Author Alma Alexander on Spanish Gardens, risks and choices


Wraparound cover art for Alma Alexander's Midnight at Spanish Gardens

Wraparound cover art for Alma Alexander's Midnight at Spanish Gardens

1.  What was the inception your most recent project?  What were your first steps in building that idea into a viable story?

The place where “Midnight at Spanish Gardens” is set, the cafe called Spanish Gardens, is real. WAS real, rather; it existed  back in the time that I was a student at the University of Cape Town, and it was EXACTLY as described in the book – anybody who has ever been there or knows of the place will recognize it immediately. The really odd, strange, eerie and unusual thing is that, thirty years after they last saw the now-defunct Spanish Gardens, you can ask the people who used to go there about the place, and they will describe it to you in practically IDENTICAL terms – even if they’re on different continents or have NEVER been to the Gardens together. Somebody even gave it a name – it was a “dimensional portal”. it was ageless, eternal – and we all carry it within us, still, if once we set foot inside the place.

I am a fantasy writer; a setting like this is a gift. It was only a matter of time before it rose up to take center stage in one of my novels. And really, take it from me, if you read the book and say that it has five main characters – you’d be wrong. There are six. And the sixth character… is the setting. Is the place itself. Is Spanish Gardens.

Given that it’s a place where only absolute truth really survives (because no lie would be remembered in this kind of mind-boggling identity of detail by people who have never met to, um, get their stories straight), it was then obvious what the next step would be -any story set here would have to be about that truth, about making choices, about understanding one’s innermost dreams and motivations.

The place was already enough of an anchor for a story involving those elements but one other thing nailed it down for me – the time. When best to take risks and make decisions and gain an ultimate understanding of what REALLY makes you tick than at the ultimate moment when continued existence itself seems to be in question and the world is supposed to end in the morning?… The Mayan “end of the world” apocalypse in 2012 gave me the perfect opening for this.

And there you have it. Setting, timing, a set of issues and ideas that crystallized from the characters who stepped up to tell the tale.

Voila. Story.

2.  What kind of research and/or world-building did you do before beginning?

I usually do a vast quantity of research to make sure everything is perfect – but in this particular instance, I was simply doing research to make sure that if I uttered something in the context of the tale it was believable coming from that time, place, and character. For instance, I read up on childhood cancers to  write that sequence in the children’s cancer ward where John is sent as a young intern. I am certainly not a medically trained person but I wanted the context to be true, as true as I could make it. As another example, I talked to a bunch of people who were in a position to give me advice when it came to the Quincey/Dorotea storyline. But I didn’t do any of this “before beginning”, and have it heaped up beside me as I wrote. When things arose in this story that needed a more solid foundation, I dug one, and provided the relevant facts and truths to steady and support the story edifice I was building, Other than that, this is a story of the heart, and of choices, and of people making those choices. This isn’t something that’s much given to research, as such.

3.  What’s your first-draft process?  outline, edit as you go, speed-writing?

I do not outline. I can’t outline. I can’t write when I outline – because by the time I’ve finished an outline I’ve “told the story” in my head and I have a hard time digging up the interest to tell it, as it were, again – even though this time I am supposed to flesh it out and tell it “properly”. My stories are organic things that grow as they will – they’re pretty wild, and I kind of like them that way. I don’t generally do much editing as I go, but I will read over the last little bit I did in a previous session when I sit down at the computer to take up where I left off and if I find stuff that needs tweaking I”ll tweak it (typos, crutch words, stuff like that). But other than that, the first draft goes to my first-line editor, my husband Deck, who will go through it with a violent red pen and let me know in no uncertain terms where I need to put in some more work. Sometimes he will tell me to write a scene I skimmed over, or to cut a scene I did write and am inordinately fond of but which he doesn’t think adds anything to the book. And I will whine and grumple and complain and mutter about it but in the end I do (most of ) what he suggests, and the book is measurably strengthened by those insights. I truly believe that any writer, every writer, needs that second pair of eyes on a manuscript before ever it is shown to a stranger who might want to decide its fate. I am just lucky that my own pair of eyes is the man I married…

4.  How do you start revisions?

Er, reluctantly….? I dislike that part, for the same reasons that I don’t outline first. It’s going over the same ground. I am a story teller and I have just TOLD THE STORY – now I’m going over it and over it picking nits and frankly I hate it hate it hate it. Not because I think my first drafts come out word-perfect – God knows they don’t -there is often perfectly legitimate improvement work to be done before I am remotely satisfied with it. But although my INTELLECT knows this and is therefore willing to knuckle under and do it, my INSTINCT flies in the face of all this and tells me, hey, there’s a new story waiting- just out there, just out of sight – you can go look for it as soon as you cut this old baggage loose… So yeah. Revisions. I know viscerally that all good writing is rewriting. So I do it. But  I don’t have to LIKE it.

5.  If you could choose a few descriptors that would go in a blurb on the front cover of your book, what would they be?

“If you were given the same choice as the five people in this book…


This is an ultimate what-if book. it’s the kind of story that might not be entirely comfortable for some. It might peer a little too deeply into the shadows of a reader’s own life, and shine a light on a few choices that had been swept under the carpet because they had been too hard to think about at the time they first reared their heads.

But… what if? What if you had been handed that piece of paper with the Instructions on it? What would you do?

6.  What cool thing would you put in the DVD extra version that didn’t get into the published work?  research or created detail you had to cut or couldn’t use?

Actually this was one of the tightest books I’ve ever written and there were hardly any “cutting room floor” scenes. But there’s a part of my brain that’s playing with the idea of an RPG, a role-playing game where you either take on one of the characters from the book or else create one of your own and take it through its paces in a what-if scenario. It’s only vaguely worked out right now.

I’d love to do a “graphic novel” interface of this. Follow the characters, through photographs – of themselves, of their “alter ego” characters, perhaps through images of places that define both. It would be a fabulous project – most especially if it could be made interactive on the Internet, perhaps, with people invited to post their own photographs which they feel identify or define a certain character from the book….

7.  Where should readers go to find out more about your work?

My main website is at (take a look at the bibliography page!) and I also have a website dedicated to my YA series, Worldweavers, at, and you can find a book trailer there, as well as excerpts from those books and also ordering information.  I blog regularly at and if people want to get to know the real me that’s the more dynamic site right now. I’m also on Facebook.

(and if you want to read more literary and writerly essaylets you might visit on the 30th of every month and keep up with me there.)

For “Midnight at Spanish Gardens”, you can preorder the book here:

8.  Care to share a link (aside from your own work) to something amazing you think everyone should see or know about?

I’m always poking around the Web for stuff about books and libraries. How would you like to live here:

About E. C. Ambrose

I spend as much time in my office as I possibly can--thinking up terrible things to do to people who don't exist.
This entry was posted in author interviews, fantasy, history, research, writing process. Bookmark the permalink.

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