A Few Words with Author Alison Sinclair

When I first read Darkborn, I really enjoyed it, so I looked up the author, Alison Sinclair and since it was possible to do so, I sent her a message letting her know that I had enjoyed her book and reviewed it and left a link to my review in case she was interested in reading it. Much to my surprise I received an email back. I don’t know, maybe it’s a Canadian thing to respond directly to your fans or maybe that’s just Sinclair herself. Either way, I was absolutely delighted. As my readers know, I also read and reviewed the two subsequent books, Lightborn and Shadowborn. During that time, I kept up correspondence with Sinclair and was forward enough to ask her a few questions about writing, which she was gracious enough to answer. It’s always been my dream to ask my favourite writers where their ideas come from and what excites their imaginations, so I really couldn’t resist the opportunity since it was there in front of me. My sincerest thanks to Alison for taking time out to satisfy the curiosity of a fan.

You’ll find the Q&A, unedited, below. I hope you find Sinclair’s answers as interesting and enlightening as I did. For those burgeoning writers out there, perhaps you’ll find some encouragement in Sinclair’s experiences. For myself I found that Sinclair’s style of writing is similar to the way I approach a project, a mutual dream of being on a starship, some great new authors to check out and a couple of my own favourites from years gone by.

Leslie: How did you get into writing? Was it always something you wanted to do or more accidental?

Alison Sinclair: I started putting stories together pretty much as soon as I could write. Certainly long before I could write tidily, spell, or knew that writing should line up along the left hand margin. At the age of eight I was working on a novel called “Shipwrecked on an Island”, which owed a considerable debt to a child’s version of Robinson Crusoe, Swiss Family Robinson, and (ahem!) Gilligan’s Island. I eventually got my castaway rescued and sent my novel to a publisher (handwritten, except for the first 3 pages, with illustrations), who rejected it. Unfortunately the manuscript and my prized first rejection letter went missing in one of our household moves. I’ve no idea what drove the impulse, or where I got the notion that stories were something that _I_ could do, although my mother taught English and History, so I bet that had something to do with it. The thought of being a writer as a profession didn’t occur to me for years: my fixed ambition was to be a scientist. (Well, I think my first ambition was to be Science Officer of a starship, but it eventually dawned on me I was before my time).

Leslie: What authors do you enjoy/are you inspired by?

AS: Off the top of my head . . . Lois McMaster Bujold. I devour her books for the characters and plot, and then sit contentedly chewing the bones and figuring out how she gets everything to articulate. Ursula Le Guin, because . . . well, because. I had to stop reading her for a while when I was younger, out of self preservation. CJ Cherryh, who can be obscure, but oh so twisty, and does byzantine politics with wonderful aliens! Jo Walton, for literary range and inventiveness – I’ll never read a Victorian novel in quite the same way again after “Tooth and Claw”. Terry Pratchett. I’ve fallen a few books behind, but I hope I grow up to be like Granny Weatherwax. Kim Stanley Robinson, who stuffs his books with science and politics and politics of science until they bulge. Guy Gavriel Kay. Ken McLeod.
Anybody who does beautiful things with modern language, particularly description. I may not be a writer’s writer, but I’m a writer’s reader. Great nature and science writing, which combines precise description with information. I can spend hours reading about deep seas around New Zealand or desert or cold adaptations, because I’m going to build it into a planet, some day. In some senses I’m completely indiscriminate, because I never know when it will come in useful. Well, that’s my excuse.

Leslie: Should we be on the lookout for more in this series? (This is a selfish question; I felt the end of the epilogue was a tease in that direction.)

AS: Not at the moment, no. But yes, I did leave everyone in an interesting place. At the end of her novel “Gone to Soldiers,” Marge Piercy has the line, “The end of one set of problems is the beginning of another,” which describes how I work. I would like to revisit them, but I definitely need a plot first, beyond ‘and then more stuff happens’.

Leslie: Are you working on any new projects?

AS: Yes. Projects plural, which is the problem. I’ve been starting things and stopping things, though one of them seems finally to be taking off, courtesy of the central character, who is born to find trouble, and if she can’t find it, make it.

Leslie: What did you learn about yourself while writing this series?

AS: That one needs discipline while playing with magic! That, after the first book of a trilogy goes to press, I don’t have the option of going back and removing unexploded plot-bombs I have decided not to use. Either I have to be more judicious in the planting, or more creative in the thinking. I was delighted with the archduke’s breakfast, for instance, because four different plot-bombs blew up at once. That writing a ‘traditional’ female character involved walking a fine line between my determination to make her a product of her society and my (and my readers’) wariness of old stereotypes for female characters.

Leslie: And of course your working method. Are you disciplined? A last minute cramer? Do you write daily or in spurts? Are you a night owl or do you sit at your computer 9-5? What works for you? What gets you past writers’ block?

AS: Deadlines (externally-imposed ones) are my friends. I’m capable of doing far more writing in my head than on the computer, which goes a lot faster and means I can just skip over the bits I haven’t figured out. Deadlines force me to sit down and deal with the fact that I don’t know how I’m going to get my plot from C to D, and then from D to E, and keep doing it until I get to the end. I don’t necessarily get blocked, but years of writing around the demands of day jobs (and sometimes day-and-night jobs) have given me something of a spurt and stall pattern, and I have to make an effort to push through the stalls rather than just letting things percolate at their own pace. Getting my body in motion helps to lubricate my thinking: I usually do my best problem-solving while walking, or swimming, or in the gym.
My usual pattern is – first few chapters, fun! discovery! invention! new people! new places! whee! Then I find myself having to get disciplined, think about the whys and wherefores, think about plot and responsible worldbuilding instead of ‘whee!’. (Which explains why I have more beginnings than I do ends on my hard drive). I do not outline in advance, which tends to make the whole process messily organic, and leads to lots of rewriting as ideas refine, but I keep constant notes, and have frequent plot-bashing sessions in my notebooks as I work out where I’m going. The middle phase consists of sliding pieces around, trying to get them to fit together, usually feeling like I’ve got hold of a 1000-piece jigsaw puzzle that has all the edges missing and consists mostly of sky. And contains stray pieces of several other jigsaw puzzles that don’t belong and have to be recognized and put aside. Sometimes I have to admit it is not working, go back and take another run at it. But eventually I reach a point when all the major decisions are made and the book starts to roll downhill, and I just get to chase it. Once I get to the end, I look back at the beginning, contemplate the right-angle bend in the middle, sigh, and go back to the beginning to start lining the beginning up with the end.


And that’s my interviewing 2¢ for today.


~ by leslies2cents on September 15, 2011.

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