March 25, 2015

Beyond Where Gravel Roads End: an interview with Laura Bickle, author of "Dark Alchemy"

Laura Bickle grew up in rural Ohio, reading entirely too many comic books out loud to her favorite Wonder Woman doll. After graduating with an MA in Sociology – Criminology from Ohio State University and an MLIS in Library Science from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, she patrolled the stacks at the public library and worked with data systems in criminal justice. She now dreams up stories about the monsters under the stairs, also writing contemporary fantasy novels under the name Alayna Williams. 

Her work has been included in the ALA’s Amelia Bloomer Project 2013 reading list and the State Library of Ohio’s Choose to Read Ohio reading list for 2015-2016. THE HALLOWED ONES and THE OUTSIDE are her latest young adult novels. 

I had the chance to ask Laura a few questions about her new rural fantasy novel, Dark Alchemy, which is out now in ebook form and can be found on Enjoy!

Gef: Where did you get the inspiration for Dark Alchemy? The "Gunslinger meets Breaking Bad" offers a nice hook, me being a Dark Tower fan and all, but what was the impetus for this novel?

Laura: There’s something special about rural fantasy. Strange stuff can happen in the middle of nowhere, beyond where gravel roads end. I grew up in a rural area, and there’s something mysterious about a place where you can see the stars, a setting where there’s total darkness when the sun goes down – no streetlights. I love imagining sites that are really far out, there are no cell phone signals, and help isn’t coming. That raises the stakes substantially.

My husband and I got the chance to go out west on a trip a couple of years ago, to Yellowstone and the surrounding areas. There’s magic there, from caves that hiss with dragons’ breath to ground that sizzles. It’s magic with a broad horizon that I wanted to explore.

So I created a fictional town at the edge of Yellowstone that was founded by an alchemist back in the Gold Rush days. Petra Dee, a geologist, arrives in town, and discovers that he’s left behind all kinds of monsters and failed experiments. As a scientist, magic really bakes her noodle, and she’s got to adapt to an environment where things are not as she expects.

Gef: What was it about this book, if anything, that you approached differently from your previous work?

Laura: Each book is different. It has a different setting, a different, cast, a different theme. The theme that I felt deeply in this book was about loss and impermanence. Some things in life endure, and some don’t – that’s something that my protagonist, Petra Dee, is trying to work through.

Gef: How intensive does the research process for you? What little tricks have you picked up with approaching the research phase of writing?

Laura: I love research. Alchemy is a favorite topic of mine – I’m fascinated by the idea that folks believed that rocks could be transmuted into gold and that one lifetime could be transformed into forever. There’s so much symbolism in alchemy, and this book deals with the first of seven processes in alchemy: calcination. It’s the reduction of things to bone and ash, and is the first step on the journey for Petra in this world.

As far as research tricks go, I give myself permission to fall down rabbit holes. I keep journals of newspaper clippings, maps, bits of Tarot cards, and sketches. As something catches my fancy, I write it down or paste it in a blank book. Often times, it emerges in a story later. It may take months or years for it to grow roots and figure out what it really means, but keeping track of things is really the key for me in the research process. So…for me the gathering comes first, and then the intuitive connection between ideas comes later.

Gef: How integral does setting come into play for you with your writing?

Laura: Setting is a character, as much so as the protagonist. The setting serves to embody an era, a place, a challenge for the protagonist. It can reflect her state of mind, show her what she loves and fears. It’s her world. It was here before she arrived, and it will linger after she steps off the stage.

Gef: What do you consider to be the strength or saving grace of the western genre?

Laura: There’s a lot of iconic imagery in the western genre that I think sticks in our collective unconscious. There’s the image of the stranger coming to town, the man in the black hat facing off at the man in the white hat in a dusty street at noon. Westerns embody a closeness to the wilderness and a sense of rebellion that’s unique to the genre, and it’s a really a force to be reckoned with.

Gef: What's the worst piece of writing advice you ever received? Or what piece of writing advice do you wish would just go away?

Laura: The worst bit of writing advice I’ve received is: “You can’t do that.”

And honestly, that’s a pretty galvanizing thing for me.

The whole point of writing is to create something new, to bend possibilities, to build a world and populate it with characters that you love. Nothing is impossible in that field, whether it’s mashing up genres, doing what something that just isn’t done, or stepping out of one’s own comfort zone.

Gef: What kind of guilty pleasures do you have when it comes to books or movies or whatnot?

Laura: I’ve got a whole lot of guilty pleasures: cartoons, comic books, my out-of-control action figure collection. I never really grew up. At the moment, my desk is cluttered with Tarot cards, a Wonder Woman doll from the 1970s, and He-Man and Skeletor action figures that are dueling for control of the universe on my computer monitor.

Gef: What projects are you cooking up that folks can expect in the near future, how can folks keep up with your shenanigans, and where can folks find themselves a copy of Dark Alchemy?

Laura: DARK ALCHEMY is available on, B&N, and HarperCollins.

The latest info on my work is available at I’ve got a couple of new fantasy projects in the works – stay tuned!


  1. Thanks so much for the chance to chat with you and your readers today!

  2. You're quite welcome, Laura. Book sounds great. My cohort at I Smell Sheep, Katie, seemed to enjoy it a lot:

  3. Thanks, Gef! I'm thrilled that Katie liked it! :-)