This summer, Alexa took part in UnRequired Reading through her publisher, Hyperion Teens, and we had this semi-formal interview.
Your debut novel, GIRL WONDER, started out as a story about a horse, then evolved into a story about a senior in high school - and eliminated the horse completely. Tell me about that journey (and whether or not the horse story/premise is still floating around your mind for future use!)
The "Horse Book" still floats... but I think it might make a better short story than a novel. The "Horse Book" was a story about a thirteen-year old girl who is crippled by the duel pressures of not fitting in to middle school and pursuing her dream of competitive show jumping (which is a sport with judges). It suffered from a very "pat" feeling to me, and then, while looking at an old photograph of me putting tire chains on my car during a snow storm I had a vision for the climax of GIRL WONDER. And everything changed. And the horse went away. And so did the thirteen-year-old. And middle school. But now that I think about it I see that the themes of "Horse Book" and GIRL WONDER are very similar. Competition. Fitting in with the elite. Trying to succeed in the world of "judged" competition. Transformation. And ultimately self-acceptance.
Which GIRL WONDER character is more like you, Amanda or Charlotte?
Ah, this is a very dangerous question. But because I like you, Little Willow, I will answer honestly. I think I am both characters. Definitely more Charlotte, but with traces of the GOOD parts of Amanda. I admire Amanda for her confidence and lack of inhibition. Though I was very shy earlier in life I have learned how to be "on" if the occasion requires (which I think comes from working so many customer service jobs). I know how to make people comfortable, and know how to get them to relax. I also have a good sense of comic timing. If I'm in the right mood I can definitely be the life of the party (though it does always feel like acting). This aspect of myself scares the crap out of me because I secretly love the attention... but am often left feeling empty afterwards. I still wrestle with Charlotte's insecurities, and I definitely err on the side of wanting people to like me to a fault. I know I have Charlotte's values. I very much believe that who you are and how you treat people matters way more than what you accomplish. That said, I get discouraged when I feel like I'm not "accomplishing" enough.
Charlotte's learning disability, dyscalculia (a learning disability like dyslexia, but with numbers) prevents her from being enrolled in advanced courses in her new school. I would have fought that like crazy! Was Charlotte's LD related to something you have struggled with as well?
In school, did that hold you back or help push you forward?
Oh, my high school was a messed up place! There were about 200 of us in my graduating class and 25 of them were National Merit Finalists. And though I had the grades for AP English my teacher rescinded my invitation because--get this!--my handwriting was "too messy!"
Yes, I do have a learning disability, loosely defined as a visual perception problem (which has elements of both dyscalculia and dyslexia). My parents and teachers discovered this when I was in the fourth grade. Prior to this I'd struggled with math and with writing. My teachers were always accusing me of being "sloppy." My papers were riddled with proofreading mistakes. Once "we" discovered my "problem" I started seeing various tutors. And though my parents and my tutor assured me otherwise, I felt like I was stupid. And I felt incredibly self-conscious about the fact that I was sometimes pulled out of class for extra help. From 4th grade to the end of college I had to have a math tutor, not only for math but for science classes like physics and chemistry that involved math.
What made this all so much worse was the fact that when I was in the eighth grade, at the end of the year when they handed out the class superlatives, I got "The Biggest Airhead" award. It was cruel and awful and to this day I can't believe a public school would actually think it was acceptable to hand out something like this. It made me feel like I must be dumb. Though I got good grades in high school and college I struggled with severe academic performance anxiety. I always felt like the next class I took was going to be the one I failed. It wasn't until I went to graduate school at the Bennington Writing Seminars that I finally realized that yes, actually, I WAS an intelligent person with something important to say.
Did you feel like an outsider when you were in school?
My family moved around a lot when I was a kid. At the end of my fifth grade year we moved from Cleveland, Ohio (a very diverse city where I had lots of diverse friends) to Biloxi, Mississippi (another planet). It would be a gross understatement to say it was culture shock.
We moved a couple of more times after that, and for high school I ended up in Birmingham, Alabama in an old-money kind of 'hood. My public high school actually had school sponsored sororities and fraternities with "rush" and "initiation." I was playing around with being "goth" at a school where Laura Ashley jumpers were the cool thing to wear. There were some very exclusive bible study groups (if you were perky, cute, and well-clothed, you were definitely more godly). I can remember a teacher changing the seating chart and me having to ask her after school to please not sit me next to Tommy Kendricks or Bryce Stepehens, these two boys who teased me cruelly. When she asked me why I thought they didn't like me, I remember telling her, "It's because I'm fat." And I wasn't fat. AT ALL!
At the end of my sophomore year there was a major car crash involving four of the most popular kids, two of whom were killed. This tragic event had a mellowing affect on my class and the kids got nicer.
When I left high school I swore I would never go back to Birmingham... but then ended up there a couple of years ago for about three weeks. It was all very crazy because everyone was so NICE to me. And, Birmingham was beautiful, and I'd remembered it as being very ugly. It wasn't until the summer after my first year of college, when I went to work at Mt. Rainier National Park, that I found a group of friends who accepted me for myself.
Were you ever on debate team?
Like Charlotte, I joined the debate team my senior year of high school (because debate was cool at my school and also I thought it would make me seem "smart" -- which I desperately wanted to seem). I went to debate camp at Emory University, and through a series of flukes my debate partner and I ended up winning the camp-wide tournament. Which meant that the debate coach had very high expectations for me going into the school year (I'm much more likely to succeed when I'm the underdog). I had a serious crush on my debate partner (who was a natural at debate). And I was SO nervous around him, which made me suck at the speeches. Plus, I didn't really "get" debate and wasn't a kid who kept up a whole lot with current events or politics -- which are both a huge staple of debate.
If so, what did you love most about it?
What I loved best about debate was the day it was over.
How do you think debate team changed Charlotte?
I think being bad at debate helped Charlotte to quit fighting her learning disability. I think it helped her to realize that she was trying to fit into a world that she didn't really want to belong to. It's okay to not be good at something. It's okay to have areas of difficulty. I really object to certain fantasy books that permeate this notion that everything will be a-okay once you find your superpower. The truth of the matter is that very few of us have superpowers. You do the best with what you're given. Comparing yourself to others will only leave you feeling empty in the end.
Have you ever dyed your hair hot pink, like Amanda? I liked that she unabashedly wore her wild streak, as it were.
I am not brave with my hair. I don't have a tattoo. Sometimes I dress funky feminine, but that's about as far as my wild streak takes me. But I'm known to say very outlandish things to get a rise or a laugh out of my friends. The risks I've taken have been more on the extreme sports side. Last year I suffered a climbing fall and shattered a disc in my neck, which required major surgery. So I'm being a lot more careful now.
You've worked odd jobs to support yourself as a writer. What was the oddest? The toughest? The most fun?
The VERY WORST EVER job (and the oddest) was when I, a vegetarian, worked at Outback Steakhouse. I was desperate for money and at the time it was the only job I could find. I had to keep my vegetarianism a secret. When I worked at Outback they wanted us to increase sales of French Onion Soup (which most of our customers didn't even like that much). But it got to the point where the manager was giving out shifts based upon your French Onion Soup sales. Ugh!
I love my current job at Route 16 Running & Walking, a specialty running store, where, on the side, I do a lot of coaching to beginning and novice runners. I also lead an all-woman trail running group called the Dirty Girls. Because I've felt like an outsider before, I understand the shame and fear that limits individuals, especially females, from discovering their potential both as people and as athletes. This makes me gifted at helping my clients to break through the mental barriers that keep them from believing that they too, can belong to the running world. I love nothing more than turning non-runners into runners.
Books can really move people. Tell me how A DAY NO PIGS WOULD DIE changed you.
I was a very sensitive child, and sad books, especially books about loss, REALLY affected me. I had a hard time with the concept of death. It seemed... so very final. Goodbyes were always particularly hard for me, I think in part because of all the moving. A DAY NO PIGS WOULD DIE is the story of a boy who ends up having to help his father butcher his pet pig (for the sake of surviving economic hardship). I couldn't IMAGINE having to kill/eat one of my pets, and because of this book I began to look at animals in a different light. It seemed, to me, that if I was unwilling to eat the family cat or dog, that eating animals, for me, would be a violation of my spiritual principals. By the age of thirteen I was a vegetarian. Interestingly enough, in my mid-twenties I worked at a veterinary clinic. One of my jobs here was taking care of the animals after they died. This, more than anything, brought me a sense of peace about death. The animals, their spirits, were gone so instantly. And if they were gone that meant that they were someone more than their bodies. I would say that this job helped me to believe that there is life after death, that we are more than our bodies, and that there is a God working for the greater good.
That said... I do have a sense of humor about my vegetarianism. Have you seen this Mitchell and Webb clip? It's one of my favorites!
No! Save the kitty! Okay, changing the subject: Like I said at the top of this interview, when you aren't writing, you are running. Care to share a little more about your business?
After working and coaching customers at Route 16 Running & Walking, and after leading three running groups (including the very popular Dirty Girls Trail Runners) I am now launching my own coaching business called RUN IT BY ALEXA. I will offer group classes at Route 16 to help non-runners and novices jump-start into running, and will train them to run local 5ks. I will also be offering private coaching as well, both in person and over the phone/internet for those who don't live in my area. It's super-exciting and I've already gotten a ton of great feedback. Having struggled with running myself I really understand how to reach individuals and help them train in a way that makes running easy and fun instead of being torturous. I love nothing more than helping a person to realize that they are not "other" from "runner." It is my personal mission to help other runners and runner wannabes to learn from my mistakes and from the world-class coaching I was so fortunate to receive while recovering from my rock-climbing fall. On a side note, I am also assistant coaching cross-country for a local high school.
I am so proud of you! Congratulations on all counts. How is a writing deadline like a finish line?
When I ran my first marathon I remember reaching mile 24. And I started crying. It was the first moment during the race when I knew I was going to actually finish. And so I cried with joy. But I also knew that those last 2.2 miles were going to come with great hurt. And so I also cried with pain. Though I've been running for twenty years, it wasn't until after my climbing fall last year that I REALLY began to understand the fundamentals of running and training. My boss at Route 16 Running & Walking coached me back to health, and in the process I finally learned how to run the right way and how to pace myself both on a run and overall with my training. One of the things he is constantly preaching is to save energy for the final third of the race. With my first book I don't think I paced myself very well. I hit the wall too early... and so the final third of the writing process really took the wind out of me. It hurt like hell and was very discouraging. Have you seen the movie BLACK SWAN? After my final round of edits I really related to Natalie Portman's character. With GIRL WONDER I definitely found my Black Swan. It's only very recently that I've felt the urge to write again, and learning to run the right way has helped me to change my relationship to writing.
Some teenagers often feel an urgency to grow up, or that high school is a race, with clear winners and losers. How can we realize - at any age - that life is a marathon instead of a race?
Honestly, I think everyone should run, because there's no greater metaphor for life. Running is one of the few totally naturally forms of exercise. As for racing... the competitors who do the very best know how to pace themselves. They don't go out to hard and fast in the beginning. They pick it up in the middle of the race but also have to temper their enthusiasm. And then, it's the final third where they go all out. The way I see it... high school is just the beginning of a race, and if you don't feel good it simply means that you haven't hit your stride yet. You have to trust that if you put in the miles, the time, and if you are patient with yourself that the pay-off will come down the road. And it will. It will.
Are you currently working on another book?
I have two books in the works, another teen novel and a memoir on my running life.
What are your top ten favorite books?
1) Jane Eyre--Charlotte Bronte
2) Bleak House--Charles Dickens
3) The Magus--John Fowles
4) A Separate Peace---John Knowles
5) The Things They Carried--Tim O'Brian
6) This Boy's Life--Tobias Wolff
7) The short story--"For Esme, With Love and Squalor" by J.D. Salinger (from Nine Stories)
8) When You Reach Me--Rebecca Stead
9) The Wind in the Willows--Kenneth Grahame
10) Watership Down--Richard Adams
Visit Alexa at http://www.alexamartin.com