Friday, December 11, 2009

Author Interview: Alexandra MacKenzie

Tell us about yourself and about your forthcoming book, "Immortal Quest: The Trouble with Mages."

The novel is a serio-comic fantasy “buddy” adventure set in contemporary Britain. Detective Nick Watson is ordered to spy on a mysterious thief named Marlen who claims to be a 500-year-old mage – and who also believes Nick is his long-lost amnesiac best friend who will help him save the world from a power-crazed immortal. They’re all on the track of three ritual objects needed for a world-shattering spell. Hijinks ensue (the comic part). The more serious part is about memory, friendship, and the extent to which memories constitute personality.

"Immortal Quest" had a long road to publication and only found a publisher after you'd declared that you'd given up writing. Tell us the story of finding Edge (or of Edge finding you).

I’m always declaring that I’m giving up writing. I do it every six months or so. Writing is hard. On the other hand, I love having written. So I don’t give that up. I wrote the first draft 15 years ago after completing the Clarion West writing workshop, and sent it to Baen Books, who kept the MS for a year and a half. I got a call from an editor there who wanted it, but she couldn’t push it past the publisher. Huge disappointment (I gave up writing). I sent it to every other SF/Fantasy house in the U.S. for which you didn’t need an agent. Plus I queried agents. A number of editors sent personal rejection letters, which are always encouraging, and one at Tor suggested another house as a better fit, which was kind. Nearly always it sat for six months or more at a house before a decision would arrive. I moved on to other things. I gave up writing several times. Then a local press offered on it, which got me very excited, until I discovered that they wanted to produce books only on CD (the “wave of book publishing’s future” they said). After further investigation, I worried they didn’t know what they were doing, and after I asked them a number of pointed questions, they retracted the offer. They’re no longer in business. I gave up writing and got a Certificate in Scientific Illustration from the University of Washington and focused on art instead.

Then one day more recently I was idly surfing the Web for fantasy publishing places for a story I’d written, and ran across Edge Science Fiction and Fantasy Publishing based in Calgary. I liked the look of their books. I thought, “Huh, I’ve never tried Canadian houses. Why haven’t I done that?” Possibly not the best research technique in the world, but they liked the novel. And they bought it. Which was almost anticlimactic after all that time, as I’d moved on and had plenty of other things on my plate.

You don't have an agent, and queried publishers directly. That seems to be more common in SF/F than in other genres. Any plans to find an agent and try to sell “Seattle Sleuth”, your unpublished detective novel?

I doubt it. Truth to tell, I didn’t try hard enough to find an agent – I only got through the agent listings from A to L before giving up. I did query agents about the mystery novel – no dice. Genre does seem more open to “over the transom” submissions. My writing is difficult to pigeonhole, and even I have trouble figuring out how someone would market it. But you never know – the right person could be out there and we just haven’t met yet.

The most frustrating part of the whole game is making that perfect connection. It’s incredibly frustrating to get back rejections that make no sense – for the mystery novel, which is set in 1921 Seattle, I got one letter saying, “the language is too old-fashioned” and another letter which said, “the language is too modern.” What is a writer supposed to make of that? What I make of most such comments is not “Your writing sucks”, but rather, “You simply haven’t made the right connection with the person who understands what you’re doing.”

You just finished up a sort of "lightning-round" of revisions for your editor at Edge. How do you feel about that?

It was a good experience. She was kind and thoughtful and had clearly put a lot of work into her review of the MS. The revision suggestions were reasonable and she not only told me what she wanted, but why, and we had a lengthy phone call in which she took pains to ask what I thought about the major suggestions. Which thankfully were not that major – it was more about strengthening what was there rather than making big changes. I did have to write some new scenes but they were very short ones, and I worked on beefing up secondary characters. I felt rusty at first but once I got into it a bit and got the first few changes done, I began to feel more comfortable and things went more smoothly. It actually felt good to revisit old territory. I’m glad I had been “away” from the MS for a long time and could come at it fresh.

What sort of things did your editor talk to you about?

What I liked best about this editor’s approach was the concreteness of her suggested changes. She didn’t just say, “you need to build more tension between these two characters” but gave me specifics. “On page 116 in the dinner scene you could make the conversation between Nick and Marlen much more awkward.” At the end of our phone call I had four pages of handwritten notes with a lot of page numbers and scene references, and I was able to pretty much sit down and work my way through them one by one, checking them off as I went along. I’m a very methodical person by nature so this worked extremely well.

I did have one surprise during the phone call – the editor asked for an explanation for something in my world-building that had never occurred to me, and I didn’t know the answer. That gave me pause for a good 24 hours until the answer popped into my head in the middle of the night, as these things often do. Like most writers, I keep the requisite notepad and pen on the nightstand.

Did you learn anything from these revisions that you want to share?

What I learned: 1. No matter how much of the story you think you’ve told your readers, you are likely making assumptions in your head that don’t always get transferred to the page. 2. Be specific. 3. Build tension wherever you can. Tension stirs the reader’s interest. 4. Be willing to entertain new ideas. 5. Don’t make things too easy on your characters, even if it’s a comedy.

You're also an illustrator. Want to talk about "In My Nature?"

“In My Nature: A Birder’s Year at the Montlake Fill” by Constance Sidles is a book for which I produced 29 watercolor, pen-and-ink, and colored pencil illustrations ( The project was the result of sheer serendipity. Now, this is where my tale gets interesting. I’ve loved art and writing all of my life, bouncing between them, never focusing on one over the other, doing pretty decent work in both but nothing spectacular (or financially rewarding!). I always thought art and writing were my passions – as in those pop-psych career-finding books with titles like “Find your bliss and money will flow” of which I admit to reading a few. I just couldn’t figure out how to turn my passions into a career. Thus the day job, which supported my creative habits.

Then in May of 2008 I took up birding. I was looking for a new hobby which would also provide some low-key exercise to help with recovery from an accident. I liked birds, I liked being outside, so I took a class in Beginning Birding from Seattle Audubon, and then went on a field trip. And had an epiphanic experience of massive proportions. All those decades when I thought art and writing were passions, I was dead wrong. They were mere hobbies in comparison. Birding was my real passion, and man, do I wish I’d discovered it when I was a whole lot younger. I’ve never felt this way about anything (or anyone) ever. I had no idea something could have such a huge effect at my age (I’ll just say “very middle-aged”), but birding absolutely changed my life. At a low estimate, I’ve logged over 300 hours in the field since May 2008. I’ve seen over 200 species, traveled over 8,000 miles by train, car, and ship in pursuit of birds, taken dozens of classes and field trips, and read dozens of bird-related books, and discovered a whole new community of like-minded fanatics. It’s been amazing.

And just as those silly pop-psych books claimed, once I followed my true passion, things began happening and then some, which amuses me no end. I forgot all about writing. I forgot about art. All I cared about were the birds. Then in August 2008 I noticed there weren’t as many birds out and about. I’d found a “local patch” called the Montlake Fill and made friends with a woman named Connie Sidles who birded there nearly every day, and she said things often slowed down in summer. So on a whim, I brought my sketchbook next time, and she saw what I was doing, and liked what she saw. Turned out she was writing a book of nature essays about the place. The next thing you know, I was busy painting illustrations for her book. A little over a year later the book was published and I have an illustrator credit on the cover. Then in Summer of this year Edge SF accepted my fantasy novel, which is due out in Spring of 2010. The nice thing about all of this is that while I am genuinely pleased and excited by the projects, I am also feeling very relaxed, not just about these projects, but about any future ones that may crop up. If more things happen, fine. If they don’t, also fine. Because I will still have the birds, and that’s all that truly matters. Birds make me happy in a way that nothing else does.

What’s next for you?

Apparently, anything and everything. I’ve rarely been interested in short stories, but I managed to write a few back in the late 1980s/early 1990s that were bought by VERY small mags (SF market), and then wrote one in 2008 which was bought by online SF market Abyss & Apex (“Walking Across the Bomb”). The editor there has expressed interest in another story (which is related to birding!) but I’d first need to whack it in half. It’s currently 9,000 words – did I mention I don’t like to write short?

Connie is working on a sequel to “In My Nature” and would like more illustrations, so I’ll be working on that. The paintings for the first book took about eight months (I’m still burdened with my 40-hour/week day job). I’m sure the Edge editor will be back soon with more revisions (hopefully slighter ones at this point). I’ve been doing “In My Nature” book launch events. I have an idea and notes for a sequel to “Immortal Quest”, despite having given up writing. Truth to tell, the whole “giving up” ploy is a psychological trick to take the pressure off. Some authors are compelled to write. I’m not. Some authors are born story-tellers who can’t imagine doing anything else. Not me. It’s a hobby. I put as exactly as much effort into it as I want to and no more. So I haven’t really “quit” writing – I’ve merely reassigned it to a different section of my brain than it once resided. It once lived, mostly during my 20s and 30s, in a section marked VERY IMPORTANT! MUST WORK HARD AT THIS! MUST SUCCEED! EGO IS AT STAKE HERE!

Now it lives in a quiet cul-de-sac with a wee sign on an open wooden gate reading “hey, come on in, stay as long as you like, leave whenever you want.” And I do.

I am very impressed by writers who can do the hard work, the ones for whom writing is indeed their primary passion. People who write every day, authors who struggle to make a living without a day job, folks who are born story-tellers. I admire them greatly, I consider them to be the real writers, and have simply come to recognize that I am not one of them. They deserve all the success they can get, and I am happy to have my one novel in 15 years!

Though of course, you never know what might happen next. The gate is always open.

Alexandra MacKenzie's book "Immortal Quest: The Trouble With Mages" is due from Edge Science Fiction and Fantasy Publishing in Spring of 2010.


  1. Congratulations on everything. Your story follows a Jane Austen formula: nothing happens for years then everything happens at once.

  2. Fabulous interview. Honest and thought-provoking. Perhaps sometimes we do try too hard and when we relax the grip, release into life's flow then other things loosen up.

  3. Very interesting interview! Alexandra's views of writing are so unique compared to what I usually here. I think she has a deep understanding of herself. More people should probably make this similar decision, but I think there's something addictive about writing that gets people hooked.

    Thanks for the interview, Scott!

  4. I once asked a writer friend for advice during one of my "should I write or not?" phases, and she replied, "You must do exactly as you please." At first I thought it was rather slight advice, but later realized she was completely right and had said everything that needed saying. Do what you truly *want* to do, not what you feel you *ought* to do. Seems to work quite well!


  5. Alex: You do seem to be a lot happier now that you're looking at what makes you happy instead of what you "should" be doing. We love the illustrations in "In My Nature" and hope Connie does a sequel featuring your work.

    Thanks for doing this interview! Keep me posted about "Immortal Quest." Have you figured out the thing with the leading men-as-actors?

  6. This is a most excellent interview with a wonderful writer and artist and I'm not just saying that because she's my sister. I was quite surprised by some of the things she said and they all make perfect sense now that I think about it for awhile. I'm looking forward to reading the book even more now that I've read the interview. Thanks, Scott

  7. Scott asked about "leading men as actors" -- that's in reference to my publisher asking for cover art input, including "who would play your main characters in a film", which rather stumped me, as I don't pay much attention to contemporary movies except ones using animation, which would't exactly work! Eventually I came up with something, though -- Nick is a lot like a young James Bond, and Marlen reminds me of Pippin (Tolkien). Best I can do, other than the descriptions in the book itself, which I thought were rather clear-cut!


  8. Scott and Alexandra, this was fantastic, thank you! Such a journey. I love what you say about making the perfect connection. That's what I want most out of an agent and a publisher. It might be asking too much, but I can hope. :)

    Thank you for sharing your journey with us!

  9. The whole interview was honest and I had a moment of 'perfect connection' with it! Especially thsi line: 'My writing is difficult to pigeonhole, and even I have trouble figuring out how someone would market it.' So it's inspiring to know that writers *can* still get published by approaching publishers directly. I wonder how this applies to other genres?

    (Five unique prizes from South Africa up for grabs in my blog's Christmas Contest)

  10. The interview did what it was meant to for now I want to take a closer look at the book but the thing that will stick with me the most about what I read here is what was said about that brilliant editor. I'm so very jealous of Alexandra. To have an editor like that is my dream.
    Thanks for sharing.
    Warmest regards.

  11. Never read an interview quite like this one. It was great!

    I thought that Alexandra's real passion (birding) was fascinating, especially as it was a later in life discovery. And then she realized that writing and illustrating were other interests, hobbies, but not the main one.

    Loved this perspective!


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