Book Nerd Interview
Alma A. Hromic (who now writes as Alma Alexander) was born in 1963 in Novi Sad, Yugoslavia, on the shores of the river Danube. Her father's employment with international aid agencies meant that the family spent twenty years living in various countries in Africa, including Zambia, Swaziland, and South Africa.
Educated in the United Kingdom and South Africa, Alma graduated from the University of Cape Town with an MSc in Microbiology in 1987. She quickly left the lab in order to write about it instead, and spent several years running a scientific journal for the Allergy Society of South Africa before she moved to New Zealand in 1994. She also worked as a literary critic for several publications in South Africa and England.
In New Zealand, she obtained an editorial position with an international educational publisher, where she worked for several years. In 1995 she wrote Houses in Africa (David Ling Publishing Limited, New Zealand; ISBN 0-908990-30-8), a revealing and often-amusing memoir of her two decades in Africa. The same year, she published The Dolphin's Daughter and Other Stories(Longman UK; ISBN 0582122104), a bestselling book of three fables. She has had numerous pieces of short fiction and nonfiction published internationally in South Africa, New Zealand and the United Kingdom.
In 1999, when NATO launched a war against her native country, Alma started an often-tumultious e-mail correspondence with R. A. "Deck" Deckert, a freelance writer and former copy editor, wire editor and news editor for metropolitan newspapers including theMiami Herald and the Miami News. Their correspondence became the basis of an epistolary novel about these dramatic events,Letters from the Fire (HarperCollins New Zealand; ISBN 1-86950-336-8). This book went from concept to publication in fewer than five months. Alma and Deck were married in June, 2000, and she now lives in the northwestern United States.
Her fantasy duology The Hidden Queen and Changer of Days (originally published as Changer of Days vol. 1 and 2 in New Zealand in 2001 and 2002), was released in the United States in 2005. The Secrets of Jin-shei was published in the U.S. in 2004 in hardcover and 2005 in paperback and is currently available in twelve languages worldwide (including Turkish, Lituanian, and Hebrew) and is a bestseller in Spain. The follow-up, Embers of Heaven, published in the UK in September 2006, is available in five languages. Alma's latest project is the Worldweavers young adult trilogy, which debuted with Gift of the Unmage in 2007 and was followed bySpellspam in 2008 and Cybermage in 2009. A Polish edition of the first book has already been published.
Was there a defining moment during your youth when you realized you wanted to be a writer?
No. I never “decided” to become a writer. I just… always wrote. It was not something that I consciously chose to do, it feels more like it chose me. Back when we were very young, my favorite cousin and I used to have these elaborate role-playing wish-fulfillment fantasy games. She was always a vet (she loved animals with a fierce and incandescent passion) and she became one. I was… the writer. Always. I wrote my first poem aged 5. My first full-length novel aged 11. My first GOOD full length novel aged 14. I never looked back.
Why is storytelling so important for all of us?
In a way stories are like a faith – you need to believe in something, and stories give you a place to stand. It’s been said that life doesn’t always have to make sense but fiction DOES, and in an arcane manner that sense of order is what draws us in.
There are truths that need to be spoken and internalized and understood which would be hurtful, even agonizing, if administered unadulterated. Wrap them in a layer of story, though, and they will slide down easier – and the truths they contain will be no less important for all that. Stories awe us, entertain us, teach us, make us laugh, make us cry, make us believe in six impossible things before breakfast. Stories take us to Narnia, and to Panem, and to worlds that might look a lot like the one we glimpse when we look out of the window but is somehow… somehow… different. Stories free the imagination and the mind. They make us stay up all night to finish a good book; they make our toddlers go to sleep.
Stories are quite simply the closest thing that the human race has ever come to something resembling real magic.
What is the best piece of advice you ever received from another author?
“Never give up,” from several published writers in their turn.
There are times in every writer’s life where we find ourselves trudging through some dark deep and despondent valley, a trough of endless waiting, a cycle of rejection, a spate of bad reviews. The easy thing to do is to lie down and die. But since that isn’t a reasonable or desirable option, hearing that “never give up” from someone who has dragged themselves through those sloughs of despond and survived is that little light in the darkness.
In your new book; 2012: Midnight at Spanish Gardens, can you tell my Book Nerd community a little about it and why they should read your novel?
How about a blurb squib to start with?
“On the eve of the end of the world, 20 December 2012, five friends meet in Spanish Gardens, the cafe where they had celebrated their college graduation 20 years before. Over Irish coffees, they reminisce - and reveal long-held and disturbing secrets.
Each friend in turn is given a curious set of instructions by an enigmatic bartender named Ariel:
‘Your life is filled with crossroads and you are free to choose one road or another at any time. Stepping through this door takes away all choices except two -- the choice to live a different life, or return to this one....’
Each in turn passes through the portal and are faced with new lives and challenges. Their decisions show a new life -- or something far worse. At the end of the world, it's a chance for redemption, or a chance to learn something about themselves.
Four of them choose to return.
There is a fairly universal human reaction and it’s one that has surfaced in almost every review of this novel – “what would *I* have done if faced with a similar choice?” This is a novel about those choices. It may not, for some, be an easy read. But it’s an exploration, a journey of discovery, and while following my characters on theirs every reader is almost inevitably taken on one of their own – and driven to count their blessings, or begin to take a closer look into the shadows where their own choices lie coiled and waiting.
Whether it confirms you in your convictions or alters them, it will change the way you see your world. That’s worth a few hours of your reading time.
If you could introduce one of your characters to any character from another book, who would it be and why?
You know, I honestly don’t think I’ve EVER been asked this one before. And it’s hard – because in this new novel there are five distinct characters each of whom might benefit from meeting an entirely different “friend” from the world of literature. But if I could invite a single character from otherwhere into this intimate little gathering of mine in “Midnight at Spanish Gardens”, it might be Dianora from Guy Gavriel Kay’s “Tigana” – she is from a much more fantastical setting, to be sure, but she would be an amazing person to talk to about the power of choice for any one of my five friends in that café at midnight at the end of the world. And I would sure love to be a fly on the wall for that conversation.
Why do you feel you had to tell this story?
I don’t pick my stories, they come out of aid and darkness and they choose me. I am guessing it was just time for this particular story to emerge. But the background of it is, Spanish Gardens is – or at least WAS – a real place, and it is exactly as I described it. It is a place out of time, a place where generations learned to live and love and mourn and celebrate and grow up… a place where only truth can be spoken.
It lives in the memory of all those who have ever set foot in it like it was preserved in amber, and thirty years down the line if you asked half a dozen disparate people who haven’t set eyes on Spanish Gardens or one another in three decades they will describe it to you in uncannily identical terms. There was a magic there. It was just a matter of time before my imagination spun a story around that centerpiece. And when I factored in the “end of the world” scenario here, “Midnight at Spanish Gardens” became something very special. It became something with life-changing potential because every human being, at some point in their lives, trips over this decision-making moment, pausing at a crossroads, looking right and left at two roads, and then CHOOSING. It is a visceral thing, for all of us. Something we understand in an instinctive way, and can identify with.
This sense of recognition has been borne out by many of the reviewers of the book because at some point the vast majority of the reviews end up with the reviewer examining their own lives, their own choices, their own crossroads. And this has been true of the readers, too. It’s one of those stories that kind of sinks through the skin and finds its place deep inside – and then works on one’s senses and instincts and sensibilities from within.
And no, I did not set out to do this – books written with a “message” or an “agenda” have always bored me and I try not to inflict them on others. This is that other animal, a story which just… turned out to be important. I am kind of proud of that.
What are some of your current and future projects that you can share with us?
I am currently, working on the final edits for a re-launch of my YA Worldweavers series, culminating with two brand new books in that universe to be released after the first three books of the initial trilogy – a last hurrah which will mark my final farewell to Thea Wintrhrop and her world.
After that… I have a brand new YA series I am working on, I have a big new historical fantasy I want to start on, and I’m doing a purely fun thing right now which is a bit of a busman’s holiday because it’s the first thing in a very long time that I’ve basically embarked on simply and solely because I felt like it and with no real commercial ties at all. Sometimes it’s just necessary to go back to the joy of writing in order to rediscover all that it has the potential of being.
But new books are in the works, lots of them – and this also includes my sort story collections, the Alexander Triads, which are being published as ebooks on Amazon and on Smashwords, and a release, as an ebook, of ‘Letters from the Fire’, the contemporary-epistolary (told in emails!) novel I wrote with the man I eventually married, Deck Deckert. Plenty there to keep me busy for a little while.
When asked, what’s the one question you always answer with a lie?
I suppose many women of a certain vintage would answer that with saying that they fudged their age and they were forever celebrating an “anniversary” of some significant birthday – but I don’t really care if anyone knows how old I am. That sort of thing – age, weight, whatever people think they need to lie about – is trivial, and it’s pretty pointless to lie about trivial things.
When it comes to the IMPORTANT things… well… I don’t lie. I just don’t. If you ask me anything you’ll get the truth. If someone wants to know if she “looks fat in that”, I’ll probably tell her. If I give someone a compliment and they scuff their shoes and blush and murmur, “Aw, you don’t mean that” – well, I do. Ditto if I am blunt about less complimentary things. I generally say what I mean, and mean what I say. If you ask me a question you’ll get an honest answer (which includes values of “I don’t know” or even “I don’t care”)
Despite the fact that I lie for a living – all fiction writers do, after all – or maybe even BECAUSE of that, I’ve come to think that in real life things generally work better if fewer people lie about as little as possible.
What’s the best advice you can give writers to help them develop their own unique voice and style?
There really is only one way to do it. Write. Write. Write. It comes with practice. If you write enough you can’t help but start to do so in your own peculiar way – and it is perfectly okay, while practicing, to emulate the people you admire. Their influence will shape your own voice, eventually, in some way, once you stop trying to be EXACTLY like them. But there really is no substitute for experience, and you have to write your Million Words of Bad before you can start on the good stuff. You’ll know when you get there.
Who is the first person you call when you have a bad day?
Well, my husband is in the same house with me and thus he doesn’t need to be called as such – he knows already. Also, I tend to burrow into my cats and hug them often when I’m having a bad day. If I have to call anyone, I’ll call my parents. But one sad side effect of the manner in which I have spent my life – moving around far too often and far too widely – does mean that I don’t really have a bosom buddy on call for “bad days”; although I have a number of cyber-friends with whom I’m in constant touch in one way or another (blogs, emails, social media) and I usually get support from that quarter if I air my “bad day” in those arenas, I don’t suppose that really counts as the same thing. I’m something of a lone wolf when it comes to this.
When was the last time you cried?
I lost my grandmother twenty three years ago this year,. She was 73 years old, no age, really, but she just… wore out. She and I shared a very special bond, and her passing left me devastated. It took me a long time to get past it, and I have never really got ‘over’ it, her absence has always a part of me since she left me.
On every anniversary of her death on June 24, 1989, I’ve worn something black in memory of her. On June 25 of this year, I realized that for the first time since her death I had not done so; I remembered the day of her passing… one day afterwards. In a strange way this felt almost like losing her all over again. Perhaps it is not entirely unexpected that more than two decades after she died my memory should hiccup and skip over the date – she has been gone for nearly half my lifetime – but it still hurt, that I did this, that I could do this. And I cried.
What are you most passionate about today?
As always, living.
What is the one, single food that you would never give up?
A three-way tie between coffee, cherries and chocolate.
Where can readers stalk you?
www.AlmaAlexander.com (author’s website)
https://twitter.com/AlmaAlexander (Twitter feed - feel free to follow!)
https://www.facebook.com/pages/Alma-Alexander/67938071280 (Facebook Page)
If you’re into ebooks and have a Kindle, this would be a very good page to stalk me:
The story opens on the eve of the end of the world, Dec. 20, 2012, when five friends meet in Spanish Gardens, the restaurant where they had celebrated their college graduation 20 years before. Over Irish coffees, they reminisce – and reveal long-held and disturbing secrets about their dysfunctional lives.
Each friend in turn is given a curious set of instructions by an enigmatic bartender named Ariel: "Your life is filled with crossroads and you are free to choose one road or another at any time. Stepping through this door takes away all choices except two -- the choice to live a different life, or return to this one.”
All of them pass through the portal and into drastically changed lives. They change occupations and families; one changes gender; a woman falls in love -- with another woman. In the end, four choose to return to their original lives. One doesn’t.
Alma has created a wonderful “what if” book. Even as the readers learn about the choices and consequences these friends make, it will make them think about their own lives. We all know that there is a point in our lives that we would like to change, but is it worth it? It is worth changing that critical moment which can entirely shift your life’s direction and end up somewhere that is totally different from what it is now? As you can see, it poses quite a dilemma and we can see through Alma’s writing that her characters are facing the same problem.
Tackling a story with multiple time periods can be different. However, Alma manages to skillfully handle it without making numerous time periods difficult to understand or follow. 2012: Midnight at Spanish Gardens is a fabulous fantasy and time-altering story. Equipped with beautiful writing and compelling characters, it will certainly hook readers from the very first page.