I recently read Gift of the Unmage by Alma Alexander, the first book in her Worldweavers trilogy. Galethea Winthrop, Thea for short, is the main character in this great new young adult series about a girl who has lived her whole life under the shadow of magical expectations. But with the failure to come into her magical ability, whole new worlds open up for Thea. Ms. Alexander took the time to answer some questions about her series, writing, reading, and even the World Science Fiction and Fantasy Convention.
In a market that is dominated by fantasy books that have central characters who are powerful magic users you have created a character who is magic-less to an extent. What is Thea’s appeal?
My editor once said that she is EveryTeen. I think her appeal lies in the simple fact that she is not a superheroine from the word go. She is, on the contrary, a complete misfit in her world - or at least so it seems, on the surface. This is something that most kids will resonate to - there are times that even high school clique queens feel lonely and outcast, it is part of being a teenager, your moods and your hormones and your world views change with the moon (or so it appears to the outside world) and that's fine, it's normal, it's expected, it's all a part of growing up and growing into an adult personality and form. Thea doesn't get presented with her solutions on a silver platter -- she has to work to first understand her problems, and then on how best to make things better -- but although she is given help along the way it is she herself who eventually makes her own choices and solves her own problems. Sometimes being a powerful magic user just isn't enough - you have to learn something first, often something hard, before anything you do or think or feel has importance or weight or meaning.
In Worldweavers you have done such a wonderful job of weaving into your story Native American myths and legends. What drew you to those myths vs. the traditional European myths that most stories use for a base?
Few people know about them. I guess that's a double-edged sword because readers will instinctively gravitate to the familiar, and the well-trodden paths of European mythology are far easier to travel on than the thorny thickets of the unknown. But American kids are not European kids, and America has its own treasure box of mythology, and it's been barely cracked; and there are so many wonderful tales here, so many extraordinary characters, so much joy and drama and tragedy. All this is all the more powerful because it is so new and unknown - but also, there is the added bonus that these myths and legends are far more a part of an American young reader's heritage than Rumpelstiltskin is. Or they should be, anyway. This is what this country's mythological roots are.
Having said that, however, I do weave in a few Eastern European folk tales into these books towards the end, too. It is a big, wide, wonderful world out there, and it's full of stories.
How did you get started writing young adult fiction? Do you prefer it to adult?
These particular books had their start when I attended a YA panel at the 2002 World Fantasy Convention in Minneapolis. At the time I had no plans to enter the YA market, and certainly no ideas in that field, but the panel had several writers on it whom I really like reading and who do write YA fiction - Charles de Lint was one of them, and Jane Yolen another. Some five or ten minutes into the panel, someone from the audience brought up Harry Potter, and Jane Yolen sighed and said, "I was wondering how long it would be before that particular elephant walked into the room." She said she wasn't entirely happy about the way that the Potter books treated girls... and I was off and running. I didn't really hear the rest of that panel, I was too busy getting to know Thea in my head, and thinking about the Last Ditch School for the Incurably Incompetent to which she would be sent because she was not the Boy Who Lived but instead the Girl Who Couldn't.
My primary goal has always been story - and that doesn't change with the level of the intended reading audience. I believe that the YA readers deserve, and want, stories that are just as complex and layered as an "adult" book - and I believe that these young minds are quicker, more agile, and far better equipped to actually deal with a certain amount of complexity. I have no interest in providing something simplistic, or characters who have only two dimensions and would flap in the wind like so many flags. I want real characters, real people. The fact that I have magic in my story doesn't make my characters any less real, it just gives them a different set of problems.
I don't prefer either genre to the other. They complement each other, rather than square off as antagonists.
What was one of your favorite books growing up? Do you think that it has affected your writing?
One of my favourite books? ONE of? That's hardly fair, asking a question like that of someone who spent her formative years buried between book covers of many many MANY books. I'd have to put Tolkien's Lord of the Rings up there - but then I'd have to ignore authors like Ursula le Guin, and Madeleine L'Engle, and Lloyd Alexander, and CS Lewis, and... look, see what you've done now?...
Reading has affected my writing, the fact that I read a lot and widely and that I am completely, wholly and incurably in love with language and with story. Reading told me early on that I wanted to write, too, because I wanted to create more of these worlds which held me so spellbound when they flowed from other minds and other visions. Reading a lot and reading widely is probably the best basic education that a child can get. God bless libraries everywhere.
I know that recently you were in Japan for the World Science Fiction Convention. What was that like?
Japan was weird and wonderful and I came back with 800+ photographs, ranging from the bizarre to the astonishingly beautiful; I'd highly recommend going to a truly alien place at least once in a person's lifetime, it definitely stretches your horizons.
There are parts of Europe that are staggering under the weight of their history, and the same is true in Japan, where you wander around temples and palaces built not hundreds but thousands of years ago, and the idea that there were once these people so far removed from us in time who lived and loved and worked and fought and played within these walls and in these gardens is eerie, enigmatic, and one that fills me with awe and curiosity. One of the gardens I was in had in it a weirdly-shaped pine that once been a Shogun's cherished bonsai and which had been planted into the ground some 600 or so years before when the Shogun died - it's quite a feeling, watching this centuries-old tree and wondering what tales it could tell if only it could talk...
Modern Japan is utterly confounding - it was the first time I had ever been to a country where I was functionally illiterate without benefit of translation or at least transliteration on signposts and information boards, and that was disconcerting. But the Japanese are resigned to wandering foreigners who look lost and bewildered and somehow knowing how to say "hello" and "thank you" and a lot of sign language gets you almost everything you need without any major dramas. And people bow to each other. A lot. And it's catching; upon our return home, a friend I was traveling with informed me that she had given that formal little Japanese bow to a completely astonished British bank teller, and I offered one of my own to the quietly amused passport checkpoint official when I stepped off my flight on my return to the United States.
The second book in the Worldweavers trilogy hits stores March 2008. Can you give us a little hint about Spellspam and what the future holds for our favorite characters?
What happens if the spam that hits your inbox on a regular basis isn't just annoying - but carries live and potentially dangerous magic spells which affect you if you so much as read the spam message? What happens if the spam message offering you "the clearest skin you could ever imagine" turned your skin... transparent? (Well, actually, that's the first scene in Spellspam - when you read the book, you'll find out exactly what transpires...)
An epidemic of such spellspam sweeps Thea's world, affecting the one thing that has been thought until then to be completely impervious to magic - the computers. And since Thea seemed to be the first person ever to have been able to actually use computers in her own magic (something that's explored in Gift of the Unmage), she now needs to find out where this spellspam is coming from because it can only mean that there is someone else out there who is not that much different from herself. There are some hard choices for Thea to make in the course of this book, which takes her further along the road of discovering who she really is, and how truly extraordinary her gifts are. But where this road will ultimately take her... is another story, one which concludes the Worldweavers trilogy, and which will follow Spellspam in the spring of 2009.
The future is wide open for Thea, actually. There are far more things that begin to be possible for her now than she has ever dreamed of. These stories may yet be told, if she finds friends who want to know more about her.
Thank you so much for taking the time to answer some questions!