World’s Best Story

This interview originally appeared on World’s Best Story.

Q; Your story The Thread That Binds was the third place winner of the 2014 edition of World’s Best Story. Did you think you were going to make it so far when you entered the contest? How did you react when you got the news live from The Toronto International Book Fair during the live finale this past November?

A: I had dared to dream about it, but I didn’t think I would actually reach the top ten, let alone the top three. I was too chicken to watch live, so I went to the park with my daughter and our dog. My cell phone didn’t have very good reception there. As we were leaving, all these text messages came flooding in – people congratulating me – but I still couldn’t believe it. I pulled the car over and watched the video with my daughter asleep in the back seat and my dog in the front, but nope; still couldn’t believe it. The internet was spotty and the video kept glitching, so I was sure I’d misheard. I had to re-watch at home, with a good internet connection, to really grasp that I’d placed third. It was overwhelming. A dream come true. I’ve been writing since I’ve been able to hold a pen, so to have my work recognised like that… It’s something else.

Q: The Thread That Binds introduces your readers to five women’s friendship that blossom in the land of country music, sweet tea, and secrets kept locked tight behind closed doors. Moving, funny, and at times heartbreaking, Can you tell us a little more about The Thread That Binds and some of its original and engaging characters?

A: Strangers come and go, and we never know what is going on in their lives; what burdens they are carrying. Sherice, one of the main characters, came to me first and started the book. I wanted to tell the story of a quilter who’s been selling quilts to strangers for years, and one day connects with one of her customers, only to learn that she’s really carrying a heavy burden. I decided that this character – Sherice – would then reach out to others that she sells to, and find that everyone is fighting a hard battle behind closed doors.

So you have “the five”, as I call them. Sherice is adjusting to motherhood and juggling two jobs (technically three, if you count the quilting), while coming to terms with her mother’s illness. Sylvie, the first character she meets, is a Frenchwoman; new to the US and without a green card. Although she’s not undocumented, she’s in an immigration grey area where she can’t work; can’t claim government assistance; and, most importantly, that means she can’t afford health insurance or prenatal care for the baby she’s carrying. Then there’s Joanne.

She wants a child, but she’s thirty-eight and single, and isn’t sure if she can manage motherhood alone. She goes to extraordinary lengths to become pregnant, but doing so forces her to confront the past which she has been running from. Through Joanne, Sherice comes to know Payton, who is seventeen; pregnant; and on the run from Alabama. Finally, there is Gloria. A newcomer like Sylvie and Payton, Gloria has recently moved to Georgia from Maine. She’s very unhappily married, but with a baby on the way and without a support network around her, she feels she has no option but to stay. There are moments that are funny. There are moments where your heart breaks for these women. But through it all, they remain close; leaning heavily on each other for love and support.

The Thread That Binds was hugely influenced by country music, and by my experiences living in Georgia (I’m a British ex-pat). There is a little bit of me in each of the characters, although I won’t say what and where. I’ve tried to capture the spirit of the south and create something that’s almost poetic. I hope I’ve succeeded!

Q: What story has influenced your life?

A: There are too many to list. I was a very bookish child. I’m also a ’90s baby, so of course I was an original Potterhead. The Harry Potter series is still my favourite to this day. They’re brilliantly written, with fully fleshed-out characters and incredible attention to detail. I aspired to write like that; but I also took great courage in there being a character like Hermione. I was the awkward child who hid in the library during school discos, and here was this nerd and teacher’s pet who, suddenly, everyone was idolising; mimicking for Halloween, that kind of thing. It made me feel like less of an outsider.

Q: Do you have any advice to aspiring writers?

A: I do; but I’m afraid it’s really boring. You just have to write. Write every day. Write a terrible first draft and a slightly better second draft; and keep at it, polishing and polishing until it’s finalized.

In my opinion, one of the best resources for writers old and new is a challenge called NaNoWriMo. It’s short for National Novel Writing Month, and it takes place every November. The aim is to write a 50,000 word novel in 30 days. I think every writer should do it at least once. The great thing about NaNo is because you’re on such a short deadline, you just have to write. You’ll be writing over 1600 words a day just to keep up. At that pace, missing a day because you just don’t feel like it or because you don’t feel like you’ve got anything good to write will really put you behind; so a deadline like that is actually very freeing.

In the name of keeping up, you’re allowed to write a terrible scene just to boost your word count or to get you to the really powerful scene that you want to write. So I suppose what it comes down to – why I really recommended NaNo – is that my advice is don’t be afraid to break rules, and don’t wait for perfection. Don’t feel like you have to write chronologically. Don’t feel that you have to stay in one perspective. Don’t feel like everything you write has to be prize-winning literature calibre, especially in early drafts. The more you write, the better your writing will be; but you have to get the words out.

I will add that another great thing about NaNo is the online support community. It’s a great place to go for help in all stages of writing, from ideas to grammar help to editing to research. Writers come in all forms, so you might post in the NaNo forums “what would happen if my character was shot in the arm but the bullet barely grazed him? How long would his recovery take?” and a surgeon might answer, walking you through the surgery and recovery process. It’s a good place for very specific research questions to be answered.

Q: What are the ingredients for a blockbuster story to you?

A: Again, I’m thinking of the Harry Potter series. You’ve got characters that everyone can relate to. We may not be wizards or witches in real life (and if anyone reading this actually is, this muggle would like a quiet word), but we’ve all been bullied like Hermione; we’ve all had expectations to live up to like Harry; we’ve all felt incapable or lesser, like Ron sometimes feels. You’ve got villains who are deeply complicated- no one is evil just for the sake of being evil.

If you want to see the true impact that the Harry Potter series has had, just search it on Tumblr or Pinterest. We’re still talking about and crying about it and laughing about it all these years later. We’re still begging Rowling for any little snippet of extra information about the characters. I think that’s the main ingredient: well-written, relatable, loveable characters.

Q: What story do you enjoy reading over and over again?

A: Any that struck a chord with me when I was younger. Again, that’s a very long list. I’ve already mentioned one series, but I also recently re-read the Noughts and Crosses series by Malorie Blackman. There are a lot of young adult novels I still enjoy, including How I Live Now by Meg Rosoff, Loving Danny by Hillary Freeman, and Let’s Get Lost by Sarra Manning. I re-read a lot, to be honest.

Q: How would you increase literacy?

A: Let me start by saying that there are people much smarter and much more qualified than myself who still haven’t found the answer to that, so I don’t think I have it. Illiteracy and poverty tend to go hand in hand in the sense that poorer countries tend to have higher illiteracy rates. Obviously, being unable to afford school is a huge barrier to literacy; and in a perfect world, education would be free to all; but that won’t fully solve the problem. In the UK, for example, about 16% of the population is “functionally illiterate” even though we have free schooling and good schooling (we fare well in global school rankings).

It’s not just a poverty problem. We’ve got to somehow reach those 1 in 5 people in the world who are illiterate. Two thirds of those people are women, many living in countries where women do not have the right to an education. Giving them that right would at least be good start.

Q: What’s on the horizon for Alice Hayes?

A: I’ll be keeping busy. I’m a single parent, so that’s inevitable. But with November fast approaching, soon I’ll be hooking coffee into an IV and sobbing over a new NaNoWriMo novel. I participate in NaNo every year. I haven’t decided what this year’s novel will be yet, but there will be tears shed (and possibly blood). On the distant horizon, I’ll be finishing my degree (I’m taking a Bachelor’s in history at a snail pace while I work and parent and write), and hopefully going to law school.

I’d also really, really like to get some sleep at some point soon.

Q: What is your favorite drink while writing and/or reading?

A: I love both tea (I am British, after all) and coffee, but I don’t like to have caffeine late at night. Since I can only write late at night when my daughter is in bed, I like to relax with a beer, a glass of wine, or a homemade margarita. It’s part of my ritual. That’s not to say that I’m knocking back tequila every night, but something about sitting at my desk with a drink kicks my brain into “okay, time to write” mode.

Q: What is your favorite tech brand? App?

A: I’m the world’s worst Apple user. I have no idea how half of my iPhone’s functions work, and I had to have a friend walk me through setting a custom ringtone (thanks, Ski!). But there are three apps I rave about. As a (very average) runner, I love Runtastic for tracking my speed and distance. While I run, I listen to music on Spotify if I want my custom playlists, or iHeartradio if I want some variety. That’s about all I use. I really am the world’s worst Apple user, in that I don’t have a Macbook, and my Apple love goes no farther than my phone. I have a Dell laptop, and I use Microsoft Word for my writing. I keep it pretty simple.

Q: What is your favorite genre of music, artist?

A: If I had to nail down one genre and artist, it would be rock, and Red Hot Chili Peppers. But I like a lot of music, from heavy rock to cringey eighties rock; new country to older country; and alternative bands like Goo Goo Dolls and Death Cab for Cutie. If you put my music on shuffle you’d probably get Pantera or Black Sabbath followed by Elvis, followed by Luke Bryan, followed by Poison or Def Leppard, and then some Johnny Cash. There’d be some Nirvana and some Irish punk bands like Flogging Molly and Dropkick Murphys. You’d find just about everything. My guilty pleasure is Colt Ford. Redneck rap, yo.

Q: What is your favorite movie, tv show, superhero?

A: My favourite movie of all time is V for Vendetta. The acting by both Natalie Portman and Hugo Weaving is absolutely stellar, and I love a nice glum dystopian future movie. For superheroes, I’d have to go with the whole Avengers band; I can’t pick just one. For TV, you can’t beat Orange Is The New Black.

Q: What is your must have snack?

A: I love snacks in all forms, and I don’t participate in snack discrimination. But if I could only eat one snack for the rest of my life? Snyder’s buffalo wing pretzel pieces. *Drools all over keyboard*

Q: If heaven exists, what is the first thing you would like to hear from God when you arrive at the Pearly Gates?

A: Well, I’m a Christian, so I firmly believe it exists. I imagine He’d shake His head at me sadly; maybe even with a facepalm. He’d say, “Alice. Aaaaaaliiiiice. Ugh. You messed up a lot, you know.” He’d take me in like the poorly-behaved child that I am, and then say, “your Nan is over there; and your Grandfather can’t wait to meet you. Your other Granddad’s chomping at the bit to introduce you to Elvis.”

Q: What ice cream flavor would you invent?

A: I know salted caramel ice cream already exists, but is there a salted caramel mocha ice cream? There needs to be a salted caramel mocha ice cream. Or, at least, a salted caramel ice cream that has no calories in it and improves brain power and halves your mile time. Yeah, there we go. Let’s get ice cream that will have me running faster. Or BEER ICE CREAM? Your move, science.