I first met Alma online some years ago, and then — in the way that writers sometimes do, particularly when they like the other writer’s books! — we managed to find ourselves in the same place at the same time and were able to meet face to face. And now she has been kind enough to agree to be a guest on Tropic Temper, talking about …well, being a writer.
And there’s another very good reason too. Alma has written another book, this one:
Isn’t that one gorgeous cover?
So here, from Alma:
What does “being a writer” mean?
In a now famous and much-quoted interview, Ursula le Guin’s response to the question of “What would you be if you weren’t a writer” was a trenchant and succinct, “Dead.” And Gregory Macdonald, creator of “Fletch”, had this to say on the matter: “I never wanted to be a writer. I don’t want to be one now. To me, writing is not an occupation; it’s not a job; it’s not an avocation. It’s a response to life. I’ve never understood people who say, “I decided to be a writer.” That’s like saying you want to be a pine tree. Either you are a pine tree, or you are not.”
So, then. I am alive. I am a pine tree, in Macdonald’s definition of same. I am, for better or worse, a writer.
I self-identify as one. I am introduced as one to perfect strangers by people who know me. Commentary by friends to somebody else asking me if I’d been writing lately has boiled down to a snort and a trenchant, “Oh, PLEASE. Why not ask if she’s been breathing lately?”
It’s something I do. It’s something I AM.
But part of “being a writer” is having written – and part of the yardstick of measuring a writer’s success is contained in that awful response to the I’m a writer line in the cocktail party context, when someone you’re talking to in a crowded room comes back with the “Oh, anything I might have read?” inquiry. Which then leads to a discussion of publication, and how one is published, and where, and who one is published by, and whether that publication has sufficient cachet or street-cred to warrant the time and attention of your cocktail party co-conversationalist. And all this… before we dive into the murky waters of genre, and whether writing mysteries, or science fiction, or fantasy, or (saints forfend!) romance, actually qualifies you for the “writer” title at all – because everyone knows that these are not Real Literature.
So, then. What do I write, and why do I write it?
Let me begin by throwing that word at you again. Genre. Yes, genre. Go duck for cover if you need to. Still here? Good. Because my next line has caused a lot of people a lot of grief, before they’ve reluctantly come to accept that I am at least partially right:
Fantasy is Not a Subset of Literature… because All Literature Is Fantasy – By Definition.
Oh, yes, it is. It’s fiction, which is defined as being not-true, which is therefore defined as a fantasy. And no, I don’t care if it’s set in Narnia or in the Upper West Side of Manhattan – if it’s fiction, it’s lies, and the only qualification is how well the lies are told. Some fiction is good enough to make us believe in dragons, and some can’t even make you believe in a New York lawyer. The tissue of lies is different – different color, different texture, different thickness – but it’s still a tissue of lies, and it’s only a semblance of any kind of reality at all.
So, then – what kind of fantasy have I allowed myself to indulge in?
With two exceptions – one being an autographical memoir and the other a collection of non-fiction essays – my writing oeuvre has been wrapped in the Telling of Tales. One of my novels was a modern-day epistolary (written in emails, with a co-author whom I’ve since married) and dealt with contemporary and real-life issues; the rest of my published work has been, by and large, far more fantastical than that. It ranges from the high epic fantasy as showcased in what became the Changer of Days duology (in the United States, the books are known as “The Hidden Queen” and “Changer of Days”) to alternate history/historical fantasy (“Secrets of Jin Shei” and “Embers of Heaven”) to the YA fantasy world of the Worldweavers trilogy (“Gift of the Unmage”, “Spellspam”, “Cybermage”).
These all self-define as fantasy for reasons which are both shared, and unique to individual projects. For instance, they’re all, by and large, immersion fantasies, set in their own particular worlds. Some (as with the Changer of Days books) wholly invented, some (the Jin Shei books) borrowed from the pages of history and alchymically changed as needed, and some (the Worldweavers books) in a world which is basically ours but with a few tweaks here and there to make it not-quite-ours, and with a hint of other worlds which are emphatically NOT our own being accessible from it with a bit of luck, knowledge, and experience.
And then… I put my writing tack on a horse of quite a different color.
“Midnight at Spanish Gardens” is… almost mainstream. If you merely glanced at it and didn’t look further, perhaps that is all that you would see – because on the face of it the story is palpably about OUR world, our REAL world, complete with the Mayan end-of the-world-in-2012 scenario built into it.
But look closer.
There is a portal.
And the portal – well – even if it appears to lead from one mundane life into another, it’s a portal, and the edges of it are glimmering with magic… and the being who ushers you through it is ageless and knowing, a creature who may or may not be a messenger, an angel.
This horse of a different color – take a closer look at it. It might look like a perfectly ordinary and perfectly mundane equine – but underneath that disquietingly disguising ordinary horse-colorr there is a shimmer of silver. Underneath its feet as they touch the ground there is a hint of light, as though those hooves are striking sparks off the ground. And if you look really carefully, if the angle of the head is just right, you can see the hint, just the hint, of a tiny nub on the horse’s blazed forehead. A nub that you almost believe that you cannot possibly have seen. A nub that hints that this horse may well live and prosper in our own world… but that its mother was without any doubt a Unicorn.
Part of the power of magic is to coat the bitter truths of our world in a layer of sweeter stuff, making them easier to swallow and to digest – and no, I am not talking about straight allegory, which is something that I have always found difficult to accept. I find allegory to be transparent, and being transparent it is unbearably preachy – because I can clearly see that clue-by-four as it is being aimed in my direction. I’ve always been a fan of subtle rather than in-your-face, and allegory – particularly when it’s done badly, which is alas so often the case with this kind of thing – is as unsubtle as it is possible to be.
But a story can be ABOUT something without hammering the concept home with a mallet.
“Midnight at Spanish Gardens” is a novel about people, at its heart – people who live their lives as best they can, people who get hurt, or bent, or broken, and who try and figure out the best way to pick up the pieces and make themselves as whole as they know how. It’s a novel with a deep emotional heart. It is also a novel of Ideas, and even Issues – the bitter little truths at the core of the sweet pills.
It deals with difficult stuff, and it is my hope that while enjoying the story in which that stuff is embedded my readers will also be moved to think more about the stuff itself, especially in the aftermath, after they have finished this book and put it down. It is my hope that there are things here that will stay in the reader’s memory, and the reader’s heart, and the reader’s thoughts and subsequent actions and perhaps attitudes, long after the book itself is done.
I am alive. I am a pine tree. I am a writer.
I hope that the things I write about, even though they are lies, are so rooted in truth that the fruit they bear is something the taste of which will remain remembered.
In closing – a few words about me, and a few more about the book –
My main website is at www.AlmaAlexander.com (take a look at the bibliography page!) and I also have a website dedicated to my YA series, Worldweavers, at http://www.almaalexander.com/worldweavers/ , and you can find a book trailer there, as well as excerpts from those books and also ordering information. I blog regularly at http://anghara.livejournal.com and if people want to get to know the real me that’s the more dynamic site right now. I’m also on Facebook here or here and if you want to read more literary and writerly essaylets you might visit www.StorytellersUnplugged.com on the 30th of every month and keep up with me there.
If you want to look into purchasing any of my books, you can go to several places:
Smashwords for other ebook editions (and go there to keep an eye on the Alexander Triads project, themed collections of short stories…)
Or visit your friendly neighbourhood indie store and ask them to get my books for you if they don’t have them…
For “Midnight at Spanish Gardens“, you can preorder the book here:
and it will shortly be available here