Inspiration for any given book is a combination of factors. My guest today, author Alle C. Hall, muses on answers to some deep questions to produce her award-winning fiction. Let’s take a peek at what makes her tick and then we’ll find out more about her inspiring and moving story.
Alle C. Hall’s first novel, As Far as You Can Go Before You Have to Come Back, swept the 2022 International Firebird Book Awards, winning first place in two categories—Literary and Coming of Age—and second place in Women’s Issues. Excerpts from As Far as You Can Go Before You Have to Come Back won the 2022 National League of American Pen Women’s Mary Kennedy Eastham Flash Fiction Prize and placed as the first finalist in the 2020 Lascaux Prize. Hall’s short fiction appears in journals including Dale Peck’s Evergreen Review, Tupelo Quarterly, New World Writing, and Litro; and her essays in Creative Nonfiction and Another Chicago. She has written for The Seattle Times, Seattle Weekly, and was a contributing editor at The Stranger. She is the former senior nonfiction editor at jmww journal, the former associate editor of Vestal Review. Hall lived in Asia and traveled there extensively, speaks what she calls “clunky” Japanese, and has a tai chi practice of 35 years running.
Author Social Links: Facebook | Website
Betty: What inspired you to write the story you’re sharing with us today?
Alle: The main character of As Far as You Can Go Before You Have to Come Back, her name is Carlie,is an incest survivor. I am an incest survivor. I lived in Asia. I sent Carlie to Asia. Both expereinces—Asia and being a survivor—affected me hugely; although, obviously, being sexually abused as a child had more impact. Nevertheless, what I learned about being a survivor was indelibly shaped by being in Asia. I was “as far” from the abuse as I needed to be in order to heal from it; I was open to wonderful life experiences that, as I let them in, filled me to the point that my body literally had no more room for the horrible expereinces that I was hanging onto. I had to process them.
My tai chi practice was one of those expereinces—continues to be. In ways I don’t understand, the energy flowing through a person as she pratices, that chi becomes a motivator for good in your body and in your life. There are many energy-based practices that are equally as effective: yoga, for example. When I watch surfers, I always see them as pure chi.
To finally answer the question, while I am one of those writers who writes for herself, who only pursues ideas that really do it for me, if anyone happens to be touched by As Far as You Can Go Before You Have to Come Back, if they can see themselves more clearly or if they come to a better understanding of someone in their life, that would be an honor. Of course, if the reader was inspired to take a tai chi class—how cool! We need more people on this planet who practice tai chi.
Betty: What, if any, new writing skill did you develop while working on this story?
Alle: I learned how to write a novel. I thought I’d learned in 1998, the first time I sent As Far as You Can Go Before You Have to Come Back to an agent. When the agent asked to see the full manuscript, I thought I had it made. Sadly, she passed. I was so hurt that I didn’t send a another query for four months. I supposed, then that I also learned that a huge amount of reejction is a part of finding a publisher for every novel, and that the thing to do is revise and send out again.
Betty: Did you struggle with any part of this story? What and how?
Alle: No. From the moment the idea first popped out of my head, I knew the first third of the plot—the abuse, the planning to steal the money, the escape to Asia and the dramatic problems there, and then finding tai chi and moving to Japan. I mean, I knew all that would happen. I didn’t know how it would happen. I still had to write it. Then, I knew the ending—which I won’t reveal.
I had no idea what was going to happen from the time Carlie arrived in Japan until she reached the last moments of the book. I had to figure it out as I wrote, but it wasn’t the struggle that I find with some other writing. It wasn’t a struggle because I had the final image so firmly in my mind, and for so long.
Betty: Which character(s) were the easiest to get to know? Why do you think?
Alle: Carlie’s emotional experience is so close to mine: the child sexual trauma, the travel, then tai chi coming into play as a huge part of my emotional healing. Naturally, that made it easy to find her. I wouldn’t say she differs hugely from me. I would say that the character I’ve created is in such different circumstances that her experience, from the very beginning, shapes her into something different than I am.
I was quite surprised at how much easier it ended up being to step into the Asian characters. Most of the Asian characters are Asian American, because as uncomfortable as I was writing an Asian American, I was that much more uncomfortable writing an Asian who was born and lived in Asia. That said, the head teacher at the English Conversation school, who plays an important part in one of the sub plots, she arrived fully baked. To write her, all I had to do was think about the pink suit worn by one of my Japanese coworkers. When I lived in Tokyo, Takako Doi was the first female Opposition Leader and then the first female Lower House Speaker. Doi was famous for wearing what I thought of as powder-pink power suits, which so captured the nearly impossible dichotomy Japanese women were supposed to achieve in the professional world.
Betty: What kind of research did you need to do to write this story?
Alle: The primary amount of research—healing from my own childhood trauma—had to take place before I could be a functional human being or a versatile writer. The abuse so dominated my experience that in order to write about anything else, I needed to put that story into a single container. Until I did so, the topic tried to shove itself into everything I wrote: food pieces, cultural criticism; especially movie and book review. It was like it was of primary importance for me to scream, “I am a survivor, too!” even when the topic was cooking with pumpkins.
In order create this so-called container, I had to heal on a personal level. Before I had any idea that I was going to write a novel about a victim learning to thrive, I had to step into that thriving. So most of the “research” was done long before the writing began. I recommend that, actually. Trying to figure out your childhood trauma is difficult and excruciating. To add to that trying to write a book about it, no way. Cut yourself a break. Just learn to thrive. The rest will come.
Betty: How many drafts of the story did you write before you felt the story was complete?
Alle: A hundred? Two hundred? I am not sure how to count drafts. Every time I got close to signing a deal with an agent and the deal fell through, I stopped sending out and went back to work: what could be better? How can I make the story more relevant? More honest? Turns out, the manuscript was always honest and good. It just wasn’t good enough. Through a combination of excellent editing and great feedback from critique groups, eventually, I put it together.
Betty: How long did it take for you to write the story you’re sharing with us? Is that a typical length of time for you? Why or why not?
Alle: From conception to “holding book in hand” was thirty years. I had a great deal to learn about writing a novel.
Betty: What rituals or habits do you have while writing?
Alle: I like to do some tai chi or other stretching first thing in the morning, then have a solid breakfast, then settle into my pretty little basement office with a nice cup of tea. I like to pop my back a lot. I bend from the waist and all the little spinal bones “click click click click” into place. This is terrible for my back, but I love the sound and the feeling of bones clicking.
Also, I make and then drink a lot of tea. Every hour or two, I find that I have simply run out of ideas. Making tea has become a ritual. No fancy Japanese tea ceremony here. I use a tea bag. I take a good sniff of the clean smell of tea as I listen to the water boil. I do a little tai chi as the tea steeps. I don’t think about the work. Invariably, when I sit back down, I can go for another hour or two.
Betty: Every author has a tendency to overuse certain words or phrases in drafts, such as just, once, smile, nod, etc. What are yours?
Alle: I use, “just” quite a bit, as I do, “this.” When I find I’ve written “this,” I go back and define “this,” and the sentence becomes a much better sentence. Since I have been writing like this (edits to: Since I have been writing with this great level of detail, my work is much more alive and more specific.
Betty: Do you have any role models? If so, why do you look up to them?
Alle: My therapist of 30 years standing wrote the book, Iron Legacy. It’s a mix of self-help nonfiction and short, personal essays. It took her 50 years to do the necessary clinical research and then write her book. Donna Beven Lee’s ideas founded the field of healing from codependency, as well as the ideas that underline my own recovery and therefore the psychological spine of As Far as You Can Go Before You Have to Come Back.
I have also modeled my parenting after Donna’s—and that undertaking is even more important to me than writing or publishing.
Betty: Do you have a special place to write? Revise? Read?
Writers who wait for the perfect time and place to write and revise are probably not going to get a whole lot of work done. I’ve always had to write where and however I could. When I worked full time and did what Barbara Kingsolver calls, “writing around the edges,” I wrote starting after dinner on Friday night. I wrote all night, slept through most of the day, and spent the rest of the weekend doing what people do on weekends: saw friends, cleaned the house. Once I had kids, I spent a lot of time writing during whatever class or practice I was waiting to pick them up from: front seat of the car with my laptop on my knees that were propped against the steering wheel. At the Chinese restaurant up the street from the kung fu school.
Betty: Many authors have a day job. Do you? If so, what is it and do you enjoy it?
Alle: For a long time, I was in marketing and then national sales management. I worked for a toy and novelty company, which was goofy, like me. Then I worked for an organic tea company, which could not have been a better fit. That three-year-period was when I wrote the bulk of the first draft of As Far as You Can Go Before You Have to Come Back. I loved having a job that had some clout and that I did very well, but that I did not take home with me. My job was my job, and in my free time, I was a writer.
Betty: As an author, what do you feel is your greatest achievement?
Alle: That I stuck with it. Even after I signed a book deal for As Far as You Can Go Before You Have to Come Back, I felt some shame around the fact that it took 30 years to get published as an author. Then I realized: more people would have this as their story, too, if they’d stuck it out. But too many writers receive one too many rejections or hit one too many blocks in the road. They quit before the miracle. That was never going to be me. The only thing more depressing than not being published as an author was not even trying.
Betty: What is your favorite genre to read?
Alle: Literary fiction by women of color.
Betty: Success looks different to different people. It could be wealth, or fame, or an inner joy at reaching a certain level. How do you define success in terms of your writing career?
Alle: Great question. I would love to be well-regarded for my writing, but I write literary fiction about women from deeply traumatized backgrounds. If the world were in a place where someone could be famous for this kind of writing … wow.
Currently, I am writing a companion piece to As Far as You Can Go Before You Have to Come Back. In my first novel, a young woman with a traumatic childhood is backpacking in Asia and has to decide whether she is going to move toward the light or stay in the dark. The second novel, called Crazy Medicine, also follows a young woman with childhood trauma who is backpacking in Asia and comes up against the same question. She chooses the darker path.
I would love to have these books published and discussed as the yin-yang of: “Why do some people choose the light, while others, the dark?” I don’t understand the answer to that question, yet the answer has hugely affected my life. Also, my writing doesn’t solve the issue. It merely explores what happens as I tell those stories. I would feel very successful if somehow, this question came into the zeitgeist in the context of my novels.
Seattle author Alle C. Hall’s debut novel, As Far as You Can Go Before You Have to Come Back is a-girl-and-her-backpack story with a #MeToo influence: Carlie is not merely traveling. A child sexual abuse survivor, as a teen she steals $10,000 and runs away to Asia. There, the Lonely Planet path of hookups, heat, alcohol and drugs takes on a terrifying reality. Landing in Tokyo in the late 1980s, Carlie falls in with an international cadre of tai chi-practicing backpacker types. Teaching English and pursuing her own tai chi practice, Carlie has the chance at a journey she didn’t plan for: one to find the self-respect ripped from her as a child and the healthy sexuality she desires.
Thank you for stopping by to share about your compelling and thought-provoking story, Alle. I appreciate you sharing your insights and perspective about your experiences and how your character came to terms with them.
Award-winning Author of Historical Fiction with Heart, and Haunting, Bewitching Love Stories
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