Interviewed on 4 January 2018
1. Tell us a little bit about yourself.
I have been writing for many years and had three social justice themed novels published. In 2011, while on a family camping trip in Northern California, I began writing a Young Adult epic fantasy novel with my then 11 and 8 year-old sons. We would write during the day (sometimes together and other times just me) and then I would read it back to them at night around the campfire or snuggling in our tent. That novel, At The Walls Of Galbrieth, won the 2013 Eric Hoffer YA Book Award. Every year since, I have had the first draft of the next book in the series ready to read on our vacation and my sons became my first and most ferocious editors.
By day I work for a human rights organization whose mission is to protect human rights and end poverty for some of the poorest and most marginalized people in the world. Occasionally these worlds fuse together as my stories carry elements of the values I want to share with my sons – friendship, loyalty, doing the right thing, freedom etc. At a recent speaking engagement for my human rights work, the organizer introduced me as “Alon Shalev, who speaks about human rights and writes about elves and dwarves.” Remind me to always send a bio and avoid being googled!
2. What types of books do you write, and why?
Epic fantasy novels allow an author to create whatever reality s/he wants. In my case, it became a vehicle to convey certain beliefs to my sons. Ever tried lecturing your children? Don’t bother. Through the characters I created, they were exposed to strong female roles, dictatorial leadership, power, racism, slavery, and violence.
I am inspired to write novels that offer a respite to teenagers and young people from the intense and harsh world they are propelled into at too early an age, but stories that have relevance in their lives.
3. What were your early influences, and how does this manifest in your work today?
Stephen Donaldson (The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant) was a big influence on creating a distinct and detailed world. I remember reading The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings when I was a teenager, but then I moved away from epic fantasy.
I owe a lot to Christopher Paolini (The Inheritance Series) because his amazing novels captivated my eldest son and we read the books together. I think more than anyone else (though there were many fine authors along the way), Paolini gets the credit for motivating me to write for my sons and offer them the sheer pleasure that he did.
4. Are there aspects of the craft that excite you more than others?
I truly believe that the craft itself is magical. For me, the ability to allow the story to flow onto the page, to breathe life and personality into characters, and be stunned at an unexpected plot twist. I have cried as beloved characters died at my fingertips without me anticipating it, and been unable to sleep or had nightmares before a battle.
I write the first draft very fast (100,000 words will take maybe three months) and it is truly an adrenaline rush. The story dominates my mind and when walking the dog or at the gym, I am imagining conversations between characters, or how a subplot will develop. My family suffers during this time and I appreciate their support and understanding.
I actually love the process of editing – I know, I’m weird like that – but it sometimes feels like the first draft is a roughly carved piece of wood (or clay). It is enough to know what I want the finished product to look like, but the editing is what provides the intricacy and nuance. It becomes the finished product and allows others to see what I had envisioned while writing. I have to admit, however, I have no talent with woodcarving or pottery.
5. What books or websites are your go-to places while editing?
I take editing very seriously. It is what allows me the freedom to write quickly and without any internal critique, and this is critical to allow the intense creative flow. I formed a writers group about 10 years ago, which meets weekly, and it continues to thrive after over 500 meetings. We each read a chapter aloud and the group follows with distributed copies and writes comment on the pages. Some of my finest passages are a result of the group all writing that something is not working and must change. When I see lots of scrawl on several people’s copies, I know I must put my ego aside and rewrite. The results are always much better and I deeply appreciate their feedback.
Beta readers are also invaluable. These are people who commit to reading your manuscript within perhaps six weeks and offering a detailed analysis. This covers not only spelling and grammar, but feedback about plot, characters, style of writing. These people do not get paid. Their views are impartial and they are motivated by their love for reading and desire to be part of the incredibly creative process of bringing a story to life.
6. Tell us about your writing space (music/snacks/interruptions/etc.)
I arrive at my office at least an hour, often an hour and a half, before work. There is no one there and I can blast music and write to my heart’s content. Knowing that I have a cut-off time motivates me to write fast and focus.
The truth is, I can write anywhere. My desk at home is in the kitchen. I just need to swivel my chair round to sit at the dinner table. I have a good pair of headphones and a variety of music that enables me to ignore everything around me. So I can sit in a café, an airport, a house bustling with people and animals, and lose myself to my writing. I have twice, upon landing from a cross-country flight, resented the quick six-hour flight.
Coffee is important fuel for my writing and I have certain music that pushes me when I am creating. Symphonic rock, anyone? Nightwish, Beyond Temptation, Epica… I tend to edit listening to quieter music – Ed Sheeran, Lorde, Chainsmokers are my current favorites.
7. Tell us about your current WIP or your latest book release.
Having concluded two trilogies for the Wycaan Masters, I turned my attention to a more adult, darker medieval fantasy, bordering on grimdark. I have been really struck by Joe Abercrombie and Brent Weeks. Terry Goodkind has been a long-time favorite. Writing for adults allows a certain freedom to delve deeper into the human psyche and there are more opportunities to reveal characters by putting them in more extreme scenarios.
The novel is currently titled Kingfisher: Slave to Honor and I have submitted it to Inkitt, an interesting publisher who decides whether to publish a book based on a set of analytics. It is an interesting model and I have written about it here. You can download a free ebook, but please leave comments and a review to help Kingfisher stay in contention.
Don’t forget to check out this year’s Winterviews and partner interviews.