Welcome to the Forty Over 40 blog. We frequently spotlight one of our honorees and their thoughts on reinvention, mentorship and momentum…plus a peek into what makes them tick.
This Q & A is with Alma Alexander, Renaissance Woman. Alma is innovating her field of work by being a Speaker. Previously, Editor, Heinemann Educational Publishing. Has lived in five countries on four continents! Native of Yugoslavia, grew up in Zambia, Swaziland, and South Africa, England, New Zealand, and now US.
1) What was a pivotal momentum of reinvention for you?
I have never reinvented myself. I’ve been self-defining as a writer all of my life. I don’t think I know how to be anything else, by this point – it’s been half a century of that, and it’s part of my DNA. There is no room for reinvention here.
2) Who has been a valuable mentor or sponsor?
I’ve had inspirations, but neither mentors nor sponsors, not as I understand those concepts. My earliest inspiration is and remains my grandfather, a practicing poet with seven books to his name, who taught me early about the power and beauty of language. But if I am to step outside of family and broaden the meaning of the word “mentor”, then I would have to single out my first encounter with a Real Live Writer – Lynne Reid Banks, who came to visit my school when I was 15 years old. I sat in the school library listening to her telling it like it was – telling the truth– telling of the writing life, and the blood and the sweat and the tears and the frustrations and the agonies and the joys – and I sat up and something inside of me said, THIS, I WANT THIS. It is in many ways thanks to this moment that I eventually became what I was. (Many years later I wrote to her to tell her about this. She did not remember the precise occasion, but she was delighted that something that she had done in her writing life had been so inspirational. In the years that followed I’ve done a number of school visits myself – and if any one of them resulted in a young life being touched by MY words in the way that mine had been touched by Lynne Reid Banks’s I would call it an honor to have been able to pass the torch to a new generation…)
3) What is your biggest goal right now?
Living a life that will leave a legacy worth remembering. I know, it’s broad, but the stories I leave behind will in many ways outlive me. I would hope that they continue to entertain and inspire readers long after I myself am no longer here.
4) How did you get your first job? How did you jump to your second job?
I actually trained as a scientist and my very first job in my field was in a pathology lab where I was supposed to inject lab bunnies with poisons which would in one way or another destroy them – and I couldn’t do it. I stood there with a rabbit in one hand and a syringe in the other and wept. After I crawled into the sanctuary of the ladies to try and stop bawling, it occurred to me that this possibly wasn’t the career I might be cut out for. So I segued sideways, and took up a job as “production editor” for the journal of the Allergy Society of South Africa. That encompassed everything from reporting on conferences, writing and editing copy, dealing with advertisers, and anything else that came up needing to be done. That took me to pharmaceutical writing/editing, and from that into a senior editorial position with an international educational publisher. Once I left that… I simply continued doing what I always wanted to do in the first place. Write.
5) What time do you typically wake up? What do you do every morning?
I am not really competent to be “human” before at least 9AM, and even then not before a cup of coffee. I tend to wake with dreams still spooling in my head, and sometimes it is necessary to write down a few key words to serve as a mnemonic because I’ve used these dreams as story seeds more than once. I’ve always had vivid dreams using all the senses, and that has been part of my storytelling DNA. As to morning routines, I have (more) coffee, and then I “commute” downstairs to my office where I tend to spent more time than I should dealing with email, Twitter, and Facebook. After that, I get on with the research that needs to get done, or if I have a work in progress I turn to that.
6) How did you feel on your 30th birthday? What were you doing at that time?
For some reason the big Three Oh was absolutely fine for me. I was kind of a “grown up” now, not a kid any more, but I was also still YOUNG. I was working as an in-house senior editor at that point, and having a ball at it. I was pretty much on top of the world, and everything was shining and possible. Good times.
7) How do you unplug? How often do you unplug?
I start getting antsy without my Internet after a couple of ENFORCED hours away from it. But if I choose to unplug it, I am perfectly fine if I just occasionally touch base with my email. I am not yet completely enthralled by the cyberworld to the point that I can’t exist without it. And unlike most people today, I am far from wedded to my cellphone. It is for my convenience, not anyone else’s, and I don’t’ walk around staring at the screen of the phone instead of the world around me. So you might say I am very loosely plugged in to begin with…
8) What challenge / achievement are you most proud of?
There are a few I might mention – but let’s stick to a nice flashy one. A number of years ago NASA decided to produce a commemorative poster honoring the Mercury 13, the first women who could actually be termed NASA astronauts. They wrote to ask if they could use a fragment of of a poem of mine on that poster. I screamed, and I cried, and then I wrote them a commendably level-headed response telling them that of course they could. I have always believed in the stars, and this is really pretty much as close as I have come to being a part of the whole process of becoming a starfaring species. I am still immensely proud of the fact that I was chosen for this and a copy of the poster hangs in pride of place in my house. Of course, there’s other things that might take their rightful place here. I remain delighted and not a little astonished that my most successful novel, “The Secrets of Jin-Shei”, ended up in 13 languages worldwide – and a Spanish bestseller. But then, I am proud of all of my books. They all have their own peculiar attributes which make me proud to have had a hand in making them live.
9) What cause do you most want to advance?
I could say liberty and justice for all, but that would be hubris – that is not for one person to advance, that is the work of all of us. If I could pick a smaller thing, then, as a writer, I would like to choose stories. I would want to make sure everyone in this world grows up with stories, that everyone in this world loves language, that everyone in this world (after having clean water and food and a roof over their heads first, of course, priorities matter) has AN EDUCATION, that everyone can read, and has a love of reading inculcated in them. Everyone, and more specifically, the girls of the world. Education helps everything move forward, makes everything better in the long run. To paraphrase Malala Yousafzai, the thing that most scares those who would kill is a girl with a book in her hand. It is those girls to whom I would want to hold out my hand and help them stand up and be counted.
10) What song can’t you get out of your head?
That changes regularly, but often it is Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah”. Particularly since it’s a kind of anthem, and I tend to re-word the last verse slightly because it turns into a sort of vow: And even if it all goes wrong I’ll stand before the Lord of Song With nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah.
11) What is your “keep me going” quote?
I’ve been inspired and supported by many different people, but if you want a quote then I offer you one that the late great Roger Zelazny once offered to me: “You have a voice all of your own. Nobody else will ever write like this.” Those are the words I try to live up to every time I make another sentence of story.
12) What is your secret indulgence?
Chocolate. The GOOD kind. The older I get the less I like the cheap sweet milk chocolate and go to the good dark chocolate – 70%-plus cocoa content. I’m old enough now to know that without the hint of bitter you cannot believe the too-sweet.
Check out Alma Alexander’s full profile here!