I’d like to welcome B.R.A.G. Medallion Honoree T.J. Alexian to talk with me today about his book. T.J. lives in Attleboro, Massachusetts in a renovated green Victorian, along with seven ghosts and his long-time (and long-suffering) partner. He also has three kids and one spiritual kid, and their stories and their spirit form the heart and soul of his novel, Pictures of You. A profiled author in the Writer’s Digest book Writer with a Day Job and an award-winning communications specialist, Pictures of You is Alexian’s first novel, although he has two more being prepared for distribution: The Late Night Show and Confessions of a Diva Rotundo.
Hello, T.J.! Thank you for chatting with me today about your B.R.A.G. Medallion book, Pictures of you. Tell me how you discovered indieBRAG.
Thanks, Stephanie! It’s great chatting with you. I discovered indieBRAG while reading the manuscript of another BRAG-nominated author. It looked like a great program and I wanted to learn more…and, submit Pictures for consideration. I’m glad I did!
How long have you been a writer and what do you find most rewarding about the craft?
As with so many of us, I knew I wanted to be a writer when I was a kid. My dad used to tell me bedtime stories and I didn’t want them to end, so I started making up my own adventures. When I was a teen-ager, I was heavily into theater and started writing plays. Writing novels came after college, but I find it to be the most satisfying challenge of all. So much of writing is about re-writing, about trying to get what you’re trying to say perfectly right. When you do, and people respond, it’s magic.
Please tell me about your story, Pictures of You.
I like to call Pictures of You a social media ghost story.
What that means is that the story is about a self-professed video geek, Ashes16, whose real-world past begins to haunt her when a strange video pops up on her YouTube account one day. Others soon follow, bringing back vivid memories of her older brother’s grisly death and forcing her to relive over and over again a nightmare scene she witnessed first-hand. And worse yet, the videos seem to be coming from her dead brother, Daniel.
So, are they really messages from Daniel, asking her to uncover dark family secrets some people want to keep hidden? And what happens when Ashes finally starts to understand the meaning behind these messages? That’s the chilling secret behind Pictures of You.
What a fascinating and haunting premise! What was your inspiration for it?
Inspiration’s a funny thing. One beautiful spring day a few years ago, I was giving my daughter her first driving lesson, and I thought it would be funny to record the experience and post the video to YouTube. That got me to thinking: what if one day you woke up one morning and found videos of your life posted on YouTube for everyone to see that you never wanted anyone to see? You know, things like break-up scenes with an old flame, or the day you went to school with your fly down. And then, what if the scenes became progressively worse, and couldn’t possibly have been taped, and you had no idea who was sending them or how they had gotten hold of them? How powerless and out of control—not to mention scared—would you feel?
That was it! I was off and running. I sat down and started scribbling.
Could you please share an excerpt?
Of course! (See bottom of this interview)
I love a good old-fashioned murder mystery. Was there any challenges you faced while writing it?
I’m a big fan, too. No huge challenges, although as a writer, I tend to be a bit free-form: I know the beginning and the ending, and then map out what’s in between three or four chapters at a time. That wasn’t the case for Pictures. I wanted to construct it in the manner of a Nancy Drew mystery story: 25 chapters exactly. That meant I had to have a roadmap for the entire book, especially since it’s a mystery, so you want to space out your clues in an orderly fashion. I think that discipline helped provide structure to the book. P.S.: I went over 25 chapters, but that was a deliberate decision.
Please tell me a little about Ashes and how did you come up with that name?
That’s another interesting problem I encountered as I was writing the book. I originally intended to write the story as a strict YA thriller, with your stereotypical girly girl young pretty teen-ager who all these awful things happen to, but who wins out in the end. But as I progressed with the story, the true Ashes increasingly started to assert herself. She wanted to be more than that. And one morning, I realized, “Oh, wait. This is a girl who really wants to be a boy. And not just any boy…she wants to be her dead brother.”
After that, to me, the book really came into focus. I’ve always viewed it as a ghost story, but in seeing who Ashes was, it became clear to me that the story was as much about being haunted by the memories of your past as it was about an actual haunting. When that fell into place, I realized the real point behind Pictures of You was about giving voice to those hiding in the shadows—and not just voices of the non-corporeal variety. It’s about those who are unable to talk, or too scared to speak their own personal truth—for even if Ashes is a self-described YouTube addict with a very public social face, she still wears a mask. She still feels different, every day of her life. She’s still hiding a past she desperately needs to come to terms with and a sadness she dares not reveal to anyone, especially herself.
How did I come up with the name? Her full name is Ashley, but in my head, I see her as looking like the character of Ash in Pokemon. Also, there is some symbolic significance to the name, as revealed in the story. I won’t reveal that!
Your story is set in a sleepy New England town called, Eldredge. Is that a fictional place? Could you please give a description of the town to set the tone a bit?
It’s not really a fictional place. I mean, the name is fictional, but Eldredge is very much based on the area of Massachusetts that I live in. There’s even an Eldredge Street, which is where the name came from.
Eldredge is a quiet, crumbling, slightly depressed part of Massachusetts, and the story takes place in the middle of the summer, during school break. New England winters can be cold and snowy, but the summers are hot and sweltering. Although New Englanders are reserved by nature, there’s a lot going on inside. There are secrets clamped down and repressed. All of this starts to boil over during one of the hottest weeks of the year.
Will you please share a little of what Ashes relationship is like with her mother?
They certainly don’t have the most functional relationship. Ashes’ mom has been married twice and is deeply mourning the loss of her son. As a result, she’s almost too absorbed in the past to pay much attention to her living daughter. In fact, since Daniel’s death, she’s shut almost everyone out of her life-including Ashes. This is an important storyline in the story, and one that can be common when you are dealing with the loss of a child. As a dad of three, it’s a heartbreaking situation I’m not sure I could ever recover from.
In my questionnaire to you I asked you if there was any Historical facts or significance about your book. You said there isn’t but you shared with me that this story is more than a ghost story. Could you please share a little about what that is?
I think this book is a bit different because it’s as much about being haunted by the memories of your past as it is about an actual haunting. The real point behind Pictures of You is about giving voice to those hiding in the shadows—and not just voices of the non-corporeal variety. It’s about those who are unable to talk, or too scared to speak their own personal truth—for even if Ashes is a self-described YouTube addict with a very public social face, she still wears a mask. She still feels different, every day of her life, because of the fact she looks different from other girls, dresses differently from other girls, resembles a boy more than a girl. But gender identification is only the tip of the iceberg. Ashes is hiding a past she desperately needs to come to terms with and a sadness she dares not reveal to anyone, especially herself.
Another central theme to the book involves the problems associated with autism, and how society tends to often treat these kids as invisible—again, giving voice to those hiding in the shadows.
Where in your home do you like to write and what is your process?
That depends what part of the process I’m in. When I’m first putting a novel together, I have to write it all out by hand on a yellow legal pad, making lots of corrections and cross-outs. The messier, the better! That takes place in either my bed or on my favorite, most comfortable couch (in my den). When it comes time to typing everything up, that always takes place on the mainframe (never a laptop) in my study. After I’m done typing up a page from the legal pad, I immediately rip it off, crinkle it into a ball, and throw it across the room. What a satisfying feeling! Editing is much the same: print out the chapters, edit by hand in the bedroom, and type it up in the study. My process is one of ritual habituals.
Who designed your book cover?
The book cover was designer by a talented graphic designer named Rob Fabiano. I’ve known Rob for many years now and I was so pleased when he agreed to design the cover.
What are you working on next?
Right now I am working on editing a thriller called Late Night Show. This story involves webcams, and is an updated version of Rear Window with a disturbing twist: my main character witnesses an online murder one night. But did she really, and who can she report it to? And what happens when she gets drawn into the horrible webcam world she observed, and becomes the person on the inside, looking out?
Do you stick with just genre?
No, I tend to hop about. Pictures and Late Night Show are cut from a similar cloth, but the book after that, Confessions of the Diva Rotundo, is another matter entirely. It’s based on my experiences in theater. The main character is an over-the-top ego-obsessed ham actor who is called upon to solve a murder mystery, mainly because he’s the main suspect and no one would put it past him to commit murder for a lead role. He has until opening night to prove them wrong. It’s absurd and the lead character is insane, but I’m having a lot of fun writing it.
I sit at my computer and type in my YouTube username.
I scroll through my list of videos.
Still there. This memory I have no memory of. This memory, with that laugh at the end. This memory of him.
I scroll down farther. And stop, the cut on my knee completely forgotten. This isn’t possible.
All at once, it’s like I’m still running through the woods, as if I still hear that sound of footsteps moving softly behind me. A crackle of twigs. Once again I feel the whisper of someone’s presence in the air. I stare at the screen, in complete disbelief.
I can’t believe it’s there, but also, I can’t wait to see it. And so, I click on the video, to bring it to life.
There I am, sitting in front of my pink dressing table, the one that was in my bedroom at the old house, and is probably still there since we didn’t have room for it in the condo. I’m sitting with my back to the camera, brushing my long, straight hair.
I’m talking to myself, into the mirror on top of the dresser. I can’t hear a word of what she/I’m saying, so I turn up the volume.
“But of course, I can’t get my hair cut,” I’m saying, and I hate my voice even more, because I sound like such a little girl. “Mommy won’t let that happen. Your hair’s so beautiful, so straight and long…”
In the present day, I reach my hand up to touch the back of my head. So much shorter now, practically like a boy. No, no. Like a boy.
Back in the past, on the video, I keep brushing. “I’m so sick of straight and long! I’m sick of snarls in the morning. I’m—”
The person I was pauses, stops brushing. “I see you,” she says, but doesn’t turn around.
See? Oh, yes. In the mirror.
There’s a laugh, muffled and indistinct. His laugh, once again.
The person I was turns around, looks right into the camera. “Come on,” she says. “Why are you doing this?”
And I hear his voice again. The way I remember, kind of deep, but with that smile in it, that lightness. That teasing quality he always has. Had.
“To bug you,” he says.
I shake my head, and my bangs go in different directions. “You’re not, you know.” I sounded pouty, and I could almost hear him saying, at least in my head, that I always was a bad liar.
There’s movement, in the mirror that she/me is staring into. It happens in an instant, and then I see myself stand. “Daniel!”
Just like that, the video’s over.
That movement. It goes by so fast, but…
I use my mouse to move back in time, to the point where I turn around.
“You’re not, you know,” I say again, still sounding pouty.
The movement starts. Quickly, I hit pause.
Yes, right there.
He’s there. Daniel comes into view, a reflection in the mirror.
Daniel, with his skinny body and his pitch black hair, with bangs cut straight as mine are now. And his dark eyes, which always seemed to twinkle just a little when he was up to no good.
Daniel. I want to touch the screen. I push my fingers forward, and feel a bit of static from the monitor. But more than that, there’s a chill in the air, over my shoulder. I break from the video, turn around.
No one’s there…
A message from BRAG:
We are delighted that Stephanie has chosen to interview T.J. Alexian who is the author of, Pictures of You our medallion honoree at indieBRAG . To be awarded a B.R.A.G. Medallion TM, a book must receive unanimous approval by a group of our readers. It is a daunting hurdle and it serves to reaffirm that a book such as, Pictures of You, merits the investment of a reader’s time and money.