March 14, 2011

An Interview with Camille Alexa, author of "Push of the Sky"

If you pay a visit to Skull Salad Reviews, you'll see I reviewed Camille Alexa's short story/poetry collection last month, Push of the Sky. As an added bonus, I had the opportunity to ask Camille a few questions regarding her writing and her love of storytelling.

Here's a quick bio:
When not on ten wooded acres near Austin, Texas, Camille Alexa lives in Portland, Oregon in an Edwardian home with very crooked windows. She graduated from the University of Toronto (not recently, she wishes to disclose) with degrees in Women’s Studies (interesting, but not very useful), Fine Art (useful and terribly interesting, and as lucrative as advertised), and English.

And now, onto the interview:

Q: You discovered writing almost by accident if I understand things correctly, only starting a few years or so ago after getting a laptop as a birthday gift. Do you think writing is something you would have been drawn to inevitably, or wonder how fated that gift and its effect on you might really be?

Camille: I don't believe in fate. My characters sometimes do, but they very often believe things I don't. When I started writing I'd just wound down this intensely fulfilling stint as a vintage shop owner in Austin, where I'd channeled all my creative energies for a decade. In college I'd been a visual artist -- had a couple shows, was serious about it -- and always felt a little wistful I hadn't continued along that path. But for me, the form in which creativity manifests is fluid. And you're absolutely correct: I stumbled into writing fiction purely by chance. Had a romance with it, in fact. Fell hard and was grateful and astounded to have discovered it.

Q: You're anti-genre, in that you aren't a big fan of labeling your work in any one such classification, especially since a fair number of the stories in Push of the Sky defy the borders of genre. But, do you by any chance have a favorite genre? One you find yourself returning to again and again? Or, do you purposefully avoid that sort of thing?

Camille: It's not just with my work; my favorite fiction always eludes rigid genre classifications. And of course I'm not anti-genre, in that the stuff I love best is often shelved as Fantasy, Science Fiction, Horror, Suspense, Romance, Western . . . It might be more accurate to say I recognize genre labels as marketing tools, and don't find them particularly useful to writers or even readers. It's shorthand for "if you like this, then buy this." But I think those too lazy or too frightened to read beyond labels and presorted categories do themselves an enormous disservice.

Having said all that, I admit I identify as a Science Fiction writer, though the longer I write, the less accurate that feels.

Q: "Writing by the headlights": This is how you described your inspiration and motivation when writing. Just start with an image or some other prompt and go. Is this strictly with short fiction, or has this been how you've come to create longer works as well? Do you do much prep work at all before diving into a story?

Camille: I rarely do prep work for a story, though I sometimes get distracted early on with research if I see a story taking shape. E.L. Doctorow said, "Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way." So far, that's pretty much how I've written everything -- novels, short stories, poems. And I have found that with novels it makes sense for me to stop about 2/3 through and outline at that point, so I understand where the story is trying to lead me. More like making sure your airplane is lined up with the landing strip, I suppose. And some pieces take many passes to feather over the rough edges, tie all the flapping loose bits together, excise the ungainly growths and vestigial limbs some stories develop as they go along. . .

Q: For a guy who doesn't gravitate towards poetry, I was quite struck by "I Consider My Cadaver". Did your poetry come about the same time as you start into short fiction, or did one kind of manifest itself while working on the other?

Camille: I like that question. I'd been writing novels for about a year when someone sent me an open submissions call for theMachine of Death anthology. I wrote "Flaming Marshmallow and Other Deaths" and instantly fell for short fiction the way I had for writing in general the previous year. I crushed so hard on short fic! I was giddy with it. I spent a winter under eight feet of Vermont snow, writing fiction every day until my eyes ached. It was a serious rush, drafting a short story from start to finish in just a day. When I realized that level of intensity was unsustainable, I started writing poems, which I imagined as tiny stories. Not all poems have a narrative focus, but that's how they are for me: little shooting star stories, brief, but with meaning beyond the mere word-salad stuff I'd associated with modern poetry before I started paying attention to it. Strange Horizons, ChiZine (where "I Consider My Cadaver" first appeared), Goblin Fruit -- there's some amazing poetry available online.

The poems I love best all tell stories, even if they're composed of just a handful of words. In some ways poetry is the hardest form to write. It's less forgiving a medium, and bad poetry is far worse than bad fiction. All the fat is trimmed away, so everything's exposed. It's that very rawness which can make poetry so powerful.

Q: As a relatively new writer, how do you relate to the burgeoning digitization of literature? Do you find yourself wistful for what seems to be a bygone era, or are you eager--even excited--to see how the landscape looks within the next decade of writing and publishing?

Camille: I'm a self-taught typist and use just a couple fingers on each hand and lots of back-button, which must be incredibly slow by normal writing standards. But just the thought of writing with pen and paper makes me faintly nauseous with the sheer drudgery of it, as I'm sure the idea of banging out every letter on a keyboard will one day nauseate (or charm -- perhaps it will seem romantic? typing on a silvery keyboard by candlelight?) future writers. I've eschewed postal submissions as a general rule, and much of my work appears online or in audio rather than print -- that's simply the landscape in which I've always written. That's why it was so amazing to see all those stories brought together in PUSH OF THE SKY! Libraries! I heart them!

Q: Particular Friends is the most recent work of yours of which I am aware, which can be found at Red Penny Papers. What can readers expect next from you, assuming they've been smart enough to have already read that highly entertaining series?

Camille: A couple pieces have appeared since "Particular Friends" in places like Beneath Ceaseless Skies and Semaphore Magazine, but I'm in a holding pattern right now with short fiction, concentrating on writing novels. Some writers seem able to hop in and out of the headspace it takes to write different lengths and formats. That's not me. One of the reasons I have to write . . . well, not exactly quickly (start to end takes me an average length of time), but in a rush, with everything pouring out onto the virtual page later to be shaped and tweaked and honed . . . is that I need to occupy this interior landscape, live there for a while. Fiction feels like reporting, to me. Like I'm traveling to another reality and just writing down what I observe as a visitor.

So I'm currently visiting some landscapes I'm hoping will become novels. Watch this space.

I'd like to extend a sincere thanks to Camille for participating in this interview. If you'd like to learn more about Camille and her work, you can visit her website, or you can even send her an e-mail. And if you're interested in purchasing a copy of Push of the Sky for yourself, you can find it at and Powell's Books.


  1. Great interview! There was just so much I identified with in there. I especially love that E.L. Doctorow quote.

  2. Tony - That is a pretty good line.

    Cate - It was--despite my involvement. :)