As I noted yesterday, Alex Adams wrote the book White Horse, which I loved so much I don’t even have much rational thought to give it. I also note in that post that the book is in many ways a spiritual cousin to my own novel, Blackbirds, and frankly, it’s superior to mine in nearly every way. Go forth and read that book, but first up, inject Alex’s wisdom into your eyeholes. Then visit her site at alexadamsbooks.com and mercilessly track her on Twitter (@Alexia_Adams).
This is a blog about writing and storytelling. So, tell us a story. As short or long as you care to make it. As true or false as you see it.
Once upon a time (because many good stories start out this way, and a lot of bad ones, too), my family up and moved to Greece, all because my mother was tired of New Zealand’s dreary weather. This turned out to be a Very Good Thing for me, because living in Greece taught me how to survive and also how to tell stories—which is often the same thing.
During my first year in Greece (I was eleven) I learned how to run. Not childish running, where the goal is to get from here to there or risk being tagged, but “Run, Forest! Run!” type running, where you’re going to wind up taking a beating and ending up in juvie if you don’t pour everything into fleeing. There may have been a church involved, and I may have been up in the church grounds’ trees stealing fruit with my cousin. And there may have been a very angry elderly caretaker shaking a large whisk broom in my face. And maybe I jumped down, gave the caretaker my cousin’s name, and bolted. Maybe.
During my second year my grandmother taught me about “eating what you know.” In this case, what I knew was a white chicken we’d named Star Wars. Not only was Star Wars mentally disabled, but she had this odd physical quirk where she walked with her head and shoulders hunched and tilted to one side, like Paris Hilton in Meet the Spartans. She never met a wall she couldn’t walk into.
Then one day Star Wars disappeared. That same night, Darth Vader (aka my grandmother, who was clad all in black after the death of my grandfather) served chicken with orzo.* “This is not the chicken you’re looking for,” she rasped when I asked if she’d seen Star Wars. (It’s entirely possible that I misinterpreted her words and what she actually said was, “Sit up, shut up, and eat up.”) But I recognized that stringy lump of chicken at the edge of the plate as part of Star Wars’ hump and knew my grandmother was a chicken killer. I never turned my back on her after that, especially not when she was wielding a cleaver and a bag of orzo.
(For the record, chicken that you knew personally tastes nothing like chicken.)
It was during my third year in Greece that I took a vow of silence when grownups asked me stuff. I learned the value of using sounds and body language instead of words. Why waste all that time saying “I don’t know,” when a well-timed shrug will do? That also saves you from lying, when you do in fact know because you’re the one who did it—or helped bury the (usually) metaphorical body.
Other things I learned in Greece: Donkeys are asses; they’re made up of two dangerous ends. Some women do have whiskers. Toilets you sit on? Yeah, those aren’t universal. Spitting wards away the Evil Eye, but not strangers on a bus. Physicists are doing it all wrong: we should be investigating the speed of gossip.
Finally, one day, my parents decided I’d learned enough and I was in danger of either becoming a scathingly brilliant criminal or a below-average lawyer, so we left Greece for Australia, where I lived happily ever after… Until I mucked up my life by deciding to write a novel.
The moral of this story is, if possible, to have at least one parent with dual citizenship and distaste for the local weather if you want to be a writer.
*Oddly enough, I can still eat chicken. I cannot, however, even stand the sight of orzo. Which says something about me. Let the psychoanalysis begin.
Why do you tell stories?
Because the world needs storytellers and I have some aptitude for it. Being entertaining is something I’ve always enjoyed, although my original career goal was to be Doris Day. Not only was the job already taken, but I can’t act. Can’t sing. Can dance a little. But really I just plain enjoy telling stories. And there are far worse fates in life than doing something you love.
I was in my early twenties when I originally wanted to start writing, but when faced with a blank page I realized I had nothing to write about…yet. So I went off and did some interesting things. Then one day I discovered the stories were starting to come to me, so I started nailing them to the computer screen. I go through a lot of monitors that way.
I was going to make a crack about how “storyteller” is a much nicer word than “liar,” but nowhere do you have to be more real than in fiction.
Give the audience one piece of writing or storytelling advice:
I’m lousy at math, so let’s pretend two is the new one.
Get a life. A wild and vivid imagination will only take you so far; real life is where the true crazy happens, and if you’re at your desk, staring at the wall, all the time you’ll miss out. You need to get out there and live and see things and experience everything humanly possible and soak up the world like a fat, fluffy sponge. Worst case scenario, you’ll lead an interesting life.
The second is really a piece of publishing advice: Don’t be an ass. Publishing has fewer degrees of separation than Kevin Bacon, and if you behave badly… Look, we’re in a business that loves stories and storytelling, so you know how that’s going to wind up. We talk. Be an ass and we’ll talk about you. Probably, for sure, we’ll embellish.
What’s the worst piece of writing/storytelling advice you’ve ever received?
I wish I didn’t have to narrow it down to just one. But because two, as it turns out, isn’t the new one: Write what you know.
Who wants to write about something they already know? Bo-ring! I’d rather write about things I don’t know and get some extra educational value out of my job. Writers are (or should be) by nature insatiably curious people. We desire growth and devour new things. So it makes sense that we’d want to write about those new, shiny things. It keeps our stories from stagnating on the page. It keeps us fresh and interesting as storytellers.
The only exception here is that you have to know people—really know people—to be able to convincingly write about them. The best books are the ones that tell universal truths about human nature. I’m pretty sure I stole that last line from my sweetheart. He’s a wise man.
I could talk forever about bad advice. There’s more floating around out there right now than ever before, and it’s often bigger and splashier than the good. Bad advice is cunning because it dresses up as whatever it is new writers want to hear.
What goes into writing a strong character? Bonus round: give an example of a strong character.
Everything, including the kitchen sink, the garbage disposal, and the compost heap. Restraint is death to strong characters. The minute you start holding back is the minute that strong character winds up diluted and insipid. Often when I’m trying to get a strong character down on paper, I ask myself, “What would someone better than me do in this situation?” A strong character doesn’t always recognize their strength, either. They have moments of self-doubt and they fail. But if you can pull them back onto their feet and keep them moving forward toward their goal then that goes a long way toward painting a strong character on paper.
Note: “Strong” is not necessarily a synonym for kick-ass, bitchy or snarky. Some of the strongest characters are the quietest on the page.
Bonus round: One of my favorite examples of a strong (and recent) character: Myfanwy Thomas in Daniel O’Malley’s The Rook. From an older book: Melanie Wilkes in Gone With the Wind.
Sell us on White Horse in 140 characters — the space of a single tweet.
WHITE HORSE: It’s like THE ROAD, but with breasts, hope, and punctuation.
White Horse takes place during the end of the human world. Why set a book there? What drew you to the apocalypse?
I think there’s a little piece in all of us that wonders what the world would be like if everything suddenly ended. It’s the ultimate “what if?” scenario. Even as a kid I loved destroying my Lego creations as much as I loved constructing them. Why? Because it’s a chance for do-overs. Bigger, better do-overs. All that potential just excites the heck out of me, as a storyteller. It’s such an extreme situation and a real chance to see how far characters are willing to go to survive, and to discover what really matters to them. Like living people, you never know what characters are made of until you’ve shoved them over the edge.
Really though, WHITE HORSE’s apocalypse was one of those serendipitous things. I didn’t mean to write an apocalyptic/post-apocalyptic novel. It just…happened. One minute my protagonist was sitting in her therapist’s office, the next she was standing in Italy at the end of the world. I really don’t know why or how.
That sounds like total BS, but it’s true. All my best material is accidental. Even if you’re a staunch plotter, leave room for surprises.
Talking about this reminds me: If anyone out there is brilliantly funny, ala Christopher Moore, I’d love them to give Adam and Eve the LAMB treatment. Because I think the Next Big Thing in publishing will be beginning-of-the-world stories.
You wrote the book in present tense — why? What is the value that present tense brings to the page and the story? And what is the challenge of it?
I never really over-think tense when I start a new story. There’s always a clear stand out, a way the story wants to be told. Which sounds a bit woo-woo, I know. But when you’ve been writing for a while, I think certain things start becoming instinctual. Anyway, when I began working on WHITE HORSE, every line that popped out of my fingers, ala Spiderman (okay, so I know the silly string pops out of his wrists, not his fingers) was present tense. It felt natural so I went with it. For a few paragraphs I tried past tense, but the story refused to flow. Once I switched back, the story began pouring onto the page again. Why fight what’s meant to be?
The beauty of present tense is that it’s so immediate. The reader is right there as everything is happening to the protagonist. And it lends a certain feeling that anything can happen. There’s no foresight. With past tense you’re almost guaranteed that the protagonist survived the story’s events, and they’re telling their tale in retrospect. I like the uncertainty present tends lends to the situation.
But present tense is also extremely unforgiving. It’s the white pants of tenses. It can be tedious or too tell-y. And much like first-person, it looks deceptively easy. Solid prose can quickly become a list of events if you’re not careful. Couple it with first-person and risk burying your readers in a lint-filled navel-gazing pit.
What is your favorite (er, non-White Horse) end-of-the-world story?
No question about it: Stephen King’s THE STAND. I recently purchased a new copy because I wore out the old one. Not only is it a fantastic story, but it’s so huge that if the world ends you could use it as a weapon.
Recommend a book, comic book, film, or game: something with great story. Go!
Game: Monopoly. Go to jail and get out free if you have a special, magical card? Oh yeah, you just know there would be record-breaking box office there if only someone had the gumption to make that movie. I’m looking at you, Battleship producers.
Book: Shades of Grey, by Jasper Fforde
Film: Big Fish
Favorite word? And then, the follow up: Favorite curse word?
The. It’s just so damn useful. Except in that last sentence, where it wasn’t useful at all. Fuck.
Which leads me to…
Fuck is my favorite curse word, and (as shown above) often more useful than “the.” My editor’s going to be SO surprised when I do a “search and replace.”
Favorite alcoholic beverage? (If cocktail: provide recipe. If you don’t drink alcohol, fine, fine, a non-alcoholic beverage will do.)
My go-to drinks are the humble screwdriver (vodka and OJ. Juice, not Simpson, because that would be weird) and rum and Coke. But right now I’m 34 weeks pregnant and I’d happily kill someone and then make a slow getaway in a white Bronco for a Pina Colada. I’ve been making do with fresh pineapple.
But there’s no funny story there, so let me tell you about this drink called a Flaming Lamborghini. Actually, I can’t tell you a story about that, mostly because I don’t remember it (I was in Australia, it was my 18th birthday, a bouncer had to carry me out of the club, and on the way home I lost $20 and my favorite belt; that’s all I’ve got), but I can give you the recipe.
1 oz Blue Curacao
1 oz Kahlua
1 oz Bailey’s
1 oz Sambuca
Combine the Sambuca and Kahlua in a cocktail glass. Pour the Bailey’s and Blue Curacao into two shot glasses. Set the combined Sambuca and Kahlua on fire, stick in a straw and start sucking. Halfway through, tip the two shot glasses into the cocktail glass and keep on sucking until the glass is empty and you have a lungful of plastic fumes from the melting straw. Don’t stand up too quickly, especially if you’re proving your clinical insanity by consuming more than one.
If you try this and Something Bad happens, don’t forget to blog/Tweet about it so we can all share in the fun. Bonus points if you provide Youtube links and/or proof that you wound up groveling in front of someone named Your Honor.
What interesting things did you do before you decided to start nailing words to pages? Don’t leave us hanging, now.
I’m going to answer this like my parole officer isn’t reading it.*
Where were we? Oh yes, I went off on grand adventures, after discovering that I had nothing to write about—yet. And by grand adventures I mean I moved from Australia to Texas and got married. If that doesn’t sound all that exciting, believe me, it is. I had to learn about all kinds of new, crazy things, like health insurance, tipping, and Congress. I suffered through endlessly amusing questions, such as “What language did you speak before you came to America?” and “Do y’all have these where you come from?” (The item in question was a watermelon)
For a time I taught English as a Second Language, which is probably the second best job I’ve ever had. It taught me two things: Celebrity gossip is a super-easy way to teach English; mules and elderly Russian men share DNA. Life’s always interesting when you mix with people whose life circumstances are wildly different to your own. Plus you learn new ways to curse. That’s always dead useful.
I traveled a bunch, ate weird food, spent way too much time in Las Vegas. What happens in Vegas is that you really quickly become sick to death of people and noise. Then you start to notice how grimy everything is behind the pretty lights. Then you wind up gnawing off your own hand at the airport, the one stuck in a slot machine, to get the hell out of there.
I learned to renovate a house. Don’t ask me to swing a hammer, because I suck at that unless you want a house filled with bent nails, but I can lay some pretty mean tile.
And somewhere along the way I may have tried to feed a raw steak to a bull. Let’s just say bulls don’t like steak. Or people running away from them. But you didn’t hear that from me.
There are so many other things, too, but…see first paragraph. I like to tease my fiance that we’re both the living embodiment of that old Chinese curse, “May you lead an interesting life.”
*I don’t really have a parole office, but I do have a mother. Which is kind of the same thing.**
** Just kidding. My mother is nothing short of amazing. That’s a real and unpaid endorsement.
Holy crap, you’re having a baby soon! Congratulations. You’re about to suffer a small apocalypse of your own — have you prepared your life for the beautiful storm that’s about to hit?
Thank you! We’ve been preparing for a reverse zombie apocalypse. Which means retrofitting our house to keep things in instead of out. We’re stocking up on everything humanly possible, because apparently we won’t be able to leave the house until our daughter goes to college. At least that’s what other parents tell me. I figure we’re already in good shape, too, because we’re used to spelling things out so our dog doesn’t understand them.
My guy is also sharpening his shotgun skills, for when the drooling teenage boys launch their invasion. I pity the fools.
What skills do you bring to help the humans win the inevitable war against the robots?
I collect magnets and I know how to wield them.* And thanks to Daniel Wilson’s Robopocalypse I already know how to defeat the robots. You should probably buy his book and a can opener if you want to survive.
*This may or may not be true.
What’s next for you as a storyteller? What does the future hold?
I’m currently shifting commas in Red Horse, book two of the White Horse trilogy. After I hurl that to my editor and duck, I want to work on a novel I’ve had brewing in my brain for about a year now. I can’t tell you about it because otherwise I’ll lose interest. I’m one of those writers: Once the story is told, whatever the medium, I can’t go back and retell it. But it’s going to be great. Or semi great. Or not-so-great any place except inside my own head.
All this is just code for “I’m just biding time until December 21.” If the world ends I don’t want to have done all this work for nothing.