Alechia Dow is a former pastry chef, food critic, culinary teacher, and Youth Services librarian. When not writing about determined black girls (like herself), you can find her chasing her wild child, baking something sweet, or taking teeny adventures around Europe.
THE SOUND OF STARS is Alechia’s debut novel.
Amanda Sellet: Hi, Alechia! I’m excited to pick your brain about THE SOUND OF STARS and your behind-the-scenes life. Let’s dive right in with the hot button issue: baking! Anyone who follows you on Instagram knows that you are an accomplished pastry chef whose feed is resplendent with drool-worthy desserts. If aliens invaded the planet and humans were on protein paste rations, what dessert would you miss most? And which of your signature sweets do you think even the Ilori would appreciate?
Alechia Dow: Oh my goodness, WHAT A TOUGH QUESTION!! I would miss strawberry shortcake the most—it was my mom’s favorite dessert to make for us as kids, and it reminds me of her every time I take my first bite of it. As per the Ilori, I think my Ooo-Girl-You’re-In-Trouble chocolate cookies topped with a sprinkle of Maldon sea salt would make the Ilori gasp! These cookies are a hit with even self-proclaimed sweet-haters, so I know they’re a big deal!
AS: Can you tell us a little about your publishing journey, and when you decided to switch cookies for characters, replace pastry with plots, trade fondant for metaphors, etc.?
AD: Haha, I love that! I knew I wanted to write when I was about five or six years old, I just never thought I’d have the opportunity or that I would be talented enough. So while I worked on getting my baking & pastry degree and then later my librarian degree, I wrote. I was really into food writing having worked as a critic for a bit, news, anything, and always science fiction. But I didn’t attempt it seriously until 2016, when I took an online course about how to write comics. That year, I wrote a scifi book that eventually got selected for Justina Ireland’s Writing in the Margins mentorship, and Tamara Mataya mentored me! She basically taught me how to write, and although I shelved the book we worked on, I was able to apply all of the techniques she taught me into writing THE SOUND OF STARS in 2017. From there, it was a wild and unpredictable journey, but one that has made me so grateful and humbled by the support and kindness of others who gave me a chance and helped me.
AS: The prologue to THE SOUND OF STARS describes a political and environmental situation very similar to the current climate on Earth. Did you start writing after November 2016, or did the dystopian aspects of our reality slowly bleed into the story over time?
AD: I wrote THE SOUND OF STARS in June, 2017. The political atmosphere definitely inspired some aspects of the story, and honestly was on my mind in the beginning. Ellie’s big question throughout the story is: what really is humanity and is it worth saving, especially given how volatile life has become for teens in the world.
AS: One of the most powerful aspects of THE SOUND OF STARS is the way you explore multiple forms of alienation, whether that experience stems from race, mental health, class, or planetary and biological origin. Did you always know you wanted Morris and Ellie to share a sense of being outsiders? How do Ellie’s experiences as a young black woman change the way she sees human society, both before and after the invasion?
AD: I did! I wanted Ellie and Morris to connect over being outsiders. They both share that sense of isolation and fear of having secrets that, if exposed, could endanger their lives. While both Morris and Ellie don’t quite fit into their societies, Morris feels purposeful, while Ellie feels purposeless at times. Even though her library sustains her, she’s bitter. Ellie’s perspective is very much shaped by her past, and by the way she has been treated by the folks in her Upper East Side building. She loves her books because she thinks that’s the humanity worth saving, which is bleak. Yet, after so many micro-aggressions and feeling as if she was never good or pale enough, she no longer wants to save the world. It’s over the course of the story with Morris that she realizes what teens today realize: you have the power to create a future worth fighting for.
AS: Ellie’s act of resistance is preserving a secret library after the Ilori outlaw cultural artifacts like books and music. How did you choose which real-life works to include? What do Morris’ favorite songs, and Ellie’s favorite books and songs, tell us about them as characters?
AD: I had such a great time picking music and stories for Morris and Ellie. I chose art that appeals to their personalities; for Ellie, she likes diverse, modern stories that don’t shy away from the hard topics and that bring a sense of comfort at the same time. Each of her books show a bit of her spirit and her fondest memories, like The Hate U Give, Corduroy, Opposite of Always, Simon Vs… For Morris, it was really looking at which music people would keep at the end of the world. Most people carry music on their phones, but what if those don’t work? He may luck out and find hard drives with music (which he loves), but older generations would keep physical music; albums, vinyl, CDs, thumb drives maybe. So he falls into Prince, David Bowie, Queen… and he gets a more modern education of music from Ellie, who introduces him to Beyoncé, and The Starry Eyed!
AS: What attracted you to writing science fiction? Do you have favorite SFF writers, YA or otherwise?
AD: Mysteries, fantasy, and science fiction were my favorites as a poor kid in a town with a big library. Science-fiction spoke to me especially. It was popcorn escapism. While it drew parallels to our society and the problems we face, it was adventurous and out-of-this world. I dove into Octavia Butler, Philip K. Dick, Star Wars fiction, Jumper, X-Men… anything that went somewhere new or approached our world through another perspective. When I began writing fiction, I knew I wanted to write that same popcorn escapism that got me through a tough childhood, and maybe it’d help kids like me who had nowhere else to go but the library. While I do love to read in most genres, and you can find me writing contemporary fantasy or space fantasy, science fiction will always be my first love.
AS: Ellie’s beloved fictional band, The Starry Eyed, is a recurring motif throughout the book, with interview transcripts and song lyrics. Did you model The Starry Eyed on any real-world artists? Do you have a musical background yourself?
AD: I love The Starry Eyed, but no, they aren’t modeled on any real-world artists. For some reason, they just appeared in my head as over-the-top musicians that make music that resonates with Ellie and Morris. And yes, I do have a musical background! I used to sing in choir from third grade until senior year, sang in musicals, played the flute, learned the violin… My dad is a world-class musician and a professor of guitar, my grandfather played the trumpet with the greats like Miles Davis, and composed as well. My mom also loved to sing, so my childhood was filled with music.
AS: The parts of the story where Ellie is explaining human culture to Morris as they make their way across the country are incredibly charming. Were you at all tempted to turn the rest of the book into a sweet road trip romance? (Saving the world is great and all, but the banter!)
AD: I loved writing those scenes! Explaining humanity, writing how someone outside of everything we’ve ever known would see our society, was so much fun. But, the story had to go somewhere, lol. I had to make sure my characters grew, that they changed their perspectives, and that they opened up to each other. I love a good love story, and I wanted them to be happy, but they would never have been able to be their happiest if they didn’t have to struggle through not just saving the world, but saving their families, and saving each other.
AS: What’s it like writing in English for an American audience while living in Germany? Do the languages ever get tangled up in your brain?
AD: This is the first time someone has asked me this! I’m an American from the Boston area, but I’ve lived in Germany for about nine years. Sometimes English words get tangled in my brain, and my sentence structure can be a bit off. When I seriously began writing stories while being here, I forgot how to use contractions! My vocabulary can sometimes suffer, and there are times when I have to read before I can write, just so I can remember proper English. That said, I’m actually in awe of my brain’s ability to switch languages. I’m not a good German speaker, but I can hold my own, and that’s really cool to me!
AS: Without spoilers, what can you tell us about where the story goes next? And if that’s too top secret, can you share any hints about other projects you might be working on?
AD: I have ideas about what I’d write if I could go back into THE SOUND OF STARS universe, and I think fans of the book would really enjoy where the story goes next! Think SPACE! That’s all I’ll say about it, hehe. I do have other projects though: a magical foodie fantasy that has some of my favorite recipes and sassy protagonists, and two more science fiction projects, one a love story about humanity and hope (common themes for me, can you tell?), another an action-packed story about found family and society. I hope beyond hope that I get the chance to put more stories out in the world!
Congrats on the release of your debut novel, Alechia! You can visit Alechia’s website to learn more and follow her on Twitter and Instagram, as well as order THE SOUND OF STARS on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or Indiebound. Lastly, don’t forget to add it on Goodreads!