Novelist Profile: Alison Clement… Meet Her Through Her Work

Corvallis novelist Alison Clement says the best place to meet a writer is through their work. In fact, you can learn quite a bit about Clement’s life through her keen perceptions and candid explorations of character, as detailed in her award-winning novels set in Oregon and beyond.

Clement is a former librarian in the Corvallis School District and a current graduate student at Oregon State University, where she was accepted into the competitive Master of Fine Arts program as one of only five fiction writers. Clement has published two novels, Pretty Is As Pretty Does (MacAdam Cage, 2001) and Twenty Questions (Washington Square Press, 2007). She recently stepped down as a library assistant at Crescent Valley High School last spring to go back to school and further immerse herself in her writing career. This winter she finished her third novel, tentatively titled Little Bird.

Clement’s favorite authors are best known for their short stories—as evidenced by her sparse, subtle, and insightful style that has won her several awards and landed her short stories and essays in the Alaska Quarterly Review and Sun Magazine. She draws inspiration for her novels through her own experiences—some from childhood and some from nearly 30 years of living in Oregon—and she doesn’t shy away from complicated issues that weigh heavily on her mind.

Clement’s second novel, Twenty Questions, won the Oregon Book Award for Best Novel, and deals with a personal obsession. The plot stems from an experience Clement had in her twenties while living in Bloomington, Illinois. While hitchhiking one day she turned down a ride from a man, on a hunch, whom she had accepted a ride from in the past. Her doubts were confirmed later when she read that the man was arrested for murdering another woman, a young waitress, to whom he’d given a ride.

“That bothered me,” Clement said. “I was thinking about that one day and I thought, ‘What if this happened to someone whose personal life you had access to?’”

Clement took her idea and created June, a woman who works at an elementary school and becomes involved with the brother and child of a murdered woman. The story twists through complicated relationships with the victim’s family while peeling back the facade of June’s seemingly ideal life.

The themes in Twenty Questions reflect Clement’s personal experiences working as a librarian at Lincoln Elementary School at the time; the story takes place in a school similar to the Corvallis elementary school and explores issues of class and the high rates of poverty that often go unnoticed in this community.

“I thought people should know about the lives of children like those at my school,” she said. “I decided that I could best talk about that through fiction.”
Clement’s latest, yet-to-be published novel was inspired by a childhood experience she observed, now reflected through the lens of adulthood. The story follows a young foster girl taken in by a family and sent back; Clement follows the adolescent through Corvallis and on to Newport, where she lives as a young woman.

“It’s partly about revenge,” Clement said. “It’s about what grudges do to us.”

An interesting feature of Clement’s new book is its genre, new adult. According to St. Martin’s Press, which proposed this new genre in 2009, new adult addresses the second coming-of-age that happens in a person’s twenties.

“They’re dealing with adult problems but they haven’t settled into adult life,” Clement said.

Clement is also writing a young adult novel with her son, based on Tarot cards. She will soon start her second term teaching, writing, and studying literature at OSU, and continues to write daily at her home in Corvallis. You can read her blog at and hear her, along with other MFA students, read their work at Corvallis’ New Morning Bakery on Thursday, Jan. 10 at 7:30 p.m.

by Kerry Brown