Please welcome Alex White to The Qwillery as part of the 2016 Debut Author Challenge Interviews. Every Mountain Made Low was published on October 25th by Solaris.
TQ: Welcome to The Qwillery. When and why did you start writing?
Alex : Glad to be here!
I started out writing movies. I've been a film geek since I was a teenager, and my friends used to tease me because I was such a little film snob. They started saying, "If you can't do better, we don't want to hear it." So one semester, I had a help desk job and too much time on my hands, so naturally I decided to start banging away at a screenplay. It was a romantic comedy, and needless to say, it was terrible. No one needs to take tips from a high schooler about love and sex. After that, I got a little more serious and wrote a feature-length blockbuster action in 2003, then finally finished my first novel in 2006. I've been writing novels ever since, and I'm about to finish my eighth.
TQ: Are you a plotter, a pantser or a hybrid?
Alex : I'm meticulous about planning my characters' motivations. Every speaking character in my stories has a decent biography with all of the forces acting upon them. I use Aeon Timeline to map their life stories and determine specific ages for each event, questioning how certain events at certain times would alter their personalities. From there, I tend to naturally divide my books into three acts. I thoroughly plot the first two acts, but leave the third act blank, save for a basic idea. I think a spectacular ending needs to be discovered, and is a function of the character interactions over plot.
TQ: What is the most challenging thing for you about writing?
Alex : I always want to write outside of my comfort zone. Each new book needs to be substantially different than anything I've ever produced. If it comes easy to me, I'm not interested. Emotional investment is also key--even my lighthearted comedy starred a character who was deeply flawed, anxious and suicidal. I don't appreciate characters who always maintain the moral high ground, because I'm not sure that's possible in life. I care about the screw-ups, not the sexy, wisecracking swashbucklers.
TQ: What has influenced / influences your writing?
Alex : I had a great high school education that focused on mid-century American lit, like CATCHER IN THE RYE, THE GREAT GATSBY and A FAREWELL TO ARMS. From there, I went on to read a lot of Flannery O'Connor, and fell in love with her clear, concise prose. In 2008, I read AND THE HIPPOS WERE BOILED IN THEIR TANKS, and learned that even total assholes can be compelling main characters. In addition to the literary influences, I love big, silly action flicks and stylish cinema. I'm always trying to capture both the literary and the cinematic: big visual ideas filtered through the clearest possible lens.
TQ: Describe Every Mountain Made Low in 140 characters or less.
Alex : An autistic woman living in a late-stage capitalist hellhole is confronted with the ghost of her best friend; seeks revenge for her murder.
TQ: Tell us something about Every Mountain Made Low that is not found in the book description.
Alex : There are two southern American myths in the story, one explicitly present and one referenced. Tailypo, an Appalachian folk horror classic, is one of the characters who aids Loxley on her path of revenge. He owns a bar, The Hound's Tail, in the darkest depths of the city. The other mythological character is Kate Baggs, otherwise known as the Bell Witch, operating out of Nashville. I like to think that tons of American mythological creatures exist in this setting, from the wendigo to Sasquatch, all hiding just out of sight of the cities.
TQ: What inspired you to write Every Mountain Made Low? What appeals to you about writing Fantasy?
Alex : My son has autism, and like any father, I wanted to research his condition and make his life easier. The more I learned about him, the more I discovered about myself, my anxieties and habitual behaviors. Like so many parents, I came to believe in the social model of disability--that our civilization creates disabilities through its failure to empathize and provide for people. Meanwhile, I became angrier and angrier with portrayals of autism in the media. I hated the savantism and blank character reduction so commonplace in television and books. I was sick of seeing them reduced to calculators. Autistic characters should be people, not plot devices.
Meanwhile, I had this idea for a book set in the mythical American South. It wasn't really taking shape. I knew I wanted to have a character based around the brown recluse, a highly-poisonous spider native to my area, but I didn't want it to be the "seductress spider" cliche that everyone runs with. I wanted to write a timid character who could be dangerous in unpredictable ways when cornered, but otherwise just wanted to live life alone. When that character became autistic, everything clicked into place, from the overarching narrative to the cutthroat setting.
I included fantastical elements because I can't help it. I love a big, sprawling setting with supernatural elements. To date, every book I've written has had ghosts or magic or ancient curses. It's just the way I do business.
TQ: What sort of research did you do for Every Mountain Made Low?
Alex : I wouldn't ever tackle a book like this without a significant amount of life experience. I focused on reading biographies by autistic people like THE REASON I JUMP, IDO IN AUTISMLAND, CARLY'S VOICE and Temple Grandin's THINKING IN PICTURES. I wanted to hear from people who were actually autistic and weave their experiences into my own. Anything less would be an incredible disservice to a thriving and diverse community of great individuals.
TQ: In Every Mountain Made Low who was the easiest character to write and why? The hardest and why?
Alex : The easiest character to write is Duke Wallace, the theocrat at the center of the conspiracy. Duke is a hyper-conservative evangelical Christian, and we have quite a few of those around here. I grew up in the church, and I was surrounded by some of the abusive beliefs Duke brings to bear on those around him. He thinks he's doing the right thing, but he gets there by not respecting peoples individuality and wishes. He's patronizing and self-aggrandizing, and I find writing him cathartic.
My main character, Loxley, is the hardest to write. I care about her so much, and I want to be respectful of the people with whom she shares her daily struggles. She's a constant balancing act. She has a difficult existence, being surrounded by such an uncaring society, but she isn't there to be pitied. She has trouble perceiving our fragile social nuances, but she's whip-smart and highly capable. People take advantage of her flaws, but she's not a fool. And I can't simply make her an angel. She grew up as part of a racist society, and some of her mother's prejudice has rubbed off on her.
TQ: Why have you chosen to include or not chosen to include social issues in Every Mountain Made Low?
Alex : This isn't exactly a light read. The town where Loxley lives, the Hole, is an unchecked capitalist paradise. There's no such thing as antitrust, and a single large corporation, the Consortium, owns most of the land in the southeast. They own the roads, utilities and farms. They make most of the food and pharmaceuticals. They supply life itself, and the residents of the Hole are socially-stratified and poverty-stricken. The world is a manifestation of the wealth gap.
I set it in a near-dystopian city because I worry every day about what would happen to my son without me. I hope that people would step in and help him have a happy life, but the conservative politicians where I live defund every social program they can find. Special education often gets cut first, leading to disheartened teachers and disenfranchised students. I believe that, with the moralization of wealth, we create a destructive, uncaring society that actively harms those at the fringes. People with autism face the pervasive bigotry of neurotypical society, and I worked hard to include those constant micro-aggressions.
My story also contains a stream of "well-meaning" men who abuse their influence over others: policemen, employers, executives, landowners. Sometimes these men are subtle, sometimes not. In my town, you can't throw a rock without hitting patriarchal crap, so part of this book is me throwing rocks.
TQ: Which question about Every Mountain Made Low do you wish someone would ask? Ask it and answer it!
Alex : "The word 'autism' never appears in the novel. Why not?"
Thanks. Great question. :-D
Loxley lives in a world that doesn't care about her. There is no such thing as an autism diagnosis for her, since people either learn to survive, or they starve to death in the streets. America has a terrible set of mental health policies, and so it's no surprise that a large percentage of our homeless folks are walking around with un-diagnosed mental health issues. The Hole is America on its worst day.
TQ: Give us one or two of your favorite non-spoilery quotes from Every Mountain Made Low.
Jayla had her stand up, then helped her replace her smudged jacket. She slipped the mask over Loxley’s face, completing the stranger in the mirror. The violinist on the other side of the glass was beautiful and confident. Mysterious. Strong. A little wild. Her dull hair poked out around the mask at odd angles; she hadn’t tamed it after her bath.
Jayla seemed to notice the unkempt hair at the same time. She stroked it once. “We’ve still got a lot of work to do.”
“I like my hair like this.”
“I could make it even better.”
Loxley shook her head, along with the violinist across from her. She thrilled to see this side of herself, and her voice came out easily and clearly. “No. This is perfect. This is the real me.”
“Over time, Vern taught me that some things were right, and some things were wrong. ‘Iron sharpeneth iron; so a man sharpeneth the countenance of his friend.’ I was a flexible man, soft of character and will. I became a hard man, forged by the hand of God, and he made me inflexible."
TQ: What's next?
Alex : Nothing I can share yet, but good things are always on the horizon!
TQ: Thank you for joining us at The Qwillery.
Alex : Thanks for having me!
Every Mountain Made Low
Solaris, October 25, 2016
Mass Market Paperback and eBook, 416 pages
Loxley Fiddleback can see the dead, but the problem is... the dead can see her.
Ghosts have always been cruel to Loxley Fiddleback - but none more than the spirit of her only friend, alive only hours earlier. Loxley isn’t equipped to solve a murder: she lives near the bottom of a cutthroat, strip-mined metropolis known as “The Hole,” suffers from crippling anxiety and can't cope with strangers. Worse still, she’s haunted.
She inherited her ability to see spirits from the women of her family, but the dead see her, too. Ghosts are drawn to her, and their lightest touch leaves her with painful wounds.
Loxley swears to take blood for blood and find her friend’s killer. In doing so, she uncovers a conspiracy that rises all the way to the top of The Hole. As her enemies grow wise to her existence, she becomes the quarry, hunted by a brutal enforcer named Hiram McClintock. In sore need of confederates, Loxley must descend into the strangest depths of the city in order to have the revenge she seeks and, ultimately, her own salvation.
Alex White was born and raised in the American south. He takes photos, writes music and spends hours on YouTube watching other people blacksmith. He values challenging and subversive writing, but he'll settle for a good time.
In the shadow of rockets in Huntsville, Alabama, Alex lives and works as an experience designer with his wife, son, two dogs and a cat named Grim. He takes his whiskey neat and his espresso black.