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A Conversation With Alma Alexander
An interview with Chris Przybyszewski
April 2004

© Alma Alexander
Alma Alexander
Alma Alexander
Alma Alexander was born in Yugoslavia, grew up in Africa, and now lives in the state of Washington. She is the author of four previous novels that have been published exclusively in Australia and New Zealand.

Alma's Home Page
ISFDB Bibliography: Alma Alexander
ISFDB Bibliography: Alma A. Hromic
SF Site Review: The Secrets of Jin-Shei
SF Site Review: Changer of Days
Official Alma Alexander Website

The Secrets of Jin-Shei
The Secrets of Jin-Shei
Changer of Days, Volume 1
Changer of Days, Volume 2

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Alma Alexander is the author of The Secrets of Jin-Shei from HarperCollins. Jin-Shei features a mythical Chinese realm where mothers pass to daughters the secret language of jin-shei. Also, special friendships form that cross all social classes because of this secret language. The poet Tai, a daughter of a seamstress, forms such a friendship with Princess Antian, the oldest daughter of the emperor and the country's next ruler. Their friendship will change the fate of their world.

Alexander is an international. She was born in Novi Sad, Yugoslavia, but her father's work took the family to live in various countries in Africa like Zambia, Swaziland, and South Africa. Alexander received a MSc in Microbiology from the University of Cape Town, ended up in New Zealand, Australia, and published The Dolphin's Daughter and Other Stories, a best-selling collection of fables. A second book, Letters from the Fire, about the impact of the Yugoslavian war, recounted correspondence between her and her future husband, R. A. "Deck" Deckert, a freelance writer and editor. Alexander also published Changer of Days Volumes 1 and 2, both of which will soon be available in America. Both Alexander and her husband now live in the Northwestern United States.

While this is Alexander's fifth full-length novel, it's her first to appear in America. In this e-mail interview with SFSite, Alexander talks about her new novel, about language, and about writing.

The characters in this story share a secret language. Could you talk a little bit about how your own intimate experience with language (as a writer) affects your everyday life?

Words have been the mainstay of my existence for as long as I can remember. I taught myself to read (a language not English) when I was barely four years old; I was five when my sonnet-writing poet grandfather read me a new poem and I informed him in my lisping five-year-old voice that it didn't scan [the sonnet carried too many syllables on one line]. It didn't [scan], when he checked, which made him feel both proud and supremely put out all at once.

By 10, I had moved away from my native country, and my native language, and had started chewing on English, and less than three years after THAT I was reading things like [John] Galsworthy's The Forsyte Saga in the unabridged English version. Sometime around my early teens I discovered SF and fantasy, people like Ursula K. Le Guin and Roger Zelazny and Tolkien. I never looked back.

In an everyday situation I am a word-nerd extraordinaire, and have been accused by irate friends of swallowing a dictionary when I was five years old. Else, how would I possibly know all the abstruse words I use on a daily basis (and spell correctly)?

I am also an inverterate punster. Hand me a straight line and I'll twist it. It's bad -- my husband has been heard to mutter about looking for a 12-step program for punaholics. Words are my work and words are my play. Language is the garden of my delights.

In the story, only women share the language. What is that female bond and how well does that translate to the real world, do you think? Do men have their own language of some kind?
Sure they do, and it is completely different. Men's secret languages have historically been ones of power and of battle. The latter has been sublimated, in modern times, into team sports, but it's still a language of battle nonetheless. There are secret languages in the male-dominated business and politics arenas, which is probably part of the explanation for the so-called "glass ceiling." Women just never learn the lingo well enough to compete. But I keep coming back to that famous Henry V speech on the teetering edge of the battle of Agincourt. Every man who fights with him on this day would be called his brother. The price is loyalty, but the price has to be paid BEFORE the battle. With my women, the promise is made first, the battles come afterwards, and loyalty is there because the promise is already in place and not because the loyalty IS the promise.

Each of the main characters in the book has different professions. One is a poet, one is a warrior, etc. How does their "work" affect their outlook on their life? Specifically, how does Tai, the poet, live in her world, with her special connection to language?
The bond of the jin-shei sisterhood affects my characters' lives in a hundred small ways in everyday situations, and also influences larger decisions. Nhia, the Temple-child, integrates language in terms of prayer and in the teaching tales with which she carves out her reputation for wisdom. Khailin struggles with the difficulty of reaching out into another language, one traditionally barred from her sex, in order to access knowledge she craves. Yuet uses the women's tongue to keep secret records of her patients and her life as a healer, to be read only by a successor (who would be another woman). Tammary uses language to bedevil Yuet.

And Tai [the poet], who is the keystone character in the book, uses language to reach Tammary when the gypsy girl is at her most vulnerable. But the character who lives the bond most deeply -- despite being the one who initially almost refused anything to do with it -- is Xaforn of the Imperial Guard. She makes the living vow a matter of life and death, and with her that is not done lightly, given how adept she is at dealing out death. With Xaforn the bond has a fundamental effect. "They wanted a killing machine, they got a human being," she tells one of her sisters at one point, and it is jin-shei that has taken her there.

What were your major influences in writing this most recent book?
Ursula K. Le Guin (it was even her translation/annotation of the Tao that I was working with), and a gold star to anyone who picks up the reference to Ibsen in the novel. Other than that, people like Guy Gavriel Kay whose writing I simply enjoy enough to inspire me. If you're asking where there was some sort of towering Chinese influence, no, there wasn't. Stuff I found in my research was inspirational, from the Dowager Empress to the Beggars Guild. It wasn't exactly an 'influence' in the sense that it all got researched and discovered during the course of writing. And speaking of research...

Talk about your research for this book.
I read a small library's worth of stuff for this book. I combed the Internet for tidbits on Chinese culture and history, pulled off piles of printouts on Chinese alchemy and the building blocks of Tao. I read miscellanies of Chinese material, from the ways a concubine fitted into society to funeral customs of Emperors. After the original article about the women's language, nushu [literally: Chinese for "women's writing"], had crossed my path, I delved deeper and deeper into that, and learned much, too much to put into a single book, even. I looked at National Geographic picture books and imbibed atmosphere by osmosis, just staring at those wonderful photographs -- and in one of those books, almost exactly as I described it in the book, I found a photo of that drinking vessel made of a human skull.

It was incredible how the things I needed to know found their way into my mind. If the writing of the book was astonishing, the research for it was even more so -- never a chore, always an awe-inspiring journey into the unknown where I kept on finding things that seemed eerily familiar. I'm something of a research fiend -- for the thing I am currently working on I read at least five books about the Anasazi Indians of the American South West, and I already know what's waiting for me for the books beyond that -- a melting pot which will, in time, cover more about China, the Cambodian apocalypse under the Khmer Rouge, the Trail of Tears, Nikola Tesla and the psychology of immigrants trying to fit into new and unfamiliar societies. No, it's not all for the same book!

How has this novel been different from your other novels? Has it been easier or more difficult to write?
The Secrets of Jin-Shei has been one of the most intense writing experiences of my entire writing life. I wouldn't call it a hard or an easy book to write, in the sense that I didn't WRITE it. I just sat down and it all came pouring out, almost letter-perfect, almost channeled. It was as though these nine characters just sat me down and dictated and all I did was lend a physical hand in translating the [manuscript] into an accessible format for readers other than myself.

By comparison purposes, my previous fantasy, Changer of Days, is comparable in length -- but was written over literally years. The only other book I wrote with the speed and fluidity that The Secrets of Jin-Shei had was the email novel I co-authored with my husband back in 1999, Letters from the Fire, but that book was quite a different kind of animal. For one thing, the entire thing was about one-third the size of Jin-Shei.

From its first beginnings, the book had quite literally nine characters searching for a plot and a comet-like blaze through its subsequent writing and publishing history. The Secrets of Jin-Shei has been a miraculous story, quite different from anything I had written before, probably unlike anything I'll ever write again. It was a gift.

Talk about your process as a writer. Do you write the whole book and then edit all at once, or do you write and edit as you go? Or is your process totally different?
When I was writing Changer of Days, the book started with a single scene. I wrote the scene, and then started writing the rest of the book -- and it took me nearly two thirds of the book to get my characters back to that scene. With something like Letters from the Fire, the writing was of necessity episodic, and the book was built more like a jigsaw puzzle than a linear story. With Jin-Shei it was purely linear -- it started at the beginning, went on until the end, then stopped. I don't think there is an average way of writing a novel -- every single blessed one of them is different.

[Also w]ith Jin-Shei, I had the benefit of an editor in the house -- my husband, Deck, who'd read the chapters and edit them for me, and then I'd more than likely go back and make the minor fixes before I went on with the story -- but the bigger edits (I rewrote a section of the book, after I was done, to editorial request) were pretty much left to the aftermath of the writing. Essentially that IS the process, as far as it goes, especially since I got married and got the benefit of this editorial back-up. I'll write a chunk, or a section, or a chapter, and hand it over to be perused, and then I'll go over it and make minor fixes, and continue writing. Scribble, fix, carry on, repeat as necessary.

According to your website on HarperCollins.com your other books were published in New Zealand. The Secrets of Jin-Shei will be published internationally (Australia, Great Britain, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, New Zealand, and the United States, Canada). What are your feelings on that?
Can I just say "wow" and leave it at that? It's my first 'international,' as it were, and frankly I both can't wait and am rather terrified of receiving the foreign language editions, these books which purport to be the book I have written but mocking me with languages I don't speak or even understand all that well (although I could probably make some headway in German). What I'm waiting for to really blow me away is some sort of Asian edition, seeing this book -- of all books -- in Kanji, or Chinese ideograms, or that blocky-looking Korean script, or elegant culicued Thai.

Will you be on tour and if so, where can we get information about it?
Yes, I will be doing a tour, starting mid-May and probably going on well into June. I'll be going to New York, Boston, Denver, Seattle, Portland, and San Francisco. The final schedule, when everything is in place, will be available soon at both www.jinshei.com and www.almahromic.com. [Readers] can sign up for an Author Tracker feature there and it'll alert you when updates are made.

Are you currently at work on a new piece? Can you tell us anything about it?
Oh, always. I'm currently working on a piece I'm having a great deal of fun with. It involves the Anasazi Indians, cybermagic, and a race of Elves with the souls of Ferengi. It's getting on for almost halfway done. After that, I've got a heap of research to do for the next book. There's a stack of books next to my bed, which is kind of thigh-high at the moment and growing. On top of that, my fantasy Changer of Days, previously published only in Australia and New Zealand, is being brought out in the [United] States by Harper Collins -- date still uncertain, but probably in 2005. So I'm busy, busy, busy. And I couldn't be happier.

Copyright © 2004 Chris Przybyszewski

Chris learned to read from books of fantasy and science fiction, in that order. And any time he can find a graphic novel that inspires, that's good too.


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