Alma Alexander

Alma Alexander: Writing the Other

Alma Alexander (Twitter, LJ) is a Pacific Northwest novelist, short story writer, and anthologist. Her books include “The Secrets of Jin Shei”, “Embers of Heaven”, “The Hidden Queen”, “Changer of Days”, the YA Worldweavers series, and “2012: Midnight at Spanish Gardens”; short stories have appeared in a number of recent anthologies, and “River”, the first anthology where she wore an editor’s hat, is out now.

The novel “Embers of Heaven” is now available in the USA for the first time – initially as an ebook at Amazon and at Smashwords, with a paperback edition to follow soon

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Almost exactly a year ago, novelist Kari Sperring wrote a blog entry entitled “Other people’s toes.” You can go and read the full entry, but there are a few things I would like to pull out of there – to wit –

[on Connie Willis on Blackout/All Clear]

… the historical errors in them are, frankly, parlous, and — as an Oxbridge historian — I am personally rather offended by how stupid she thinks my kind are, apparently… Then I read [Connie Willis’s] short piece in the Bulletin. Here’s the key excerpt. ‘That era [Britain in WW2] is just so fascinating — the blackout, the gas masks, the kids being sent off to who-knows-where, old men and middle aged women suddenly finding themselves in uniform and in danger, tube shelters and Ultra and Dunkirk, and running through it all, the threat of German tanks rolling down Piccadilly! What’s not to like.’

That was when I looked up, and said, very sharply, ‘How about all the dead civilians? That’s not to like at all.’Because, you know, the Blitz was *not* fun.

Here’s my point. History is not a theme park. It’s not a story, either. It’s people’s real lives. If you’re going to write about it, about any part of it, you need to do your homework properly, you need to be respectful, because — as Ms Willis did with me — otherwise, you’re going to find someone’s sore place, someone’s vulnerability, someone’s sacred or difficult or secret thing, and you’re going to do damage. Other countries aren’t theme parks, either, nor museums, nor big bags of useful resources. They’re homes to millions, they’re people’s lives, too.

But the Blitz is not likeable, it’s not fun, it’s not an adventure playground. And talking about is as if it is lessens us all.

I guess what I’m saying is, at bottom, very simple. Be careful, when you talk about other people’s things, histories, homes. We don’t all understand the same things in what we read, we don’t all have the same assumptions. We start from different places. It’s far too easy to discount, to elide, to erase people by not respecting that they may not be just like oneself. It’s far too easy to trample, to damage, to stamp hard on sensitive toes.

Kari Sperring was talking about an interesting and not a little unsteady position for the contemporary fantasy novelist – writing about a period in history which is still very much in living memory (if not the people who have lived through the period themselves then certainly through their direct descendants, sons and daughters whose connection with that particular era may not be direct experience but certainly first-hand accounts thereof). It is something that I myself have had cause to think about in my own work.

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Books on my TBR List

I am, as usual, shamefully behind on my reading. Trying to read and review all of the Hugo-nominated work has only exacerbated the problem. The following are some of the books waiting impatiently on the shelves for me to get to…

Wild Things [Amazon | B&N | Mysterious Galaxy], by Charles Coleman Finlay. Charlie is an amazing writer, and broke in years ago by essentially turning the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction into the Magazine of Charlie Finlay and Maybe a Few Other People. He was kind enough to send me his collection as a Christmas gift. I’ve read and enjoyed several of the stories so far, but haven’t yet finished the book, on account of I suck. Or maybe I just get cranky because he writes better short fiction than me. Jerk.

A Natural History of Dragons [Amazon | B&N | Mysterious Galaxy], by Marie Brennan. Come on. Look at that cover and tell me you don’t want to check this book out. It won’t be on sale until February of next year, but I have a copy of the bound manuscript right here, because my life is just that awesome! I’ve read and reviewed Brennan’s work before, and I love the historical detail she captures in her books. This one is described as “the true story of a pioneering spirit who risked her reputation, her prospects, and her fragile flesh and bone to satisfy her scientific curiosity; of how she sought true love and happiness despite her lamentable eccentricities; and of her thrilling expedition to the perilous mountains of Vystrana, where she made the first of many historic discoveries that would change the world forever.”

The Kingdom of Gods [Amazon | B&N | Mysterious Galaxy], by N. K. Jemisin. The final book of Jemisin’s Inheritance Trilogy. I talked about the first two books here, and now I have an autographed copy of number three whispering in my era, telling me to set aside those silly Hugo stories and come play. I’ve skimmed the first chapter, which is told from the point of view of the child-god Sieh. Sieh was one of my favorite gods from the first book and makes me want to read it that much more right now!

Pirates of Mars [Amazon | B&N | Mysterious Galaxy], by Chris Gerrib. I’m told that Gerrib named a ship after me. I have not been told whether it’s a Millennium Falcon type ship that runs circle around the imperials, or more of a “Did a piece just break off of my gorram ship?” kind of deal. Gerrib blogs a fair amount about piracy in the real world, and I’m curious to see how he’s applied that knowledge and research to Mars in what I believe is his first published novel.

Unless he blows up my ship, of course. Then all bets are off, and I’ll write him into one of my stories so the goblins can eat him.

Queen’s Hunt [Amazon | B&N | Mysterious Galaxy], by Beth Bernobich. This one comes out in mid-July, and is the sequel to Bernobich’s book Passion Play, which I talked about with Sherwood Smith over at Book View Cafe, discussing her portrayal of rape and its effects, her characterization, the Cool Stuff theory of fiction, and more. I also reviewed and enjoyed Bernobich’s YA book Fox & Pheonix here. I’m looking forward to seeing where she went with the story in book two.

2012: Midnight at Spanish Gardens [Amazon | B&N | Mysterious Galaxy], by Alma Alexander. I reviewed Alexander’s bestselling novel The Secrets of Jin-Shei back in 2007, describing it as a magical, masterful novel. (For some reason, I couldn’t find the review on my blog, but that link will take you to my Amazon review.) Her latest book is set “on the eve of the end of the world … in Spanish Gardens,” where five friends come to reminisce, to reveal secrets, and to make a choice presented by a bartender named Ariel, “the choice to live a different life, or return to this one…” I’m very curious to see what Alexander has done with this premise.

Net Impact [Amazon | B&N | Mysterious Galaxy], by Donald J. Bingle. I met Don years ago, and have shared a ToC with him in a number of anthologies. He warned me that there are no goblins in this one, but I said I’d be willing to read it anyway. This is not SF/F, but a spy novel about Dick Thornby, described as knowing “a few tricks to help him get out of a tight spot, even if his boss accuses him of over-reliance on an abundance of explosives.” Which sounds vaguely goblinesque to me…

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Those are just some of the books looming over me from the bedside table, threatening to tumble and crush me in my sleep. Thankfully, I’ve got a vacation coming up very soon! If you need me, I’ll be on the deck up north, watching the lake and trying to catch up on my reading.

Your turn. What’s sitting in your To-Be-Read pile that you’re looking forward to? What releases have you impatiently counting down the days?

Sunday Stuff

1. Alma Alexander has been chronicling the Rebirth of a Novel, publicly rewriting an old manuscript.  She’s interspersing this with guest posts by various authors, including yours truly.  I talk about how I got started writing, and even share two paragraphs of my very first (very bad) unpublished novel.

2. Beth Bernobich’s debut novel Passion Play [B&N |  Mysterious Galaxy | Amazon] comes out this Tuesday.  Sherwood Smith and I talk about the book over on the Book View Cafe blog.  Some of the early buzz for this book has focused on Bernobich’s portrayal of rape.  We discuss that, the characterization, the Cool Stuff theory of fiction, and more.  (It’s a fairly long chat.)

3. A question for anyone in Denver, Seattle, or Portland.  My agent noticed that sales of the goblin books had spiked in these three regions, mostly in “nontraditional” venues.  I’m told this usually indicates a few supermarket chains, and stores like Toys R Us and Starbucks.  Has anyone out there seen Jig & crew popping up in Kroger or Fred Meyer or anything like that?  We’re curious where those extra sales are coming from.

4. More on e-book pricing.  One of the complaints that came up a lot in response to my e-book post was the ridiculousness of e-books costing more than hardcovers.  Writer Beware explains why this happens.  (Short version: it’s the effect of two competing sales models.)

First Book Friday: Alma Alexander

Welcome to First Book Friday, an ongoing series exploring how various authors sold their first books.

Alma Alexander is currently working on an interesting project, publicly rewriting a novel she first wrote when she was 14 years old.  She’s working with a Teen Advisory Council for feedback, and sharing the experience — warts and all — at http://heritageofclan.wordpress.com/  She kindly took time from her other projects to talk about her first book.  The only question being which first book…

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That was back in…

No, there was the thing before that…

Wait, let’s go back to…

This is a tough one. I remember selling a short story to the venerable London Magazine (and THERE’S a tale, all by itself, buy me a drink at a con and I’ll tell you all about it) which ended up in an anniversary anthology published by LM instead of the magazine itself – which got me a chat with a London editor – which got me a referral to my first agent – who got me the sale of my first book, The Dolphin’s Daughter [Mysterious Galaxy | Amazon], and other stories, which was a collection of three Oscar Wilde-ian fables or fairy tales published not commercially but by the educational imprint of Longman UK (I thought it was going to be a collection. The agent kept on saying, “No. YOU. YOUR book.”) That little volume saw NINE impressions, and STILL brings me the occasional trickle or royalties.

Then there was my first non-fiction, the autobiographical Houses in Africa [Amazon], which came about because I got this other memoir to review and it was really boring and I thought to myself, “I can do better than that” – so I contacted the publisher of said volume, a small house back in New Zealand, and he said, send me a sample. So I did, and he said, okay, send me the rest. So I sort of had an autobiography published precociously before I was thirty five years old.

And then there was… the fantasy work. The book that eventually became the duology known in the USA as The Hidden Queen [B&N |  Mysterious Galaxy | Amazon] and Changer of Days [B&N |  Mysterious Galaxy | Amazon] was written on the sly, over a span of probably more than two years, starting from a scene which eventually found its way into the actual novel some two-thirds of the way in. The book was over 250,000 words long, so the publishers screamed, “Split that puppy!” which is how I ended up with two volumes. But thereby hangs a tale, too, buy me another drink at another con and I’ll make like Scheherezade and keep telling you the stories of my early atacks of chutzpah – let me just say that this one involved walking into one of the most venerable and traditional literary agencies in London, England, and basically… handing an agent… all quarter-million words of manuscript…and it (kind of) worked…[1. Jim’s note — don’t try this at home, kids!]

It was THAT agent, the one who was on the receiving end of that mammoth pile of paper, who subsequently introduced me to my current agent. Who took my then-latest offering, the book which became The Secrets of Jin Shei [B&N |  Mysterious Galaxy | Amazon], and ran with that – and gave me one of the most exhilarating rollercoaster rides of my life with it, with the book becoming a finalist for both mainstream and genre awards and selling 20,000 copies IN HARDCOVER in Spain in less than three months, graduating to having “bestseller” stamped on the paperback edition, which still spins my brain like a top.

But you know what…? In some ways – they are all so different – EVERY book is a “first book”.

And every time I hold a newly-published one in my hands, it’s like the first time.

Jim C. Hines