MtU&E: The Spanish Gardens cafe is an incredibly vivid setting; you write about how it and other familiar places have some sort of magic about them. Do you have your own Spanish Gardens?
Alma: Well, yes [grin] it's called Spanish Gardens... This place, the place in the book, it is real. Was real, at least, since I am told that it doesn't exist anymore and hasn't for some time. But it really was magic, it held true magic, and it's always tragic how often you don't actually realise the truth of that until it's too late and the magic (and the place which held it) are gone. But this is one place that
will always be as real to me as though it were surrounding me right now -- it's that strong in my memory. I hope those who read Midnight at Spanish Gardens get a sense of that when they dive into the book -- and, more, that they might be moved to remember their own version of what this place means to me.
MtU&E: In the novel, your characters have to choose between two different lives. Thankfully, you never make them choose between two sets of children, which would have been almost unbearable for me to imagine! When you decided on the different lives, how did the alternate version of the characters come about? Were there specific life contrasts you wanted to wrestle with?
Alma: Tough one. No, I had no real idea what the alternate lives were going to be until I basically started writing them. Some of the issues surprised me -- for instance, John's true parentage was a bit of a
shock, to be honest, and that goes for both of his lifestream choices (only his responses, reactions, to this truth were different). But what I ended up with, in this book, is a story steeped in magic which is somehow the most real thing I have ever written -- and whether in this life or the other, all of my characters are wrestling with a huge monster known as The Truth. Sometimes they win. Sometimes the monster eats them alive. Partly I wanted to convey that every so often you will make the right decision by accident or serendipity, or you will spend a long time agonising over something that is in the end fairly
simple (and can still manage, no matter how much time you spend on the decision, to make the wrong one...) I think... it's like looking in the mirror... and the person you see is still recognisably YOU. It's just that you might find that on the inside something important shifts, and a decision cog goes this way or that way according to the way your mind is working. I guess one of my themes here was simply, know thyself -- and if you don't yet (which isn't necessarily a sin) then at least make an effort to start to. Because the way to be happy is to understand what makes you so. This is not always easy -- and yet, sometimes, it's bewilderingly simple once you strip away all the things that do not.
MtU&E: One of the characters changes gender in her alternate life, and sees a very different career path. Why did you choose to showcase two different careers instead of having the male version of the character in a similar profession?
Alma: As I said -- I had no real idea where they were going to go until they went there. I'm one of the most organic writers out there -- the way I've explained it to people before is that I get a story seed in my hand and I stick it into the soil in a flower pot -- and I have no more idea what is going to grow there, if it is going to be a cabbage or a redwood tree, until it sprouts and I see the shape of its leaves
opening up to the sun. Showcasing two different careers was not deliberate, or a stunt, or a message. That was the set of choices that the character happened to take, and that was the road that they led
him or her down. I hear some people tell that their characters do what they told and go where the author wants them to go when said author cracks the whip of authority. Sometimes I envy that -- my characters go where they please and do what they will, and my role in it all is to see the bigger story in which they are involved and tell it. But I don't control it, I never have. This is why people in the industry cringe when they ask me (as they have to sometimes) what my next book will be about, wanting and needing a more or less detailed outline thereof. The short answer is, I don't know, I never know, I won't know until I write it. And it might surprise me by featuring an entirely different career than the one I had planned [grin]. The basic bedrock of everything I write is that I write the story that needs or wants to be told, and comes up to me and takes me by the throat and doesn't let go until I tell it. Other than being a good listener and a competent amanuensis, I have learned not to interfere with that process. My story knows, and I will respect that.
MtU&E: The premise of the story is that the characters are meeting for a reunion at the end of the world in 2012 (all of them assuming that life will, indeed, go on the next day). What about the 2012 end-date appealed to you?
Alma: There's just something about a good Apocalypse, isn't there? Perhaps that's why that poor pastor keeps on predicting the Rapture, over and over and over again, and when it clearly hasn't happened (well, clearly, else he wouldn't still be here, right...?) he just "recalculates" the date and tries again. Seriously, though – the concept of ending is a very potent one in the human psyche, and in some ways we are willing to go to the wall to ensure that some things end, or others do not. The idea of having a deadline to do these things by (as in, the world ends at midnight on December 20 2012) gives you... a certain kind of impetus, a certain urgency. You only have this much time to do everything you have left to do and after that... after that you don't know what happens so you can't plan for it. It's the very idea of looking down into that abyss that intrigues me -- because of the varying reactions of the people who do so. Some will not look at all because they are paralysed with fear; some will look, and see a bottomless pit; others will see great spires of rock waiting to tear them apart or deep water ready to drown them, or the very flames shooting out from the Gates of Hell themselves. And then there are people like me, who see... everything, and nothing. A whole new world, maybe. Why not? Things are often circular. Ends may be simply beginnings of something new. It's that trembling uncertainty, the curiosity, the vivid joy of discovery of things I've never known before, that appeals to me. And the idea that all of this lies just over a year away at the end of 2012... it's practically irresistible.
MtU&E: One of your characters is woven into all of the alternate lives in the book, yet this character chooses a different life. How do those two things -- the character being so important to the others and yet being able to completely absent herself from their lives when the choice is hers --
Alma: Olivia is the pivot point. I am not sure how that works, exactly, but in all the flux that goes on around us certain times, certain places, certain people are the fixed points, the things around which everything revolves. In this story, it's Olivia, Spanish Gardens, a certain midnight in December of 2012. These are the fixed things in a changing universe. You might say that Olivia forces a change, in that she does not remain in her "fixed" position -- but everything else still orbits around her. Her "fixed" quality is now that she is so comprehensively absent from the lives of those friends in whose timelines -- particularly their alternate timelines -- she was so fundamentally important. But in some ways this entire book is Olivia's story, she is the sun, and everybody else simply revolves around her and reflecting back her fire like planets of a solar system. She is a Schroedinger's Cat -- a creature who is at once so ordinary that she finds a place in every single life she touches because she is to ubiquitous and necessary and a part of the weave of the world and at the same time something different, something greater, something transcendental, something that Ariel (the Messenger) recognises immediately as being not so much woven into the world's fabric as... being a weaver of that fabric. It all sounds rather metaphysical and confusing when you ask that question and I try to answer it within the space of a paragraph. I think a better answer would be, read the book, and find out...