Monday, March 5, 2012

Interview with William Alexander, Author of GOBLIN SECRETS

1. Goblin Secrets is a wonderful fantastical journey about clockworks and witchworks, and lots of magic in between. What inspired you to write the story of Rownie, which is Rowan made small?

Many thanks! One of the earliest inspirations for the book was my collection of theatrical ghost stories. I went around to all of the actors and techies and directors that I knew, and asked for their best tales and anecdotes of backstage oddness. Several of those tales became part of Rownie's story; they helped me create the goblin troupe and the masks that sometimes misbehave.

2. How would you describe Goblin Secrets?

A book about a boy who loses his home and helps build another one.

3. What was the best part about writing Goblin Secrets?

Listening to the characters is always the best part. Dialogue always comes first when I write, and I loved writing dialogue for the goblin actors—especially Essa and Thomas. And Semele. All of them, really. And I find that the most unsettling thing about Graba is the rhythm of her voice.

4. What was the most surprising part?

GrabaRownie's adoptive grandmother—always surprised me. She's based in part on Baba Yaga, one of the most rich and ambivalent characters in any folktale tradition. Graba might help you, if she feels inclined to help you. She might eat you instead. There's no way to know beforehand whether she'll decide to be your ally or the worst enemy you could possibly have. I love that ambiguity, but it made her one of the least cooperative or predictable members of my cast. Graba does whatever Graba wants.

5. How else did you background as a folklorist come into play?

The democratic sense of magic in Zombay comes out of that background. Any charm or curse might stick, if well-spoken. And my time as a folklore student also helped me create my goblins and changelings. People all over the world have imagined themselves surrounded by small and mischievous folk—often with funny ears.

Like I said last week in another Inkpot post, the idea that goblins used to be children has stuck with me a long while. I've always wondered how that transformation actually happened. Rownie wonders the same thing. Goblin Secrets doesn't actually answer that question, though. Not yet. It's still a secret.

Anyway, goblins steal children. Everybody knows that. But my goblins are the children they steal.

6. Do you think participating in the arts can change people?

Yes, definitely, absolutely, yes. And I'm sure that this is a good thing, but not everyone agrees. The arts in general—and fantasy in particular—is constantly accused of being both frivolous and dangerous. Theatrical arts were outlawed in England pretty soon after Shakespeare's day, and for both reasons: because they were silly, and because they were frightening. Both are true, of course. This stuff is silly. And fun. And frightening. And afterwards you might not be the same.

7. What kinds of "essential information" did your mask maker friends impart about their art for this book?

Jeff Semmerling and Bidou Yamaguchi were both very generous with their knowledge and time. We chatted about masks for hours. Jeff works with leather in carnival traditions, and he told me tales of Mardi Gras and theatrical anthropology. Rownie's long walk with the fox mask came from that conversation.

Bidou is a master of the Hōshō school of Noh mask carving in Japan. Some of the masks described in Goblin Secrets are based on Noh masks, carved in wood and showing different facial expressions when tilted in different directions. And the unChanged Child mask is based on Ko-Omote, the first Noh character a carver learns—and the very last to be mastered.

I've got several masks hanging on my wall at home, including a fox mask by Jeff and an unfinished Ko-Omote by Bidou.

8. What else would you like to tells us about Goblin Secrets?

That I love the cover! I've heard horror stories about cover illustrations, and how often they misrepresent the book trapped between them, so I braced myself for disappointment. But Alexander Jansson's work is gorgeous and haunting, and the cover of Goblin Secrets actually looks like the book that it is. Whew! (Thanks to everyone at McElderry Books who made the cover happen.)

9. Will you be returning to Zombay, the setting for Goblin Secrets?

Definitely. That place isn't done with me yet. The next Zombay book is about music and shadows. It runs parallel to this one, sharing a few scenes and characters but otherwise unfolding in different parts of the city. Zombay is a big place. Cities are always full of different stories unfolding at once.
10. What's next for you?

Next I will focus on secret projects which I cannot yet reveal to the world. And help my toddling son learn how to play "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star" on his ukelele. And I need to choose a title for the second Zombay book. Titles are hard.

11. Is there anything you'd like to say to readers?

Keep reading! Read ravenously. The way things are isn't the only way that they could be, and spending time in imaginary places is one of the very best ways to figure that out.

Here are the links to the two mask makers who helped with William's research, as well as his cover artist:

Bidou Yamaguchi

Jeff Semmerling

Alexander Jansson


--Nancy Holder

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