Novel Secrets Series: Interview with Author Elaine Marie Alphin

Elaine Marie Alphin on Elaine Marie Alphin: “I was born in San Francisco in 1955 and knew from the time I was three that I wanted to become a writer. My dad and I would go for walks in the early morning on weekends, and tell each other stories we’d made up, and I decided that was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life: make up stories and share them with other people.

“We moved to New York City when I was nine, and I fell in love with Broadway and with the American Museum of Natural History. I was heartbroken when we moved to Houston when I was thirteen, but grew to feel very much at home there, so much so that I chose Rice University for my college years.

“I was awarded a Watson Research Fellowship, so after I graduated I lived in England for a year, doing research on a novel about Richard III and the murder of the Princes in the Tower. I imagined that the book would be for adults, because all the lit I’d studied at Rice had been for adults–but when I returned to America I met Arthur Alphin, who would become my husband, and he told me he thought I ought to consider writing for young readers instead.

“I’m still grateful for this insight. I wrote Tournament of Time (Bluegrass Books, 1994) for middle graders and decided that kids were my real audience after all. I write for a wide range of ages, from beginning readers through teenagers. The only book I’ve ended up writing for adults is a book on how to write for young readers!”

For those new to your work, could you briefly summarize your back list, highlighting as you see fit?

Although Tournament of Time was the first book I wrote for young readers, The Ghost Cadet (Henry Holt, 1991) was the first book I published for young readers. It placed on fourteen state award lists and won the 1995 Virginia Best Book Award, and it was so successful that Henry Holt asked me to write a companion book some years later. Ghost Soldier (Henry Holt, 2001) was nominated for the 2002 Edgar Allan Poe Award for Best Juvenile Mystery, has placed on six state lists and won the 2002 Society of Midland Authors Children’s Fiction Award and the 2004 Young Hoosier Book Award.

In addition to writing novels for middle graders, I also write novels for young adults. Probably my most successful YA novel to date has been Counterfeit Son (Harcourt, 2000), which won the 2001 Edgar Award for Best Young Adult mystery, has been placed on numerous state award lists and Best Of… lists, and has just been optioned for film.

Simon Says (Harcourt, 2002) is another YA novel that’s very special to me. I wrote the first draft of that book in 1977, while I was still in college, when I was struggling with the realities of wanting to live the creative life. It’s probably the book that brings in the most correspondence from readers, who have been touched by the characters’ struggles to find ways to be true to themselves.

My most recent novel, The Perfect Shot (Carolrhoda, 2005) won the 2006 ForeWard Book of the Year Gold Medal in the Young Adult category, and it’s very special to me because it centers on my passions for history and its impact on the present, and for justice. I’ve gotten intense reactions from teen readers about this one, both to the basketball subplot and to the whole idea of struggling to prevent injustice. There’s more information about these and my other books at my website:

You are one of the author-teachers associated with Novel Secrets: A Novel Retreat in 3 Acts, and your focus will be starting and developing a novel. Could you tell us more about that?

Nancy L. Sharp and I met at a conference in North Dakota where I’d led an interactive session on developing plot and character, and she came up with this wonderful idea for a retreat that would carry participants through actually writing a first draft of a new novel, revising it, and then learning how to market it, and how to move forward to the next novel.

She asked me if I’d be willing to lead the first Act of the Retreat on planning your novel and getting to work on your first draft. I’ve written about developing plot and characters in Creating Characters Kids Will Love (Writer’s Digest Books, 2000) and I’ve led workshops getting writers started before at several SCBWI conferences, but always in a small way, as part of a conference program in which other speakers offered other subjects (in case attendees were more interested in writing picture books or getting an agent, for example), so I was thrilled by the idea of focusing on a single novel for the whole weekend.

I’m sure some writers will come to the retreat with ideas in mind, and others will come hoping to find ideas, so I plan to take everyone through the process of delving into their passions to find inspiration for their writing, and then crafting a plan for their book. It’s amazing how much writers can accomplish when they’re inspired and free from the daily domestic routine!

Will you be lecturing, offering writing exercises, critiquing?

I’ll be doing some lecturing, but everything will be geared to getting participants writing and bonding together in small critique groups. My sessions will be accompanied by lots of worksheets with exercises to help participants develop main and secondary characters and plot, structure and pace their novel, and then deepen the original plot skeleton–what I like to call the roller coaster track since the experience of writing a novel (as well as the experience of reading it!) is a lot like a roller coaster ride.

Everybody who attends can look forward to doing a lot of writing during the retreat, first making notes on their novel, and building up to actually writing some of that novel before they leave (we have free time set aside to write), so that they have a good start to carry them over their return to home, family, and the interruption of the pure creative writing life we’ll enjoy at the retreat.

What are a few of the challenges in starting a novel?

The biggest challenge is getting an idea that will support a novel–the second biggest challenge is holding off charging ahead with that idea before you have a chance to work out what you really want to do with it–what voice you want to use, where your story actually begins, what background research needs doing so you can write naturally about what your characters are doing and thinking.

I really struggled to hold myself back from plunging into writing Counterfeit Son until I researched serial killers and sailing, for example.

Some writers feel comfortable plunging in right away, understanding that means they’ll have to do considerable revision later on as the novel comes into clearer focus in their minds, but other writers, especially beginning novelists, get frustrated when their idea peters out on them, and may just stop. Or they keep trying doggedly, but they want to retain what they wrote in the first flush of enthusiasm, even though it no longer fits with the way the book is evolving, because they worked hard on it. So I advocate doing a great deal of planning and getting to know your characters so that once you plunge in you find it easy to return to your writing and keep moving forward.

How do the psychological and the professional fit together…or not?

This question made me scratch my head–at first I interpreted it as the characters’ psychological lives fitting together with the writer’s professional life, which can be challenging because as you live more and more in the world of your novel, with your characters, thinking their thoughts and feeling their emotions, their psyches can impinge on your day-to-day world, to the point where you may answer a question or write a letter in a tone or in words that your characters might use. This can be embarrassing when you’re speaking with or writing to an editor…

However, then I was told that the question was intended to mean the way the writer’s psychological life fits with her professional life. Oops. You can see just how character driven I am. Anyway–in the first place there’s something about a writer’s psyche that drives her to write, to explore ideas on paper in the guise of characters, so the two fit together very well.

However, in everyday life we have a lot of distractions. There’s our personal life (caring for families, cooking (or buying take-out), perhaps a paying job to cover bills, etc.) and then there’s our professional, or business, life (dealing with editors, perhaps teaching, perhaps writing other, short, projects separate from our novel, maintaining our website, corresponding with readers, etc.).

The artistic psyche often gets frustrated with these less creative sides of life, because there are only so many hours in a day. It’s a juggling act for us all, and one of the things we’ll be talking about at the retreat is a writing plan that allows time for both the creative side and the less creative side of living.

However, there’s another aspect to the writer’s psychological life. We’re all affected by things that happen to us, for good or for bad, and these things shape our psychological lives–they give us our hang-ups. Strong novels grow from strong hang-ups, as writers explore aspects of our psychological lives through their characters. So, in the end, the psychological life feeds the professional life.

Could you share one tip for beginning novelists?

Care passionately about your subject matter and about your characters, especially your main character. You’re going to be taking a long journey with your characters for quite some time, and you should want to enter into their world, not dread going there.