November 5th 2014
The Light of Story…
Disclosure: a version of this essay first appeared here
The books of the Were Chronicles might be the most ambitious thing I have ever attempted, and that includes highly complex novels like “Secrets of Jin Shei” where I had to keep track of eight full-time protagonists and what their particular stories were doing at any given time and how they all fit together. But that was *one book*, and these…? Well, let me start at the beginning.
The Were Chronicles were born as a short story.
There was this anthology with a were-critter theme, and I hit upon this wonderful idea which I had never seen anywhere before – my shiny new idea! Mine! – and decided to write a short story about a Random Were. A were-creature that followed all the rules of the classic trope… except one. They weren’t nailed into an animal form. In fact, whatever the last warm-blooded creature was that they laid eyes on at the point of their turn… it was THAT creature which they turned into. Anything. A monkey. A rat. A parrot. A seal. A whale, if they weren’t careful. Things could get out of control very quickly.
I started out with a comical premise. My young protagonist’s parents were Randoms – they would turn into their default form, the primary form, if no other warm blooded target presented itself, and in their primary forms her father was a were-tom-cat and her mother (an unfortunate farmyard accident…) was a were-chicken. And yeah, it was hilarious. I could have a lot of fun with this. And I was.
Right until the moment I realized two things.
One was that I was hitting five thousand words (which was the length of a respectable anthologizable short story) and I hadn’t properly said HELLO yet. This world was bigger, much bigger, than I had anticipated.
The other thing was that I was no longer laughing. This would be a story with a few comic touches here and there… but it was darker than I had thought. And richer. And deeper. And it wanted to tackle painful ideas.
So it wanted to be a novel. I shrugged and reformulated in my head – this had happened to me before, short stories taking the bit between their metaphorical teeth and bolting for the hills, and I was familiar with the sensation. But it was worse than I thought.
It did not want to be one novel. It wanted to be three novels. And each of the three novels would be riding the same main story arc but from a different (a VERY different) point of view, re-informing the story anew every time. It was a deeply complex set-up, far more ambitious than anything I had ever attempted before.
But it wasn’t just this, either. This was just the shape and form of it, which was difficult enough, complicated enough, to give me pause, but still and all, it was just the form. The substance of the story… was a vast and deep and angry ocean which I had not expected there at all.
This book wanted to be about important things. It wanted to be about discrimination, about how it would feel to be considered “inferior”, to be controlled, to be legislated into helplessness because others feared you and hated what you were. It wanted to tackle the issues of bullying – because you were “different”, because you were “not-us”, you were “other”. A theme, this last, that would be all too painfully familiar to young readers (did I mention these books demanded to be YA?) who might be growing up in a neighborhood racially different to them, who might be disabled in some way, who might be of a frowned-upon and despised sexual orientation.
These were books that would begin to explain, from the inside, the pain of being Jewish, of being Black, of being gay, of being… different. These were books that would look that dragon in its fiery eye, and face it down. These were books that were far more important than any fiction that I had ever tackled before.
More than that, these books marked a return to an earlier incarnation of myself – the Author as Scientist. I began to work out in reasonably intricate detail the genetic background and heritage of the Were-kind – and this was unexpectedly delightful. So far as I know, such an exploration of Were BIOLOGY as opposed to just surface MYTHOLOGY had never been done before.
I have been a full-time writer for fifteen years now, more, and yet I found myself in brand new territory with these books, on paths I had not walked before. I am grateful beyond words to discover that such new vistas are still open to me, and I very much look forward to welcoming you into this world – one of the most detailed, most lovingly crafted, most treasured worlds that I have ever built. I hope it brings you vision, beauty, perhaps catharsis, peace, enlightenment, understanding. And underlying all of that I hope that the story itself, the characters who inhabit it (who are some of my best, ever), the world in which it is set, all bring you the kind of pure reading enjoyment that makes you sorry, when you close the book, that it is finished.
I thoroughly enjoyed writing these stories, they stretched me and they gave me wings; I hand them over to you now, the readers, a candle to take with you into the dark. May the light of story– so small, so fragile, so powerful – keep you safe in the shadows of the world.
Alma Alexander is a novelist, short story writer and anthologist whose books include High Fantasy ("Hidden Quen""Changer of Days"), historical fantasy ("Secrets of Jin Shei", "Embers of Heaven"), contemporary fantasy ("Midnight at Spanish gardens") and YA (the Worldweavers series, the Were Chronicles). She lives in the Pacific Northwest with her husband and two cats. Visit site.
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