A Conversation with Alexandra York
By Erika Holzer
The Atlas Society recently published Erika Holzer's review of Alexandra York's new novel, CROSSPOINTS: A Novel of Choice. Ms. York is an internationally published author of nonfiction books, magazine and newspaper articles, book and movie reviews, poetry and essays. Her work has appeared in publications as varied as Reader's Digest, Vogue, USA Today, Navigator,The Intellectual Activist, Chronicles, American Arts Quarterly, American Artist, and Book-of-the-Month Club. She has written and hosted TV features and network radio shows that tracked the contemporary art scene, and has lectured widely on the arts, the culture and personal self-improvement. Her speeches have appeared in Imprimus and Vital Speeches of the Day, and she has appeared as a guest on the Today Show, Larry King Live, and ABC Eyewitness News, among many others.
Alexandra York is the founding president of American Renaissance for the Twenty-first Century (ART), a nonprofit educational arts foundation headquartered in New York City, and former editor of its arts and cultural magazine, ART Ideas. She has curated and produced several major art exhibits, and has written catalogue essays that have become reference sources. She received the 1997 Whiting Memorial Award for outstanding service to the culture from the International Society for Philosophical Enquiry, and is listed in Who's Who in America Women and Who's Who in America. With her husband, Barrett Randell, she divides her time between New York City, Vermont and Pennsylvania.
Her previous book, FROM THE FOUNTAINHEAD TO THE FUTURE and Other Essays on Art and Excellence, received wide critical praise. CROSSPOINTS: A Novel of Choice is her first novel.
Holzer: Turnabout is fair play, Ms. York. Years ago, when my first novel Double Crossing came out, you had a "conversation" with me. One question you asked was, "How did you start your novel? With characters, scenes, theme, plot? Or what?"
York: In Crosspoints, I started with the theme, but almost immediately (it felt simultaneous), the main characters formed full-fledged in my mind, full of color and individual personality. Then, over time, those characters took on deeper, nuanced psychological complexities and eventually acquired their own "voice." As I moved into the mechanics of plot planning, I brought in more characters to play out other aspects of the theme in different ways. From the start, I knew the first scene, and the last. The plotting to get from my opening line to the closing one was the challenging (and fun) part! For my next novel, I have my theme, as well as the main characters, well in mindalong with various scenes that will appear here and there in the story. But this time, I not only have the first and last scenes set, but I've actually written down the very first wordsand the final onesof the novel.
Holzer: Fascinating! Like a literary sandwich. What is the first line in your new novel? (In the interests of not giving away plot secrets, I won't ask for the last.)
York: "My mother's name was Jade, and she was not afraid to die."
Holzer: As a reader, you've got me solidly hooked! This idea of writing your opening and closing lines before you've even begun plotting your novel is provocative, not to mention highly unusual. Was it a difficult assignment? And what is your purpose in doing it?
York: It wasn't at all difficult. The first and last sentences in my new novel came to me like poetry; in my mind, they're beautiful bookends that will protect the style of the novel. And, not unlike with Crosspoints, having the beginning and the end already figured out helps me stay on track with my theme, making sure the plot serves that theme at every point along the way.
Holzer: This can be a very valuable tool for fiction writersespecially those who tackle ambitious philosophical themes. And you haven't yet created any plot events?
York: Oh yes, I have many separate plot events vividly in mind, but the actual "plotting" (the structure) will come next, along with fleshing out the characters, and the research, of courseI do a lot of research.
Holzer: Remember this question that you once put to me? "Do you draw from people you know in real life, Ms. Holzer, or do you make them up in your own mind?"
York: I invent my characters solely in my own mind. They each have a purpose to fulfillthat's why they're larger than life. I would find it utterly boring to write about people I already know. I'd rather get to know my fictional people as I create them and experience the thrill of "watching" as I develop each one into a "real" person.
Holzer: You and I also talked about Ayn Rand's novels having heroesas did my ownand you asked: "Of what value are heroes to readers of fiction?" It's obvious that you've given this subject a great deal of thought.
York: Yes. Heroes are the living manifestations of idealscrucial in fiction because they are crucial in life. We all need to "look up" to individuals who have achieved their potential because, if we are psychologically healthy, a hero's demonstrable achievements will inspire us and give us courage to strive for the best in ourselves. In real life, though, many people are inconsistent in their values or their behavior, so we may find ourselves admiring them for specific achievements but not always for what I call their personhood. But we novelists are free to create heroes of the highest moral stature. This gives readers an opportunity to explore real-life conflicts and witness how resolute individuals choose to confront and overcome obstacles. Equally important, fiction writers can dramatize the whole issue of heroism by presenting heroes who, by definition, are fully integrated: consistent both in values and in action. In this way, the reader gets to experience the soul of a hero in a completely unguarded way and to feel the emotional joythe self-celebrationof being or becoming heroic in real life. This is powerfully motivational to any reader committed to personal excellence. It's also why Crosspoints includes a deeply flawed hero: so readers can experience the process of losing or winning oneself.
Holzer: The most intriguing question you lobbed at me during our Q & A was whether I thought of myself as a writer or as an artist. I found it a complex, thought-provoking question, and one that I enjoyed answering. Do you think of yourself as writer or artist?
York: Bothbut in differing degrees. Because I've written a large body of nonfiction in many forms over a period of years, I think of myself, in that context, as a writer communicating my ideas via already existing subject matter. But as a poet or short story writer, I think of myself as an artist because the entirety of what I produce is my creation. Only now, as a novelistbecause of the scope of Crosspointsdo I feel myself a fully achieved artist. As an art form, the serious Romantic novel requires an enormous amount of mental induction-deduction interplay, along with its many other rigorous demands. Good novelists create, select, test, arrange and integrate each separate molecule of a story so that at "the end," it will add up in complexity to what they want as a finished, satisfying, enriching product. The goal is to express your theme through the story, the characters, the scenes, the action, the dialogue, the thoughts, the colors and sounds, the time of day, the blinks, coughs or sneezes, the everything that eventually takes on a cohesive life of its own and stands as a single entity. Every serious work of art is the physical issue conceived and born from an artist's mind. (In the publishing industry, a novel is even called "the baby.") The craftpainting, sculpting, composing, writingis the aesthetic method of presenting the artist's view of the world, of the human condition. With Crosspoints, I'd like to believe I have earned the status of "artist" as well as "writer."
Holzer: The last question you asked me was this: "What one piece of advice would you give to the would-be fiction writer?" What's your one piece of advice, Ms. York?
York: Write not only what you "know," but what you love.
Reviewer Erika Holzer's own novels, Double Crossing and Eye for an Eye (also a Paramount feature film), were published, respectively, by Putnam and St. Martin's Press. Her article, "Passing the Torch"about Ayn Rand's impact on Holzer's own fiction writingwill appear in the Fall 2004 issue of The Journal of Ayn Rand Studies, and will be available from xLibris in time for the Ayn Rand centennial in the Spring of 2005. Visit Ms. Holzer's Web site at www.erikaholzer.com for further information about her work.