Women in SFF Author Spotlight – Alma Alexander (THE SECOND STAR)
Alma Alexander’s life so far has prepared her very well for her chosen career. She was born in a country which no longer exists on the maps, has lived and worked in seven countries on four continents (and in cyberspace!), has climbed mountains, dived in coral reefs, flown small planes, swum with dolphins, touched two-thousand-year-old tiles in agate out of Babylon. She is a novelist, anthologist and short story-writer who currently shares her life between the Pacific Northwest of the USA (where she lives with her husband and two cats) and the wonderful fantasy worlds of her own imagination. You can find out more about Alma on her website, her Facebook page, on Twitter, or at her Patreon page.
Welcome to the Hive, Alma Alexander, Let’s start small: tell us about a great book you’ve read recently!
I’m currently reading a book which somehow got buried in the back of my shelves, which is a biography and an analysis of the life and works of Roger Zelazny by Jane Lindskold – it’s not a NEW book, it’s dated two years before Zelazny’s death, which itself was in 1995, but I’m rediscovering all the reasons why I love this writer and his work – it’s because I see SO MANY SIMILARITIES to me – the way I think, the way I work, my influences are similar to his… I met him, once, a couple of months before he died from cancer – but if things had gone differently and I’d had more time, more opportunity, I think I might have kept up the contact, and that this man and I would have had a lot to talk about. He was a great literary loss, when he left us, and more than ever right now I am feeling the deep regrets and sorrow at his passing.
Okay, time to escalate things: reality warps and you suddenly find yourself leading a D&D-style party through a monster-infested dungeon. What character class are you, and what’s your weapon of choice?
Oh I DID play D&D in my misspent youth ☺ I wrote up entire campaigns.
I was usually some kind of Elf (What? I *LIKE* Elves!) and if not that then my class was either Bard or a magic user of some description, often focused on healing. My weapons…are my words, and my hands. And sometimes a bow and arrows. I was also a dab hand at swordplay – and I actually did fencing at University for a little while so I do know what I am doing with a rapier…
When you’re not trawling through dungeons, how do you like to work? (For example, in silence, with music, or serenaded by the damned souls of a thousand dead shrimps? Do you prefer to type or to hand-write? Intense planner or is your system more organic?) Tell us a little bit about your writing method!
I am told by those who know me that when I am in the writing ‘zone’ it doesn’t matter if it’s world war three out there around me because I probably wouldn’t know about it until I came up for air. To borrow from Dr Seuss, I can write here I can write there, I can write everywhere. If I have to I’ll use pen and notebook but ever since I’ve discovered word processing and computers it’s been straight into the keyboard and onto the page, at times 7000, 8000, 10,000 words in a day when I’m really in the zone. I don’t plot, I don’t plan, I don’t synopsise. I WRITE. I watch the story unfold like a movie inside my own head and I simply… transcribe… what I see. I am utterly organic – the way I describe my process is that I’m handed a story seed and I simply stuff it into the ground and wait for it to grow – and until it pops up out of there and shows its face I don’t know if I have a cabbage or a redwood on my hands…
What (or who) are your most significant fantasy influences? Are there any creators whom you dream of working with someday?
Tolkien, first and foremost, which will probably surprise absolutely nobody because I am a die-hard disciple of his principles of immersive worldbuilding. There are others, Guy Gavriel Kay, Ursula Le Guin, Roger Zelazny, writers like Anne McCaffrey and CJ Cherryh and oh so many others (I read A LOT…) I don’t really ‘dream of’ working with anyone – but if the right person came along I might consider it. Mostly, though, I’m a solitary – and I walk my stories alone….
What was the last thing you watched on TV and why did you choose to watch it? Alternatively, what games have you enjoyed recently?
Our TiVo taped “A Bridge to Terabithia” for us – and yeah, it’s a kid’s book and a kid’s movie but there was a certain nostalgia factor there, and so we watched it – it wasn’t a bad movie but it wasn’t exactly something to sink my fantasy teeth into, not any more, so it was an enjoyable bit of fluff. What we ARE doing is re-watching the entire Babylon 5 series which we own – ALL the seasons – on DVD, and do periodic re-watches of. I think that is probably some of the best drama on television – in or out of genre – and it’s always a joy to return to it. I’ve always loved those characters – particularly G’Kar, and when the actor who portrayed him in the series died a couple of years ago I wept as though I had lost a friend although we had never met…
The world shifts, and you find yourself with an extra day on your hands during which you’re not allowed to write. How do you choose to spend the day?
Walking in the woods, probably with camera in hand – photography is my other passion. I’d probably have a book in my backpack and at some point I’d sit down somewhere and just read. If I’m near civilization that somewhere might be a nice café with tables out on the sidewalk (yes I know – I’m out of the woods and into Paris now – but you did just say the world shifted and I’m allowed) with a cup of coffee or maybe a glass of wine in front of me. Then I’d go home and cuddle my cats. It would be a good day – but I would go to bed that night happy that tomorrow I could write again.
A walk in the woods followed by sitting outside a cafe is perfectly within the realms of possibility in my local town, so we’ll allow it!
Can you tell us a little something about your current work(s) in progress?
The current work in progress is very young – it’s barely begun – but what I AM doing that’s unusual is… inventing an entire alien language, from scratch, grammar and all. You have to realise I am bilingual, I can have a decent conversation (albeit probably a slow one) in a third language, I can understand (but not respond in) two more, and I know a goodly number of Klingon phrases. I also took Irish Gaelic classes once, for fun. So I’m a language nerd, and I am having an absolute ball with this. Once I have the language nailed down I will begin to glimpse more strongly the culture it has shaped, and once I have that down we’re off to the races and my next novel is well on the way… but I’m also in the process, right now, of publicising my newest PUBLISHED work, “The Second Star”, which dropped 1 July 2020. So I’m riding parallel rails in my mind – with two very different stories – and it’s a bit of a wild ride…
What’s the most (and/or least) helpful piece of writing advice you’ve ever received?
Most: READ. Read before you write. Read EVERYTHING. There is no formal ‘certification’ in this field – but you earn your knowledge and your experience by reading those who came before you. If you’re a rank beginner, your first efforts might come out as imitative of your heroes’ published work – but that’s OK, those are not for publication. That’s the interim step between reading a lot and writing your own original stuff. This is how you learn.
Least: write every day (or else) – that just isn’t true – or at least it isn’t literally true. I’ve spent days and days in which I don’t put down A SENTENCE – but I am researching something, or thinking about something, or making necessary connections in my mind – and I suppose if you count that as “writing” that’s fine, I’m doing it every day. But don’t let anyone tell you that if you haven’t written your thousand or three thousand words a day you’re a failure. You’re not. You’re working at your own pace and that’s fine. Also, any piece of advice that starts with “Always… “ or “NEVER…” is immediately suspect. There are no absolutes in this game.
Every writer encounters stumbling blocks, be it a difficult chapter, challenging subject matter or just starting a new project. How do you motivate yourself on days when you don’t want to write?
I don’t – it’s clear my mind needs the break. If the ‘break’ stretches for too long then yes, I will give myself a kick and go back to a stalled thing – or something new – and see if something has shifted enough for me to pick it up again from where I put it down. But I don’t beat myself up for pauses. Sometimes I will DELIBERATELY put a difficult piece down and walk away from it for a week or two, just letting it simmer in the subconscious – it’s amazing what a little bit of time and distance will do to unravel knots that seemed impossible at first glance. Research something you think you might need to know – write something entirely different – or just go wash your windows, at that. Take the breaks. They are usually necessary.
If you could visit any country at any point in history, where/when would you go, and why?
That depends entirely on circumstances… but if I could be guaranteed to be sufficiently well-off not to have to deal with rats and plagues and stinks and hunger… then perhaps the glory days of Byzantium. For some reason that place really resonates for me and it is an era which Westerners really don’t know all that much about (I was born in Eastern Europe and I cut my teeth on that stuff…) I suppose it’s the richness of history that draws me.
That would be a fascinating time to witness!
Tell us about a book that’s excellent, but underappreciated or obscure.
Matt Ruff’s ‘Set This House in Order’ – most people greet that title with a blank look but trust me it is worth the effort of looking up. It is one of the most perfect books I have ever read, by a writer at the height of his powers – and quite aside from being one amazing read this book is a masterclass for anybody who wants to write. THIS is how you write, when you really really REALLY know how…
Finally, would you be so kind as to dazzle us with an elevator pitch? Why should readers check out your work?
Go from hall to hall and be amazed at how Alma Alexander’s Bibliography House changes – from high fantasy to historical fantasy to contemporary fantasy to philosophy to YA to science fantasy to science fiction – SHE NEVER WRITES THE SAME BOOK TWICE.
Thank you so much Alma!