done writing it; my characters “get away from me” on a regular basis and insist on doing their own thing and I’ve learned the hard way to let them do it because they know their own story better than I do and often take me into places I had never thought of going but which make the story stronger, more vivid, more emotionally “true.” I listen to my characters. They know what they’re about.

What sort of research informs your novels? How much background material do you read?

Research is a wickedly addictive pastime, and I find myself buying interesting books on the basis that they MIGHT be research material some day. When I was writing the “Chinese” books, The Secrets of Jin Shei and Embers of Heaven, I did an unconscionable amount of reading before and DURING the writing phase — I think I must have read over a hundred books to write those two novels, and they covered things as disparate as dry official histories of various specific chunks of Chinese history, Chinese culture and customs through eras as widely disparate as high Imperial China and the China of the Cultural revolution, biographies of people both famous and ordinary, personal memoirs, poetry, travel books full of pretty pictures (some of which inspired certain places within my stories), Chinese dictionaries (to get a feel for the language), the secret language (nu-shu) of the women of certain parts of China, Chinese alchemy and the I-Ching… You start to get the idea. It was a marathon. And I loved every moment of it. For my current work in progress I am doing something similar with the world of sixth-century Byzantium.

The YA books were hardly immune. If it wasn’t the Anasazi (although I took poetic-license liberties there, to some extent) it was Nikola Tesla and his extraordinary life and mind.

I think that if there is one thing that I love as much as writing about something, it is LEARNING about it. Writing has been an incredible education to me so far, and I don’t see it coming to an end any time soon.

How would you distinguish, if in fact you do, the writing you do for adults versus the writing you do for YA? Is there anything different about the process? The crafting? Thematically?

If there is one thing that I myself resented mightily when I was growing up, it was a sense of a grown-up — particularly a writer — “talking down” to me as to a child. I was brought up as an intellectual equal who had not quite caught up to my adult family as yet, never as a child for whom everything needed to be simplified and EXPLAINED. As a result I treat my own younger audience with both the respect they deserve, and with an expectation that they will stretch to reach the things they don’t quite get without my needing to hand it to them on a platter.

My first-ever published book was a slim volume of Oscar Wilde-like fairy tales which was published in an educational context by Longman UK, and used as a reader in schools and in classrooms — but these were ALL stories originally written for an adult audience in mind, not fifteen-year-olds. I was afraid that they would edit the things into a pablum, that they would remove the complexity of tale and language, in order to render the thing “comprehensible” to the YA reader — but they did not. They did very little editing, made very few changes. The stories remained complex, on every level. And it didn’t seem to matter to the audience to whom the book was marketed — not at all.

I instinctively write lush, poetic, complex. I find it hard to even write short stories because they rarely give me the room I need to spread my wings with a tale. I was aware that I had to watch certain things with a YA readership — for instance, in Spellspam, there were certain kinds of spam that were, uh, not really appropriate for the intended audience of the book, but I had no trouble writing within the limits of that framework and producing a book with as much emotional “truth” and heft that I would expect to produce for a more grown-up readership. I believe that my intended audience will find its level, and I trust them to do this. My own contribution is to hope to provide a story that is enjoyable and entertaining and yet solid enough for that reader-writer relationship to be one of mutual respect.

When you try to create authentic “teen-speak,” how do you avoid speech that sounds like an adult’s view of how teens speak?

Unfortunately I don’t have any tame teens who were willing to be guinea pigs for teen-speak or teen-think; I had to dig into my own past for the latter, remembering the kind of person that I was at Thea’s age in the books, and I relied on an ear for dialogue for the rest. I had to hope that I had a good enough ear to be able to make a judgment call on what a teen would or would not say — and once or twice I did have the help of a fabulous editor who pulled me up on something that I had missed. But I am ALWAYS aware that my characters are not me, that they do not think like me or speak like me, and I allow them to have their own voices when they open their mouths to talk in the books.

But it might help to know this about me — I am an accent sponge and a pretty good mimic and after a while in somebody’s company my accent will change, however subtly, to mimic their own. Possibly the teen-speak was similarly osmosed without my even being consciously aware of it, simply by listening to passing teens and their interactions and conversations.

Fantasy has always been a major aspect of YA, but lately it seems to have completely taken off! Care to venture any ideas about why the long-lasting appeal of fantasy literature, as well as the increased popularity?

Fantasy is all-encompassing, and can be all things to all people. Through the prism of fantasy a lot of hard truths about the reality we all live in can be filtered and transformed to the point that — although the message remains clear — it is easier to understand and receive that message. Yes, fantasy is escapism in a fundamental way — but as Tolkien himself once said in an essay on the topic, the only people opposed to escapism would be jailors. Sometimes it is right and GOOD to escape — particularly into a realm which in one way or another parallels our own and teaches us about the world we HAVE to live in.

Fantasy is, at its basic level, about faith — and no, I don’t mean that in the sense of any one accepted religious faith. I don’t necessarily mean faith in any given God. I mean faith in oneself, in one’s friends, in the belief that the universe will shake itself down and that in the end everyone will receive the fate they deserve and that this is not necessarily a blessing. The literature of fantasy sends out a one-word message: BELIEVE. And it is harder than a non-writer might think to create an alternative world where such a message works concurrently with the “real” world. In the end, you live in a world you CHOOSE to live in, and I believe that one way or another fantasy is the road that takes you there.

As for its long-lasting appeal: true magic transcends time and generations. Something that enchanted once will enchant again, and parents who once read fantasy books as children and teens will come back to them and give them as gifts to their own children. It’s a self-renewing resource, and it’s there for the taking. It’s a deep pool, and a sparkling one; I hope it never does lose its magic.

Most fantasy is set in the usual pre-technological world and much of the fantasy set in contemporary times tends to wall off the fantastic from the mundane, as in Harry Potter where the two co-exist but on separate if parallel paths. What inspired you to intermix technology and magic — to break down that wall — in your Worldweavers series? Were there any struggles in bringing the two together?

Yes, mixing magic and megabytes was a little…challenging.

In our own world, just like in Thea’s, computers seem to be the thing that is utterly prosaic, utterly literal, utterly impervious to any magic at all. And yet there is so MUCH magic within them. The fact that I can have an email conversation with someone on the other side of my planet, in REAL TIME, is magic, dammit. The fact that I can open a search engine and type in a concept and get hits ranging from the sublime to the ridiculous — and that I will need to educate myself a little before I can start to tell the two apart — is magic. Things like Bablefish (and yes, that was one of the inspirations for the spellspams in the second book) are magic, where you can type in a word or phrase from a language that you do not know and have it instantly translated into a form which you can understand (if sometimes with a high dose of quirkiness). It’s magic to be able to take a photograph and make it into something that can never ever exist, and yet make the picture look utterly realistic in its context and hard to believe that it came out of someone’s imagination (Photoshop has a lot to answer for).

I’m not sure how much of that was planning and how much came out of my own sense of wonder at the thing I take for granted every day. I tend to describe myself as being just computer-literate enough to be able to get myself into real trouble but not enough to get me out of it if I need to do that in a hurry. The roots of computer magic lie in my own fascination with the cyber-world, and in the honest realisation that I know that there are many things that I do not know about it. But I do think that real magic often comes spilling out of places where you least thought to look for it.

Possibly there are roots to this which even I haven’t looked at too closely. Like, for instance, the memory of my beloved Gran, in the last years of her life, stooped and ill, looking at my powered-off computer and asking, in all earnestness, “Ask it if I will get well”.
“It can’t do that, Gran,” I said to her at the time, and remember feeling oddly devastated at that admission.
“Well, what can they do?” she asked.

I think Thea and I found out, together…

Is there any particular reason you chose to use Native American stories as the underlying mythos rather than the usual northern European stories so common in fantasy? Did you have any concerns about employing a mythology readers would be less well versed in?

I chose it BECAUSE there was so little of it out there and it’s so rich and wonderful and full of power. In the third book there is more of it, but also a melding in of an earlier mythos, the Eastern European tales of my own childhood (and Nikola Tesla’s — we come from the same kindred, he and I, and we have been allowed to drink from the same deep fount of cultural and mythological knowledge and beliefs). But I have read deeply and widely in the lands of myth and legend, and I thought it was time, long past time, that the North American avatars came out to play. Coyote the Trickster, for instance, was a gift of a character to write, and not many writers have written of him before this.

And what of not being well versed in this particular world view?… Well, it’s about time we all learned. Perhaps my take on it might inspire someone from inside the actual culture and mythos to start writing their own version of fantasy. I think the world needs to know more about ALL of the fascinating strands from which it is woven. You might say that my story could be a signpost in that direction.

I thought it quite interesting that your more “elvish-like” creations were given the mercantile motivations usually associated with dwarves. When you work in a genre so laden with tropes such as elvish and dwarven races, the band of overmatched characters, etc., how aware of these tropes are you, and how do you avoid stock characters or plot points while still making use of typical fantasy elements?

Oh I had such FUN with turning stereotypes on their heads!

The Alphiri as a race, as a fantasy trope, were an incredible amount of pure enjoyment to write and create and keep consistent and broodingly malevolent throughout the book. I think of them as Tolkien’s Elves who have inadvertently been given the souls of Star Trek’s Ferengi. I mean, don’t get me wrong, I LOVE Tolkien, and the Elves have been one of the most enchanting aspects of the world of Middle Earth. Unfortunately, lesser pens have taken the concept of Tolkien’s noble elves and run it into the ground. I wanted to create something fresh, new, unexpected — not seen in a hundred other books over the last fifty years. And so I consciously set out to tear down the expectations of what elves could, should or would be, and create something wholly new and my own out of those building blocks.

I think they turned out rather well, the Aplhiri.

Similarly, so much of the coming-of-age story deals with acceptance of who one is, acceptance of responsibility, recognition of a darker side of the world—how do you deal with these basic recurring plot points in coming-of-age without simply recycling earlier works?

When I did a Virtual Blog Tour in March of 2008, one aspect of that was a guest appearance with three interlinking and related essays on three aspects of ALL my stories, although they were particularly important in the YA work – Choice, Courage, and Change.

All the stories are one story — and the story is the courage to make the choices one knows one needs to make in order to be able to grow and change. If you take any book out there and boil it down to its basic skeleton, that is what you are likely to find — that basic question. The courage to choose to change. But although that is intrinsic, there are no two beings out there who will approach the problem in quite the same way. EVERYONE changes in different ways. The things that make sense for one person would mean disaster for the next. Mistakes are made along the way, inevitably, and need to be acknowledged. The thing to remember is that nothing is easy, and it is complacent to assume that you can get off cheap — it is true, here more than in any other context, that you get what you pay for. And if you aren’t willing to invest true effort, and often true pain, then the change you achieve may not be the TRUE change, or lasting change. Or necessary change.

None of my characters have ever had an easy ride. They trip and fall flat on their faces, and their worth as characters — as people — is that they learn from the thing they tripped over, and they pick themselves up and go on. Yes, many of the building blocks are very similar in a lot of stories, particularly in the coming-of-age YA-type fiction — but any character worth his or her salt will respond to trying circumstances in utterly individual ways, just as you or I or any other flesh-and-blood person would (and no, I don’t say “real person” because a great character in a novel is (or should be) every bit as real as anyone who bleeds when they are cut in the real world…).

Growing up is hard to do. We never really finish doing it.

Another point of interest in the series, I thought, was the interaction among generations. On the one hand, you have a clear generational divide at times when it comes, for example, to the use of computers. On the other hand, you have wonderfully rich and warm relationships between characters of different generations, such as Chevayo and Grandmother Spider and Thea, or Thea and her Aunt. Was this something you set out deliberately to explore?

I come from a cultural background — Eastern Europe — where generational interactions are just that much closer and warmer than they seem to be elsewhere. Because my mother worked when I was very young, I was practically brought up by my grandmother up until the age of three or four — and that inevitably left a mark on me. I have always looked on a large extended family as a right and not a privilege — complete with all the squabbles and black sheep and mutually incomprehensible ideas and opinions inherent within the system — and I think it’s made my own life richer.

I do believe that the generations have a lot to teach one another.

It seems to me that the two books deal quite a bit in metaphor—the Road, the virtual worlds, the mirrors (trying not to be too detailed here for those new to the series)—would you agree? If so, is this something purposeful, something you wanted to explore in this particular story, or does most of your writing make use of metaphor so directly and fully?

I never metaphor I didn’t like… ow… sorry, I am a punaholic by nature. And perhaps that is where the roots of THAT lie — I like looking beyond the words and into the things they are hoping to portray. It’s part of the nature of my writing, the lushness and richness of my narrative at its most basic language levels — I have always loved words, and loved playing with them, and with the possibility of using them not so much to bludgeon an idea into submission but to hint at it, call it by different names, stalk it with intent, and finally reveal it slowly and carefully so that the audience, who really knew all along, is surprised all over again when the truth comes out.

I don’t know if I would call it “purposeful” — it isn’t something I set out to do on a conscious level, or have learned how to do in a class. It’s the way I think, the way my mind works. I play hide and seek with words in my head, and shine lights into shadowed places. I leave crumbs for the readers to follow, and hope that they really like the gingerbread house when they finally find it in the woods. And yes, sometimes I DO leave a witch living inside it…

One of the aspects of the books I appreciated was your willingness to explore some darker personal aspects. Thea, for instance, has many flaws. Her father’s disappointment in her isn’t painted simply as Thea’s misperception (an easy out) but given credence by her Aunt’s recognition of that same disappointment. Her mother’s passiveness in the face of seemingly true concern is a bit uncomfortable. And, again without being too detailed, the endings of both books offer up some truly moving and not altogether happy emotions, complicating any sense of resolution or “victory”. Did you struggle to find a balance here? Did you have any concerns about not leaving the reader with the simple “happy ending”?

I don’t believe in the “simple happy ending,” that’s the truth of it, pure and simple. Not even in the fairy tales. Yes, Cinderella lived “happily ever after” — but the Little Mermaid’s “happy ending” (no, not the Disney version — the real harrowing Hans Christian Andersen tale) is not so saccharine nor so easily won. No, sometimes love does NOT conquer all. No, sometimes you CAN’T be the thing that someone else wants you to be. No, sometimes you CAN’T avoid disappointing those you love, especially when it comes to making a choice between making your own life mean something or submitting to others’ expectations of what that meaning ought to be. It comes back to what I was talking about earlier, the courage to choose to change — it comes down to choice, in a way. Life is for living, it does not end when you graduate, or get married, or have a baby, or retire — when you reach some pinnacle of “happy ever after” achievement. Life goes on. There are other mountains to climb — there are ALWAYS other mountains to climb. You can choose not to, but I firmly believe that this is the road that leads to frustration, stagnation and ultimately fundamental unhappiness. And you simply cannot allow yourself to believe in bloodless victories — in order for you to “win,” someone else has to “lose,” one way or another. What of THEIR happy ending?

Yes, my stories are a little uncomfortable. I think they’re the more real for all that. Winning individual battles is the best we can hope for, nobody’s ever won the “war.”

I think I give enough of a “closure” in the Worldweavers books to give the readers — at least the younger readers — enough of a sense of something having been achieved, something having been “won.” I would also like to leave the more thoughtful reader, the older reader, with a sense of wondering about the things that had to be given up in order for the “victory” to have been achieved.

Without revealing plot obviously, or at least too much, can you give us a sense of where the third novel in the series will take us? And do you still see that as closing the series (we have, after all, seen many “trilogies” suddenly expanded)?

The third book does not abruptly and completely END, no — but there are no plans of expanding the series into a further book or series of books at this time.

In the third book… some of the people whom Thea thought of as friends, or at least allies, turn out to have their own agendas. She learns a few things that leave her happy, a few things that leave her sad, a few things that leave her a little frightened. She says hello to some new friends, and says goodbye to others. And just as she finally learns the truth about what and who she really is… she is faced with a choice that might take it all away.

The book has Nikola Tesla, stars, pigeons, strife between the polities (human, Faele, Alphiri), Christmas Eve in New York CIty, faith, betrayal, power, friendship, and love.

Watch for Cybermage in the spring of 2009.

Rather than ask you for a favorite author or novel (how do any of us choose just one or two?), I was wondering if you might recall for us one of those magical moments of response to a particular scene in a book or to a particular character—those sort of “shiver moments” that make one fall in love with the magic of reading all over again.

Even THAT is legion:
Aslan, “because he is not a TAME lion.”
Tolkien’s elves and the concept of the Grey Havens.
• The magic of love and pain that is Guy Gavriel Kay’s Tigana — probably the best book I’ve ever read.
• The magnificently dysfunctional royal family of Zelazny’s Amber.
• The moment of truth in Les Misérables when Jean Valjean gives up the person he most loves in the world so that she might have a shot at untainted happiness.

There are thousands of books in my library. And magic lives in them all.


SHARE:  facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail  FOLLOW:  facebooktwittergoogle_pluslinkedinrsstumblr

BILL CAPOSSERE lives in Rochester NY, where he is lately spending much of his time trying to finish a book-length collection of essays and a full-length play. His prior work has appeared in Colorado Review, Rosebud, Alaska Quarterly, and other journals and been recognized in the "Notable Essays" section of several Best American Essay anthologies. When he's not writing, reading, reviewing, co-writing the Malazan Empire re-read at Tor.com, or working as an English adjunct, he can usually be found with his wife and son on the frisbee golf course, the ultimate frisbee field, or trying to keep up with his wife's flute and his son's trumpet on the clarinet he just picked up this month.

View all posts by Bill Capossere

2 comments

  1. Well said, finally a good report on this stuff

  2. I’ve never given this a try, but I think it’s about time I do.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. - Alma Alexander: fantasy novelist - [...] Read the rest here. [...]