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?


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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The right seasons

I was born in the Northern hemisphere, in July, in the SUMMER.

I grew up on the changing of the seasons in their proper order – the bare trees of winter would bud into pale yellowish-green young leaves, and those leaves would unfurl into the full deep green of summer and spread thick dark shade on the ground underneath the full crowns of trees, and then those leaves would start turning colors.

This was proper. New Year’s Eve was crisp and cold and snowy; May smelled of lilac and June of roses; Octobers were golden. All was well with the world.

Then I turned 10 and we left old Europe for barely subtropical Africa. New Year arrived that year and it was WARM, snow was only a memory. Then it got worse – we moved further down into the southern hemisphere and ALL my seasons reversed. My birthday was now sweater weather and came close to mid-winter. And Christmas and New Year were celebrated by barbecues on the beach, in bikinis. The years slipped by, one after another.

Everything was wrong wrong wrong wrong. All the seasons upended.

Then I married, moved to tropical Florida and lived for just over two years in flip-flops and bare feet. The heat and humidity was relentless, the bleached skies, the sapping weight of it all. I said to my husband, GET ME OUT OF HERE!

I wanted my seasons back. I wanted to look outside my window at a tree and be able to tell you what season it is. I wanted to recognise winter if a branch was bare or covered in sparkling frost; or fall if it was golden; or summer if it was deep green; or spring if it was budding.

We started looking for a place like that. And then we found it.Fall in Washington photo

I looked outside today and the golden branches of my maple against the backdrop of the deeper green of the cedars told me everything about what season it was – October, late fall. I look out of that same window, or out into my garden, and I know what time of year I am in. And it is the RIGHT time of year. And I am grounded again, like I used to be in my childhood, connected to my world and its seasons and its turning.

I am home.


Bob Dylan’s silence “Impolite and Arrogant”, Nobel Prize member says

Bob Dylan montageLex Van Lieshout/European Pressphoto Agency

Nobel lit prizes seem to be given to the most obscure candidate on the list – a novelist from Outer Mongolia, or a poet from Central Africa whose single collection was rarely ttranslated into any language the selection committee had any hope of understading it in. Rarely does anyone actually recognize a laureate’s name from before they were awarded the Nobel.

Bob Dylan may not be the first songwriter who was considered for this prize. By all accounts, Rabindranath Tagore wrote songs in his time, but I WOULD like to respectfully suggest that in that time songs were something rather different than what they are today. Today, lyrics may be POETIC but they’re hardly LITERATURE which makes this award a little bit awkward for me. If anyone deserves an award like this and is also a musician, how about someone like Leonard Cohen.

Or if they really wanted to ring the changes, why not a GENRE WRITER? I know, shock horror. I nominate Ursula Le Guin. How about it?

Read the whole story about the upset member’s comments at the NYT HERE


Resurrecting gods: Where discarded deities wait for shelter

Could there be such a thing as a no-kill shelter for unwanted gods? What happens when you stop believing in a god?

Actually I wrote a story along those lines – “Night Train“, which appeared in the Dark Faith II: Invocations anthology a couple of years back. The answer might be that old gods never die, just fade away — unless you keep believing.

So all that incense being burned. It isn’t a no-kill shelter. It’s a no-death shelter…

Read the whole story HERE

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But what is it?

I am primarily a fantasy writer. That is how I view myself and my novels. But literary critics often have trouble labeling me, putting my books into neat little boxes.

Midnight at Spanish GardensPerhaps that shows most vividly in one of my recent novels, ‘Midnight at Spanish Gardens,’ a book that explores how our lives are changed by the paths we take, the choices we make.

Reviews were good, e.g. “the language is poetic and beautiful…characters are utterly compelling … on one occasion, I stood in a doorway,  flipping page after page, unable to take the steps that would lead to the end of my reading.” (Alana Abbott)

But Spanish Gardens uses a bit of fantasy to explore those choices, and booksellers and some reviewers don’t know how to classify it, what box to put it in.

I explored this problem a few years ago in an article that I wrote for The Interstitial Arts Foundation.

Interstitial art is made in the interstices between genres and categories, the foundation’s website explains. It crosses borders, is not constrained by category labels. “Just as how in nature the greatest areas of biodiversity occur in the margins of land between ecosystems, it is our belief that some of the most vital, innovative, and challenging art being created today can be found in the margins between categories, genres, and disciplines.”

Here is my 2009 article, a blast from the past as it were:


It was a long time ago. A century ago. A millennium ago.

Well, all right, it was in 1999.

A man I met on a Usenet newsgroup concerned with writing – who became a friend, and subsequently my husband – and I collaborated on what must have one of the first few novels which could be described as “email epistolary”.

We each took on a character’s mantle, and we exchanged emails as these characters, within a given historical and political context – in this instance, the 78-day bombardment of Serbia by the United States and its often reluctant allies, in what became known as the Kosovo crisis.

Letters from the FireThe novel, ‘Letters from the Fire’, was written very fast, in pain and with passion, and got picked up for publication by Harper Collins in New Zealand, where I was living at the time. From conception to being on bookstore shelves, the book took just under six months – which has to be some sort of record in the publishing industry at the time.

The topic was hot, to be sure, and the themes were those of contemporary history – but it was a fictional account of those real events, a novel, and it was with a considerable amount of astonishment that I came upon a callow young assistant in one of the premier flagship bookstore on the main drag in Auckland, shelving the books… in the non-fiction section.

That’s a novel,” I told him. “It belongs in fiction.”

He looked at me with a gormless expression, and said, “Are you sure?”

Reasonably,” I said. “I wrote it.”

That’s bookend one. For bookend two, fast forward to 2004, with the release of my novel, ‘The Secrets of Jin-Shei.’ [Now published in 13 languages)

The Secrets of Jin-sheiThis was something which, as I wrote it, I conceived as alternate-history, or historical fantasy. The publishers had other ideas, and marketed it as mainstream, with most bookstores shelving it in the general fiction section.

Which had two complementary repercussions.

The first was that fantasy readers who might have loved this book simply never got to hear about it, because it wasn’t shelved in the section where they went to seek reading material.

The second was that mainstream readers, on the other hand, were uniformly thrown by what is essentially a very minor serving of magic in the book.

There appeared to be little I could do, despite repeated attempts, to convince people that the book was NOT in fact about China, about any China that actually existed, that there were certain aspects of the Imperial China which I used in the novel but that the land in which my own story took place was called Syai and did not, in fact, exist outside my own imagination. (And I STILL get questions like, “But what particular period of Imperial China were you writing about?”)

Part of the problem with the latter bookend is simply the fantasy cooties thing, something that apparently requires a warding off of the first order should its evil eye fall on your work – but as I keep telling everyone, ALL FICTION IS FANTASY. By definition.

And if the currently accepted definition of fantasy spills over into the mainstream shelves, or the mainstream books suddenly start having a dash of the fantastic – this should not be something that alienates readers from a book, bur rather it should be seen as an expanding of one’s horizons, an interstitial quest, a hunting for treasure in places you never thought to look in before.

Remember those optimistic, hardy, pretty urban weeds that spring with hope eternal from cracks in the pavement and put forth extravagant blooms as they dodge passing feet for a chance at a summer in the sun? That’s what we all are. Something beautiful in unexpected places, where you might least expect to see it. In the interstitial corners.

And perhaps it isn’t surprising that someone like Leonard Cohen put it best when he sang about there being a crack in everything. That, he said, was how the light gets in.

Read more about The Interstitial Arts Foundation HERE

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ALL fiction is fantasy.” ~ Alma Alexander

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Best SF comedies?

The best SF comedies

At io9, Alasdair Wilkins and Charlie Jane Anders picked “The 13 Greatest Science Fiction Comedies Of All Time.”

They left out one of my faves, Paul, which is unforgivable.

PaulAnd they named a few … er, peculiar ones, but any list that includes Galaxy Quest meets with my approval.
Galaxy QuestGalaxy Quest is a rare trifecta: it’s a great science fiction comedy, it’s a brilliant comedy about science fiction, and it actually works as a pretty decent science fiction film in its own right. The film never loses sight of its parody of Star Trek’s most cliched tropes or its affectionate skewering of the various neuroses of the has-been actors, and it’s a tribute to Galaxy Quest’s comic dexterity that it perfectly balances both threads.

Read the Article

The mystery of Creativity

Canadian singer-songwriter, poet, and novelist Leonard Cohen is among the most exhilarating creative spirits of the past century, Maria Popova writes at Brain Pickings. She draws on a 1992 Paul Zollo interview which begins with Cohen considering the purpose of music in human life:

There are always meaningful songs for somebody. People are doing their courting, people are finding their wives, people are making babies, people are washing their dishes, people are getting through the day, with songs that we may find insignificant. But their significance is affirmed by others. There’s always someone affirming the significance of a song by taking a woman into his arms or by getting through the night. That’s what dignifies the song. Songs don’t dignify human activity. Human activity dignifies the song.
Leonard CohenCohen’s most moving insights on songwriting transcend the specificity of the craft and extend to the universals of life.

“f I knew where the good songs came from, I’d go there more often. It’s a mysterious condition. It’s much like the life of a Catholic nun. You’re married to a mystery.

Before I can discard the verse, I have to write it… I can’t discard a verse before it is written because it is the writing of the verse that produces whatever delights or interests or facets that are going to catch the light. The cutting of the gem has to be finished before you can see whether it shines.

Read the Article

If Strangers Talked to Everybody like They Talk to Writers

Strangers seem very willing to offer advice — ‘self-publishing is where the money is!’ — to writers, Lincoln Michel notes at Electric Lit. What it would be like if people talked about other professions in this way.?
Professions“Ah, a middle school teacher? Have I met any of the students you’ve ever taught?”

“An accountant? Wow, I haven’t even looked at a number since high school.”

“News anchor? Okay here’s a news story I’ve been thinking about for years: the vice president slips into a vat of grape jelly. People would love that story, right? It’s yours! I’ll never have time to get away from work and break the story to a national audience myself.”

“Software programmer? Like, for actual computers sold in stores or just as a hobby?”

Read the Article

13 Dysfunctional Literary Couples Who Should Have Broken Up

Literature is littered with plenty of couples who were meant to be, Tori Telfer muses in a light-hearted piece at Bustle.

…sometimes it seems like everyone in books is experiencing adorable meet-cutes … But for every pair of literary lovers who finish each other’s sentences, there’s a duo that does nothing but drag each other into the darkness… Can you imagine how differently things would have turned out if these losers had just broken up with each other like 50 pages earlier?

For example:
Raymond CarverALL  of Raymond Carver’s married couples

Recipe for a Raymond Carver marriage: a lot of drinking, a lot of smoking, and a healthy dash of constantly thinking about how you’d like to leave your spouse. Mix well with weakness of character. Never change a thing.

Read the Article

45 random acts of kindness

Okay, sometimes you just need to be reminded, in the face of everything dark in the world today, that there are a few lights flickering out there somewhere. In spite of it all. Maybe even because of it. Do a kind deed for someone to day – or say a kind word – just because you can. Be a human being.

Check out these random acts of kindness celebrated at Passit Down.
BagelsAfter work, this man takes uneaten bagels and hands them out to the needy on the street.
Brian O’DriscolRugby player Brian O’Driscoll visited his biggest fan in the hospital.

See the pictures

Quote of the Day

Talent hits a target no one else can hit. Genius hits a target no one
else can see.“~ Arthur Schopenhauer

Alma Alexander
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Comments welcome. What do you think?

Quotes About Books – For Readers says, “We love readers and love to read. Therefore, we have compiled a list of 182 quotes about books for readers and book lovers around the globe. Reading unites us and takes us places we could have never traveled or visited in our lifetime.  Enjoy the book quotes below and let us know which one is your favorite or which quote you relate to the most!”

One of my favorites:

It is what you read when you don’t have to that determines what you will be when you can’t help it.”Oscar Wilde

Another I like does need a bit of editing:

You can never get a cup of tea large enough or a book long enough to suit me.”C.S. Lewis

Make that coffee, of course.

For Readers Only

Kazuo Ishiguro on writing

Amanda Patterson of Writers Write offers nine quotes from Kazuo Ishiguro, a Japanese-born British novelist, including:

“I started as a songwriter and wanted to be like Leonard Cohen. I’ve always seen my stories as enlarged songs.”

Kazuo IshiguroKazuo Ishiguro

On writing

Tattoo your favorite book

You may read hundreds or thousands of books in your lifetime, but of them all, there will always be at least one that made a marked difference in your life. For some, the connection to their favorite books is strong enough to warrant a permanent tribute in the form of a tattoo. Like this one:

Qouth the ravenImage: @deeperthanwar on Instagram

Forever more

Know your conspiracy literature? – quiz

Remember, remember? The Fifth of November marks 408 years since the Gunpowder Plot nearly blew the lid off Parliament in England, The Guardian notes. Celebrate by testing your knowledge of the literature of conspiracy.

VPhotograph: Warner Bros/Everett Collection/Rex Features

Conspiracy quiz

The controversial new language of book reviewing

Do animation, memes and pictures of Emma Stone have a place in literary criticism? Yes, says Laura Miller in a Salon article.

To some of you the idea of using a GIF (for the uninitiated: a small, soundless animated image on a repeating loop) in a book review sounds bizarre. But the practice does flourish, if controversially, in some sectors of Goodreads’ universe of book lovers, as well as in blogs and comments threads across the Web.

candle gif
I found myself staring at a time-lapse sequence of a birthday candle burning and thinking about certain novels, like Kate Atkinson’s “Life After Life,” that depict the way a human life consumes time, or vice versa. This GIF would be better with a less randomly cluttered background, but for me the repetition of the candle’s disappearance suggests the perpetual replacement of one generation by another.

Book reviews today

Alma Alexander

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