I’m thrilled to be interviewing A.M. (Alyx) Dellamonica in the wake of the release of the first book in her new trilogy, Child of a Hidden Sea. Alyx is one of the most innovative and inventive speculative fiction authors on the scene today. I am a huge fan of her work, and have also been a past student of hers so I can attest to what a marvelous writing teacher and editor she is. She is the author of the Indigo Springs/Blue Magic duology, the first book of which was awarded the 2010 Sunburst Award for Canadian Literature of the Fantastic. She is also the author of numerous short stories as well as being a regular reviewer of all things speculative fiction. When I asked her some searching questions about her work, and her advice to new writers attempting to build a career in speculative fiction, here’s what she had to say …
KC: Your first two books, Indigo Springs and Blue Magic, are highly unusual speculative fiction in that they involve fantastical elements not often seen in speculative fiction – in effect, magic with an environmental bent shrouded in an almost fairytle/folkloric context. What gave you the idea for these books?
AD: There is a degree to which that idea–magic oozing from a crack in the earth, essentially as a form of toxic waste–just grabbed me and wouldn’t let go. That said, I spent fifteen years on the periphery of a dynamic group of environmental scientists. Their work was inspiring on so many levels, and it’s because of them, I am sure, that I write ecofantasy.
KC: Indigo Springs and Blue Magic comprise a duology which is an unusual approach in modern writing. So many authors seem to write either standalone books or trilogies (or longer series). Did you always know the story would span two books and was there any pressure from the publishers to make it into a trilogy?
AD: I had originally written Indigo Springs as a standalone; its story ended when Astrid was arrested. But as soon as I turned it in, my agent said, “There’s a second book here” and began urging me to write it. She had ideas about a big Sahara/Astrid smackdown, and… well, you either know how it actually went or don’t want to be spoiled.
I would not call that opinion of hers pressure, necessarily. She did want my career to start with a two-book deal, though. It took a lot of thinking to reopen the story, once I thought I’d sewn it shut, and it made Blue Magic tough to write, in some ways. But many authors find their second novel especially difficult.
I’m certainly not sorry I wrote it, or unhappy with where the story ended up. Blue Magic is a much better closing for Astrid’s journey, and it gave many of her nearest and dearest, like Ev and Will Forrest, a chance to grow up on the page.
KC: This year, the first book in your new fantasy trilogy, Child of a Hidden Sea, was released. What can you tell us about the new book?
AD: Because my first two books have a lot of sadness in them, my guiding artistic principle for this new series, the Hidden Sea Tales, was to have fun. If I enjoyed myself, the rationale went, so would all my readers. So the book is shamelessly packed with things I think are cool: lots of little islands with their own microclimates, a peculiar system of magic derived from that biodiversity, tall ships, and a navy more suited to the Age of Sail than the third millennium. Pirates, old-fashioned notions of heroism and honor, magically tamed volcanoes, an exceptionally gorgeous man and cultural clashes abound. Also, there’s the occasional forensic investigation.
KC: When you write a duology or trilogy, do you plan out the entire storyline for all the books upfront or do you let the characters and plot develop as you go along? Have you ever wished you hadn’t put something in an earlier book in a series because it limits what you can do in the next?
AD: As mentioned, Blue Magic was not in my initial plans when I set out to write Indigo Springs. I had to outline it more or less from scratch, based on what I’d already done. It’s probably as close as I’ve come to writing by the seat of my pants.
With the Hidden Sea Tales, I proposed a three book story arc. The whole story was roughed out in that proposal… but things have changed in the writing.
Certainly there have been a couple of moments where I wished I could go back and shoehorn one more detail into Child of a Hidden Sea, for the benefit of the books that come later, but it is pretty full. Maybe even groaning. At some point, you have to let go and write on into the future.
KC: You have taught fiction writing for many years at UCLA, with a particular focus on speculative fiction. What do you see as some of the major challenges for new writers in the speculative fiction genre both in terms of writing craft and in terms of career development?
AD: The challenge I see most is impatience. Writing well is a skill that takes a long time to develop. So is neurosurgery, but aspiring doctors don’t get to skip their exams and go indy. In a world where you can self-publish your novel tomorrow, it’s harder to suck up rejection, gradual improvement and slow career growth.
I’m not saying everyone should go the traditional publishing route I have taken, but as a writing instructor I have, countless times, had students with interesting but flawed manuscripts say: “All these changes you’re you’re suggesting… wow… maybe I’ll just publish it myself.”
When that happens, and the work is promising but not just quite ready yet, my heart breaks a little. And yet it’s hard to pitch the idea that you’re denying yourself the opportunity to be better by taking a little longer.
KC: If you could give one piece of advice to a new writer, what would it be?
AD: To complain, especially about work or the weather, is human. If a bunch of writers are together and you hear them going on and on about how tough publishing is today, oh, woe, so much harder than ever before, OMG! try not to be too discouraged. I’ve been hearing the same conversation for decades.
At times those writers will talk about something specific that’s happened to them. They haven’t made as much money as they hoped, or the career took longer than expected to get off the ground, or they quit their day job and promptly developed some kind of artistic block, or they wish someone, anyone, had told them it’s actually nigh-impossible to get a novel written when you have a newborn. If you hear this kind of talk, and find yourself thinking “that will never happen to me?”
It’s possible it will happen to you.
When you hear someone complaining, it’s easy to assume they’re unhappy with their lot. But we all got into this because we wanted to, wanted to enough to live with the risks and long hours and poverty and the sacrifices. We complain to our peers for support a nd advice, but at the end of the day we got into writing because it is a glorious and rewarding thing to be able to do. And we love it. If we don’t love it, we don’t keep doing it.
The choice is always yours. There are only two people who can force you to write, and Kathy Bates probably charges more than you can afford. Being an artist is all about you. Choose to write your heart out. Choose to love it–not every minute, maybe, because every job has some supremely crappy minutes–but as often and as much and as passionately as you can.
You can find more information about Alyx, her work, and her interests at: http://alyxdellamonica.com