Monday, March 03, 2008

Interview with Alma Alexander

ALMA ALEXANDER is a novelist whose work has appeared in thirteen languages and more than 20 countries worldwide. Her international bestseller "The Secrets of Jin Shei" is perhaps the best known of her adult books, but in 2007 she branched out into the world of YA literature with the release of the first book in the Worldweavers trilogy, "Gift of the Unmage", which has garnered a great deal of reader enthusiasm and critical praise, being compared to Susan Cooper, Madeleine L'Engle, and even J K Rowlings. "Spellspam" is the second book in the Harper Collins trillogy, released March 11, 2008. The third book, due in the spring of 2009, is entitled "Cybermage".

1) What was your inspiration for writing Spellspam?

Back in 2002 I went to my first-ever World Fantasy Convention. I had no plans to do any writing in the YA arena, but I wandered, at some point, into a panel on YA literature because it had a bunch of writers on it whose work I have admired - Charles de Lint, for one, and Jane Yolen. After about five or six minutes of chatter on the subject of YA, someone from the audience raised a hand and asked, "What about Harry Potter?"

And Jane Yolen sighed and said, "I was wondering how long it would be before that particular elephant walked into the room."

This was 2002 - Pottermania was in full swing. And I am sure they went on to discuss that, amongst other things, But I didn't exactly hear any of it. Because the next thing that came out of Jane Yolen's mouth was something about how she didn't particularly like the way that the Potter books treated girls. And I was off and running, making the acquaintance of Thea Winthrop - not the Boy Who Lived but the Girl Who Couldn't - and exploring the Last Ditch School for the Incurably Incompetent, to which she would be sent because she, born a Double Seventh, the sventh child of two seventh children and the most magical of entities, cannot do any magic. At all. At ALL.

Until everything changes...

2) Who are your favorite authors and books now and when you were growing up?

Good grief, I read EVERYTHING. I blew through the kids' section of our library like a tornado, and there were always books in my house, and the rule was if I could read it and if it interested me then it was allowed. There were no restrictions. I grew up in language heaven. I could not possibly start naming all my favourite authors, the list would go on forever. I cut my teeth on authorless books - the collections of myths and legends from various sources. But when it comes to a few seminal influences - Tolkien, of course. The Narnia books. Roger Zelazny.

But also Henryk Sienkiewicz, Sigrid Undsett, John Galsworthy, Pearl Buck, Ivo Andric.

3) What is it about fantasy/science fiction that attracts you?

The fact that it allows for the telling of pure unvarnished truth, and because it's wrapped up in such a pretty tissue of lies and enchantment people seldom realise that the story they are reading is far more real and far more emotionally true than much of what they cling to in their "Real" worlds. I believe in fantasy. I have always thought there was a vast power in dreams.

4) Why did you decide to make Thea "incapable" of magic ?

Because everything has a price - as my Alphiri (a race of elves with the souls of Star Trek's Ferengi will take great pleasure in telling you). And this is a coming-of-age story, and coming of age means finding out what your values truly are, and how they shape who you are becoming. Thea's inability to to magic in the first book of the trilogy is a very important formative period for her.

5) What (besides writing) do you do for fun?

Heh. Reading.

Also, photography, embroidery, watching a few good shows on TV (currently - spring 2008 - "House", "Lost", "Men in Trees").


Did I mention reading?

6) What sort of research did you do to write a book?/What kind of preparation do you do when you are writing?

That depends entirely on the book. "The Secrets of Jin Shei" and "Embers of Heaven" were extremely research-intensive - but then, they were historical fantasies based on and rooted in things that existed in our own world, and it was important. Even though the world I was creating was my own - to make it right, to make it true, even though I had to break the rules to do it - and for me to be able to do that I needed to know exactly what the rules were to begin with.

With the YA books, yes, there was research done. For "Gift of the Unmage" I read up on the Anasazi, and learned about the world creation myths and the elder gods of the Native Americans, the peoples who first walked the North American continent before the Europeans came. It imbues the books with a certain amount of mysticism which makes the books intrinsically American, as American as Harry Potter was English. But there were other aspects of the story that needed research, too, and for the third book I read up exhaustively on Nilkola Tesla, who is one of the major characters in "Cybermage".

I stir in all kinds of things into this particular YA brew - First World gods and tricksters, modern cutting-edge cyber-magic, Eastern European fairy tales, and pure invention (like the Alphiri, for instance). It was a wonderful writing experience.

7) What are you writing now?

The new project is an adult novel inspired by Byzantium. Vastly more complex and research-intensive than the Worldweavers books were. But it's time for another of my complicated, lush, vast, broad-canvas stories - and I've already waded into this one, and it is going to be GOOD.

8) Did you always want to write? Or did you stumble into it? How did you get where you are now?

In order, yes, no, and I stumbled blindly along what I thought were lots of different roads but there was only one, and it led here.

I grew up in love with words - it began with the influence of my poet-Grandfather who read me his sonnets from when I was five years old and it stuck, I never could shake language from me after that, I devoured books, and I started writing my own poetry when I was six or so. I wrote my first novel at 11 (and it was horrible, and thankfully doesn't survive). I won a national writing competition back home in Yugoslavia when I was 12. I wrote the next novel at 14, and you know, it isn't half bad if I went back and tweaked the 14-year-old-ishness out of some of it. I started publishing before I was twenty - but I didn't get a "real" book published until 1995, when I was in my early thirties, and I went full-time only eight years ago. But in the meantime I managed to earn an MSc in Molecular Biology, run an allergy society professional journal, do a stint as senior editor with an educational publisher where I produced text books in subjects as widely varied as Social Studies and Mathematics, got married... lived a life.

But I am, and have always been, first and last a WRITER. That has never changed. It never will.

9) What does a typical writing day look like for you? How long do you write, that sort of thing?

There is no such thing as a typical writing day. The one thing that all days have in common is coffee - lots of coffee - hello, my name is Alma and I am an addict. But the rest of it - if I am reading a research book, I am "writing" just as much as if I had my behind planted in a chair and my fingers on a keyboard. Writing is what happens in the mind, and for me it's a constant and ongoing process - putting actual words on a page is just the final installment of that process, the culminating act. THere are days when I will spend hours doing that, pouring out the words, writing up to 10 000 words a day. There are days I will go for a long walk and wrestle with a scene or a character until I can get to a point where I CAN sit down and let the words come. That's half the joy of being what I am. I have no "routine". I am responsible only to myself, my story, and my characters - and it takes however long it takes.

10) Where do you write?

In an office with a view of cedar woods, where deer occasionally come to my door to greet me and woodpeckers flutter around in the trees. I have a massive oak desk, my present to myself from the first check from "Jin SHei", and a library full of books at my back.

11) What is easiest/hardest for you as a writer?

Dreaming is easy. My stories... just come, and are already fledged, and fly away with me.

Rewriting... is horrible. It all mucks about with my instinctive sense of order, and screws around with the shape of my vision, and drives me demented. I know it is necessary, sometimes essential. I don't have to LIKE it..

12) This isn't your first book; tell us a little bit about what else is out there.

"Spellspam" will be my ninth published book.

I started out with a collection of three fantasy short stories - much like the Oscar WIlde fairy tales, "The Nightingale and the Rose", like that - which was published by Longman UK in 1995 and STILL brings me in a trickle of royalties to this day. That was followed by "Houses in Africa", an autobiographical volume describing my growing-up years in Africa, published by a small New Zealand publisher and now out of print. That in turn was followed by an epistolary email novel called "Letters from the Fire", written in collaboration with R.A. ("Deck") Deckert, the man I subsequently married. That, too, is out of print. But then came the "Changer of Days" books - published in 2001/2002 in New Zealand, and reprinted in the US in 2005 by Eos as "The Hidden Queen" and "Changer of Days"; and my big successes, "The Secrets of Jin Shei" and "Embers of Heaven", both published by Harper Collins in their English editions and by a plethora of foreign-language publishers elsewhere.

The YA books were next, with "Gift of the Unmage" in 2007 and "Spellspam" in 2008 and "Cybermage", my jubilee tenth published book, due out in 2009.

Visit Alma at her website,, and learn more about the Worldweavers books at their own site, Alma also blogs at, and is a regular guest blogger at and


When Email Attacks!

What would happen if the spam that accumulates in your inbox suddenly started carrying live spells - open a "Lose Weight Now" email, and you do, you drop pounds, you open the thing inadvertently twice and you turn into a wraith? Or a "Free GIft" email results in a subscirption to a magazine in Mandarin Chinese or a pair of Emperor Penguns delivered to your door?

And what happens if it is a grounding tenet in your world that the only thing actually impervious to magic IS a computer, and magical... SPELLSPAM... is frankly impossible...?

Welcome to Thea Winthrop's next adventure ... Spellspam

Simon Haynes is the author of the Hal Spacejock and Hal Junior series (Amazon / Smashwords / other formats)

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