Maria Alexander’s debut novel, Mr. Wicker, won the 2014 Bram Stoker Award for Superior Achievement in a First Novel. Her dark short stories, poetry and nonfiction have appeared since 1999 in publications such as Chiaroscuro Magazine, Nightmare Magazine, BITCH, SF Signal, Gothic.net, Pseudopod, Paradox: The Magazine of Historical and Speculative Fiction and many others. Champlain College uses her nonfiction to teach about female warriors in popular culture. Since 2010, she’s been studying samurai swordsmanship. Don’t ask her which is mightier. You’ll probably regret it.
She lives in Los Angeles with two ungrateful cats and a purse called Trog.
I asked, as I always do: Is there a literary heroine on whom you imprinted as a child? A first love, a person you wanted to become as an adult, a heroic girl or woman you pretended to be on the playground at recess? Who was she?
My access to books was pretty limited, but my father had four books that had a huge influence on my imagination: The Red Fairy Book, the double-volume of Andersen’s Fairy Tales and Grimm’s Fairy Tales, and The Emerald City of Oz. Except for Gerda in “The Snow Queen,” I didn’t find many inspiring figures in the grotesque fairy tales. However, I very much felt kin to Dorothy. I wanted to run off to an imaginary land and have magical adventures with great friends like Ozma. I never really liked the Disney princesses, but Dorothy (who was later named Princess of Oz) I loved.
Can you remember what it was she did or what qualities she had that captured your affections and your imagination so strongly?
Dorothy accepted challenges without hesitation, was loyal to her friends, and proved braver than the Hardy Boys. I know because I read almost all of the first fifty Hardy Boys books. Someone gave them to my mother when I was in first grade and I promptly devoured them. The Boys made an enormous impression on me but I didn’t identify with them the way I did Dorothy. Maybe my spooky childhood had something to do with it. Or perhaps because I had so little freedom, I could only imagine escaping by magical means. I grew up Greek, and in Greek culture, girls are prisoners in their own homes.
And then there was Ozma. A few years after I read Emerald City, I got ahold of The Marvelous Land of Oz and discovered she’d been a boy. How I loved that! I’d liked nothing but boyish toys since I was wee. For my first Christmas when I was four years old, I’d wanted a racecar set. I was bitterly disappointed to discover that my dad had bought one for his godson and that I would just get another doll. I hated Christmas for many years, even after they finally gave in and bought me the CB radio I asked for when I was eight. Anyway, at some point, someone (Glinda?) turns Ozma back into a girl. No one ever turned me back into a girl – at least, not a “proper” one, given how much I’ve always loved monsters, bladed weapons and games. Still, I connected a lot with the gender-shifting-boy-who-was-really-a-girl character.
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?
The main character of Mr. Wicker is Alicia Baum. I named her thus as a tribute to my early love of L. Frank Baum’s books. But because my childhood was frightening in many ways, Mr. Wicker is also my retort to Baum’s world. Alicia is a grownup, fucked up Dorothy, and The Library of Lost Childhood Memories is a bleak, twisted counter to the poetic Oz. Hey, that’s what happens when your father is the Gnome King.
Finally, 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 equally well by hero?
I’ve never liked that word. Even if it’s not technically true, it sounds as if being a heroine is somehow different from being a hero. And maybe it is. I’ve too often seen “heroines” who aren’t protagonists while the “hero” is almost always the protagonist. (Hence the MRA furor over Mad Max: Fury Road.) I’m seeing this too often in the Young Adult novels I’m reading right now. Sure, the girls are tough, but they’re either playing second string to boys or they’re just not driving the plot. On the other hand, I absolutely loathe talking about what makes a “strong” female character because, unless we’re talking about what makes characters of any gender strong in fiction, it feels like we’re just further cementing women’s status as second-class citizens. Maybe doing away with the word would encourage writers think of the genders equally? I don’t know.
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 allow you to browse all the other interviews, with awesome people like Tina Connolly, Alexandra C. Renwick, and Kelly Robson. Or, if you prefer something more in the way of an actual index, it’s here.