HELEN ALEXANDER: REMEMBERING TO SLEEP AND TO EAT WAS MY BIGGEST CHALLENGE
Posted by Ognian Georgiev
Our next guest Helen Alexander made my day with her answers. She was pleasant enough to dig deeply on them and to present not only her books, but to draw a personal portrait with words. Speaking of drawing, she is working as 3D computer games designer, who already published few books. Helen is coming from Russia and still keeps great respect from the authors of her native land. Last year she published her last novel Lovers In The Woods so we will put some more attention on the sci-fi adventure.
– Helen, What is your last book Lovers In The Woods about?
– Lovers in the Woods takes place in a future city called Metro and is about an ordinary guy named Leon. Leon leads a quiet, uneventful life working as a programmer for a company called Nokida, but then he starts having strange dreams of a young girl named Nina. She always appears to him trapped in some terrible place, a dirty old hospital or an asylum, and keeps asking him to save her from things she calls the Shadows. After a while, Leon thinks he’s losing it, but he doesn’t give up and eventually gathers enough clues to lead him to Nina. It gets him into a lot of trouble – he’s fired from his job, the police get on his tail, and then two thugs, Mike and EZ, start chasing him down as bounty because of his hacking skills. The title of the book comes from an old cartoon, a humorous, erotic take on the Hansel and Gretel fairytale – Leon and Nina being the Hansel and Gretel, lost in the virtual woods.
– How did you decide to write the story?
I was doodling in my notebook one day and two characters appeared, Mike and EZ. I didn’t know anything about them at the time, just that they weren’t really human: they had grey skin and wore dark shades, and seemed to have illegal occupations. That, and their names. Then I started writing a screenplay based around them. It was awful, but it introduced many of the characters and scenes that would later make their way into the book (considerably reshuffled, however). For example, Oscar, the talking cockroach who lives under the TV in the Time Hotel, figures very briefly in the novel, but he had a more prominent role in the screenplay. Another source for the novel was a series of dreams in which I saw Metro City.
– What was the biggest challenge during the write up process?
– Remembering to sleep and to eat. I had never written anything before that was novel-length, only short stories. They always came more or less whole, and I didn’t have much of a hand in plotting them, just going where the story was going. It was very fun to work this way on a longer work, but it wears you out.
– Tell us something more about your main characters Leon and Nina? Are they 100% fiction or it’s close to someone from your real life?
– Both Leon and Nina are completely fictional. Originally, Nina was much older, but she stayed that way for only about five minutes. She started out as a sort of femme fatale, but instead, she turned out to be quite the opposite. She’s still dangerous, but in an unwitting, almost innocent kind of way. And she’s only fifteen in the story, and in just as much trouble as Leon is after he discovers her existence.
– How much time did you need to finish the story and to publish it?
– LITW took about a month to write, after which I revisited it several times, making edits. In all, I think it took about a year to get it written and published.
– What the readers will find in RobotPlanet: A Story for James W.
– RobotPlanet is a bit of a children’s story. It’s about a nice, friendly robot named Boltolomew who lives on a planet inhabited only by robots. They have a society much like our own and are fully autonomous, intelligent and self-replicating. One day, Boltolomew finds an antique music box in his garage and is completely puzzled, because he has never seen anything like it. Stranger things start happening after that and he ends up in a lot of trouble, so that he has to flee the City and hide in the Junk Yard, living on the fringes of society. There are a couple of themes there that are probably more suited for an adult audience, including genetic memory and a somewhat straightforward take on reincarnation.
– Share with us some insights about Otherplanet?
– If my books were kids, Otherplanet would be my most-loved, spoiled-rotten oldest child. It’s closer to Fantasy, but it also has some elements of Sci Fi. The story is about two con artists, Dr. Grabengon and his friend Eagle, who are chasing after an alien flower that reportedly grants wishes. Of course, they don’t believe it actually grants wishes and are just trying to get their hands on it so they can sell it to someone who does – a very unhappy business tycoon named Alias Kingman. In a way, Otherplanet is a prequel to LITW – for example, the city where Dr. Grabengon and Eagle make a brief stop on their constant run from the law is called Metro, and there’s a giant green slug named Vincent. But the world of Otherplanet is also full of magical beings such as Miranda, the Dark Fairy, and things that can’t be explained by Science Fiction alone.
– Who are you?
– I’ve been trained as a visual artist, but I’m mostly a writer. I grew up in Khabarovsk, Russia. (For some reason, many people assume that this area is regularly overrun by Siberian tigers, but I assure you, it’s just a city with buildings, parks and schools.) I have very fond memories of growing up there – especially of walking across the Amur River in the winter, when it’s locked solid in ice. From a distance, all the people look like little black dots or ants against that stark background of snow and ice. In the summer, my family would often visit the Dinamo city park, where we would attempt some amateur fishing in one of the ponds – I caught a few Rotans there and even a freshwater shrimp for our fish tank back home. Khabarovsk is also an industrial city, so there were always a few factories and refineries smoking in the background.
In the mid-1990’s, my family moved to the US. I attended a small private school in San Francisco and studied painting in college. After a while, I changed majors and started learning 3D. (A memory from high school: for some reason, the prospect of me becoming a painter horrified my then-Russian teacher, who exclaimed, “But you’ll be working with your hands!”)
After graduating, I got a job in the quiet sea-side town of Carlsbad, at a wonderful game company called BottleRocket Entertainment. I’ve been writing and working as an artist ever since. In addition to 3D, I love robots, reading, and drawing comics. I’m part Russian, British and Irish.
– What are your writing habits?
– Very random. It’s almost like I can’t write once I decide I’m going to do it. Maybe it’s reverse psychology or something, but it helps if I just shut down TextEdit or Word and turn to something else, because then I immediately feel like coming back to writing again.
– Are you satisfied by the sales of the book?
– LITW has a sold a few copies – not a lot, but it’s definitely doing better than my first book.
– Do you have plans for your next novel?
– Currently, I’m working on a story about vampires. Actually, I have never had any but a very passing, moderate interest in vampires, but one day this character named Zsa Zsa came to me (in the middle of an apartment hallway, while I was carrying groceries or something) and I started writing about him, and sometimes as him. The story is somewhat autobiographical, except for the vampire part.
I’m also working on a children’s picture book.
– What are you doing to promote by the best possible way your book?
– I’m trying to keep a regular presence on all the usual social media venues, including Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, my personal author website and blog. At first, I didn’t like Twitter at all, especially for the brevity, but now I use it quite often. I have fun doing it as well – I don’t see it as work or as a mechanical chore.
Mainly, I believe that if I ever write a best seller, it’ll sell itself. I remember when I self-published my first book, Adventures of Bosco… I was genuinely sure that it would sell very well, but it didn’t. Looking at it from a postmortem sort of perspective, there are several factors to consider: quality, time invested to market a book and the Unknown Factor. (The Unknown Factor is just that: whether a work will “click” with an audience or not. This factor is out of anyone’s control.) There are literally millions of books out there, so it’s important to keep swimming to stay afloat and, even more importantly, to keep producing new work.
– You are working in the gaming business. How the love to computer games came to you?
– The first game I ever played was Jordan Mechner’s Prince of Persia. (It was the original 1989 version, featuring the Prince in some kind of white overalls. It had relatively simple graphics, but they were no less charming for that.) I loved this game, and still do. It had a Princess to rescue and a treacherous villain to defeat, and all the crazy stuff going on – flying potions, skeletons coming to life to fight you (that is still scary!), a mirror you run through to release your doppelgänger shadow self on the other side, and some really fun traps. This game had a very big influence on me, and is one of the reasons I became interested in the field. My family have always been very supportive. I don’t think I would have otherwise turned to art or games. A long time ago, I remember saying to my Mother that I should study to be a doctor or a lawyer, and she said that I should just do art. Thanks, Mom.
– Who are some of your favorite authors to read?
– Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, Mikhail Bulgakov, J.D. Salinger, Stanislaw Lem, Victor Pelevin, Alexei Tolstoy, Alexander Grin.
Take a look at her books