Leave a comment and enter below for a chance to win a copy of Debra Whiting Alexander’s newest book, “Zetty.” Winner will be announced in the next Author Spotlight feature. Congratulations to Vera Wilson for winning Amanda Cabot’s book, “A Borrowed Dream.” Please email my assistant christenkrumm {at} gmail {dot} com to claim your prize.

Zetty is the powerful story of a mother lost to a rare form of schizophrenia, and a daughter’s quest to find her.

When Marjorie McGee suddenly disappears from her Southern California beach home, nine-year-old Zetty is left motherless and confused. Years later, Zetty finds herself in a circle of unconventional women—opinionated, endearing, courageous and keen-eyed women—who offer Zetty their heart and backbone. As unexpected friendships form, Zetty begins an emotional, psychological, and spiritual journey in search of her mother—never imagining the joy and tragedy yet to come, the undeniable power of early childhood bonds, and the secret that will change their lives forever.

Can you tell us a little bit about yourself?

I was raised on the warm sandy beaches of San Diego and grew up on a steady diet of western movies and musicals. My debut novel, Zetty, takes place along the coast of Windansea, California, inspired by many of my childhood memories. Like the main character in the story, I grew up with a love for the ocean, cowgirls, neighborhood dance shows, pianos, golden retrievers, and art. Friendship and motherhood are the central themes in my life, and in my characters’ lives as well. My husband and I currently live in Oregon with our black and white Labrador retrievers. Our daughter is grown and we have a granddaughter now who is our treasure. Life is full after 34 years of marriage. I miss the San Diego coast sometimes, but our home in Oregon backs up to lush green fields, horses, stunning sunsets, and hazelnut orchards. Southern California was the inspiration for my first novel, but it’s here in the landscapes of the Pacific Northwest that I’ve found my vision for the next one!

Do you have a day job as well? If so, what is it?

Yes, I love my day job as a mental health therapist and clinical supervisor. I hold a Ph.D. in Psychology and am a Licensed Marriage and Child Therapist. I’ve specialized in post-trauma treatment for more than 30 years and only recently cut back my hours to allow more time to write and care for my granddaughter. After years of writing nonfiction books related to post-trauma recovery, I finally gave birth to fiction. Zetty is the powerful story of a mother lost to a rare form of Schizophrenia, and a daughter’s quest to find her. Inspired by my grandmother who died in a psychiatric hospital at the age of 41, the novel is unique in that it blends personal history with my professional background.

When did you start writing your first book?

When I was nine, I read the poem, “I heard a Fly buzz—when I died”, by Emily Dickinson. That little poem stirred something in me—a desire to capture on paper compelling moments of life in a simple way. So I wrote little books of poetry from then on. It wasn’t until I was 31 that I woke up one morning with a book in mind that I wanted to write for the traumatized children I was working with. A publisher in New York and wonderful editors, Ed Werz and Sally Germaine, offered me a contract and my writing took off from there. I’ll never forget them.

How did you choose the genre you write in? Or did the genre choose you?

Both. My non-fiction genre chose me because of the work I was doing with children and families impacted by crime and trauma. Fiction was different because that was a choice. I couldn’t wait to make things up! I wanted to write about women, friendships, and motherhood, and do it with spiritual substance—matters of the heart and soul. It’s important to me to write about issues I care deeply about. Women’s fiction allows me to do that.

Does writing energize you or exhaust you?

It better energize me or I know I’m writing the wrong story! If I’m well rested but feeling exhausted while writing, it’s a red flag. It usually means I’m not passionate enough about what I’m writing. If a scene doesn’t energize me, it’s out. For example, several ideas kept me motivated while writing Zetty. It was important to me to shine a light on the stigma of mental illness, especially in the 1960’s and 70’s. My grandmother’s life experience was a powerful one; she suffered the consequences of a stigmatizing mental illness, too. And even though the story isn’t about her, she was important inspiration that kept me going. It was also important to me to write about the challenges of despair. Trauma is a part of life, but not all of it. The idea that joy can coexist alongside tragedy is a message we don’t often hear. I wanted Zetty to address this idea and other points of view that empower us. That’s what keeps me uplifted and excited about writing.

As I’ve written in Zetty, art and creativity can serve as an anchor in our lives; it can give us hope for something beautiful to emerge from the emotional wreckage around us. That’s what writing does for me. If it makes me tired, it’s usually because I’ve lost all track of time. In my novel, Zetty puts it this way, “Time took another day, like a disappearing act. I was immersed in concentrated pleasure; lost wholly in the satisfaction of doing what I loved.” I sleep well after a good day of writing.

Do you believe in writer’s block?

No. I’ve reframed the notion of “blocks” because for me it’s such a negative idea. Instead, I believe in “writer’s breaks”—those times I feel stuck and need to get up and move, refuel, contemplate, dissect, analyze, problem solve, or simply let my mind rest and go inward for a time. It might be minutes, days, months, even years. But I think it’s important to accept “breaks” as a natural part of writing, and let them unfold. Whether I’m walking, cleaning, playing with my granddaughter, in the pool, or traveling, I’m just as busy on my book during a break as I am when words are flying off the keyboard. Breaks always move my stories forward.

Do you create an outline before you begin? Do you have the end in mind, or do you just wait and see where the story takes you?

I wish I had a tried and true method. I think it makes sense to create outlines, but when I’ve done one for fiction I’ve never followed it. Non-fiction was different. Outlines were crucial and easy for me to stick to. But I’m not sure the exercise of trying to do an outline for fiction isn’t valuable. I just seem to write novels in a more disorganized fashion. In Zetty, the first and last sentences of the book were the first things I wrote, and those two sentences directed everything in-between. The novel I’m currently working on has been a little different. I have the opening scene and know what I want to experience from the story, but while I have an idea for a twist at the end, I haven’t revised enough yet to know for sure.

What kind of research do you do? How long do you spend researching before beginning a book?

I tend to research as I go. When things pop up by chance while I’m writing, or ideas form that I want to integrate into the story, I’ll stop and use that time to take a natural break and dig deeper into the time period or issue at hand. For example, in Zetty, I researched the correct terms for the building process of an airplane the father in the story works on in his garage. That was an easy one because that was inspired by my own father’s accomplishment. I also learned about swing dancing at the Savoy Ballroom in Harlem while researching the dance and music my characters loved. I don’t end up using all the information I learn, but it’s inspiring just the same. Revisiting the history of the 1960’s and 70’s when Zetty takes place was also enlightening. President Kennedy’s assassination, a stage director’s job description, hippies, Woodstock, the women’s movement, the Viet Nam war, and the black power movement were all things I touched on. I enjoy that aspect of writing because research often provides new inspiration or dialogue for a character that can’t help but add depth to the work.

Are you part of a community of authors? If so, how has it helped you?

I’m currently a member of the Pacific Northwest Writers Association and Women’s Fiction Writers Association. I participate in a community of local author events and have a number of close friends who are writers as well. Not only is it invaluable to have these connections for support and to gain critiques and feedback, it’s also a great way to learn about upcoming author events, writing contests, and opportunities for ongoing development of the art and craft of powerful prose.

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Debra Whiting Alexander grew up on the beaches of San Diego, lived and worked in upstate New York, and settled in Oregon where she lives with her husband. She holds a Ph.D. in Psychology, is a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, and former professor and executive director of two local non-profit counseling agencies. She is the author of sixteen non-fiction books, including one of her most meaningful projects, THE EMOTIONAL RECOVERY RESOURCE KIT, written in response to the 9/11 terrorist attacks for children in New York and Washington, D.C. In addition to working on her next novel, Debra continues to provide clinical supervision and training through a local non-profit agency in her community.

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