Please help me welcome women’s fiction author Debra Whiting Alexander to my interview hot seat! Debra has quite a background and education to bring to her amazing, and interesting, books. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Here’s Debra’s official bio and then we’ll jump right into the interview.
DEBRA WHITING ALEXANDER, Ph.D., won the prestigious 2018 WILLA Literary Award in Contemporary Fiction along with three other awards for her debut novel, ZETTY. Debra is also the author of numerous books related to her expertise in post trauma treatment for children and families. Raised in San Diego, she grew up on a steady diet of western movies and musicals. She developed a love for the ocean, cowgirls, pianos, golden retrievers, and art. She currently lives in Oregon with her husband and two labs where their home backs up to lush green fields, horses, stunning sunsets, and hazelnut orchards. The beaches of southern California were the inspiration for ZETTY, but it’s in the landscapes of the Pacific Northwest that she found inspiration for her next novel.
Betty: How many books have you written and published?
Debra: Prior to making the leap into women’s fiction, I authored sixteen non-fiction books, including Loving Your Teenage Daughter (Whether She Likes it Or Not), and Children Changed by Trauma: A Healing Guide. As a mental health clinician, my most meaningful project, The Emotional Recovery Resource Kit, was written for my publishers in New York in response to 9/11. ZETTY was published in 2017 and my second work of fiction is currently out on submission.
Betty: What genre(s) do you write in and why?
Debra: Early in my career, I wrote non-fiction related to my work. Today, my passion is to write fictional stories about the humor, spirit, and strength of unconventional women. I relish the opportunity to write about friendship, motherhood, mental health, and to do it with spiritual substance —matters of the heart and soul. It’s important to me to write about issues I feel inspired by and care deeply about. Women’s fiction allows me to do that. I’m hooked!
Betty: What themes or motifs did you use in your recent release and why were they important to your story?
Debra: Overcoming loss and finding joy, even in the midst of sorrow, are central themes found in ZETTY. This story shines a light on the stigma of mental illness and the shame that often accompanies it. It was important to me to present an accurate, realistic view of what it means for a child and family impacted by an illness that is as legitimate as any other medical condition.
THE POWERFUL STORY OF A MOTHER LOST TO A RARE FORM OF SCHIZOPHRENIA, AND A DAUGHTER’S QUEST TO FIND HER. “…a master piece of heartache and joy…” Jane Kirkpatrick, NY Times best-selling author
Betty: Do you have a specific place that you write? Revise?
Debra: Anywhere my ideas form. Literally, anywhere! But most revisions happen at my desk at home.
Betty: Do you have any writing rituals while you write? Did you have a special drink, or music, or time of day that you gravitated toward?
Debra: Early mornings are always my preferred time to write. I used to write regularly late into the night, and still do if I’m on a deadline. However, I prefer the early morning sunshine to awaken my thoughts and revisions. It’s good to be rested. (Yes. Oregon does get sunshine!)
I try to keep fresh flowers and a diffuser streaming essential oils on my desk. In the winter I have a lit candle near me too. And with each novel, I like to express the theme of my current work-in-progress on the wall above my desk. I tack up photos, art, and quotes that reflect the inspiration and theme of the story. There are days I want music and days I want total silence. Music often helps me develop scenes and go deeper into an emotional point of view. But I only listen to the music my characters listen to! Finally, breaks are essential. For me, walks, healthy snacks, and surrounding myself in nature keep inspiration fresh.
Betty: What helped you move from unpublished to published? A mentor or organization or something else?
Debra: Persistence. I never gave up on the projects I felt most driven by. It requires so much patience. Years of it. And it’s true; being a writer requires a thick skin. Always does! When I made the leap from nonfiction to fiction, it also required practice, educating myself with books about the art and craft of writing a novel, and it meant allowing multiple editors and beta readers to pick things apart. It truly was a learning process for me, but I never minded—I considered it all healthy aerobics for my aging brain!
Betty: What do you think is your greatest strength in your writing?
Debra: I hope it’s that I’m able to bring my experiences as a mental health practitioner into my work with honesty, compassion, and fresh insights for my readers. Because of my professional work, I’ve developed an appreciation for a wide-range of qualities, quirks, strengths, and weaknesses in my characters and for our ability to overcome hard things in life. In every story I write, my goal is to bring hope and understanding to the issues I shine a light on.
Betty: What comes first when you’re brainstorming a new story: setting, situation, characters?
Debra: For me, the message (or main issue) of the story comes first—meaning I become aware of something we all experience or know about, but may not fully understand, talk about much, or know how to cope with. The main character usually stands out as I flesh out the message, and then the setting follows naturally. The supporting cast of characters forms as I develop the main ideas of the story. That being said, every story is different. Inspiration comes from so many things I think about, see, or hear. The bottom line is if anything touches my heart, I listen to it. Those moments end up in my novels.
Betty: Do you have a structured time to write or is more fluid/flexible? Do you have to write between family obligations or do you set aside a block of time?
Debra: When I have a deadline, I schedule writing time on my calendar like I schedule clients at my job. It’s blocked out and protected at all costs. I crave expanded chunks of time to write and I love it when I have a full week of uninterrupted days. Sometimes it means I have to take vacation time to make that happen. I don’t mind though because it’s a luxury to have the time and space to go deep into my story and spend a “vacation” with characters I love.
When I’m not on a deadline, I write whenever I can. Sometimes I pull over to the side of the road to capture my thoughts, descriptions, and dialogue on scraps of paper. Or you’ll find me between appointments jotting down scenes in my calendar book. Whenever I find days in my schedule that are free, I use that time for writing.
Betty: What are you reading right now?
Debra: The Overstory by Richard Powers. Terrific writing!
Betty: What is your favorite genre to read?
Debra: Literary Fiction. It’s a plus to read about strong female characters, but not a must. I just want to be moved by whatever it is I read. I really enjoy historical fiction as well.
Betty: When you’re writing, do you read in the same genre as your work in progress or something else?
Debra: My preference is to read nonfiction when I’m writing fiction. When a manuscript is out on submission I’ll pick up novels again. Otherwise, I find it distracting to go deep into another author’s voice and then shift gears to go back to my own. In order to stay true to my own voice, and keep it consistent, I’ve learned it works best for me to read outside my genre.
Betty: Do you have a “day job” or do you write full time?
Debra: I work as a clinical supervisor in a mental health agency a few days a month. I’ve gradually decreased my hours over the last couple years to allow more time for writing and for more time with my granddaughter. I love what I do in my “day job” and will continue for as long as it works. With deadlines though, I go right into full-time writing mode.
Betty: What do you wish readers knew about the publishing industry?
Debra: It’s a long, long process from beginning to end. One book can take years of ongoing hard work on many different levels. Once it leaves my hands, even more work begins. Because it is such a competitive market I hope readers know how important their reviews are. Authors appreciate each and every one of them!
Betty: What advice do you have for new writers?
Debra: Believe in your beta readers and editors! Your success depends on both. I’ve been fortunate to have talented friends and editors by my side who always (!) make my work better.
Betty: Any hints of what you’re next writing project might be?
Debra: My second novel is out on submission right now. It’s about a neurodivergant young woman with an indomitable spirit who refuses to give up on a dream she has. I hope to be working on a screenplay soon with a movie producer who contacted me, and I have a story about three sisters in the works, too. Both involve issues I care deeply about. Stay tuned!
Betty: What kind of writing would you like to experiment with? Or what’s a different genre you’ve considered writing but haven’t yet?
Debra: Writing a screenplay is a new goal I have just embarked on. And I have a number of manuscripts in my files for children’s books. But as far as novels go, upmarket women’s fiction is my passion right now. Another perk for writing women’s fiction is being invited to some amazing book clubs. Love them!
I agree that visiting book clubs is a lot of fun, Debra. I’m glad you’re doing well with your writing career and telling some needed stories at the same time.
Check out her work and settle in for a good read! Thanks for stopping by!
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