Saturday, August 25, 2012
Writers With Day Jobs: Maria Alexander
Maria Alexander is a sweet gal. You'd never know it form the dark fiction she writes. Check out her stories in Mutation Nation or Night Terrors 2.
She turns her hand to dark fiction as well as poetry with her collection At Louche Ends being nominated for a Bram Stoker award.
But what is here day-to-day writerly life like? Well, for one it's not day-to-day at all. Her experience has taken her from Paris to Disney and many places in between. Read on . . .
Tell us what you do and how it is like or unlike a novel?
I’m a copywriter. That means I write the prose for marketing communications. When I worked at Disney, I mostly wrote for digital platforms. I also designed and wrote online games for Imagineering. I recently quit Disney, and in June I started a new job as a Senior Copywriter for UCLA, where the focus
is equally on writing for websites and print materials. No matter where I work, I find a marvelous cast of characters, each with their own conflicting needs and motivations. Fear, power, pride, loyalty and friendship drive the drama of the hour. It’s unlike a novel in that it never ends. Incidentally, if I were to say who wrote my work novels, it would be George R.R. Martin. My favorite characters either get killed off or exiled. Damned depressing.
Since you do a form of writing as a job, do you ever get burned out and don't want to tackle fiction writing on your off time?
Oh, god no! I’m usually dying to go home and start writing my own stories. I am my own client then. And as shitty as I am to work with, at least I’m only wrestling with my own demands and not anyone else’s.
How often do you steal work time to write?
Never. Especially when I was at Disney, I took great care to separate the two. Uncle Walt highly proscribes conflict of business interests, and that includes any business that interferes with work,
creative or no. It’s better that way. The build up of pressure over the day to get out what I need to write is far greater and the release far sweeter.
Describe a time when your job influenced a story of yours?
I just had an apocalyptic science fiction story published in January called “Revivified” that appeared in the Night Terrors II anthology from Blood Bound Books. It was totally inspired by a startup I was
working at in Santa Monica back in 2003. We were creating software that was to replace the hardcopy notebooks that chemists use. It failed like so many other startups I’d worked at and for all the same reasons. The atmosphere was very creepy, probably because the CEO knew we were failing and talked in life-or-death language. Further, I was suffering from blood sugar crashes in the middle of the night that were accompanied by the hideous vivisection nightmares that are featured in the story. It’s amazing
how lack of sleep can crack your worldview.
Strangely enough, my novels draw very little from my work life, with the exception of one work-in-progress, a supernatural thriller called The Bodyjacker that’s highly inspired by my time at Intel and Fujitsu America up in the Silicon Valley. Several characters are composites of the eclectic engineering nerds I knew and loved.
What would it take for you to quit and write full time?
I’d have to be making enough money from my personal writing to support myself and my ungrateful cats. Or win the lottery. Or inherit a megafuckton of cash. Or have a sugar daddy. Or do what happened once before: become totally disabled and write with a voice program for 18 months.
Do you think people respect writing as a job, or does it come off as less "work" than a labor or office job?
Thanks to the self-publishing industry, writing of any kind has less respect than pretty much anything ever. When I was living in France, you weren’t allowed to call yourself a writer unless you were a professional. You didn’t have to make your whole living from it, but you had to be at the very least traditionally published. Fortunately, I had not only published numerous short stories in anthologies and magazines then, but I had just left my writing job at Disney. In France, you are put on a pedestal if you write professionally. I was treated very well. But here? Only because I have both published work and the fact that I write for organizations with awesome brand recognition do I feel respected. If it were one or the other, I don’t think I would receive any respect. While traditionally published novels are still respected, being a novelist is not well considered unless you’re famous.
Take the story that Neil Gaiman told on his panel with Connie Willis at the 2011 World Fantasy Convention, about the woman he’d met on a plane who hadn’t heard of him. The woman told
him, “Well, keep working hard. Maybe one day you’ll have a New York Times Best Seller!” Like, wow!
Incredibly condescending, not even taking into account the person to whom she was speaking. That’s a common attitude, though. Back in the day if I told someone I was a technical writer at a random software company—probably making way more money than they were at whatever job they had—I’d get a grunt of approval. But working at Disney? Or UCLA? Completely different story. Even if initially disappointed that I don’t write movies or teach on faculty, they are impressed that they can go to a webpage and read something cool that I wrote.
But then, even within the organization in which you are employed, it’s a huge challenge getting people to respect what you do. It’s because anyone can vomit an email in two seconds. Therefore, writing must not be that hard. Inside the office, outside the office—no matter where the writing is done. It’s all so easy! Well, okay, except for a handful of awesome people I worked with at Disney who were great for my ego. (You know who you are!) They thought my job was harder than theirs or any job, really. And I
loved them for it.
Be honest, if you wrote full time, do you think you'd be disciplined about it?
I’ve been a successful freelancer. It’s much the same thing. Being my own client, I’d be especially hard-assed about deadlines. Plus, I have enormous internal motivation.
When I lived in France for almost a year, my boyfriend paid my living expenses. (Although, I still had to pay for my at-home expenses like health insurance, car insurance, storage, and so forth.) Leaning on my savings, I wrote full time and produced an unbelievable amount of work. Multiple short stories, a novel
second draft and a memoir first draft, a handful of magazine articles, an urban fantasy novel synopsis and two humorous book proposals. My boyfriend would come home at night from his job to our place in the countryside of Aix-en-Provence and find me holed up in the dark, wearing headphones as I stared at the glowing computer screen. He would say, “WHY AREN’T YOU OUTSIDE ENJOYING CEZANNE COUNTRY?!?!” I’d reply, “Because when will I have another chance like this?” Everyone thought I was insane. That’s pretty much how ridiculous I am about discipline. Although I didn’t let myself work whenever we were in Paris. That was a rule.
What job, other than writing, would you most like to have?
I’ve done some game design, which I love, but I’ve more than once looked into what it would take to become a licensed private investigator. My father was an investigator for the Franchise Tax Board for many years, and before that he worked for the State Department. I’ve got shamus DNA. I would help women looking for deadbeat dads or who suspect infidelity or fraud. I’m an ardent armchair detective with a black belt in Google Fu. I’ve helped friends in the past. I used to have more time to post about
crime news in my blog and comment on suspicious elements. Back when I had the software tracking tools to do so, I discovered that those posts were being read by someone in Washington D.C. It was
probably some intern slouching behind a government desk, but who knows?
Has your job, or past jobs, had any influence in inspiring you to become a writer?
Is your job harder than writing?
My job is like a whetting stone that gets me ready for the “real” writing at night. I learned a lot at Disney about how to create a great title, for instance. That said, my fiction writing has contributed far more to my job success than the other way around. Many marketing copywriters don’t have a writing life outside
of work. I find this baffling but that’s how I’m wired.
Imagine your job in the plot of an existing book (or movie, I'll give you that much leeway), where does it fit best? Would you be a character in a Jack Reacher novel? A Sam Spade mystery? Matt Scudder? Mike Hammer? What else?
A Donald Westlake comic caper. God Save the Copy Dork. Or a Kevin Smith movie.
Do you ever see a time when you are writing full time?
Nope. But then, one can never know the future, can they? I used to, though, back when the only writers I knew personally were Clive Barker and Neil Gaiman. It looked possible. (This is where I laugh myself to tears and slam back a Manhattan.)
How would a character with your career be a good or a bad protagonist for a novel?
It depends on the type of copywriter. Many marketing copywriters are mealy mouthed pussies. They don’t speak up, they don’t say what’s on their minds. If they do, they tend also to be ass kissers to avoid getting in trouble. Now, a copywriter in an ad agency is a different beast. They tend to be divas—think Mad Men. Or even Darren Stephens in the TV show Bewitched. They make great characters because they have to put themselves out there with clients and take big risks. Notice that TV has figured this out.
Maybe novelists will, too, at some point. Or maybe they have and I just don’t know about it.
What do you think is the best work experience for a writer to have?
As much as being a copywriter has helped hone my fiction writing skills, I think it would help far more if I’d worked in law enforcement, law, science, medicine, psychology, the military—pretty much anything that gets you out of your chair and into public service. But really any kind of work that gives you
expertise in another field would be priceless.
Although, being a former literary agent wouldn’t hurt!