Early in Alexandria LaFaye’s writing career, many experienced writers told her to write what she knew. Great advice, but LaFaye ignored it. “I figured I already knew it, so why write about it? That would have been boring.” Instead, she writes about experiences she never had to see what they would have been like.
This philosophy has been part of her writing style since she began writing at age eight. As a kid she wrote adult stories about a variety of topics including Vietnam veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder. “I saw the topic on TV all the time,” she says of her mature subject matter. But now that she’s an adult, she writes for kids.
Each of LaFaye’s books springs from a variety of inspirations, but every book has one thing in common—they all started with LaFaye’s “what would it be like if. . .” form of brainstorming. For instance, what would it be like if a boy spoke to the ghost of a person who wasn’t dead? This idea led to Dad, In Spirit, the story of Ebon Jones, a pre-teen boy who communicates with his dad’s spirit to help bring him back from a coma. In Strawberry Hill LaFaye explores two ideas: what would it be like to be raised by hippies and to meet someone from the past without traveling back in time? “My parents are very far from being hippies. I’m looking at a view of childhood I didn’t have,” she says.
In Worth, her newest novel to be released this summer, she wonders what would happen if a farm family adopted an orphan off the New York City orphan train. “I’ve seen several orphan train books,” says LaFaye, “but I’ve never seen one about the effect an orphan had on an existing family.” Worth takes place during the 1870’s in Nebraska. Nathaniel Peals is crippled in a harvesting accident and his father, afraid of losing their homestead, adopts child from the orphan train. According to LaFaye, “While Nathaniel feels replaced, the orphan feels displaced after losing his family in a tenement fire.”
A history major in college, LaFaye has perfected the art of using an historical setting as the backdrop to her character’s struggles. All of the history in her books is painstakingly researched. Whether LaFaye takes her readers to the small town of Harper, Louisiana in the 1930’s in The Year of the Sawdust Man or the bustling city of Chicago in 1865 in Edith Shay, her characters’ lives spring from the pages with details about clothing, living conditions, accents, the climate, and the general pace of life. For Worth LaFaye read the diaries of pioneers and worked with a Nebraska historical society to understand the range war conflict between the ranchers and the farmers. She also accumulated facts about harvesting hay in the 1870’s and medical practices of the time to determine how Nathaniel’s broken leg would have been set.
Once all the facts are in place for each novel, LaFaye falls back on her acting experience and puts herself in her characters’ positions. What do they see? Hear? Smell? “I live in their space before I delve into their emotions,” she says. “If you know what it’s like to live in that time, you know how it feels.” LaFaye’s characters are the bridges between herself and a life she’ll never live. “I love to act and when an actor chooses a role, she’s looking for a character who’s compelling, someone she’s never been.”
LaFaye holds three masters’ degrees in creative writing, multicultural literature, and children’s literature. She splits her time as an author and as an assistant professor at California State University, San Bernadino where she teaches young adult literature, creative writing and children’s literature. In her literature classes, LaFaye teaches teachers how to pick up on the cultural messages embedded in the text. “It’s basically a cultural approach to literary analysis,” she says.
A few times a month LaFaye hits the road to conduct writing workshops for students, in-service training for teachers, and family literacy initiatives. One of her favorite presentations is titled “The Geek Who Made Good.” During her talk, LaFaye delights students with funny stories from her childhood, her accents, dramatic readings, and demonstrations on the process of writing. “I love to hear from readers and writers,” she says, “so feel free to visit my website and say hello!”