If you read the review of Random that I posted yesterday, you know how much I enjoyed this amazing story about a family of shapeshifters struggling with secrets, loss, and the pain of transformation – both physical and emotional. Today I have the privilege of interviewing the woman who brought this great story to life, the lovely and talented Alma Alexander.
Interview with Alma Alexander
Thanks so much for joining us, Alma! Tell us a little bit about yourself. How long have you been writing and how did you get started?
Always. I’ve ALWAYS been writing.
I wrote my first poem when I was five, my first full-length novel when I was eleven, my first GOOD (but unpublished) full length novel when I was fourteen. I have had fallow periods but when I’m on, I’m ON.
In this past year alone I’ve written almost 200,000 words of novel – and far more than that if you factor in the short stories, and the blogs, and the essays, and everything else. I love a quote from an Ursula le Guin interview a couple of years ago, where she was asked what she would be if she wasn’t writing. She answered, “Dead.” I find myself in complete agreement. I don’t know that I would know how to exist without words in my pocket, in my heart, in my mind. They’ve always been my best friends.
I don’t even remember a world without words – I taught myself to read at barely four, my grandpa started me out on poetry (in general, and sonnets in particular) when I was five, I was reading adult literature by the time I was eight (and annoying the snot out of my teachers who sometimes could not handle this precocious word nerd in a class where everyone else was still watching Spot run).
I started writing when I could hold a writing implement in my pudgy little hand and I haven’t stopped. I’ve always carted around stuff to scribble on – I have six pens in every handbag I own, and I need them all, what if I desperately need to write something down and one of them dies? – I have notebooks with scrawled half-sentence reminders of “brilliant” ideas – I fully expect that I don’t clean out my bags that regularly, and always have old bits of paper floating around in there somewhere, because I instinctively know that I will need the back of that envelope some day, at a restaurant or in a waiting room or on a bus, when there isn’t anything else writeable to hand.
People ask me what I am, and I answer, “A writer.” Because that’s the first, the only, the most important thing I’ve ever really been.
Summarize Random in one sentence.
Life, death, and transformation – the girl who died, the girl who turned into a boy, the boy who became a wolf, and the world they built between them.
Where did the idea for Random originate?
There was an anthology announced, about two or three years ago now, soliciting stories about the Were and their world. I began writing a story for this anthology, and it was a very funny one, about a kid whose father was a cat and whose mother was a chicken. And she was, like them, a Random Were, who could turn into the last thing they saw just before the transformation came upon them – yes, literally, that, this was the idea, it kind of came out of nowhere and ran me over.
But before long I realized that I had written almost ten thousand words… and this was no longer a short story… and while it was still amusing in certain ways (the cat and the chicken were still in there…) it was no longer remotely “funny,” in the sense that I originally envisioned it. I had to finally admit to myself that I was not writing a short story, but a novel. And then, in quick order, that I was not writing JUST ONE NOVEL.
That’s how fast this world grew. I felt as though I had stepped into a very real place through a portal, and this story was important and deserved all the care I could lavish on it, and every ounce of my ability. Where did Random Were come from? I have no idea. They were a gift. But they are so obvious to me now, so RIGHT, that I cannot begin to fathom why nobody had gone there before. These things existed, had always existed, were somehow TRUE in a sense that took my breath away.
Whoever – whatever – planted the image in my mind… well… I kind of feel as though I should be sacrificing goats at an altar somewhere, in gratitude. Except that now, after writing these books, I would have to be very, very sure that the goats didn’t turn out to be some hapless Random trapped in that form by the full moon in the sky…
For most people, the word “Were” will trigger images of werewolves howling at the moon and biting innocent victims. In your novel, though, the Were world extends far beyond wolves and full moons. What was your process for developing the Were-kind in Random?
This particular world became very complex very quickly. No, my version of Werewolves – the Lycans – were definitely not the howling-at-the-moon types. They were SCIENTISTS. And they were driven by that pure scientific fury that can sometimes take over a human soul and demolish it if it stands in its way.
My chagrin here is that I LOVE WOLVES. If I have a “totem animal,” it is probably the wolf. And yet somehow these complex, twisted, driven, fiercely intelligent and loyal creatures that spun out from under my pen (or my keyboard) would NOT be “good” and quickly evolved into at least one of the villains of the piece. In Random they are still very, very nebulous, their presence one of that black storm cloud that you might see on the horizon and begin to batten down the hatches in anticipation of hail.
In Wolf, the second book, they take much more of a center stage, and they are absolutely fascinating. Their dynamics, the life of the pack, their loyalties and their mindset, proved to be an utterly enthralling thing to delve into, and while second books in trilogies are too often weak bridges from a great opening in Book 1 to a satisfying conclusion in Book 3, this particular Book 2 is bucking the trend beautifully. It is a strong and beautiful story and it is carried by one of my favorite characters. Jazz’s brother Mal – the “Wolf” of the title – well – I think I fell in love with him, a little bit. I think it will be difficult for my readers not to do the same. He is just such a beautifully strong, vulnerable, wounded, wise, intelligent wolf.
As for the rest of the Were – I actually set out to develop a genetic basis for the “being Were” thing, and that gets worked on in Wolf. What I didn’t quite realize I was setting out to do, but in the end became an important part of this series, was that I wanted to breathe actual life into the tired old trope you mention, that of the word “Were” calling up the howling murderous mindless beast in the reader’s mind. I wanted them real. I wanted the reader to start glancing nervously at the person sitting next to them on the bus or the subway and starting to wonder whether that strange fox-faced sharp-featured woman or the pig-nosed broad-featured guy dozing in the corner actually turned into the things you think they might be turning into, when the moon was right. You will never really know for sure, again, after reading these books, whether someone right there beside you might be something wild and strange during the nights of the full moon… or whether YOU might be…
You mentioned previously that you consider Random to be the best book of your career. What makes Random stand out from the rest of your work?
That feeling started with Random, but then the rest of the series emerged – as I said, Wolf took me by surprise by how deep and complex the story became – and the third book in the series, Shifter, which I am just about wrapping up now, packs an even more powerful punch, with its protagonist being one of the best characters who has ever graced any of my stories and whom it will be very difficult to say goodbye to.
This world that I am raising up has a gritty reality to it that astonishes and delights me – and this is NEVER a given, for any writer. These are just that rare sort of book which is truth shined through a fine fiction filter… and that’s part of the answer to this particular question, too.
It isn’t just the very solid world and the amazing characters who came to tell me the stories they have lived within it. It’s that I’m not “just writing fiction.” These books have somehow morphed into something far more than that, into what I hope will become a way for readers (young or older) who might find themselves in a difficult situation in their OWN lives to deal with their problems… because what these characters will have to say to them is, “You are not alone.”
These are books that will have something to say to the vulnerable – books that will carry strength and passion to where it needs to be – but these are also books that make it clear that the people who might be seen as unflinching villains… often do things for reasons which their potential victims know nothing at all about and cannot hope to understand but which – for THEM – mean something important. These books are stories (for all that they are about being a Were-creature!) about what it means to be human. I can only hope that the stories, the people, in these pages will convey the things that were happening in my own mind as I created them. Because they mean a great deal to ME. As the author.
Random touches on a host of important issues, taking on subjects that run the gamut from discrimination, prejudice, and bullying to personal identity and what it means to have a soul. What challenges did you face in bringing these issues to the page?
I don’t preach, or put forward a didactic set of commandments about what life and truth truly meant and how they should be lived. Instead, I had my characters discover things as the story developed… at the same time, and pace, and depth, that the readers will be doing as they read the story. The challenge was to put the reader behind those characters’ eyes, inside those characters’ minds, and not to stand off to the side being authorial and dictating to both character and reader what they should think, how they should feel.
In the end, many conclusions are reached BY THE CHARACTERS but left open FOR THE READERS – I am far from omniscient, and I do not know all the answers, and I took care to leave room for the readers to find their own. They may not be the same as the ones my characters have reached, and that’s fine. But the reader of these books will have been shown how another might think and feel and react – and I hope that this sensation of walking the metaphorical mile in another’s moccasins, no matter how fictional those shoes might be on the surface, will leave a lasting reward for those who chose to come with me on this journey of discovery. I can sincerely say that I am both looking forward to and a little afraid of the reader feedback which will come back to me. These are powerful books. I have no doubt that they will stir a gamut of reactions.
How much did you draw on personal experience when writing this story? For example, were you ever a victim of bullying or discrimination?
As a child – in school, in society – I was always something of a loner, never part of cliques or crowds or “the cool kids” – but no, I wasn’t bullied, not in the sense that Celia was bullied. I wasn’t made to carry an animal-paw imprinted ID cards like my Were kids are in these books. I have no inside knowledge of what it means – to take an extreme example – to be Jewish in Germany in the 1930s, or black in at least some parts of America, in the past or even today. Not personally.
But I have known people who were bullied to the edge of death. I have read of people who were bullied beyond that boundary, because they were of the wrong faith, or the wrong race, or the wrong sexuality. And those stories have stayed with me. Those stories needed to be told.
What advice would you give to those who are being picked on or discriminated against, whether in school or somewhere else?
The “it will get better” thing is wonderful… except for the fact that it always posits an Afterworld where Better Things Happen. Often that is no comfort in the kinds of hell that some people – some kids – live in on a daily basis. Sometimes the rope is just a little bit too short, and you reach the end of yours well before that Afterworld comes.
It is easy for people like me to then sit off to the side and advocate courage and patience – but sometimes those things are hard to come by, or the price for hanging onto them can be entirely too high. To everyone who has ever been marginalized or stomped on or mocked or bullied or demeaned – my God, I wish I had the answers.
The only thing I can say is that I stand in awe of some of the strength and the courage that I have seen in the face of adversity. If you find yourself in this black hole, where all the light is getting sucked out of your life – try and find someone you can trust to offer a helping hand to get you out of there, if possible (a shared problem is often easier to solve). I know this is sometimes hard. Sometimes it helps to find another soul like yours, and find ways to help each other – it is somehow easier to face a world that seems to be unified against you if you find an ally for yourself. Try not to stay alone, and isolated, and bearing the entire load by yourself. Some loads will break you.
This story, the story I am telling in these books, is a small enough candle flame in the dark – but seek out what light speaks to you, what light you can, and cling to that. Remember that in the darkest night there are stars, and they can guide you. The darkest nights have an end, somewhere, when the sun comes up again to make a new day.
Random is the first installment of the Were Chronicles series. How many books total will be in the series?
Funny you should ask… I’m finishing the third book in the contracted trilogy as we speak. It brings this story arc to a conclusion, and completes the story I set out to tell. But at the same time… it opens up this world to further exploration. You heard it first here – I have sketched out tentative plans for another series set in the same world. Call it the Were Chronicles: the Next Generation. (So I will have the Original Series and a TNG. Just like Star Trek…)
But first, let’s just get the first three books out into the readers’ hands. And once these characters have (hopefully) unfolded into the readers’ memories and affections… we will speak further, on the future.
Random ends with a surprise twist, and I’m dying to know what happens to the Marsh family next! Without giving too much away, what can you share with us about the next book in the series?
Wolf, book 2 of the series, is from the point of view of Mal, Jazz’s enigmatic and charismatic older brother. It deals with his own coming of age, with his coming to terms with his own load of guilt and consequences, and of how far he is willing to go in order to rescue his lost sister. He’s quite a character. It’s quite a story. I can’t wait to share it with you all.
If you were a Were and could choose the kind of animal you would Turn into, what animal would you choose and why?
With all the baggage that it carries… I would probably end up being the iconic Wolf. I’d try to be one of the GOOD wolves. Truly.
Thanks so much, Alma! We appreciate you taking the time to speak with us today!
Win a Copy of Random!
Alma has generously provided a copy of Random to be given away to one lucky reader – simply fill out the Rafflecopter below for a chance to win! This contest is open to all U.S. and Canadian citizens ages 13 and up. The winner will be announced on my blog and Facebook page as soon as the contest ends.