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.


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

If you found this blog post interesting, amusing or helpful, then please use the icons below to share it with other writers, readers or the guy next to you on the subway.

Before you die…

25 must-read books

One of Powell’s Books customers asked for a list of 10 books that “everyone absolutely must read in his or her lifetime.

The question intrigued us and we immediately launched into a heated debate. Should the Bible be on the list? No text has influenced Western culture more, but might it be equally important to read the Koran or the Torah for a more enlightened worldview? Shakespeare seemed like a given, but how to choose between Hamlet and the sonnets, between A Midsummer Night’s Dream and King Lear? And what of lesser-known works — things like The Rings of Saturn or Bluets or No-No Boy or The Book of Disquiet? How could we whittle down our list to just 10 books?

As it turns out, we couldn’t. We posed the question to our fellow book-savvy colleagues and, after receiving some 1,400 nominations (!) and putting it to a vote, we ultimately settled on 25 titles. Instead of worrying so much about what had to be included, we opted to present books that have the ability to change the way you think and feel and reflects our diverse interests here at Powell’s.

Personally, I’m glad to see some genre works included here. Lists like this are too often high-falutin LITRACHUR. I have read about half of the books in this list myself – I won’t tell you which half — and will have to live for a very long time until I get around to the rest.

Things Fall Apart, by Chinua Achebe
Things Fall Apart Before Things Fall Apart was published in 1958, few novels existed in English that depicted African life from the African perspective. And while the book has paved the way for countless authors since, Chinua Achebe’s illuminating work remains a classic of modern African literature. Drawing on the history and customs passed down to him, Achebe tells the tale Okonkwo, a strong-willed member of a late-19th-century Nigerian village. As we follow Okonkwo’s story, we get a glimpse of the intricacies of village life and the complex social structures that come into play. We then see the devastating effects of European colonization on the region and on Okonkwo himself, whose rise and fall become intertwined with the changing power dynamics. Things Fall Apart is essential reading for anyone who wants a more nuanced understanding of other ways of life, of culture clashes, of what being civilized really entails. – Renee

Read the article

QUIZ: Before They Were Famous

Before they make it big, writers have to pay the bills somehow. Can you guess what these famous authors were doing before they became household names? Mental Floss asks.

My husband got ZERO! I won’t tell you how I did.

Take the quiz

The 10 Best Vampire Novels No One Has Read

Just because a novel is on a national bestseller list—or sells hundreds of thousands of copies—doesn’t necessarily mean it’s good, Paul Goat Allen writes at Barnes and Noble. The reverse is also true, especially of genre fiction, fringy fiction—a lot of the good stuff comes and goes virtually unnoticed. Take vampire fiction, for example.

Here are some of the most under-appreciated vampire novels of all time.

Fat White Vampire BluesFat White Vampire Blues by Andrew Fox

This and its sequel, Bride of the Fat White Vampire, are simply hilarious reads. Featuring a 500-pound, bloodsucking taxi driver named Jules Duchon, this story—set in New Orleans—is as entertaining as it is audacious. The tagline for Fat White Vampire Blues says it all:

“He’s undead, overweight, and can’t get a date.”

You will never read anything quite like these novels…


Read the article

Swapping books

I have mixed feelings about these three sites that I found in a list of 20 places where you can swap things. On one hand, I approve of anything that facilitates the reach of books. and encourage s reading. But… As a writer, I would much rather people buy their own books, particularly, my books, of course. But if you are strapped for cash …
Book MoochBook Mooch is both national and international book swap site. The site is free to join, the only cost is shipping of books.

What’s On My Bookshelf is another barter site for books of all kinds.

PaperBack Swap. Members build up their library in order to swap with other members.

Barter sites

15 Best Online Bookstores for New and Used Books

There are a number of reasons why you might be looking to buy books from an online site that’s not Amazon.

I always urge readers to buy from their local bookstore, but if you don’t have one, or if you need a specific title (like a textbook), the web might be your best bet. Lifehack found 15 of the best online bookstores (including the three mentioned above) where you can find deals on new books, used books, textbooks, and more.

Niche topics, rare books: styles itself as one-stop shopping for true bibliophiles, with carefully curated collections from independent booksellers. Many are dealers who focus on specific niche interests, antiquarian books, and rare books, and in addition to searching for titles and authors, you can also browse by seller.

Bonus: Your purchase helps do good! All shipping is offset with carbon credits. The company also has a nonprofit arm, BiblioWorks, which uses the site’s profits to build libraries in rural communities in South America.

Read the article

5 science-backed ways reading makes you healthier
Reading is healthyPhoto courtesy of Shutterstock

Books aren’t just exciting to get into, Stephanie Castillo says at Raw Story, they boast some health benefits, too.

For example:

Self-help books are recommended as an intervention for severely depressed patients, a BMJ study found. Similarly, a small study from the University of Cincinatti found bibliotherapy, or the idea of using books as an intervention, benefitted children who struggled socially as a result of a disability, including autism and Downs Syndrome.

Read the article


A bunch of people get a broken TV and a pile of antiquated equpment and started chatting to a miraculously revived satelite Up Yonder In THe Blue. How *AWESOME* is this?
ISEE-3 NASA satelliteThe ISEE-3 was the first spacecraft ever to be placed at L1, where it stayed in an elliptical halo orbit for four years. At this point it could read the solar winds one hour before they reached Earth.” (Photo via Google)

An independent crew is taking control of a NASA satellite, ISEE-3, and running a crowdfunded mission, Jack Smith IV writes at Betabeat. They’re doing it all from a makeshift mission control center in an abandoned McDonald’s in Mountain View, CA.

The ISEE-3 used to measure space weather like solar wind and radiation, but went out of commission decades ago. Now, a small team has taken control of the satellite with NASA’s silent blessing.

Their new control center, dubbed “McMoon’s,” fit all of the criteria they needed: the doors locked, and it was free. For their console, they pulled a broken flatscreen TV from a government dumpster and fixed the power supply. The other pieces are from eBay, including a Mac laptop and some radio parts.

With just those bare-bones pieces, they were able to MacGyver a computer-radio hybrid that made contact with the ISEE-3.

Read the article

Quote of the Day

Realism: the siren song of mediocrity, written by the elite to make you settle for less than you deserve.” ~ Ted Rall,

Alma Alexander

Check out my books

If you found this blog post interesting, amusing or helpful, then please use the icons below to share it with other writers, readers or the guy next to you on the subway.