Author Interview – Alexandra Oliva

headshotHi Alexandra! Thanks for joining us here on the blog! It’s been so fun to get to know some of my favorite authors through this process, and I’m so excited to learn more about you!

To start, I always ask for the 2-minute introduction as well as a fun little tidbit that not many know about you (which song you can’t NOT dance to, the food you crave when you’re sick, the worst smell in the world, etc). So, tell us a little about yourself!

Sure! I grew up in a tiny mountain town halfway between Albany, NY and Montreal—the kind of place most people drive through and think, “Do people really live here?” It’s lovely but isolated (though less so now than when I was there, thanks to high-speed internet). After I graduated from college in 2005, I traveled for a bit then landed in New York City, where I failed to get published but learned some cool stuff and met my husband. He and I escaped New York and are now living in the Pacific Northwest. I’ve been pursuing writing full-throttle my entire adult life; when my debut hits the shelves on July 12th, eleven years will have passed since I first declared myself a writer. It’s been a long and crazy road, and I’m so excited for this next stretch.

As for a fun tidbit: I’m thirty-three years old but still have a baby tooth. There was no adult tooth underneath to push it out so it’s still hanging in there; my dentist seems very impressed by its tenacity.

The Last One was completely gripping and thrilling and 27245997engaging. I couldn’t put it down. I think it will appeal to a broad swath of the reader-ly population and I can’t wait to share it as a “must read” to my friends. As I read, I couldn’t help thinking that you must have prepared really well or been abandoned at one point in the wilderness, and I was pleased to find out that I was right (you prepared well AND were pretty much abandoned in the wilderness)! It seems like there are other threads in the novel that reflect your personal life, and I’m interested if you see Zoo as a reflection of yourself or if you put little bits of yourself into each character?

 Thank you! A lot of hands-on wilderness survival research went into writing this book, and I’m so happy to hear it’s coming across in an engaging way. To answer your question: There is a bit of me in every character I write (even if it’s something as small as Biology’s aversion to Sucralose), and there is a lot of me in Zoo. This was my first time writing fiction from a first-person perspective, and because I was pushing myself so far outside of my comfort zone in that and so many other ways, I allowed myself the relative safety of writing a main character similar to myself. Similar, but not the same—an important distinction. For example, Zoo and I are both from rural areas, we both often prefer animals to people, and we both make a mean lentil stew. But our relationships with our various loved ones are quite different, and while her misgivings about having kids may have roots in my own trepidation, any fear of mine that I gave to her has been twisted and exaggerated—massively exaggerated—in order to best serve the story. Also, her eyes are green and mine are blue, so, you know, we’re really barely alike at all.

As I dug around online to find out all I could about you, I couldn’t help but notice that you seem not just well-traveled, but to have had a lot of disparate life experiences, especially throughout the US, but also Ireland. Does the wanderlust/nomadic lifestyle appeal to you? Is that how the seed idea for The Last One came about?

I don’t know that my travel experiences contributed much to my initial conception of The Last One, but I used bits and pieces of them to help flavor and flesh out parts of the novel. Truthfully, I don’t feel as though I’ve traveled that extensively, but the traveling I have done has had a significant impact on me—I think largely because travel wasn’t part of my life growing up. The most exotic family vacation I went on as a kid was to the Jersey shore, a five-hour drive south of home. I was fifteen when I first stepped foot on a plane and twenty when I first ventured abroad. (Sorry, Canada, I grew up so close to the border you don’t count.) The idea of a nomadic lifestyle appealed to me when I younger and getting my first taste of the wider world, but it’s always been very important to me to have an established home. I love bursts of travel, and changes of pace and scenery, and pushing myself out of my comfort zone, but ultimately my tendencies tend to be pretty hermit-like.

You mention two other “practice novels” as well. Did they have similar themes? I guess I’m curious as to how this writing style developed, and who you feel has shaped you as an author. The before/after chapters centered on a turning point seem to be a relatively recent development, but so effective in this case. Any favorite books or authors we should know about, or that made you choose this way of writing?

This is a difficult question to answer, as I doubt I know all the ways I have been shaped as a writer. In recent years it’s mostly been about pushing myself outside of my comfort zone, which is rooted in genre. I grew up reading almost exclusively science fiction and fantasy—and not the softer SFF that was socially acceptable for little girls; I’m talking swords and sorcery, death and dismemberment, monsters, alien invasions, all that fun stuff. I always loved adventure and hardship, and seeing a character I loved be put through hell—whether that was a physical hell, an emotional hell, or (ideally) both. As an adult, I’ve been drawn toward a wider variety of fiction and especially toward “cross-genre” novels—stories that are difficult to categorize. As a reader, I like to be challenged and surprised in addition to being entertained, and I think arresting prose is just as important as a good plot twist—so that’s the kind of experience I strive to create as a writer.

As for my practice novels, both shared themes with The Last One, including a focus on how identity intersects and interacts with names and titles. (I’m rather obsessed with that, it seems.) But the plots and worlds and characters were entirely different, and I hadn’t yet given myself permission to have as much fun with voice as I do now. Another huge difference between my practice novels and The Last One is pacing. I’d struggled with pacing in the past, so with this novel I issued myself a challenge to keep the story as tight as possible—and I’m so glad that I did. The Last One is about half the length of Practice Novel 1 and far better for it.

I have to admit that the only thing I didn’t LOVE about this novel is that I wanted a “cheat sheet” to connect the production-Reality TV names of the characters to their given names that Zoo uses when she references them. It seemed like a fun process-of-elimination game at first, but there were some I felt like I never really got figured out and it drove me a little crazy. Can your readers find those connections online somewhere, or will they be in the front or back of the printed book? 

There’s been a wide range of reactions to my treatment of the contestants’ names; some readers seem to love it, others are indeed driven a little crazy. There won’t be a cheat sheet in the book. I consider the names in this story to be a logic puzzle, and crafting this puzzle was one of my favorite parts of the writing process. Everything hinges on Zoo’s relationships with and perception of the other contestants. I also did my best to make sure that in the cases where it’s imperative a reader connects a character’s show identity to his or her real name, that connection is one that’s easy to make. For example, I’m pretty confident everyone who reads this book will be able to figure out who Tracker is.

multi-toolI loved seeing the multi-tool that your publisher sent out with the book to UK advance-purchasers. The ingenuity of having a physical item to touch and use that reminds the reader of the book is just fantastic! Did you play any role in that process? If not, is there something else that you think would have better captured the spirit of the novel? Confession: I watched a video about how to start a fire using a bow drill… maybe someday you will have saved my life. 🙂 But hopefully not…

Wasn’t that awesome? That was all my UK marketing team; I played no role whatsoever other than having way too much fun trying out the different tools once mine reached me. I thought the multi-tool captured the spirit of the novel beautifully, especially for something that can fit in one’s wallet.

Because I’m a “tidy endings” reader, I have to ask if you have an idea in your head about what happens right after the end of the novel. Spoiler alert: I might not even put this answer up on the blog, but I have to know if they find each other, or if you envision them doing so!

From the reactions I’m getting, the ending of The Last One seems to be a bit of a litmus test for readers, which has been so interesting and surprising to see. I will say I was aiming for “ambiguous but hopeful,” and the book ends where it does for a reason. Beyond that, everything I have to say is on the page; the rest is up to the reader.

Finally, this novel comes out on July 12th, so everyone needs to go grab a copy right now! I’m sure it’s too soon to be thinking about the “next thing”, but some of the people I’ve interviewed are just overflowing with ideas, so… have you thought about what your next story will look like or started developing it? I’m sure your readers will want to see more from you!

Thank you so much! Yes, I have started developing my next idea—all I’m going to say for now is that it’s not a sequel. Thanks again for having me and for your thoughtful questions—this was a delight!

Oh, Ali! I agree! You are such a fun interview. I actually did laugh to myself as I read through these answers and am so excited to get to “share” you on your first blog interview (and my first with a debut author!). So excited to see how this book is received!!

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