Alana Joli Abbott has recently joined Outland Entertainment‘s as Editor in chief, but you’ve probably heard her name long before this new gig. Be it for her novels, her interactive games or her award winning game writing, Alana continues to amaze us with her talent. Let’s try and find out more from Abbott herself!
Who’s Alana Joli Abbott?
Starting off with an existential question like that? This interview’s going to be a stumper! I guess I’m a writer, editor, mother, wife, martial artist, and lapsed musician. I’m passionate about stories and the way that telling stories—and consuming stories—shapes the world we live in. Being a mom has changed the way I see storytelling happening around me, because I look at what stories I’m feeding my kids, and what stories they’re taking in from the world around them. There’s so much power in the way we tell our truths and our fictions, and I try to make sure I’m always on the side of using that power for good!
What was the first thing you ever wrote? Was it a school assignment or something you did on your free time?
The first thing I have a concrete memory of writing was a school assignment in third grade, but it was also fan fiction. It was a short story based on a comic book that my mom had kept from when she was a kid about a group of children and their dog. (Not Peanuts or I’d remember the title!) I inserted myself into their world and wrote a story about playing baseball with them. (I didn’t play baseball. That’s where the fiction comes in.) I think there might have been a rainstorm. Not too long after that I wrote an epic episode of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, based on the cartoon, because I followed that devotedly, on my father’s electronic typewriter. We didn’t get a computer until the next year or two, and sometime in there I started writing a really long Star Wars piece that’s now long gone. At the time, I was sure that LucasFilm would somehow discover me and publish it in the Expanded Universe. My first “original” novel was a riff on the Indiana Jones pulp style archeologist adventures featuring an Egyptologist with powers she’d gotten from a scarab staff, which I wrote as part of a contest in the old Disney Adventures magazine. As part of a project in for my gifted and talented class, I submitted it out to publishers and learned for the first time how the submission/rejection process goes. It was a definite learning experience!
When the moment came, did you need someone else uttering “You are a writer.” or did you know it already?
I don’t think I ever needed that validation, but I also don’t remember a time when I wasn’t receiving it. I was very lucky to have teachers who supported me throughout elementary school, allowing me to put on a play I’d written, starring members of my class, for the grade below us. In high school I had friends who would read my short stories and trade fiction set in the world I’d created back and forth with me. I didn’t realize at the time how exceptional that was, but it definitely established in me that this was something I could do, and would always do, professionally or not.
From novels, to comics passing through short fiction, games, interactive novels and numerous articles, we can say you’ve tried nearly every front of the creative and factual side of writing.
Among these different experiences what striking disparities do you notice from the creative point of view? And how about the actual writing approach?
The big question is about interactivity: if other people are involved in the storytelling, you have to leave room for them to tell their own stories, despite the fact that you’re the one writing it. So with the interactive novels and roleplaying games, there’s a lot of leaving doors open and thinking about multiple options for every scenario. I don’t ever get the feeling that I know the main characters of the story very well, because the main characters are the players. The story has to be about them, and I’m just creating the window dressing. Pretty extensive dressing, but dressing nonetheless. The story is a vehicle for their adventure, not my own vision. The writing format reflects that, too, most significantly in the interactive novel apps I write, which are written in a programming language called ChoiceScript. That’s much, much different from writing in straight prose!
By contrast, with my fiction I almost always start from the characters and then figure out what’s going on with them. The characters propel that story forward, so I get to know them very well, and it’s the motivations of my own characters who drive the plot.
Articles, of course, have completely different rules, and usually start from the research, even in (sometimes especially in) the short blog posts I do. If the data or history doesn’t support the article I thought I was going to write, I have to figure out a different angle. I call this kind of work analysis-synthesis writing: take apart the information from other sources and then put it together in a new and different way that’s interesting to my audience.
Do you have a favorite project? Why that one in particular?
There’s always some project I’m super excited about, and I’m proud of a lot of the work that I’ve done, but the story I’ve written that’s closest to my heart is “Nomi’s Wish,” which was very loosely based on two true events: one, a trip my sister and I took to the Isle of Man (where neither of us fell into the Chasms), and two, a wish that was given to me by Naomi Lewis, this amazing writer and translator of fairy tales who I worked with when I was an in-house editor in Detroit. Over a phone conversation, she told me she sometimes gave young people she liked a wish, and she gave me one. (I used it, and it came true, though whether that’s to the credit of the wish, I can’t say!)
My second favorite might be “Don’t Let Go,” which was published in the now-out-of-print Ransom: The Anthology. I’d always wanted to tackle the Tam Lin story, and I ended up liking my version quite a bit. It might be part of a larger world in which this sort of fairy thing happens more frequently, but none of those stories have been finished yet.
You’ve recently release “Choice of the Pirate”, your third interactive novel game for Choice of Games. How did you decide to enter this gamified format of novel?
I was approached by the publisher for Choice of Games, because he knew me, through friends, as a game writer and a fiction writer; having both backgrounds is incredibly helpful for writing interactive novels! On the one hand, the prose has to be really strong; on the other hand, there has to be a lot of room for the player to experience the story the way they want to, which means the story can’t dominate over the player’s choices. The juxtaposition of both skill sets sounded like a lot of fun, and it has been! I don’t mind telling you it’s also the most challenging kind of writing that I do (and probably the format of that the fewest people are familiar with!). But when I phrase it, “Oh, yes, I had an app come out this year,” people get very excited thinking I’m a video game designer. I suppose that technically I am, but it’s very different from what people expect from video games as well! It’s really this niche format that’s wonderful to play with and work in, and I hope that a lot of people keep getting excited about it.
This methodology resembles a lot the “Choose your own Adventure” books. Were you a fan of these growing up?
I read so many of them! I think a lot of us who work in gaming came from that background. There was one I remember very specifically about finding a hidden utopia—maybe Shangri-La?—where you couldn’t find the city except by paging through the book. There was no in-story route to get there, and it was only by sheer persistence that I got to it. It was both rewarding and kind of a cheat! But it stuck with me.
One might say your fiction work delves mostly on fantasy and sci-fi backgrounds. Do you agree with that?
Oh gosh, yes. I wrote Showdown at Willow Creek for Choice of Games as a non-fantastical interactive novel and didn’t realize how much I relied on fantastical elements to move me through a story and to help design my worlds! A friend of mine who playtested Choice of the Pirate said, on first run-through, “Why does my pirate have magic?” And I said, “Because magic is awesome. Now play.” Storytelling doesn’t need magic or futuristic science to work, but isn’t it more fun if it’s there?
Is there a reason why you’re more drawn towards these genres?
I read pretty exhaustively in science fiction and fantasy and always have, and most of my favorite stories (books or films) have either an SFF element or an SFF atmosphere. I realized a few years back that one of my favorite childhood books, The Perilous Gard by Elizabeth Marie Pope technically isn’t SFF; it’s historical, and the faeire court involved in the tale isn’t technically magical, just a dispossessed group of humans. But it’s a Tam Lin story, which gives it the flavor of fantasy, even if it technically doesn’t fit. My other very favorite books that have always stuck with me are A Wrinkle in Time by Madeline L’Engle and Crown Duel by Sherwood Smith. I think that’s a pretty good window on how my worldview on storytelling got shaped.
You’ve done quite an extensive research in Mythology. How did you first enter this world?
Don’t all kids get into Egyptology at some point? That was the entry point for me, and then in high school the drama club at some point assigned Greek gods and goddesses to all the usual suspects. But it wasn’t until college that I realized this was actually a field of study that was valued in an academic sphere. My creative writing prof, Mark Vecchio, taught a course called “Mythic Imagination” that I waited far too long to take. The impact of that course on my outlook and writing cannot be overstated. After I graduated, I went first as a student and then later as a teaching assistant on Mark’s study tours (which he still offers as OCaptain Tours), and through those I studied Arthurian/British, Irish, and Greek mythology in the actual locations where those stories were birthed. Once you start seeing stories in the landscape, you don’t stop. I now live within 20 or so miles of Sleeping Giant mountain and Tuxis Island, both of which have giant legends from the local Quinnipiac people (often much filtered through the Puritan worldview that recorded them). Like many places in England, my area of New England is a land of giants, and though I don’t entirely know the significance of that, it feels significant, deep into the earth around me.
Moving to another very relevant theme nowadays, diversity in writing is one of your battles. How do you feel about the efforts that have been made in this area these past few years?
It’s so nice to have someone give me credit for that, when really I feel on the periphery of the people doing the really important work! I care very deeply about representation in fiction, because, for one, it’s boring to read the same old stories about the same old characters retold with different hair colors or different towns but the same basic tropes. (Of course, after having just talked about how much I love Tam Lin retellings, I probably contradict myself a bit!) I don’t think there’s anything wrong with loving stories that fit into the traditional pattern. I love a lot of farmboy-becomes-hero stories. But I think there are so many other possibilities out there for stories that don’t share the same basic assumptions about the world as that farmboy destined for greatness. And that’s just from my own selfish perspective. It’s so much more important to value representation for readers who don’t see themselves reflected on the covers of novels. I was very lucky to come of age when Alanna: The First Adventure was on the bookshelves of my library’s budding YA section. I think I cut my hair to look like the character on the book jacket, and while I didn’t have copper hair or purple eyes, I saw my name (differently spelled) and a face that could have been mine right on the jacket of my favorite book. That’s an experience that a lot of kids don’t have, especially given how miserable the stats are when it comes to children’s books featuring protagonists of color right on the cover. And this is all just tip of the iceberg stuff. I can’t recommend enough good articles on this topic, so I’ll link to just a few.
That said, I’m a white female writer and I know I come from a position of privilege. As much as I try to be inclusive and critical of colonialist viewpoints in my fiction, I am sure I mess up. I remember when I was working on Cowboys and Aliens 2 and one of the commenter called me out on using the word “yella” to mean coward, thinking it was a slur against the Asian railroad workers. Having grown up with Western movies, it never even occurred to me that someone could read it that way! I did some research and found out that the term came from a different root—but sometimes, that’s not what’s relevant. The way that people perceive what’s written is what they bring to the story, and it’s important not to create a situation where readers feel alienated by a story they love. I just keep trying to fail better the next time.
Do you think we’ve achieved any real progress? Would you say more in terms of gender or race equality?
I want to believe that there’s been progress, but I think that the news lately would tell me that it’s a tough hope to hold onto. And just in games and SFF there’s been this backlash, especially over the Internet, against inclusivity. I want to believe that the reason the backlash is occurring is because there has been progress made that some of the Old Guard don’t like. But the fact that it’s there means that the struggle has to continue, and we’ve all got to keep fighting the good fight so that those undertold stories can reach a wider audience.
And how about the backstage: do you agree that the works we get are a reflection of the lack of diversity of the actual writers?
I think less the writers than on the in house side, honestly. There are many, many excellent writers from all walks of life: race, gender, class, sexuality. One of the big problems, as Daniel José Older has written about (in one of my links above) is that the gatekeepers of writing tend to lack diversity. I know that Lee & Low books and Simmons College have a scholarship for further study in children’s literature for “students from diverse backgrounds.” To carry the metaphor, it’s not just the people backstage, but also the people producing the show. I’m not pointing fingers here, because there are a lot of reasons this situation is what it is (and I certainly want to keep my own job!), but I think if we really want diverse books, we have to have diverse agents, editors, publishers, filmmakers, directors, showrunners, Broadway creators… the list goes on and on.
Then I get all bogged down in it and think, let’s just tell each other some stories! I want to hear them all.
Thank you, Alana, for sharing a little bit of your world with us!
P.S.: Check out all the other interviews with illustrators, writers, game-designers and other authors!