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interviewed by Amy Harlib
Yugoslavian-born, UK and South African educated with a degree in microbiology, fortysomething, world-travelling writer Alma Alexander, nom de plume of Alma A. Hromic, gradually transitioned from penning science articles, a memoir of her early life in Africa, a collection of three fabulist tales, an epistolary novel (based on real life, war-time events in her birthplace) co-composed with the American journalist she would later marry, numerous widely-published short fiction and non-fiction pieces all along - to her real fantasy genre breakthrough in October 2001.
This was when HarperCollins Voyager in Australia brought forth, under her birth-name,
the first volume of Changer Of Days, followed by the conclusion in May 2002 of
a duology set in an invented, multicultural, magical, pre-industrial world. This saga
of a resourceful heroine forced to cope with exile; her growing, uncanny powers; intrigue
and betrayal to win her rightful, royal heritage - transcended clichés and won
a Word Weaving Award for Excellence and was nominated for a World Fantasy Award. Changer
Of Days will be released in the USA at long last in March of 2005 with the second part
to follow soon thereafter.
A more ambitious next novel, The Secrets Of Jin-Shei, under the Alma Alexander name, merited simultaneous May 2004 publication by HarperCollins in the US, the UK, Australia, New Zealand, the Netherlands, Italy, and Germany - in a total of four languages. This opus is set in the parallel world of a magical Imperial China and focusing on the intricacies of the relationships between eight closely associated women and the complexities of their milieu, garnered critical acclaim and some controversy over cultural appropriation.
Alma graciously agreed to this e-mail interview.
When did you realise you really wanted to be a fantasy writer as opposed to the scientific writing you were formally educated to do?
I don't think that question has an answer. I remember writing a story that became one of the three collected in my first book, the Longman edition of The Dolphin's Daughter And Other Stories, when I was supposed to have been studying hard for an upcoming (science) examination. But that was hardly the first time I 'cheated' my scientific world for the realms of fantasy. I wrote imaginative flights of fancy back when I was in kindergarten. That 'Other World' has always been with me.
Did your globe-spanning formative years thanks to a father who worked for international aid agencies, directly influence your attraction to genre writing?
To genre writing, no - not directly, anyway. Perhaps not yet, as it were - perhaps there's an African story waiting to be told back there somewhere. I do confess to hearing the occasional distant and mystical drumbeat. To writing... I guess, inevitably, yes. Living under so many different skies really opens your eyes. You learn to really see countries, and really read people, and somehow it all distils - at least with me - into a heady elixir of life and fantasy.
You have written thinly disguised, autobiographical fiction and an actual memoir. How much autobiographical material, if any, finds its way into your fantasy writing?
Some. I don't suppose there's a writer alive who can deny this. For instance, when I was about 12 years old, my very long hair was chopped off, in a braid (I still have it). When my father arrived home from work that day and saw what he called "that amputated braid" lying on the dining room table, he almost wept. I would guess that part of the scene where one of my characters is kidnapped and endures having her bright braids shorn and sent out as a 'message' to her friends that they should give up hope of her return (there, that's not a spoiler, I haven't even said which book!) has some roots in that story from my own past.
What is your typical writing day like, your way of self-discipline?
I get up, I have a cup of coffee, I have breakfast, I have another cup of coffee... and after that there is no typical day. I might go into research mode and read three books in a day, gathering material for my own story. I might go straight into my study and start pounding the keyboard. Sometimes I will write 500 words a day, sometimes 5000. On one particularly heady day during the writing of The Secrets Of Jin-Shei, it was closer to 10,000. It entirely depends on the kind of thing that needs writing, on what my characters are willing to divulge at any given point in time, and on whether I think I have all the information I need, or require further study in order to clarify matters in my own mind and therefore for the reader. In between all that, I have more coffee, the occasional meal that my husband insists is good for me (believe me, when I write I forget about food), and do utterly prosaic things like mop the kitchen floor, do the laundry, clean out the litter boxes of my three cats. Where the self-discipline comes in is the knowledge that if I do procrastinate today I have to do constructive things tomorrow. Somehow, things work out.
How much world-building research, specifically notebooks of background material, maps, timelines, genealogies, etc. do you do as preparation for your fantasy works?
Heaps. Heaps and heaps and heaps. I have a reading list of 22 books for the novel that I am currently researching/writing. (I still have 10 books on that list to go...) Even in my YA trilogy, the first book of which is complete and which should see the light of day in your local bookstore in the not too distant future, I found myself reading copiously on matters that were background material for the book. It is a pure lovely fantasy, delightful to write and a joy to dream up - but parts of it hark back to the ancient culture of the Anasazi Indians of the American Southwest, and I devoured books on them and on their legacy. For the third book in that trilogy I already have a reading list waiting, four or five books, all of which get meticulously read, relevant passages tagged with Post Its, and then transcribed into a notebook or directly into the computer. My novels are icebergs - the five percent that shows above the surface is only the visible part of the 95 percent that remains submerged, and is the solid basis on which my worlds are built.
How do you respond to the challenge from some writers-of-colour that you are misrepresenting Chinese civilisation in your recent book? Personally, I think they just don't get that you are inventing an alternate universe China and are not trying to write a historical novel! How do Chinese readers react to The Secrets Of Jin-Shei?
One Chinese lady who came to one of my early readings said to me, "There's a part of me that really wishes you were Chinese." I took that as a great compliment. On another occasion, a trio of young Chinese students arrived at a reading, and sat through it without cracking a smile or changing their facial expressions at all. After, when I was signing books in the store, they came up, apologised that they could not buy a hardcover because it was quite not in the budget, and asked instead if I would mind signing a bookmark for them. "Those are very lovely words that you have written there," one of them said. I am very conscious of taking a culture not my own and shaping it to fit my own fantasy frame - but I hope that what comes across in my writing is that I respect these 'Other' cultures enormously, they have enriched my own immeasurably, and I hope that I have been able in the past and will continue in the future to do them honour in my own writing.
What was behind the decision to adopt a nom de plume?
The decision by the publishers was that the name that I have published under so far, Alma Hromic, was too hard to remember or reproduce or spell. They wanted another name. I chose 'Alexander' because my middle name is Aleksandra (that's the correct spelling where I come from) and that way I could still keep a sense of identity with my work. My parents were reconciled to the change after I pointed out that folks like Kirk Douglas and Natalie Wood were hardly famous under their own birth names...
What are your favourite activities (hobbies, etc) when you are not writing?
Um, reading - busman's holiday, as it were. But I also do needlework - embroidery, tapestry, and crochet. Another interest is photography, and I am contemplating adding a 'gallery' page to my website because this Fall has been particularly photogenic in my part of the world. I spend my time wishing I could draw. I bake the occasional muffin. I fuss with my cats. I go for walks in the woods.
How did you meet your husband R.A. 'Deck' Deckert, freelance writer and journalist? How does he feel about the fantasy genre? What does the rest of your family think of your books and stories?
I met my husband in an online political argument... which is still going on. Let us just say it involved a butter knife and police violence... and let me add that we have a framed butter knife hanging in a shadowbox frame in our kitchen, in order to remind us of our roots. He's more of a mystery reader than a fantasy fan, but he likes my stuff - and he's been my first editor and most trusted first reader ever since we got married back in 2000. As for the rest of my family, my mother is a very practical kind of person - the kind who not only has both feet on the ground but also has them buried in it up to the ankles. She is only just getting her head around having produced a fantasy writer as progeny. My father thinks the whole thing is mystifying but utterly great. I'm lucky that the people I love have always been happy to encourage me to dream my dreams, even when they seemed to be pure, well, fantasy...
What writers do you consider mentors and inspirations for your fantasy fiction and for your writing in general?
My grandfather the poet began it, way back when. He read his sonnets to me when I was younger than five, and never made me feel anything other than a slightly pint-sized equal. That early love of language and story has never left me. In the years that followed I read omnivorously. I can't single out this writer or that writer, but some writers I consider to be role models and inspiration for my own work are Guy Gavriel Kay, Judith Tarr, Sharon Penman, John Galsworthy, Howard Spring, Louis de Bernieres, Ursula Le Guin, Roger Zelazny, Michael Moorcock, Victor Hugo, Ivo Andric, and oh, Ibsen and Shakespeare and Hilary Mantel and Isabel Allende and... do I need to go on?
Please explicate your philosophy and your aesthetics concerning the creative process and the reading of short fiction compared to novels.
As someone once said, most people start writing poetry, find it too hard, go on to short stories, still find it too hard, and wind up writing novels. That might be facile, but the fact of the matter is that a novel is far more forgiving than a short story can ever be. There is just so little space and time that you have in a short story to convey something that just has to be important - otherwise why bother writing the story? A character has to transcend a situation or a problem, something or someone needs to change, and it is pitilessly hard to do that well in 3,000 or even 10,000 words. I have written short stuff in my time, but only when a particularly brilliant piece of inspiration strikes me. The rest of the time, I let my stories have their head, and more often than not I wind up at 30,000 words before I am ready to draw breath and ask what happened. That's fine, because longer lengths obviously work for me. But there seems to be a misconception out there that you need to establish yourself with publishing shorter fiction before anyone will look at you as a novelist - which I don't think is true. Some people write brilliant short fiction, and will never write a novel in their life. Some brilliant novelists have never written a short story. Some write both - but by choice and by random inspiration, not because short stories were some kind of a proving ground. A story like The Nine Billion Names Of God works wonderfully as a short story - an ending like that would have been wasted on long novel-length screeds. And let's just remember that short stories can be as short as they need to be. I seem to recall one - by a guy called Fredric Brown - that consisted of two sentences, concerning the last man on Earth sitting alone in a room... and there being a knock on the door. It is left there. No further elaboration is required. The reader's imagination does the rest. I think one of the finest exponents of the short story genre today is Neil Gaiman, whose short stories have made me laugh, cry, and shudder, sometimes all at the same time.
How important do you think the Internet is for researching and for promoting your work and for the future of the genre?
For researching, it has its value in that it makes the obscure into the accessible and all without leaving your desk. It's invaluable for that. Plug in a concept and you get screeds thrown at you� and therein lies the potential problem, in that the Internet is a wonderful research medium if you already know a little bit about your subject and can tell the wheat from the chaff, as it were. Many of the websites coughed up by search engines wind up being either some ninth-grader's class project on the subject matter that interests you, or the work of a potentially dangerously single-minded fanatic. Neither will help you get a balanced view, but they both need to be recognised as what they are before they can be discarded. As for promotion, there's nothing that beats it. Millions of people are out there in cyberspace. If one thousandth of one percent sees your website, and tells a friend, and that friend tells a friend� it's exponential (spam, however, is a problem all of its own, and unsolicited advertising in your inbox is not a can of worms I will even attempt to open here). As far as the future of the genre is concerned, well, I don't know. For me, nothing will ever replace an actual physical book - but I suspect I'm something of an anachronism...
Have you been approached to have film or game adaptations made of your writing?
No, and I don't think I'd go and see a movie they made out of my books. I'd be too scared of what they might have done to it.
What are forthcoming projects are you working on? Will your shorter fictions be collected?
A YA trilogy is at present being hammered out - first book is written, the other two probably to be completed by mid 2006. In the interim, I'll be working on a follow-up novel to The Secrets Of Jin-Shei, which has already been picked up by my British publishers. Looks like I've got a busy few years ahead of me - and the prospect is exhilarating. I love being a writer.
Thank you very much, Alma Alexander.
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