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Alma Alexander on the Heroine Question

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Posted on August 19, 2015 by

Alma Alexander's Wolf, out August 21, 2015

Alma Alexander’s Wolf, out August 21, 2015

Alma Alexander is an internationally published novelist, short story writer and anthologist whose work appears in more than 14 languages worldwide. She has written many different kinds of fantasy – high/epic, historical, contemporary, urban, YA – and occasionally detoured into science fiction when the muse strayed out amongst the stars.

When asked if she imprinted on any particular literary heroine as a child, she said:

I’m almost certain that for a lot of us the kneejerk  response to this is the same: Jo March from Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women. She was so iconic, so seminal (not to mention the only one of the sisters with whom I had a remote connection – Meg was the goody two shoes, Amy was a spoiled brat, and Beth was the ghost of a pretty kitten)… and she was a writer, and she pushed on her dream until she got published and many of us who did the same thing eventually ended up identifying with that because that was our dream also. That was something that we – that I – grew up looking up to, waiting to accomplish. But I didn’t want to be Jo. I just wanted to be a writer.

I don’t think that I ever “pretended” to be someone else. My best recollections point to my wishes being more aligned with being the best me I could be. Using the convenient metaphor of Narnia, I never wanted to be or pretended to be Lucy or Susan. What I wanted was to be found worthy of being a true friend of Aslan, who was Not A Tame Lion, when judged for myself, in my own right.

Can you remember what it was Jo did or what qualities she had, besides being a writer, that captured your affections and your imagination so strongly?

It wasn’t the pretty. It wasn’t the nobility. What always drew me in were strength and wits and smarts and the occasional spark of true wisdom.  That was what the best protagonists carried within them and  that was what I sought within myself if I ever thought about wanting to emulate them. I wept with them when hard choices had to be made, and they made them; I laughed with them in delirious joy when risks were rewarded; I held my breath as they did during the moments when outcomes were hanging by the thinnest of threads. Strength, wits, smarts, and wisdom. If they could shoot a straight arrow, all the better – for them – but it didn’t make me want to go out and buy a bow and start practicing archery (well, I shot a bow and arrow and I wasn’t bad at it when I did, but eh, you know what I mean). What I was looking for was… was resilience, an ability to bend in the wind like
a reed by the river if that was needed but to spring back up straight and true after the storm was over. I never thought vulnerability was a weakness, nor tears, nor taking a moment to draw a deeper breath – but they could not be allowed to be the last thing that was there. There had to be Strength. Wits. Smarts. And Wisdom.

How does she compare to the female characters in your work? Is she their literary ancestor? Do they rebel against all she stands for? What might your creations owe her?

In terms of debts, in that context, everything – my characters owe everything to that philosophy. I have never been afraid to put them through the wringer in any story I ever wrote because any heroine who stepped forward had those qualities. I think of Xaforn of the Guard, from The Secrets of Jin-shei, who lived and died for honor and for love – and of her jin-shei sister, also; I think of Amais who returned to Syai four hundred years after the events of The Secrets of Jin-shei, and of her friend Xuelian, who carry the weight of the world on their shoulders in Embers of Heaven; I think of Olivia from Midnight at Spanish Gardens, and Anghara of Changer of Days, and Thea of the Worldweavers series and Jazz, my ‘youngest’, the protagonist of Random.  They were all shaped by those tenets, they all had to live according to those  criteria. They had to know the odds, and be willing to go against them if that was necessary; they had to know fear, and fly in the face of it anyway; they had to recognize the stinging nettle and reach out to grasp it anyway if the need arose.

Everything I have ever read has built up to these heroines and all that they are. My heroines may not be part of a better world, as such, but the things that they do and that they are help make their worlds better. That is all I can ever ask of them. So far, none have let me down.

How do you feel about the word heroine? In these posts, I am specifically looking for female authors’ female influences, whether those women they looked up to were other writers or Anne of Green Gables. Does the word heroine have a purpose that isn’t served by equally well by hero?

I have no problem with the concept of a heroine, as such – but I think of the characters who carry my stories as my protagonists, as my people. I don’t know that I hold with “hero” as a solitary shining  figure standing off by him or herself anyway. We are all a part of the fabric. Some of us are just given a moment in which we shine harder than those standing next to us – and if we step into that light, we
are heroes.

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Alma lives in the Pacific Northwest, in the cedar woods, with her husband and two obligatory cats. Her website is here and she Tweets, is on Facebook, and has been even known to pin stuff.

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About this post: The Heroine Question is my name for a series of short interviews with female writers about their favorite characters and literary influences. Clicking the link will take you to all the other interviews, or there’s an index of them here.

Too cool for school? Five ways to real up your characters.

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Posted on August 17, 2015 by

imageYou’ve all read the book whose protagonist moves ever so calmly from crisis to crisis. Maybe they experience the occasional pang of angst, but they never really need to do anything more dramatic about their problems than whip out the bastard sword (or the monster gun or ye holy guitar of rock godness or even their wand) and, y’know, lay waste. They’re together in a way that most of us aren’t.

From a reader’s point of view and the longer a novel goes on, this can be deeply alienating. No, we don’t always pick up fiction to read about someone as flawed and messily chaotic as the person falling apart, one cubicle over, from our desk at work. Most of us prefer to have a little bit of space from slow-motion drama explosions, real or fictional. But coolness, while it’s superficially attractive, is also distancing. It breeds remoteness. If someone is too cool, they become untouchable.

How do you find the balance between admirable and accessible? Here are five things you can check within your own writing:

We feel what they feel. Maybe Tyrion Lannister’s problems aren’t our problems (and for that, hooray!) But when his big sister’s carrying on about how she hates him for taking their mother’s love away, and why can’t he just die… well, what younger sibling hasn’t felt a shade or two of that? Tyrion’s an unlikely character, living in a shockingly hard-to-navigate world, but his sibling problems unlock a path into relating to him.

They snap when we’d snap. Behaving badly is part of character and there’s an art to choosing the moments when your mostly-nice characters devolve into rampant asshole behavior. (And, on the other side of things, the points where your evil ones experience those humanizing instances of benevolence.) Push them hard. Give them the emotional resources to put up with a certain amount of adversity, because few of us like a shrinking violet. Let them play it cool for awhile if that’s their thing… but at the point when any sane human being would break down, lash out or overreact, make it epic.

They have crimson or raven tresses, just like yours! Also: flashing violet eyes, adamantium manicures, bracing personal hygeine and an apostrophe in their N’Ame. No. I’m lying. That was a trick. The reason we like Harry Potter, if we do, probably isn’t that lightning scar. It’s the bravery, loyalty to friends and–for me, anyway–the fact that he hauls his ass in to work every day. Sure, work in this case means surviving and prevailing over he who can barely be spelled, but I dig perseverance.

Here’s one that’s crucial: they give a demonstrable shit about other people. I’m reading Fran Wilde’s Updraft right now, and there’s a crucial turn where her heroine believes she’s succeeded at something her best friend has failed at. And she’s happy for herself, and even takes time to celebrate, but she also spends a significant amount of time and energy thinking about ways to help that friend pick himself up off the not-ground and get back to his life.

They take risks. Sure, there are whole books about scaredy-cat wimptastic emotional basket-cases, guys who are so busy worrying about doing their job perfectly that they never ever extend themselves to make contact with another human being, but they are written by Kazuo Ishiguro, and the rest of us are probably better off not trying to emulate him.

Part of putting yourself in a fictional character’s shoes is believing you can fill them, and that is vastly more possible if they experience the range of human behavior, the noble and the petty, the humorous and the pathetic, the mundane and the glorious. No matter how awesome your characters are, let them break pattern now and then; give them a chance to be just like us. We’ll love them all the more for it.

Scattered telewitterings with a strong chance of historicals

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Posted on August 11, 2015 by

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So. what have all of you been watching this summer?

I often feel as though all the people I know are taking in a mighty pile of supercool media stuff I didn’t get to in a timely fashion. Sense8 and Daredevil were recent exceptions–I caught those more or less as everyone else did, and enjoyed them both. (Though I did kvetch a little about DD, I know).

I’ve seen Ant-Man, Mr. Holmes, Far from the Madding Crowd and Mad Max: Fury Road, which seems a pretty good haul of big screen stuff. I skipped Jurassic World, Fantastic Four, and all the actual cartoons involving minions and feels.

Lately the viewing at Chez Dua has been historical stuff: the excellent World War I nurse series, The Crimson Field, and a champagne-bubbly murder of the week thing from Australia, Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries. There’s also been a documentary called Life on the Reef about, naturally, the Great Barrier Reef. And, as a brush-up on general knowledge and cultural literacy, and an antidote to the wholly Euro-centric readings of history I absorbed as a tad, Crash Course World History, ten manic minutes of John Green delivering the goods on ye olde life and times.

Finally, Kelly and I are slowly closing in on the very end of Parks and Recreation.

Touring touring, it’s never boring.

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Posted on August 10, 2015 by

wpid-Photo-2012-05-05-626-PM.jpgI decided to time travel back to May 16, 2002 today, and revisit my first ever blog entry, back on Livejournal. I found Rumble still a kitten, and me writing a piece for a critique group deadline. That group, the Fangs of God, has since gone by the wayside. (The entry doesn’t offer any clues as to which story it was.)

Kelly and I had moved into our Woodland Drive condo six months before I started at LJ, leaving Chez Frank behind. Our Greece trip with Snuffy had occurred about a year earlier. Marriage equality wasn’t even on my radar yet, though it was coming very soon! And we hadn’t yet joined the choir now known as Out in Harmony.

The entry has that “Oh, hey, a blog, I need to learn how to drive this thing” that many of you probably remember from your own first forays into the web diary form. Shakespeare it ain’t, but I enjoyed looking back.

 

Three good things on a sunny Friday

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Posted on August 7, 2015 by

I will endorse this novel if you give me a live hamster.

I will endorse this novel if you give me a live hamster.

One: I was excited to receive my uncorrected bound proofs for the novel this week; they’re, pictured here with Lorenzo the Magnificent. What this means is I encircled him with the stuff and shot a few pictures before he could move on in disgust.

Two: The official announcement that Kelly Robson and I will be hosting this month’s ChiSeries at the Round on August 19th has been made, so I can tell you all too! Readers will be E.L. Chen, Tony Pi, and Carsten Stroud. Kari Maaren will sing, and a good time will be had by all. Come! Watch us stay up past our bedtime! Hear amazing things! Exchange dollars for alcohol, snacks and most importantly books!

Three: A learning module I created a few years ago and haven’t used in awhile proved yesterday that it does, in fact, still have the old magic.

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