Discover the writing superpowers of Sophia Alexander. Read on and find out more…
According to Wikipedia, ‘a superhero is a type of heroic character possessing extraordinary talents, supernatural phenomena, or superhuman powers and is dedicated to a moral goal or protecting the public.’ Sounds like a writer to me!
Join me as another one of these unsung superheroes invites into their personal ‘batcave’.
If you were to write the ‘origins episode’ of your writing, what would be the most important scenes? What did your early efforts look like? Are they still around to be used as bribes and blackmail material?
I suppose we need scenes to create an ‘origins episode,’ so here are a handful:
- Cue in a teenage girl scribbling out peach-colored pages full of loopy cursive writing. Words are slashed with others crammed in the margins. This isn’t fiction writing, nor one of her neatly-done assignments. She is busy writing her Italian penpal a letter. A letter that will be saved.
- Scene changes to the same girl at school, ‘passing notes’ with friends. Gossipy, curious notes. After school, she is tethered to a coiled phone cord, clueless about her father’s futile attempts to call home, sprawling for hours on an upstairs-hallway carpeted floor. Those telephone conversations are long forgotten, but the passed notes become nostalgic, curious treasures saved in boxes. Revisiting her younger voice on occasion is familiar and revealing, all at once.
- Forward to graduate school: exhausted young woman wearing glasses, more serious than she’s ever been. She’s formalizing her writing to a nauseating degree. Long, dry research papers—and little time for pleasure-reading. She shifts her glasses and rubs her eyes, deliberating on whether or not to indulge in the oh-so-famous Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone that her husband has just bought—she still has so much to study. But surely she can spare a few hours for a book whose sequels are prompting parades and parties around the world… She hasn’t read a novel in ages. Alright, she’s sold. They read it aloud, together, and they love it.
- Now a flashback picture reel, a flood of moments depicting a childhood spent reading books: In bed ignoring the singed smell until flames lick from a pillow that has caught fire from the bed lamp clamped to the headboard. Soaking in a hot bath and gasping in horror when her book slips, splashing into the water. Piling her book bag, dresser, and arms with stacks upon countless stacks of library books, including the last of the Nancy Drews. Carefully scrutinizing Troll book orders as she prioritizes which books she can afford. Shushing chatty friends as their teacher reads aloud the next chapter of a Lloyd Alexander fantasy. Cringing at the crease in the cover of Little Women by Louisa May Alcott—she’s re-reading it for the seventh time and has kept it undamaged until now. Receiving two bags full of Harlequins from her romance-smitten aunt—and consuming them that same summer, sometimes three per day.
These scenes represent the origins of my passion for the written word. At this very moment, a flyer for a library book sale resides on my fridge—and I still write letters: long-winded letters to my best friend who decided to become a counselor after years of listening to my prattle. She’ll be brilliant.
As for writing fiction, well, that began perhaps eight years ago. Here’s a scene:
- I’m bracing my laptop in bed and then at the cluttered table—or in the car as my children attend taekwondo classes. An orange box sits at my side, its contents guiding me through my novel-in-a-month rough draft. I’ve fallen into writing my novel like Alice down the rabbit hole. I don’t sit primly at a writing desk with a fountain pen and ink blotter, of course—though both Alice and my protagonists might—but I channel the writing styles of beloved classic authors. As a result, my first novel comes out at a reading level suitable for severely-robed Ph.D. candidates, my Southern family saga told in a prim, longwinded form. My defense is that Jane Austen and Nathaniel Hawthorne are just as guilty. But then, they aren’t writing in the twenty-first century, are they?
Years later, after numerous writing groups and much reading of articles and books on editing, I get that a Victorian style of writing is outdated—even for historical-fiction lovers. And my writing has changed accordingly. I work to whittle sentences. I incorporate more visceral, sensory touches, and I loathe redundancies. In some of my more recent writings, I’ve even adopted first person, present tense. As a result of my stylistic changes, I’ve decided to give my Silk Trilogy a 21st century overhaul—but it’s still my baby.
All superheroes have their mild-mannered secret identity, what is yours? I promise we won’t tell.
I’m Mama. Fretting not just about my books, but about my real-life kids. I’m muddling through the parenting thing—fairly adept at cooking, dismal about cleaning, absolutely love chatting with my kids. We really should have folks over more often, but I’m endlessly distracted with writing and research. Just so long as my kids turn out well and hubby stays patient with the slivers of time he gets…
Who are your partners in crime? What are their superpowers?
Let’s see. There are so many! My sidekick is Michael the Sniper, who can pick off typos and redundancies at a hundred yards.
Then there’s my daughter. Though she’s only fourteen, Fiona the Editor slashes through clutter to find the pearls in my writing. And she’ll drop in a few pearls herself. One day she’ll edit all my writing. She’s already one of the best writers I know.
Laura the Guide specializes in leading the novice towards independence. She has a native, innate wisdom about, well, virtually everything—with no compulsion to belabor what she tells you. She is a kind authority, and her guiding words should be mulled carefully. She’s generally right.
Sally the Poet wields a pen that blasts apart awkward sentence structures. She hears the rhythm of words and faithfully tries to deliver me from long, Victorian constructions. I’m convinced that Sally brews a truth serum mixed with a few drops of Southern flattery which she takes before group meetings. This must be how she so smoothly sandwiches her critiques between assurances that my writing is ‘meticulous and excellent as always.’
Melding himself into the storylines, Rick the Artist becomes our stories. He points out inconsistencies with feeling and discusses overarching concepts with valuable insight. Best of all, he inspires the writer to feel that her writing is worth reading.
Will the Cartographer sees the invisible parts, reminding me what’s needed to make my story more harmonious. He points out when I haven’t explained my setting thoroughly enough.
Allergic to a slow story, Dawn the Dramatist looks at the structure from a distance, saying “cut by half” and “reduce this” when I get wordy. In fact, I’m certain she’d advise that I slash this section drastically. Her refreshing New York-style drips something like espresso-riddled nerves and the velvety taste of chocolate into my writing. Blunt and well-intentioned, she exalts brevity. She has the power to grip the reader’s attention.
There are so many who have helped me along the way. Another is Carrie the Delineator, who insists that each character must have a distinctive voice. I could go on and on about other wonderful beta-readers who spot weak points in my writing—or who simply enjoy my stories. There’s nothing like a reader whose eyes light up as she enthusiastically discusses your plot.
Finally, distant superheroes occasionally join forces with me. These phenomenal people create our writing community. They’re writing-group coordinators and those who give authors the opportunity to learn from each other and connect on a larger scale—like you are doing with this interview, Maria.
Where do you get your superpowers from?
Ah, the source! Authors who have come before me, certainly. My family. Society. My ancestors. Since we’re talking superpowers, I really should credit the universe.
Where is your secret lair and what does it look like?
I have two. My tiny writing desk is efficiently tucked into a dormer in our house. It always reminds me of the closet where Amy prayed in Little Women, though it’s no closet and I’m not exactly praying. The second is my grandparents’ old home in South Carolina. I have a lovely, spacious study where the parlor used to be. Ginny will crave this particular house in Homespun, the last installment of the Silk Trilogy.
What kind of training do you do to keep your superpowers in world-saving form? How do you insure they are used only for good?
I read. I read novels that I love. I read historical novels for immersion. I read nonfiction about my eras-of-interest—and letters and memoirs as well. I edit, edit, and re-edit. I give it a break, then look at it fresh and edit some more.
Granted, you probably don’t get to wear your superhero costume a lot, but if you did, what would it look like?
A black turtleneck, but I still have to find the right one. I was charmed by the idea when I heard Kate DiCamillo speak a couple of years ago. She laughed about how she went around wearing black turtlenecks and putting on the ‘persona’ of an author long before she’d actually written much of anything. Sheer brilliance. She was owning her future, wasn’t she? Certainly seemed to work for her. Maybe this fall…
What is your kryptonite? What are the biggest challenges faced with in your writing?
Facebook, research, all the distractions in the world.
What was the supervillain that threatened to stop your latest project and how did you vanquish it?
I suppose it’s perfectionism, and I haven’t vanquished it. I thought that The Silk Trilogy was absolutely, entirely complete, but I surprised myself by going back to do a rewrite.
What important lessons have you learned along the way?
I’ve learned so much about history. Our ancestors weren’t all that different from us. The more you settle into their shoes, the more sense their choices make.
What have been the best/most memorable experiences along the way?
Having people fall in love with my writing. Their friendliness reminds me of how I feel about authors that I love—there’s a sort of intimacy, though we’ve never so much as held a conversation before. When someone cares about the worlds you’ve imagined and how you think about them, it’s hard not to feel warm towards them.
If you did this again, what would you do differently and what would you not change?
Our experiences have led us to where we are. I really couldn’t say.
What is the best (writing or otherwise) advice you have ever gotten and why?
Write from the heart. Keep going. Finish one project—at least the rough draft—before starting another. Impose a structured schedule if you can. I am still amazed that I wrote the rough draft for Silk: Caroline’s Story in only a month. I really should re-implement that sort of discipline. I encourage new writers to sit down to write daily, whether or not they have a clear idea of what they want to say. Keep track of word counts—and if your daily word count goals are met, you’ll have a rough draft before long.
Tell us about your new book and why we need to drop everything and get it now.
Silk: Caroline’s Story is the first novel of The Silk Trilogy, a family saga spanning 1899-1940. In Silk, Carrie is attracted to both a rough-hewn Lowcountry farmer and a small-town doctor. In deciding between them, she fails to consider the strange girl, Jessie. Before long, this South Carolina landscape is riddled with the detritus of Jessie’s intense jealousies.
Please visit www.sophiaalexanderbooks.com to sign up for my mailing list, you’ll receive my short-story “The Amethyst Ring” absolutely free—my treat! In this young-adult fantasy, the ring Alex finds on a Savannah street has a curious power. “The Amethyst Ring” received an honorable mention in the Savannah Anthology 2015. . You’ll be among the first to find out when Silk: Caroline’s Story is available.
What’s in store for you in the future? Do you have any other big projects on the horizon?
Oh do I… All three volumes of The Silk Trilogy should come out over the next two or three years. I’m thrilled with the prospect of seeing this saga about three generations of Lowcountry women roughly based on my ancestors in print at last.
In the meantime, I’m working on a project not entirely unrelated. More ancestors—or at least, purported ancestors—of some of my Silk Trilogy characters. But this time I’m using real names, and we’ve crossed the ocean. Even though it’s set over 200 years earlier, far more detail is known about the lives of these folks—because they’re royalty. The research is consuming. My protagonist is Sophia Dorothea of Celle, the wife of King George I of Great Britain. Trapped in an arranged marriage, she is impatient with court protocols and wants more than any princess should expect—genuine affection, spontaneity, and love. I am ever-more-fascinated by the members of the court surrounding Sophie—and by the opulence and complicated politics of the seventeenth-century Holy Roman Empire.
My writing would not be possible without the wonderful, exhaustive resources that are available through libraries and online—and meanwhile I’ve amassed my own little research library. I recently added your delightful book, Courtship & Marriage in Jane Austen’s World, and feel certain it will influence future works. Thank you, Maria, for inviting me to be a guest and for this fantastic interview.
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