A Conversation with Alexandra Allred, Author of ANNIVERSARY KILLER

When I first met Alexandra Allred, she was in the process of karate-chopping boards in half.

I had gone to the Texas Book Festival, nervous as a short nun at a penguin shoot to be at my first live author event. I was supposed to meet with all of the other authors from my publisher at the hotel. In the lobby, there was a blonde fireball of a woman who was encouraging the other women to chop these boards to build their self-esteem. I huddled toward the back of the room, watching as other authors got up and punched those boards in half while Alex cheered them on. I sat there, eyes wide, thinking, "Who is this woman?"

Over the next couple of years, I got to know Alex better and my admiration for her grew. She's had a fascinating life, and has an amazing energy. She grew up in Soviet Russia as the daughter of a United States diplomat. She's been an Olympic athlete, a football player, a sports writer, and an environmental advocate who's testified before Congress about industrial pollution endangering children's health.

As Stephanie Maddin, of Earthjustice described her: “Alex Allred is an unforgettable force for change on environmental protection and children’s health. When others throw up their hands or throw in the towel, Alex just digs in deeper. Her limitless energy, commitment, and demands for environmental justice for all people inspires the work of so many in the green movement.

Now, Alex is the author of a series of mystery novels, and I got to have a chat with her as part of the celebration for the release of her latest, Anniversary Killer.

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Lissa: You discovered your passion for storytelling when you were a young girl living in Soviet Russia. Did you know any storytellers in your life at that time that inspired you?

Alexandra: No, but that’s a great question. One of the things my parents made me do is see one opera and one ballet a month. At first, this was a beating! What 12 year old tomboy wants to go see a Russian opera? Soon enough, however, I started to like the storylines. I liked having to figure out what was going on and piece the story together. I think I was surrounded by storytellers!

LissaMaybe that influenced you in the direction of liking a good mystery… having to piece the stories together from the contextual clues. (I feel similarly lost unless I’m watching opera on television with subtitles. My favorite is Aida.)

Alexandra: Oh, to have had subtitles!

LissaYou say it took you 20 years to gather the courage to publish. Is that really true? You seem to have an abundance of courage.

Alexandra: This makes me smile.

The truth is, when it comes to jumping off of or into something, I rarely hesitate (yeah, even now – which isn’t so smart, I know). I was usually the first person to volunteer for …whatever. But when it came to school, academics, reading and writing, I hid in the back. I’m dyslexic. For years, no one knew and so I was always accused of being a “bright student” who never paid attention.

I didn’t want to be the class idiot so I became the class clown. I was the kid who ran down the hallways, threw snowballs inside the school and launched the first airborne milk carton with a “Food fight!” (Although I would like it duly noted that I never threw food or drink AT anyone. That’s not cool!)

LissaBeing a dyslexic writer has to present its own challenges. How do you cope with that?

Alexandra: I have a bittersweet relationship with my dyslexia. To be fully accurate, I am dyslexic with more severe dyscalculia. Today, as a grown (and slightly mature person) I enjoy talking to kids and parents about it because I hope I can somehow help. It made me who I am today and that's a pretty okay thing. Undiagnosed students find coping mechanisms to get through school. I became a ham. I might not be able to stay on task with everyone else or know what we're doing or be able to take a multiple choice test but, by golly, I'll be entertaining. A lot of class clowns have my diagnosis, I later learned. Its a horrible fear of being the class idiot so ... before anyone can call you an idiot, you ARE one. There's a lot of power for a kid to be the "idiot" on purpose.

I remember in the 3rd grade - even now, so clearly, not being able to tell time because I kept mixing up the numbers and both my father and teacher were furious with me. I was accused of daydreaming and then of being belligerent.

Story telling was a great way to prove to a teacher that I knew the subject matter and when I bombed a multiple choice test, I almost always talked myself into a B+ by talking to my teachers. In college, it wasn't so easy and I failed some courses until one of my instructors me to "humor" her and get tested.

At first, I was super pumped to learn that I was not, in fact, an idiot. I truly thought I was slightly stupid growing up. The counselor advised me that while I was happy to learn what was wrong, I would go through a period of frustration of "what's wrong with my brain." I thought that was ridiculous. Now that I know I'm not a moron, how could I be any more frustrated but sure enough, after about six months, it kicked in. It took me a few years to come to terms with my brain just doesn't see and process things the way others do.

In the editing process of a book .... I REALLY SHOULD have my editors speaking here .... I know I can be a nightmare. I flip letters, I flip phrases, I invert and revert and hell, I don't know what all I do. What really kills me is when they send back the edits and there are red edits with blue edits with green edits all from different editors. I cannot see straight. So, instead of flipping out, I just hit "accept all" to the corrections and wait another 24 hours until one of my editors comes back to me and says, "Um. What are you doing?" heehee.

Those who know and love me best will repeat numbers to me over and over because if you tell me to go to room 124 .... there is an excellent chance I will be banging on the hotel room of 142!

But once writing became a way I could express myself and I got positive feedback, it saved me. It made me happy and confident, grateful and determined to stick with education. And because of my LD (learning disorder), it keeps me focused and determined and open to criticism because I know I'm probably doing some funky, crazy things.

It was easy enough to come up with and write the stories but the idea of sending them off to be judged was very scary to me. In fact, the only reason I was ultimately published was through sports writing. I had a lot of confidence in that because I was the only pregnant female bobsled champion around so … who was going to argue with me?

Lissa: That’s a terrifying moment that holds a lot of writers back: that fear of being judged. But I’ve discovered that no one is as harsh a critic of my writing as I am. For the most part, my readers have been kind.

How did criticism shape your writing?

Alexandra: It makes you step back or step away from the story as the author and look at it as the reader. When I was writing sports, it was often more of an op-ed piece and athletes have egos! But I was/am a positive writer and rarely had a problem with anyone. In fact, I’m proud to say that I scooped ESPN, HBO Sports and ABC Sports when I interviewed one of the first black NFL players to the league. I had a reputation as being a fair and friendly writer so he would only talk to me! Pretty cool. He was very cool. But when I stepped into the world of fiction that was when I was so vulnerable. I wasn’t writing about a real person or event so now my “story” was open to interpretation and critique.

I’d like to think I handled it pretty well. I don’t get too upset and roll with almost all edits. It’s a lot like sports. You practice, practice, practice. Game day comes and you give it all you’ve got, get yelled at by the coach, cheered by fans, heckled by a few (and you just flip them off) and know you did you best, vowing to do a little better the next time!

Alex taking a backflip into Sydney Harbor
LissaIn just a few decades, you have had more adventures than most people could have in three lifetimes. How do you think your bold spirit has affected your writing life? Do you try to capture that in your characters?

Alexandra: Wow! You just worded that so prettily. That was very sweet and I appreciate that but I have to give props to my parents. I’ve lived where I’ve lived and had much of my experiences because of my parents. They laid the groundwork. Only now as an adult do I understand that we often live up to what is ‘normal’ to us. Most people have normal parents and thus a normal upbringing. My mom fell off a curb and while being helped up by Soviet soldiers, managed to get the picture of the undercarriage of a Soviet tank that the Pentagon had been trying to get for over a decade. My dad “watched” Yasar Arafat, we had our walls bugged and I used to get followed by (okay, maybe I taunted them just a bit) the KGB.

LissaI have this vision of a poor KGB officer, begging not to be put on “Alex duty.” Ha ha!

So, your parents definitely shaped you when it came to having an eye for “clues.” What about your reading material? Did they give you any of the “classic” children’s mysteries like Nancy Drew when you were a kid?

Alexandra: Okay, you’re going to laugh at this but my mom really did try to get me to read Nancy Drew. No way. I read things like superhero comics and silly kid books until my first serious book, The Picture of Dorian Gray. That book really rocked me but for the most part, I was a superhero lovin’ kid.

By virtue of what my dad did and the kind of lives we led, both my sister and I were kind of “hands on” in life.

This, I know, is not a normal childhood. It only seems rational then that on my wedding day when my sister and I saw a shoplifter, we chased him down and caught him for the Kroger's Grocery store guy. Later, one of the members of my wedding party yelled at us. “He could have had a knife.” Oh, yeah. Possibly. Then, my sister and I looked at each other and high-fived each other. “But he didn’t!” Today we snicker and giggle over that act of stupidity and that is exactly the kind of thing I like to write about.

All of us have done something like that. You know, where you look back on it and think, “that was really stupid.” (….but fun … hee hee hee…). Those are the very experiences I like to draw up and write about.

Lissa: Okay, it’s time to admit it… You really are a superhero, aren’t you? Mild-mannered instructor by day, crime-fighter by night.

So, you bring that bravery and inspiration into your books. Is there anywhere that you “fear to tread” so to speak, in your work? Any subject that you’ve decided that you’re going to shy away from?

Alexandra: Honestly, no. But trust me, that attitude comes with a price. I find myself cringing sometimes when I know someone is going to read something I’ve put out there but in the end, they are my words and my thoughts so I have to stand behind what I say. I teach Silver Sneakers and many of my students like to read my work. Well, that’s just fine and dandy until Ms. Heidi, who is 94 years old and so sweet that she almost embarrasses me, will say, “Well, Alex, I read your little sex scene …” GAWWWWWD!

Lissa: You have a passion for social justice and you’ve explored difficult topics in your fiction. Do you think the writing world reflects society’s urge to right the wrongs we see around us every day, or do you think the arts is actually a driving force behind it?

Alexandra: Ooooooh! Great question! Both. As writers, and I know you know this personally from your own writing, we cannot help but be influenced by what is happening in the world. Whether we’re writing romance, military fiction, suspense, or young adult, social commentary weaves its way into our storylines.

LissaThat’s very true. I’ve always considered my books to be just entertaining romance stories, but I can’t seem to avoid bringing up social issues in them. Because they’re entwined in so many aspects of our daily lives. It’s almost impossible to ignore them.

In my latest book, I had to address the topic of protecting people’s civil rights in a world where civilization and the rule of law have collapsed. But those things are the best part of human society.

Alexandra: Yes!!! And I love your writing. You write as you are. You are very real and honest! That comes through so … knowing you … how could you NOT write about those things? That’s just you. (And another reason I want you in my next book!)

On a more serious note, the arts remains one of the most effective tools in politics, the economy and social structure throughout history. Thomas Paine’s Common Sense; Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird; Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin; or Anne Frank’s Diary of a Young Girl. Man, the list could go on and on. Here’s another crazy example: Fifty Shades of Grey. While some may not like the writing or the storyline, this little book had a gigantic impact on not only the book industry but also personal relationships, sex, marriage, and how we all look at a pair of handcuffs. Yikes.

Lissa:  Fifty Shades wasn’t my cup of tea, but I think it’s an important work because it so obviously struck a chord with readers around the world. Sociologists could spend weeks debating what it was, but there’s no denying that it made all of us think and talk about the way that relationships are portrayed in fiction.

If nothing else, Fifty and Twilight got a lot of people reading, and that’s something that has to be applauded.

Alexandra: Absolutely! Fifty really changed the industry and brought some life back into booksales.

For me, I tend to look in my own backyard. In sports, I wrote about women in sports. When I moved to a town that was heavily polluted and no one seemed to care, I wrote about the high numbers of sick children. How can you not care about that? And look what happened. When I testified before the EPA and US Senators, they listened and clucked their tongues at learning that our elementary school was named as being in the upper 1% of most toxic elementary schools in the United States but no one wanted to pull the plug on profit! Money talks. Then I wrote, Damaged Goods, and suddenly people started to take notice of the situation. Literature, even fiction, especially fiction, can have a tremendous impact on the world we live in!

LissaSometimes, it’s about making enough noise until someone listens. Books and fiction are a great way of getting people engaged with a story.

Alexandra: It’s that great fable: Truth came into town and everyone ignored him. Then Story came in and people flocked to him, hung on each word and adored him. At last, Truth asked Story what his secret was. How did he get people to love him so and Story said, “No one wants to hear Truth.”

I try to have Story and Truth mingled a bit …

LissaYour novels are always centered around a mystery. What draws you to that particular genre?

Alexandra: Yup. Yup. Yup! I love it. What makes people do what they do? Why did that happen?

LissaThat’s very interesting! The question that usually leads to stores for me is, “What if …?” For you, it’s “Why did he do that?”

Alexandra: Have you ever watched someone doing something really stupid and think, “What is he thinking?” and you’re riveted. You can’t look away!

Right as something is happening or just after its happened … that is what I like to tap into. What was going on in that pea sized skull when he decided to pet the buffalo? Ya know?

I’ll tell you something that is going on right here where I live. A high school kid, very popular and bright, graduates and goes to live with his grandmother. There is much more to this story but in the interest of being concise let me just get to the shocking end. Christopher, the boy, is found dead in his bed. Police are called and do not bother to secure the scene at all and take his grandmother at her word that Christopher simply died in his sleep. But the mother is not so sure. Later, it is discovered that Christopher had been complaining of blisters in his mouth. Further, it is learned that the grandmother’s credit card was used to order cyanide from Thailand and, you guessed it, Christopher died of lethal dosages of cyanide. He was then immediately cremated by the grandmother.

The police came back and said the boy committed suicide. Really? The coroner confirmed that the death would have been slow, anguished, painful, and it was highly unlikely that he would not have been heard crying out by his grandmother. While the police fired the lead investigator, they still refused any wrongdoing.

Kim, the mom, reached out to me and we’ve been working on Christopher’s story. While we are talking about making this a mystery, guess what happens? The state of Texas has called the grandmother in before a grand jury.

Even through fiction, Kim may finally get justice.

LissaIf you were fictionalizing this story, how would you change it?

Alexandra: In real life, I can’t figure her motive so I would work on that angle. I would work up an entire scenario in which, while a mystery at first, would explain why she poisoned her grandson.

LissaHow do you deal with the fact that in real life, bad guys don’t always get their just deserts?

Alexandra: Ho, boy. This is a great question. And is, for me … Truth came in to town and no one would listen but everyone flocked to Story.

The first time I heard that fable, I was spellbound. As I was listening to the speaker, I was thinking, “YES! THIS IS SO TRUE!”

For me, even if it is fiction, the elements of human behavior are so fascinating that I cannot help but dig deeper. What leads a person to the conclusion that murder is the only answer? I like taking a character through the process of puzzling something out. Throw in a little humor and stupid things like chasing down a shoplifter or fainting goats and voila! You have a winner!

Truth and Story hang out a lot in my world.

LissaOh, my lord, the fainting goats. I’ll have you know you had me ruined as a writer for about a week while I was watching videos of them. 

I’ve learned that I could never own one of those goats, as I would be constantly popping out from behind corners, shouting “Boo!” and sending the poor thing into a faint. My goat would have a nervous breakdown in about a week.

Alexandra: Hahaha! I am sending you a picture of some goats I played with this weekend. Wait … is that weird? Should I have not admitted that?

LissaTell me a little about Allie Lindell … What made her appealing to you as the heroine of your mystery series? Do you share any traits with her? If you could absorb one of her traits, what would it be? What’s her greatest flaw?

Alexandra: Allie is loving and sweet and adores her daughters but she is also feeling confined to her new role as at-home mom and wants to break out a little. She’s looking for a little adventure and because she loves obituaries and solving mysteries, she is always on the hunt for a good story and good contacts. In truth, I did base Allie on my life when I was an at-home mom with my girls.

True story. One day my sister came over to my house and was flipping through my Rolodex. 1. I have no idea why she was flipping through my Rolodex and 2. This tells you how long ago this was that I was still using a Rolodex. I digress. She stopped when she got to the V’s and asked me, “Why do you have the phone number for the Vatican?”

You never know if you might want to call the Pope.

She said, “You’re not even Catholic!” I said, “Well, I don’t see how that’s relevant. You just never know when you might want to call the Pope so …” I had his number. Ya know, just in case.

LissaActually, the current Pope seems like he would be a pretty interesting guy to talk to. With all of those stories of him sneaking out of the Vatican at night to minister to the poor… Maybe you should think about a mystery-solving Pope as a character!

So, if you called up the Pope, what would you ask him?

If I could call up anyone, it would be the Queen of England. I’d like to ask her, “Do you feel it? The weight of history? When you’re walking down those gilded halls, past the portraits of your ancestors, do you feel their gaze on you? How does it feel to know you’ll be among them, part of some schoolchild’s history book? And is there a secret box in the attic that has all of the cool stuff of your ancestors we’re not allowed to see?”

Alexandra: Those are awesome questions! Dang! I wish I had thought of those. I called Queen Noor of Jordan once and we had a perfectly lovely conversation about the weather. (Really. She was super cool!) But she probably hung up the phone, looked at her assistant and said, “What a loser! Who asks about the weather?”

LissaI’ll bet she was. She has such an interesting story, with her struggle to be accepted as Queen and defying the conventional norms. I mean, how many Queens of Jordan have been educated at Princeton?

Alexandra: Just the one! (We should probably research that!)

Lissa: You also got to meet Erin Brockovich. Did you find a kindred spirit there? Who was the favorite out of all the people you’ve met?

Alexandra: That meant a lot to me that she came out and visited with me. And, yes, she is very much the character portrayed in the movie. After dinner, she kicked back, smoked a fat cigar and let the f-bombs fly!

I’ve met some seriously neat people so it’s hard to say.

I am a professional stalker. I like to see if I can “reach” people. It’s a sickness. It started when I did sports writing and I attended a big conference and decided I really wanted to meet Jackie Joyner Kersee so I, uh, acquired, a badge and just walked back stage and sat in the dressing area with Jackie Joyner Kersee and had a perfectly lovely conversation about …something. Can’t recall what but I’m sure it was lovely. Since then, I’ve been able to meet all kinds of cool athletes.

I will say that in meeting all the people I have met, it made me want to write about a REAL MOTHER all the more. I am so tired of Hollywood portrayals of motherhood where inconveniences are written in only when its, well, convenient.

When I began writing the Allie Lindell series, I was struck by a few things about all the other detective series in print. The characters were almost always single, no kids, rarely a pet. They could jet set to wherever and whenever they needed to. But what if you had two toddler daughters (as I had at the time), a husband AND pets? That was how it all began. How could one become a detective with an entire entourage? How does one really do a stake-out with a toddler in the back seat? And so began the series. But Sports Illustrated called me and asked that I fly to Austin, Texas, try out for, make and write about being a female professional football player (which I did and I did and I did and I did), so I shelved the series.

Almost 16+ years later, I pulled it back out and just as we were discussing earlier, I was moved by much of what is going on in the world regarding same-sex marriage. I called my publishing house and asked how they would feel about keeping everything else the same but making Allie gay. They loved the idea. Not only is it timely and relevant but Allie’s character inspires conversation and debate, which I love.

LissaOne thing I think sometimes gets lost in portrayals of gay families in movies and television is how normal they are. They get in spats, love their kids, scramble to get dinner done before having to take the kids to soccer practice…

A great Russian writer once started a book by saying that all happy families are alike, and he was right. Every strong family I’ve ever seen, however it was comprised, has had one thing that drives them to face life’s daily struggles together: love. In my latest book, my characters see all sorts of family groups that have emerged after the disaster, held together by the most powerful of human emotions. Love is what makes a family, and that alone.

Alexandra: While I’m straight, Allie and I share many characteristics, including the annoying habit of just jumping into things without thinking them through. I write about Allie in the most honest way possible and … sigh … sometimes she’s a jerk. But she is unafraid, curious, and driven. She wants to be the best mom possible without giving up her own independence.

LissaWell, every human being is a jerk sometimes. That’s part of what makes us human. And it’s part of what makes a character interesting. No one wants to read about someone who always makes the right choices and knows the right thing to do.

Where do you want Allie to grow with her flaws?

Alexandra: She’s selfish. This has been pointed out a few times to me by reviewers and I always get kind of a giggle because it’s like they’re pointing this out to me, almost afraid to let me know that Allie has flaws.

Yes. I know. She can be very selfish and does not mind bringing other people into her adventures so that she can get out of the house. Moms are, for the most part, very selfless. They must be. But each mom has her own escape – pedicures, working out at the gym, the classic “me time.” For Allie, its hunting bad guys.

LissaYou have a B.A. in history, one of my favorite subjects. If you could meet any historical figure, who would it be? What would you want to show them from modern times?

Alexandra: Oh, man! You have no idea how many times I have thought about this and how many times I have even run through different scenarios. Okay. Ready??

Joseph Stalin. I would really like to sit with him and ask him exactly what he had in mind, did he realize how many people he slaughtered? What was his end game and why?

LissaYes, that’s a BIG “What were you thinking?” Mao Tse-tung would be another horrible person it would be interesting to speak to in that regard.

Alexandra: Yes!

I would love to take a walk with Ms. Jane Pittman and Sojourner Truth and say, “See? We have a long way to go but look how far we’ve come!”

LissaJust to show them a picture of President Obama and say, “It was your work which led to this possibility.”

Alexandra: Thank you very much for playing this game with me, Lissa!! You’re fun! Yeah. Absolutely. That would be incredibly satisfying to show them a picture and say that.

And oh, how I would love to sit down with Amelia Bloomer and say, “Hi. My name is Alex Allred. I fought to be on the US women’s bobsled team when they said women couldn’t do it and wrote a book about it, which won the Amelia Bloomer award!” How cool would that be?

Lissa: There’s another area where we still have a lot of work, but can you imagine showing Victoria Woodhull and Susan B. Anthony what modern women have achieved? I think about them every time I go to the voting booth.

Alexandra: We just won’t show they any pictures of the Kardashians ….

Lissa: I think Victoria Woodhull and Susan B. Anthony would be proud of the Kardashians! Don't get me wrong, there's plenty there to criticize, but I think they'd be delighted a woman has the freedom to choose that lifestyle if she wants. Today's woman can be educated and driven to a high-powered career ... or have a TV show based around her fashion choices. Without the work of our "founding mothers" women wouldn't have all of those options, all of those freedoms. Some people may choose to do silly things with those freedoms, but we should still celebrate the fact they have those choices in the first place. And I think Woodhull and Anthony would agree with that. (Right before they took some women aside and said, "Girl, what are you thinking?")

Alexandra: Along the lines with Joseph Stalin, there is also a bit of a sadist in me that I would like to be able to meet with Hitler and tell him that his name is a joke, that his message is not one of empowerment but of hate and loserville and that it is a bit of a joke that the only people who do the whole ‘heil’ bit are considered misfits and losers by the rest of the world.

But most recently, living today, I would love to be in a room with Benjamin Netanyahu and the current leader of Hamas and say, “No one’s leaving this room until we resolve this thing.” Yeah. I know. Totally unrealistic but … ya gotta dream!

Lissa: There’s a line in the movie, Cloud Atlas: “I’m trying to understand why we keep making the same mistakes over and over.” Maybe fiction can play a role in helping people to understand those mistakes, and bridging the gaps between us. The more we can show others that deep down, we’re all the same, maybe we can help contribute to a more peaceful world. I hope so, anyway.

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About Alexandra

Alexandra Powe Allred graduated from Texas A&M University with a B.A. in History, saying, "As everyone knows, once you get a degree in history, all you can really do is teach or write. I'm just doing what I can!" As the daughter of a (now retired) U.S. Diplomat, Allred traveled all over the United States and around the world. Her writing career began before graduation with several pieces on bi-lingual education with national education publications.

But the real stories began while living as a youth in Moscow, Russia. Under a communist regime, imagination and the ability to create stories was the very best way to beat boredom (and the freezing cold!). As her career was taking off, Allred embraced her second passion -- sports. She trained for and made the U.S. women's bobsled team in 1994, becoming the first U.S. National Champion. She was named Athlete of the Year by the United States Olympic Committee and garnered much worldwide attention as she was also 4 1/2 months pregnant at the time! Her training regimen was (and is) used by the United States and International Olympic Committees for pregnant athletes. Following her retirement from the sport in 1998, Allred returned to the literary world with The Quiet Storm.

While living in the Olympic Training Center in Lake Placid, NY, she was able to talk to Olympic and National athletes from all disciplines and share with sports enthusiasts. From there, her career was launched. She did adventure freelance writing for Sports Illustrated, Muscle & Fitness for Her, and Volvo magazines. She held a sports column, worked as an editor for NOW magazines outside Dallas, Texas and began working as a Clean Air advocate, often testifying before the EPA.

Today, she writes (mostly) fiction, teaches kinesiology classes for Navarro Community College while enjoying her family and animals in Texas.

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Contact Alexandra Allred

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