An Interview with Will Alexander
by Nancy Holder
William Alexander won the National Book Award for his debut novel, Goblin Secrets, and the Earphones Award for his narration of the audiobook. His second novel, Ghoulish Song, just came out. So did the audiobook. He narrated that one, too.
I'm so excited to interview my fellow Inkie Will about his work, and have a chance to talk about Ghoulish Song, which I loved every bit as much as Goblin Secrets. I enjoyed the mystery and adventure in both books, the lush writing, and the nods to the theater. And I'm really happy to hear that he's got more books in the works!
Here's our interview:
NH: First of all, congratulations on winning the National Book Award for your first novel, Goblin Secrets. Can you tell us a little bit about what it felt like to win it?
WA:Hiccup-inducing, muppet-flailing, astonished terror and joy.
NH: Has winning the National Book Award changed your life in any fundamental ways?
WA: The day-to-day stuff hasn't changed. I have two very small children, and neither one of them is easily impressed. My toddler is starting to appreciate my juggling skills, at least, but not so much the literary honors. And I'm still writing the books that I planned to write next anyway, so that bit hasn't changed either.
On the other hand, yes, everything is different. I get to feel like an author rather than someone indulging in a goblin-haunted hobby. This is a tremendous relief.
NH: You have created a rich, theatrical world in which masks, music, and theater are woven into exciting and mysterious fairytale-like adventures for your young protagonists. Can you talk about how the Zombay “universe” came into being?
WA: My sense of world-building is messy and mostly intuitive. Lots of separate interests and questions glommed together in the back of my brain when I wasn't really looking, and eventually found expression in Zombay.
The city itself began with the bridge: a great big span of stone and metal where artists, musicians, changelings, and former pirates live suspended between two very different sides of the city. The Fiddleway Bridge is a place set apart, and it's the only thing holding Zombay together. Both books bring their young protagonists to the Fiddleway.
NH: Ghoulish Song is described as a “companion” to Goblin Secrets. Can you tell us what that means? Is it possible to read one without the other? Is there an order in which they should be read?
WA: It means that the two books tell separate stories that take place at the same time, in the same city, with several of the same supporting characters. If you do read both then you'll notice each one unfolding in the background of the other. But you can start with either. Hopefully the new book offers some of the same satisfactions that a sequel would have given, like recognizing familiar characters.
I wanted to capture my own sense of city living, with so many different lives and stories in constant overlap. And I wanted to give Kaile her own novel.
NH: Ghoulish Song is a story about a girl and her shadow. Other notable “doubles” in fantasy include J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan and Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials series. And of course lots of people have grown up having an invisible friend. What drew you to this theme of twinning?
WA: This is probably Ursula Le Guin's fault. Plenty of people lost their shadows in my childhood entertainments--Peter Pan, that guy in the Hans Christian Anderson story, Link in The Legend of Zelda--but Sparrowhawk's shadow in A Wizard of Earthsea haunted me most.
Le Guin's essay "The Child and the Shadow," from her classic collection The Language of the Night, unpacks shadow imagery as a Jungian archetype. (Such archetypes are very useful for writers, whether or not Jung was actually right about anything.) She describes antagonistic shadow-characters as abject parts of ourselves rather than evil twins; everything we would rather set aside and ignore gets hidden away in our shadows. The real challenge isn't defeating your shadow but reconciling yourself to it. This thing of darkness I acknowledge mine.
For more stories about a young girl losing and contending with her separate shadow I very much recommend Catherynne M. Valente's Fairyland books.
Did I answer the question? Not really. I just gave you a list of reading material that I find delicious. That'll have to do. We work with what we're given. And my reasons for running with any theme are always shadowy, associative, and unconscious, so I really don't have a better answer.
NH: What surprised you most while you were writing Ghoulish Song?
WA: The Reliquarian surprised me. She's a sort of museum curator in the Northside Reliquary, a place dedicated to collecting bones of every kind. She said and did several things that I didn't expect…
NH: What was your favorite part about writing Ghoulish Song, and what was your least favorite?
WA: Finishing it. That's my answer to both questions. The finishing touches felt like a very satisfying loss.
NH: Instead of chapters, Goblin Secrets was organized into acts and scenes, while Ghoulish Song was told in verses. What’s next?
WA: I'll probably have to blend the two and write something operatic. That was a joke. It was supposed to be a joke, but now it's got me thinking. Hmm.
NH: You have planted your flag firmly in the arts—theater, music, and literature. Did anyone ever try to steer you toward more pragmatic interests?
WA: Science is strong in my family, so I might have become some flavor of scientist--but science education isn't really designed to reward curiosity, not once you get past a certain point. Instead it brutalizes students by forcing them to memorize organic chem compounds. Only a few survive beyond the introductory college courses, and they have a long slog ahead before they'll get to indulge in basic curiosity and wonder. Or so I'm told. If true, it's a terrible loss. And it might explain why many of our best minds went into banking (rather than say, NASA), got bored, and destroyed the word economy in their boredom. They might have caused less damage as mad scientists.
NA: What are you working on now?
WA: Science Fiction! As a kid I always figured I would write SF someday, and the time has finally come. The book is called Ambassador, and it's about a kid named Gabe Fuentes who becomes the representative of our world. Meanwhile his parents are getting deported (from our country, not from our world).
After Ambassador I plan to write a proper sequel to both Goblin Secrets and Ghoulish Song called The Fiddleway Siege.
NH: Is there anything you’d like to say to the Enchanted Inkpot community, and those who read our blog?
WA: Read widely and wildly. Stretch your sense of the possible by first enjoying impossibilities. Don't skimp on the chocolate.
Nancy Holder is a proud member of The Enchanted Inkpot. She has a short story in Shards and Ashes, edited by Melissa Marr and Kelley Armstrong, from HarperCollins