How to build a world

alternative worlds illastration

In the beginning, the author created…

When I first began writing historical fantasy, I was inspired by times and places rooted in our own familiar world – but leavened with a dash of the unreal. A world that might have been.

I wrote about locations which might have been identifiable, with greater or lesser ease, as something that had existed in our own history and geography, as we know them – except that I gave such places different names of my own devising, and if I used things that were supposed to have happened in the “true” history of our world I sometimes fudged the precise timing, or the order of events, so that I could create a more consistent story rooted in my own world.

I wrote the book that became “The Secrets of Jin-shei” at white heat, 200,000 words in less than three months. It was set in a China that never was, a mythical land inspired by Imperial China which I named “Syai”.

I’ve been explaining ever since that no, I did NOT set out to write a historical novel, that Syai was a place INSPIRED by China, not China itself.

After I had written “the end” at the conclusion of Jin-shei, the history of Syai and the mythical world in which it existed didn’t stop there. It continued, and it blossomed naturally into the events I wrote about in “Embers of Heaven”, a follow-up and not a sequel to the original Jin-shei book.

It was becoming clear that this was a developing and ongoing story in a developing and ongoing world which had the same kind of timeline as our own did.

While Jin-shei took place in Syai, my world inspired by Imperial China, I moved the the country’s history forward four hundred years for Embers in a time very similar to China’s Cultural Revolution.

A great deal of research was done for both historical periods in our own – our “Real” – world, and my alternate history is built on very solid foundations. In Embers this was particularly important as I was dealing with issues and events which were much more historically recent, and within reach of, if not a living memory for most people, then certainly the memory of a descendant of somebody who had lived through that time. It would have been disrespectful to this kind of recent history and its survivors not to ensure that all necessary research and education had been undertaken, and properly applied to my alternate world that is so very like the China that never was.

This was a real world, to me. It just wasn’t OUR world. It was an alternate universe, with its own rules and laws and history, existing beside and in spite of our own.

Alternate History for a World That Might Have Been

Map where three books were set in Alma's worldMy recent novel “Empress” was set in my alt-historical fantasy of ancient Byzantium, a bit further back in time and in a different part of the same alternate world. Things became looser in terms of what I could do with the material I was working with, in order to make my story flow more smoothly,

I reversed the order in which two documented historical events took place in “real” time and place – but that decision made absolute sense in the context of the world I was creating in my story, a world which was deeply rooted in and inspired by a certain era in the Byzantine empire but which was also a story seen through my own reinvented prism.

I made the studied decision, for example, not to use any known form of a religious faith in this context. That meant working out a complex hierarchy of Heaven and its denizens for the Syai books, with an intricately detailed Great Temple in which these were worshipped (in a manner which was – again – inspired by some real things but which was also organically reinvented for the time and place I was creating.

In “Empress”, I created a system of belief that was similar to, but deliberately not directly using the religions we know as Judaism or Christianity. That meant, once again, reexamining what we think we know as “historical” events or decisions in the light of these newly re-imagined systems of belief.

Just when I became aware that I was literally writing the stories which would build that alternative history into a complete and cohesive whole, setting books in times and places which would somehow fit on the same alternative geo-historical timeline, I’m not entirely sure – but by the time I came to write “Empress”, it was already gelling into that idea. A world explorer in “Empress” talked quite naturally about taking the trade road to a place called Syai. My world was already real enough for that.

More such books are coming. All of them will become integrated into a lush alternative world with its own past, its own current events, its own future. I am literally rewriting the (fantastical) history of our world, novel by novel, building it brick by brick, character by character, word by word.

The Alma Alexander Historical Fantasy Bundle

The first three strands of this net are the three currently published historical fantasies – “The Secrets of Jin-shei”, “Embers of Heaven”, and “Empress” – and I am now offering them a Book Bundle.

The bundle is currently only in ebook format. In the meantime, print copies of each book are available now on Amazon and elsewhere and I will offer them as a bundled package later.

Purchasing a three-eBook bundle of these historical fantasies as a package also subscribes you to a quarterly newsletter, and it puts your name on a list of people who will be notified first when the next historical fantasy volume appears. One is currently in progress, and at least one other planned – dealing with medieval Balkans, and the shifting empires and loyalties which roiled in that era, with protagonists which are crying out to have their stories told.

Buy eBook Bundle 1 for $10 via PayPal HERE

Random Werewolf

Excerpt from1st chapter of Random, Book 1 of The Were Chronicles

In ‘The Were Chronicles’, shapeshifting Weres and normal humans live in an uneasy alliance. The Weres are officially tolerated but face constant discrimination, must carry dehumanizing paw-print ID cards, and are forced to live in isolation or imprisonment during their 3-day Turns. With increasing tensions between shapeshifters and normals, three young Weres walk a dangerous path with open war suddenly becoming a frightening possibility.

In Random, the first book in the trilogy, we meet Jazz Marsh, a Random Were, capable of becoming whatever warm-blooded creature that she last saw just before she changed shape at the full moon. When her First Turn came, the results were stunningly unexpected. And the world of the Weres and the normals would never be the same again.Transformation illustrationPhoto by Darkness on Unsplash

The Boy in The Basement

Vivian Ingram, the family caretaker and my babysitter, arrived just before the ascent of the full Moon, as usual – locking everybody except me into their Turning rooms in the basement and making sure everything was secure.

Charlie was with her. The first time she’d brought him, he had been thirteen and I was only eleven. You’d think that a newly-teenaged boy would have disdained the company of a kid like me, but we somehow bucked the odds – we missed out on the standard boy-from-girl-from-boy recoil in response to unnamed cooties, and we had become buddies instead. Of course, he was going on sixteen now, and he’d Turned – at his proper New-Moon trigger, only a few months before – into a vampire bat, like the rest of his family.

My brother Mal had glared at Charlie thunderously as he was escorted yet again into his Turning room in the hope that this time would finally prove the charm. Mal, almost eighteen, still un-Turned, having to be marched off into yet another attempt at becoming an official adult in the Were community, being watched by a boy two years his junior who had already passed him on that road.

Charlie knew better than to offer any commentary while Mal was still in hearing range – but once my brother and his temper were safely locked away behind secured doors, he gave me one of his crooked smiles, half sympathy, half mischief.

“Still no joy for him?”

“Nope. And he’s kind of running out of time. They’re not sure what they’re going to do if he passes his eighteenth birthday and is still… like this. Is it even possible for someone to un-Were?”

“What’s he trying for this time?”

“Still a weasel. It’s been quite a come-down, really. He started out all gung-ho, with the wolverine, but after my folks had to keep hiring the wolverine for months it got…a little expensive. So he’s had to bring his sights down some. He wanted something with teeth, though, so – well – weasel.”

“And if that doesn’t work, what, a rat?” Charlie asked.

“Don’t be mean,” I said sanctimoniously.

“Shall we stay and see how he and the weasel are getting on? The Moon ought to be up by now – or is about to be, anyway. It should be fun.”

I smacked him on the shoulder. “You know how he hated seeing us peering in the last time.”

“We’ll be careful,” Charlie said. “Come on.”

Vivian was busy – one of her other sons fortuitously picked a perfect moment to call her on the phone, and while she was talking to him she had momentarily lost track of Charlie and me. We hadn’t really bothered to check on the Moon’s status in the sky – it was close enough for our purposes. We stood jostling outside the door of Mal’s room, and I stood on tiptoe to peer inside through the glass in the door.

“What’s he doing?” Charlie asked, crowding in beside me, careful to keep to the edges so he could duck away if Mal showed signs of looking up and seeing us there.

“Nothing,” I said. “As usual.”

Mal was in fact sitting in the middle of the room, cross-legged and wrapped in his Turning cloak, staring with smoldering eyes at the weasel which stood with its back to the wall staring back at him. Other than the staring contest, which was a sadly familiar outcome of locking Mal into the Turning room at the advent of full Moon, there was nothing of any interest going on inside that room – and it looked like Vivian would soon have to let him out, as she had done every Turn so far since he was fifteen, and he’d still be… Mal. The full Moon was in up the sky; if he hadn’t Turned by now, he probably (yet again) wasn’t going to.

I had already lost interest – but for Charlie, this was a train wreck he couldn’t stay away from. He was still staring into the room by the time I had turned away – from Mal and his continued failure, from the annoyed weasel in the corner – and I was actually looking at Charlie’s fascinated face when something began to impinge itself on my consciousness.

There was nothing going on inside the room. But out here in the corridor, outside… I was starting to feel distinctly strange. Ill, even. There was something deep in the back of my throat, an odd sort of nausea, but it didn’t feel as though I wanted to throw up – it was just… there… as though I had tried to swallow something, either too big or too disgusting, that I shouldn’t have even considered putting into my mouth, and now it was stuck halfway down my gullet and Continue reading

The Moment

Woman reading photo

Photo by Hisu Lee at Unsplash.com

In fiction and in life

A life is made of moments. It is stitched together from the things you remember most vividly — the peaks and the valleys, the turning points, the places where you paused, or hurried, or changed direction.

In fiction, these are the things that will linger in a reader’s mind after the story is over.
And this is when a visual medium definitely has a edge on the written word. A moment in a movie can hinge on a gesture, an exchange of meaningful glances without a word being spoken. It can be the tiniest change of expression.

In an episode of the TV series “The Mentalist” a few years ago, one of the characters was a young man who was ‘slow’, developmentally disabled. The character presentation was utterly perfect – the open and trusting expression on the boy’s face, the way everyone spoke to him with an edge of pitying kindness and his apparent grateful acceptance of that attitude… right until the moment when everything changed.

The boy whom we had thought of as simple-minded was sitting in a chair in an interrogation room when his bluff was called and something indescribable happened. His eyes hardened and sharpened, somehow, and you realized with an electric jolt that he had been stringing everyone along in an expert con, that this was no simpleton but instead a very cold, calculating and dangerous mind.

Sometimes the entire emotional landscape of a character – frustration, hatred, love, triumph, envy, pity, sorrow, exultation, surrender, regret, fury, even a lapse into full and chaotic madness – can be distilled into a single gesture, a single glance. What you can convey in less than thirty seconds of film time… might take you a chapter to convey properly in a book.

This is the thing with the written word. It requires more mental engagement. A visual moment is seen, and shared, and immediately understood. A written moment needs more set-up, and develops more slowly in your head; it is probably never quite the same for any two readers of the same given scene because what is built up in each reader’s head is different and utterly beyond any writer’s control.

It is not to say that the written moments are the lesser. They can be more enduring because of the simple fact that the readers paint them with their own imagination, their own mental scenery, and etch it into permanence in their mind. But a book needs time, and effort, and attention to do this. You can look at a scene on a screen and you can respond immediately, viscerally, because you are responding to what your senses are handing you, to what you can see and hear.

But you have to give a book far more than that. You need to get deeply enmeshed, you need to reach in and wrap the words around you like so many tangled Christmas lights. A good book, one with good moments, becomes a lifelong friend and one to which you will return again and again because of that moment that it shared with you.

There are dozens of books with “moments” I remember, where the plot revolves around those moments, where the characters are built and wrapped around those moments. Guy Gavriel Kay’s “Tigana” has a lot of such moments. If you haven’t read that remarkable book I suggest you hie off and get yourself a copy now.

There are such moments in all of my novels. In “Midnight at Spanish Gardens”, for example, there is one which has been singled out by many readers. It occurs when John, my young doctor, is on rotation in the children’s cancer ward. In the beginning, he copes by treating the kids simply as patients with a disease and he as The Doctor who has all the answers.

The ‘moment’ comes when he realizes how utterly beyond his control it all really is – and everything instantly changes. The patient becomes a little dying boy; the disease becomes a monster against which he is helpless. And that breaks him

Before that moment he was one person, after it he was another. And there is no reconciling those two people. In the blink of an eye he has crossed from one world into another and he can’t go back.

Writers have to invest far more into that moment because all they have with which to evoke that visual and sensory response from you, are the words on the page. A writer doesn’t have the luxury of showing a viewer the transformation in a character’s personality just because the viewer is watching that character’s eyes change from “good natured, slightly simple” to “cold calculating potential serial killer.”

A writer has to describe this to you, the reader, and then you have to visualize it – there is an extra step in there, and you BOTH have to work harder for it, writer and reader alike.

As a writer, I am sometimes profoundly envious of the way that a movie scene of less than a minute, can convey a feeling, an attitude, that is an instant  gratification – something that it would take me pages and pages to properly present and explore in a book. But also as a writer I am also grateful that the medium of the written word allows me a more enduring connection with a reader’s mind… because what I present in those pages is not so much the destination as a map and then I allow the reader to create their own destination which will color and enrich their own experience of the things that I wrote.

A writer allows readers to create their own moments.

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Tea With The Duchess

The latest edition of my newsletter, Tea With The Duchess, has just been sent out to subscribers. It contains news about my latest fantasy novel, “Wings of Fire”, other projects I am working on, and plans for the coming year.

You can read it online HERE

Ever After book coverNew subscibers to my newsletter will receive a FREE ebook, “Ever After”, containing four stories about how the princesses you knew from your childhood became refugees facing far greater strength, far greater loss, far greater courage than you ever knew?

If you wish to subscribe, and receive your free ebook, send your email address HERE – or send it to me at AlmaAlexander@AlmaAlexander.org.

Please join us.

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Wired asked writers to create 6-word SF stories

He read his obituary with confusion.” – Steven Meretzky

More from Wired HERE

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Quote of the Day

Occasionally, there arises a writing situation where you see an alternative to what you are doing, a mad, wild gamble of a way for handling something, which may leave you looking stupid, ridiculous or brilliant — you just don’t know which. You can play it safe there, too, and proceed along the route you’d mapped out for yourself. Or you can trust your personal demon who delivered that crazy idea in the first place. Trust your demon.” ~ Roger Zelazny

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A back door into magic

Skating alone on a pond photoPHOTO by Filip Mroz at Unsplash

If you walk into any bookstore you will find things shelved and classified according to rigorous  criteria. Cookbooks, hither, not to be confused with memoirs, there, or history, over there. There is an entire section called FICTION sorted into boxes such as Mysteries, Young Adult, Romance, Science fiction, Fantasy. .

And then you hit the sub-boxes – what KIND of fantasy? Is it historical fantasy with hints in the background about a real historical era? s it urban fantasy with gritty city streets? Is it high fantasy with a dragon on the cover? Secondary world fantasy? Tolkien clone? Does it take place in Hogwarts?…

My novels have had their share of labels.

For example, “The Secrets of Jin-shei” – by virtue of being carried by eight female protagonists – has been called “feminist fantasy.”

My “Midnight at Spanish Gardens“ has been called “religious fantasy” by someone struggling to pin this rather uncategorizable book down to a soundbite, although I struggle to find anything overtly “religious” in that novel.

An article on io9 a few years ago offered a new sub-category — “Bckdoor Fntasy”. Here’s what they meant by that:

When our everyday lives are full of devices and discoveries that feel magical, it’s time for fantasy to reinvent itself. And it has, in a new form you could call backdoor fantasy… instead of drawing us deeper into an alternate world of magic that seethes just beneath the city…it draws us deeper into the real world. What characterizes a backdoor fantasy is that it uses all the tricks and tropes of a fantasy story without ever actually showing us anything that can’t be explained by science.”

This sounds like most of my novels.

The io9 article says a Jo Walton novel “Among Others” is a perfect example of Back Door Fantasy. “In it we encounter familiar fantasy ideas: there is more to the world than meets the eye; evil is a part of nature; we can control reality with our minds. And yet Walton’s protagonist could easily be spinning a fantasy story in her head to escape the horrors of her home life. The fantasy in Among Others may, in other words, be a fantasy.”

If you haven’t read that book, I urge you to do so. But here’s the thing about that book for me. Walton’s heroine… was kind of… me. Okay, I didn’t have a vanished twin, or a witchy mother who could do actual awful crazy magickal stuff, or an estranged guilt-ridden dad who sent me off to a posh boarding school… but the boarding school and the escape into books, that was my own life.

I daresay that this particular back door is hardly likely to be there for other readers who haven’t shared my own particular life and times and experiences. The point, however, is that the magic in these cases might just lie in that kernel of pure recognition – something that leaps from the page at you and catches you by the throat and screams, YOU KNOW ME! YOU LIVED ME!

I touched that for readers of “Midnight at Spanish Gardens“. I know I did  because readers and reviewers have spoken of a feeling that they got from the book, a feeling of being able to identify with the place in which the novel is set, with the circumstances in which it takes place, with the relationships of once-friends who were being picked up after years of hiatus. Reviewers and readers said things like: 
“It feels like you had just sat down for a cup of coffee with some old friends”,
“It seemed as if I had been to this particular café before”,
“I kind of knew the people in this book, because they were me, they were my friends”

The only magic in this book is a sprinkling of fairy dust. There is a manifestly supernatural character who refers to himself as “the Messenger”, although he never says whose messenger he is. Readers have identified him as variously an angel or a sprite of some sort – someone through whom the power to make a choice is transferred to a human soul.

And it is in that choice that the magic lies.

I write about people. I write about what makes people change. Like I said to someone in a conversation about this very novel, what makes people change are answers to two polar-opposite questions: what makes you happy, and what do you fear. The first will make you run towards something; the second, away. But both will MOVE you, and once you are in motion you cannot help but encounter choices.

The io9 people go on to say, “This strand in fantasy writing is exploding right now. The more we suck information out of light waves and glowing boxes, the more we are slain by invisible assassins called viruses, the more obvious it becomes that we are living in what feels like a fantasy. Just because your world has been transfigured by science doesn’t mean your imagination will stop seeing terrible sorcery in it.”

I say, amen. There is just so much magic in our world, the “real” world, which we are so often too busy to stop and appreciate. Let me give you some examples from a real life. Mine.

The first one concerns a skating pond in the woods behind one of the world’s great hotels in Banff. This is one of those unreal hotels build in the shape and form of a castle, situated amongst tall firs, and I was there one cold, cold winter. You could go down a winding stair into the woods to a frozen pond. I went down the stair and found that it gloriously and completely empty of any other soul except me. Christmas fairy lights in the trees twinkled on the snow around me. The trees stood like silent white sentinels in the dark, and the stars in the night sky were bright and sharp like shards. It was just me and the wilderness.

I started skating, alone in the night, the swish of skate blades on ice, multicoloured shadows falling about my feet. And I felt like weeping with a holy joy because I felt as though I could pass right through this unreal scene and step – or skate – into a whole other world which trembled just there, just in the corner of my eye, just out of reach.

Tell me this moment had no magic in it. True magic. Real magic. MY magic.

The second example is a long way from that night, a bright day in the Florida Keys. I’m kneeling on a low wooden platform next to a pool with two dolphins, a mother and son I had just spent a half hour swimming with, holding out treats. The younger dolphin was still very much a “child” in every sense – exuberant, playful, pushy and completely and passionately free with his emotions. Instead of coming for his treat, this baby dolphin came swimming full-tilt at the jetty, leaped out of the water completely, and tucked himself under my arm. Our eyes met, and I swear he smiled. And then, with one flip of that powerful tail, he had reversed himself and had slid back into the water.

A dolphin had HUGGED me.

A little piece of magic, right there. Right in my arms.

The third one. A letter arrived at my house one day. From NASA. FROM NASA.

They were producing a commemorative poster for the Mercury 13, the women who trained in the early astronaut program back when women had no chance of going into space. They had stepped up anyway, because they refused to relinquish the dream of the stars or the idea that those stars belonged to them just as much as to men. NASA wanted to know whether I would grant them permission to use an excerpt from one of my poems on that poster.

I cried. I was so humbled, so proud, so full of feelings I cannot begin to describe to you.

Like the Mercury 13 themselves, I would never myself float out there amongst the stars – but my words are there now, for keeps, on a poster which commemorates women reaching for that then impossible dream. That is a piece of magic that I treasure, a very real piece of magic, something that I am reminded of every time I walk past the wall in my house on which a framed copy of that poster hangs.

I will find some little piece of magic to build into my next story, too, and the next, and the one after that. If that is what they want to call it, a back door fantasy, I’ll take it. But I’ll keep on opening those back doors. There is too much joy and beauty and sadness and glory and pure humanity behind them to leave them closed, and people need to be reminded – always, and constantly – that the magic is there for the taking, just by reaching out and touching it.

In this December, if you live somewhere where you might be expecting snow, remember this presence of magic in the white silence of a snowfall – go out and walk in one, and let that silence and whiteness surround you, and listen for the songs of that silence. If you live in a place where you aren’t expecting snow, wander out into the balmy air in your shorts and your short sleeves and wonder at the magic that lets you walk along a beach with your toes in warm water breaking into white foamy lace at your feet while someone else out there is wandering in that joyous snow.

When you wake up January 1 of the new year, open your eyes and know that you are living in a brand new world, just born with the sun. And that, right there, is a piece of magic that you can carry with you every day of your life.

Open the back door. Step into magic. It is waiting.

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Wired asked writers to create 6-word SF stories

“Epitaph: He shouldn’t have fed it.” – Brian Herbert

More from Wired HERE

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Quote of the day

“The ability to “fantasize” is the ability to survive. It’s wonderful to speak about this subject because there have been so many wrong-headed people dealing with it…. The so-called realists are trying to drive us insane, and I refuse to be driven insane…. We survive by fantasizing. Take that away from us and the whole damned human race goes down the drain.” ~ Ray Bradbury

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The “Blessed Book”

The Secrets of Jin-shei cover frony and back

Hard cover of U.S. HarperCollins edition

An ebook version of “The Secrets of Jin-shei”, a historical fantasy that I wrote in a white heat in 2002, was released this year and has sparked renewed interest in the story of a group of women set in a China-that-never-was.

White heat means exactly that. Its 200,000 words took me less than three months to write and what came out was was a clean first draft which required very little editing. This was a story that was ready to live, and to fly.

I’ve never managed to match that blazing speed with any of my other books.

It’s a sweeping epic set in a land I called Syai that is modeled on medieval China; it is the story of a group of women, the Jin-shei sisterhood, who form a uniquely powerful circle that transcends class and social custom. They are bound together by a declaration of loyalty that transcends all other vows, even those with the gods, and by their own secret language passed from mother to daughter, and by the knowledge that some of them will have to pay the ultimate sacrifice to enable others to fulfill their destiny.

It has been published in 13 languages in more than a score of countries. In the United States it was put out by HarperCollins with the help of a wildly enthusiastic editor who loved the story fiercely… but the HC division which produced this book promptly went away as an entity. The book, after an initial publicity push, was pretty much left to fend for itself after the editor who had spoken so eloquently for it was out of the picture.

And yet it did exceedingly well in foreign editions. In Spain, for example, it sold more than 30,000 hardcover copies and “Bestseller” was stamped on the cover, I call it the Blessed Book.

It’s still in print, at least in the USA, but sales had dropped dramatically… until an ebook version as issued and it has been selling steadily ever since.

I am astonished and delighted that it still gets constant and on-going attention on reading venues like Goodreads where it has received 1,480 ratings (averaging just under four stars) and 166 reviews.

It has scored a respectable number of reviews on Amazon but because of Amazon’s astounding marketing power, I’d love to see the number of reviews climb there. (Hint, if anyone reading this blog has read Jin-shei and would like to add an Amazon review, I’d love to know what you think of it.)

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News about Children of a Different Sky

Carl Slaughter interviewed me on my themed fantasy anthology filled with  tales of migrants and refugees, with profits going straight to charities working with refugees and migrant..

CARL SLAUGHTER:  What prompted you to do an anthology with this theme?

ALMA ALEXANDER:  There are seven words that underlie the status of any refugee in the world, ever: “There but for the grace of God…”

It is not a new issue — people who run from disaster in the hope of finding a better future have always been with us. But what IS new is that now it is all being televised on 24-hour 7-days-a-week news channels, always available online on news websites.

We can no longer hide from the misery of these displaced souls because we see them running now — we see them on the crowded boats on open seas, we see them clawing to shore and drowning on the doorstep of salvation, we see them languish in camps where conditions are enough to horrify any sane mind, we see them crowding against barbed wire and against walls and being denied harbor because they are hated and feared and basically unwanted by the populace already on the ground in the places where the migrants wish to go.  People who cannot see that the refugees in this restless and lost crowd might one day, some day, just as easily be themselves.

 

I was eager to do what I could to help and the only way open to do that for someone like myself is to do that thing that I do – Tell Stories. And since there is always strength in numbers and I knew many stellar writers whom I knew I could ask to help this endeavor and who, if they were on board, would make a magnificent contribution.

That is how Children of a Different Sky came to be.

CS:  What was the story selection process?

AA: The theme of the anthology was the migrant/immigrant/refugee experience, and the story criteria were simple enough:

“Make me think; make me feel.”

And oh boy, did the stories in this book deliver on those terms. As an editor, this is a collection of which I am very proud. As a reader…this is one of the most luminous collection of stories I have ever seen in one place. This anthology began as a project with an idea – a charity anthology with proceeds of sales to go to organizations helping migrants and refugees on the ground. During the process of its incarnation, it grew into a living thing with breath and heartbeat.  And every story and poem in this book is one essential component of this transformation.

Read the whole interview HERE:

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Wired asked writers to create 6-word SF stories.

TIME MACHINE REACHES FUTURE!!! … nobody there …
– Harry Harrison

More from Wired HERE

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Quote of the day

Memory is not a storage place but a story we tell ourselves in retrospect. As such, it is made of storytelling material: embroidery and forgery, perplexity and urgency, revelation and darkness.”  — Psychologist Noam Shpancer

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Lying for a living

What is fiction for?

Why on earth do we read fiction?

One of my husband’s favorite “writer” stories concerns an author with a very Southern mother whom he called to tell her that his novel was being published. After a pause, the mother asked, a little desperately, “But do they KNOW it’s a LIE?” When he said yes, his mother sighed, “I will NEVER understand that.”

That’s what writers labor under – coming up with stories that you and I and those who pay us money to publish us and to read us KNOW are absolute filthy lies, made up to a word, sometimes literally impossible or unimaginable given the known rules of physics and biology in the world as we know it.

werewolf in front of full moon illustrationScience Fiction and Fantasy are particularly guilty of this, because we lie egregiously about the possibility of faster-than-light interstellar travel, or the existence of vampires, werewolves, angels or fairies at the bottom of your garden.

And you, the reader, know that we are making it up as we go along. And you are willing to follow us on that journey. Few readers who read a fairy tale about brownies in the home will then go on to start leaving milk and cookies on the hearth from then on or wander off to the bottom of that garden with a flashlight and a magnifying glass to look for those fairies. Instead, you close the book with a happy sigh, and you go on with your own mundane everyday existence, secure in the knowledge, however wistfully,  that no brownie will wash the dinner dishes.

And then you come back, and you pick up another book. Of fiction. Of lies.

Yes, we all read non-fiction too – news, a travel guide, a history book, instruction manuals, textbooks for school, and political manifestos. But when it comes to many of these things, we are already armored with a set of opinions and attitudes, and reading items which challenge those opinions and attitudes are generally greeted with skepticism if not outright hostility – because how DARE those other people try to shove their silly, ludicrous, ridiculous, astonishing, and dammit downright dangerous ideas down our throats?!

But here’s the thing. People WILL read about those “other” ideas in fiction – sugarcoated as they are in the “lie”. Kids who are being bullied or otherwise mistreated because they are different in whatever way from their tormentors – because they are gay, or black, or Jewish, or [insert quality of choice here] – might take heart from a novel which tells of a teen who is being bullied because he is a blue-skinned singleton on a planet full of orange-skinned people and looks DIFFERENT – and somehow overcomes this in the story.

Yes, we all know it’s all a lie.  But fiction is an incredibly important medium for getting the truth out there – even when you pretend that it only happens to other people, or to people who cannot exist or will never be real. A generation of readers breathlessly followed the growing up and the growing wise of a young wizard named Harry Potter without EVER doing a single magic spell themselves. A girl called Scout learned about discrimination and courage in a NOVEL and a different generation of readers learned about those things with her. The list goes on.

The best books, the ones that we instinctively keep, the ones we go back to again and again – they succeed as entertainment, yes, and they can be riveting – but they leave you knowing more and feeling more deeply than you had been capable of before you read that book. They leave you empowered. They might have lied to you about the context and the circumstances – but the truth that lies within those false parameters is nonetheless the real truth and some part of you knows this, recognizes it, values it. People say about certain books, “This book changed my life”. Sometimes, they even mean it.

And that’s the power of fiction.

THAT is what it’s all for.

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A few years ago I was interviewed by V.M. Simandan. She had several discerning questions, including this one:

VMS: The Secrets of Jin-shei, your saga set in medieval China, is a powerful story of a group women from different social classes. How much research did you do before you started writing this novel?

Alma at 'The Secrets of Jin-shei' signing

Alma at ‘The Secrets of Jin-shei’ signing

AA: Short answer: HEAPS. I have a double shelf of books relating to the history, philosophy, geography, anthropology, culture and literature of China.

But I was consciously NOT writing a book that was directly about Imperial China, but it owed everything to that country and that general era in the way that I build up my own country, my own world.

The idea of research, as I see it, is to inform the imagination, rather than strangle it – which is why I like writing things with an fantastical edge, it gives me a little bit of wiggle room to tell a good story and not be constrained by “THIS happened THEN” with no way to work around it. In Jin-shei, for instance, one of the things that astonished and delighted me was the alchemy aspect of it – because what I knew about alchemy as a subject owed a lot to the Western ideas on the subject, but when I went to do a bit of research on it I discovered that there was an entire body of knowledge alchemical which was very much rooted in the Eastern and Oriental tradition, and this was wonderfully helpful with building my own version of it in my own world. I believe in research, in trying to be true to an idea, a time, a place. But it should not be a fetter. It should be an unfolding of wings, allowing you to fly over everything and see all things anew from a high vantage point up in the sky. You would be surprised how much good research can actually shape and drive a story.

Read the whole interview HERE

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The writer and the storyteller

I’m going to a writers’ retreat in a rustic and charming place on the shores of Lake Quinault in Washington. It’s March. The light is that earnest bright shade of springtime when I pack my paraphernalia into the trunk of my car, early on the morning of my departure. Before I start the car, I put in a single CD which will play on repeat all the way through the six-hour drive ahead of me. “The Eessential Leonard Cohen”

Falling in love with Leonard

Leonard Cohen head shotI discovered Leonard Cohen late in life – so late as to be practically afterwards, as a character in a sitcom once described a boyfriend’s announcement. At some point, I heard k d lang perform “Hallelujah”, a song I’d never heard before which made the hair on the back of my neck stand up. I listened to this version, and then listened to it again and again and again and again. When I discovered that it belonged to Leonard Cohen and heard it for the first time in his own voice, fell in love. Hard. With his music. With the poetry of his lyrics. With his soul.

It was no accident I picked that particular CD to play me into a weekend at a writer’s retreat far away from the distractions of anything except the Word. Leonard Cohen’s songs are something that stirs my mind and my heart

They’re ALL stories. Some of them aren’t comprehensible at the level of the lyrics because those words are just glorious jigsaw pieces in themselves, and it isn’t your brain that puts them together into the pictures and the stories which they end up making inside of you, it’s your heart, and your spirit, and your soul.

“Suzanne” takes me out of my driveway and I’m on my way, the perfect body of those lyrics touching my mind, telling me to trust this, to trust the story that he tells me now and that I will start telling when I sit down with my fingers on the keyboard of my laptop. “The Stranger Song” and “Sisters of Mercy” – the latter with its strange calliope music in the background that makes me think of abandoned carnival spaces after the carnies have left and all the lights have been turned off for the ghosts to start roaming free – follow me onto the highway.

I pass the open fields which spill by the sides of the road while belting along with Leonard to “Hey that’s no way to say goodbye” and “So long, Marianne”. I remember reading about the real Marianne, Leonard’s love and his muse, and about the letter he wrote to her when she was dying, the letter that made my heart clench, because this man with his hoarse raspy voice and his half disillusioned and half angelically optimistic soul is a nonpareil poet and someone who truly understood love. All of it, even the dark side.

I can sing along with him and laugh and cry about it all again, right there with him, with Marianne whom I never met but who is in the car with me, with Leonard and his voice and his poetry and his memories, with all the stories which are starting to bud and flower and intermingle in the car while I sing and weave through highway traffic on the I 5.

“Bird on a Wire” catches me in a slowdown through a city, and “The Partisan” with its sudden unexpected segue into French catches me in the midst of a sudden shower with the windshield wipers thwapping disconcertingly out of time with the song. I have to force myself to stop extrapolating the story of the “Famous Blue Raincoat” while I am negotiating the passing of several large trucks which are slowing me down and driving me crazy.

I leave the highway and turn into smaller roads curving along the bottom of the Olympic Peninsula. Traffic is light and I get haunted by songs like “The Guests” and “If It Be Your Will”.

I stop for coffee and gas in Aberdeen, to the tune of “Who By Fire”, and remember the tales I was told about both the history and the current events of that city, while my road takes me directly through it – over a bridge, down one residential street then another, past houses which look like they have histories of their own, some decorated with kitsch and some so plain and suburban and poor and empty of any spark of creative life that they wrench your heart.

Somewhere past Aberdeen, back on the empty roads, I get hit by that song that is my anthem, “Hallelujah”. Somewhere near a place that rejoices in the queer name of Humptulips I pass a house with a sign that says “Three for $1” Three what? I am writing a story about that in my head even as I drive by without stopping to find out. It’s much more interesting that way, anyway. It isn’t the first story I’m playing with on this long drive, with Leonard Cohen as my companion, guide and inspiration.

I struggle to understand the undercurrents of “Night Comes On” and another story comes pushing forward, demanding attention. Another song tells me that “Everybody Knows” and here too there is a story waiting for me, waiting to be found, to be shaped and reshaped, to be inspired by those words which are easy to listen to, easy to take in as though by osmosis, through the skin and the fingers on the steering wheel, my thighs on the seat of the car, and the ends of my hair tucked into a braid.

The closer I get, the less I am human, the more I am story. I am changing. The music is changing me. “I’m Your Man”, Leonard tells me, and I whisper, “I know.” He’s more than that right now. He’s an unlikely craggy-faced raspy-voiced muse who is casting a hook into my subconscious and fishing out stories, one by one. Word by word. He might have ended up in the “Tower of Song” but he’s taking me to a place where all the stories live, and he will bless me with his music, and he will make my words live.

The stories the songs have to tell me solidify and set, and words march off in directions the songs themselves could not have imagined. After a long empty and solitary stretch of a narrowish country road, I see the sign at last, Lake Quinault to the right. I turn and Leonard turns with me, insistent, quietly powerful, teaching me how to dream.

Through the trees, the glitter of sun on the water. Lake Quinault. A piece of quiet beauty. Waiting with its gifts of silence and solitude and sun and dappled shade, water and a lawn made of moss. By the time I arrive the light is already on the turn, starting for evening, with one of Lake Quinault’s incandescent sunsets to come.

I turn the engine off, and Leonard falls silent, his voice gone from the real world around me… but his words echoing, still, inside my mind, elbowed aside by the stories which they have rearranged themselves into, which they have made on this journey – stories which have (on the face of it) very little directly to do with the lyrics which have inspired them. But which are, nevertheless, the natural-born children of those songs which have been my companions for the last six hours in that car.

I’m here. It’s time to write.

~~~~~
Q&A about “Midnight at Spanish Gardens”

What if you could relive your life?

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Where did the idea for the book come from?

There was a restaurant known as Spanish Gardens that I used to go to when I was a student at the University of Cape Town. It was a place of true magic, and I’ve carried it within me for decades. It’s a memory caught in amber, ageless and eternal, and it’s something that demanded its story. And here it is. I hope you’ll follow me into Spanish Gardens, that you will recognize the place somehow as somewhere that magic lives, that perhaps you will find yourself thinking about the magical places in your own lives. And the choices you made there over the years.

What genre does your book fall under?

Contemporary fantasy, I guess – but it’s basically a story of people and how they change, with a sprinkling of magic fairy dust over the top, just to make it glitter.

Which actors would you choose to play your characters?

I would love complete unknowns – people who would lend their faces to my characters, who would then BECOME those people in the minds of the people who were taking in the story – rather than casting well-known actors who would distract from what’s happening up there on screen. But I’d love to know, here, who my readers might cast as these characters. Any reader want to tell me your dream cast?

One-sentence synopsis of the book?

What is the most important thing in the life that you have been given to live – and what would you be willing to give up if you were given a chance to change your life completely?

What other books would you compare this story to?

Well, one recent review compared it to Haruki Murakami’s work, which was a little startling but nonetheless a compliment. So that’s ONE opinion. Another one for you, readers. Did it make you think of any other stories or writers?

Who or what inspired you to write this book?

The memory of that place was the inspiration for the setting. But married to the end-of-the-world scenario as applied to 2012 – it became something else again, something rich and strange. This became a novel about telling the truth, about living a lie, about settling or reaching for the stars, about love, longing, betrayal, and most of all about choices.

What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?

It asks questions that everyone has asked themselves about their own lives at some point – what if I had chosen THIS instead of THAT, one person over another, a different direction?

Many of the reviews basically begin with the reviewers asking those questions of themselves. They couldn’t help it; the book appears to function as a literary mirror. The readers look into it and somehow past the characters and see… themselves. It may not be an entirely comfortable place to be. But it’s a fascinating one.

~~~~~
Wired asked writers to create 6-word SF stories.

Internet “wakes up?” Ridicu – no carrier.
– Charles Stross

More from Wired HERE

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