Writing is a passion. Publishing is a business.


Interview with Alma Alexander

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 a gate 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, or her blog.
What are you reading right now?

I'm in the middle of David Brin's EXISTENCE - a big, complex, involving book with lots of characters and more plot twists than half a dozen pretzels. Pretty nifty read so far.

What first sparked your interest in writing?

That question has no rational answer, because I didn't have an "interest in writing" that was "sparked" by anything. I simply...always told stories. When I was a still-illiterate child, I made them up and dreamed them and told them to whoever would listen. When I learned to read and write, I began writing them. They've always been there. I suspect they always will be.

Stories sparked my interest in stories. Words. The magic of the told tale. That's all there ever was - and I think that was something I simply came into this world with, fully in place, just waiting until I had the capacity to express it.
What do you love the most about writing? The least?

Most - the very concept of being able to create your own world and then to invite other people to come live in it with you, at least for a little while, and watching them react at what they find there. There's something enthralling about watching a complete stranger's face light up with *recognition* at something you've written, and know that you got it right. There's nothing like it.

Least - rewriting and revision. And yes, I do know it is necessary in order to produce the best story that I can. But I hate going over old ground again and again. Perhaps because I know that, if given the opportunity to do so without an endgame in place, I would never stop. You can tweak and tweak and tweak and tweak ad infinitum and you will never quite get to where you are going because there is always going to be one more thing to fix, one more thing to improve, one more thing to make it better. But perfect isn't a destination. It's a journey. And sometimes the journey won't necessarily be the same for the writer and the eventual reader. And sometimes that is hard for a writer like me to internalize.

Tell us a little about your writing process.

And to that I ask, for which book? Because I don't think I’ve ever written two novels the same way.

For one (the single quarter-million-word epic which became the duology HIDDEN QUEEN/CHANGER OF DAYS) it was a single scene written while I was still pursuing my MSC degree in the lab... and then it took me more than half of the eventual book to get around to where that particular scene fit into the entire story arc (and then it took me years of believing in that book before I got it published).

For another (THE SECRETS OF JIN-SHEI) it was a matter of sitting down with a page of character sketches for ten characters in search of a story... and getting, out of the blue, a newspaper article about a dying language, a secret written language, of the women of China and then watching an entire novel shake down around that as the characters on that page sat up and took notice.

For a third - what became the YA WORLDWEAVERS trilogy - it was a throwaway comment from a panel at a fantasy convention that sparked the idea, and then we were off and running - I wanted an anti-Potter book, about a girl who was the heroine of her own adventures, and something as American as Potter was British.

One thread in common is that I write without an outline - I have a basic picture of the book's geography but no road map, and I go where the story takes me. I cannot work from a detailed outline because once I write that down I feel the story is already written and it kills my instinct to write out the "full" version.

I tell people that the way I write is to plant a story seed. Until it sprouts and shows me leaves and a shape and a potential size I have no idea whether I have planted a cabbage or a redwood. I find out what happens in my stories the same way that my readers do, sometimes. Gasping in utter surprise at What Comes Next...

What are your passions?

Well, writing...

Also, truth and justice and honesty and honour. Sometimes it feels as though these can be in short supply these days in a cynical and jaded world. And I make it my business to seek them out and talk about them and write about them and make them happen to the best of my own ability. My passion involves being the best human being I know how to be and hoping that other people are trying to do the same thing.  

What inspires you?
All kinds of everything. 


Falling leaves. 

A haunting melody. 

An odd house on a street corner. 

Somebody who catches my eye who happens to be having breakfast two tables away from me at a restaurant on a Saturday morning.

Weird newspaper stories about the strange things people do.


The howl of a wolf.

Watermelons (the taste of summer) or hot chocolate with marshmallows
(the taste of winter)



Other people's secret smiles.

The world.

Why fantasy?

Because everything is fantasy.

Bad fantasy is lies pretending to be reality. And sometimes succeeds. Good fantasy is always true, in some deeper sense. All you have to do is keep your eyes open and you will see it.

Fantasy is an open door into what makes our own world tick.


I sat down at a computer one day and typed up ten short paragraphs - each of which was a character sketch for an as yet unnamed character. My husband asked what this was and I said, "My next novel." He said, "What is it about?" And I replied, "I have absolutely no idea."

(I think this is the point where he said, good-naturedly, "I hate you." He's a writer, too. But he doesn't do ideas this way...)

It wasn't until I received, completely arbitrarily and in an unrelated development, a news clipping from a friend that those character sketches sat up and drew a breath and said, yes, that would be us.

The story I was sent concerned nushu, an ancient Chinese written language which was practiced and known only by women, taught by mother to daughter and passed on down through the generations, in which women who were often widely separated from one another geographically used to communicate - women who were not necessarily related by blood but who were sworn friends, something that in my book turned into the jin-shei vow, the sisters-of-the-heart concept.

The rest is history. The story came to me at white heat - I wrote almost 200,000 words in less than three months, and the editing this story subsequently received was minimal, so perfectly formed was the tale as it was being born. It was a gift from the gods of writing, and if I never write another like it I will be forever grateful for being shown what was possible when all the stars aligned...

Did THE SECRETS OF JIN-SHEI require a lot of research?

It did, and its follow-up book, EMBERS OF HEAVEN - I don't like to call it a sequel because it isn't really although it is set in the same world some 400 years after THE SECRETS OF JIN-SHEI - needed even more. I pored over biographies, histories, geographical tomes on China. I read up about its languages, its religions, its customs, its myths. Sometimes this was so that I could learn what rules or contexts I could break to make my own story better. Other times the things I needed came to me practically on demand. I remember going in to study Western alchemy and its practices with the idea of playing with them so that I could make them more "Chinese" to fit into my story and being presented, much to my absolute astonishment, with a home-grown Chinese version of alchemical lore which came read-made for me to use. I found original Chinese myths and legends, which dovetailed perfectly with the story I was telling.

It was one heck of a journey. I learned a lot. Much of it made its way into the books about jin-shei, but not all of it did - and I still cherish that part of my knowledge which came to me as a gift from my stories, something for me to keep, a treasure of words and pictures and ideas, all of which affected and changed and taught me.

In general when I tangle with a fat historical fantasy of an idea I feel compelled to research the time period I am writing in pretty thoroughly - even if I then change things within that context so that my story may live inside it. Research is an essential tool in my
toolbox, and I never set sail into storyland without it.  

Do you have any advice for aspiring authors? 

Read. Read, read, read, read, read,

Write and practice. Realize that you will discard 90% of your early efforts. Realize that this is what they are for.

Write some more.

Oh, and did I mention, read? Keep reading. There is no true course or school or diploma that will make you a writer. Experience will. Immersion in other people's excellence will. Reading is how you learn to write.

Is there anything else you would like to tell us about yourself? I write.

I blog (at http://anghara.livejournal.com, at www.StorytellersUnplugged on the 30th of every month, and at www.SFNovelists.com on the 5th of every month).

I have a Facebook page (come along and "like" it if you will!).

I am also (somewhat reluctantly) on Twitter, so feel free to follow me there, too.
I'm on Goodreads as well.

I have two main websites where you can keep up with what's going on in my writing life and my books, and they are at www.AlmaAlexander.org and www.AlmaAlexander.com.

I'd love to see you there.

Oh, and if you buy any of my books from Village Books, I'd be happy to sign them for you, just ask the folks at the store to call me and ask me to drop in and do it.

I write. I hope you like reading. I hope you'll consider reading my stories. See you at Village Books soon.