April 24, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

Mischief Maker: National Book Award–winner William Alexander has created a world of fun, fury, and astonishing possibilities

William Alexander

Photographs by Teri Fullerton

When William Alexander recently walked across the stage at the National Book Award ceremonies to accept this year’s award for Young People’s Literature, he joined a very small group of writers who have won such an award for their first novel. But Goblin Secrets (S & S, 2012) isn’t at all his first published work. He’s the author of many short stories printed in journals such as Weird Tales and Interfictions.

Will lives in Minneapolis, in a writerly neighborhood within walking distance of excellent coffee, amazing Mexican food, and a library. “We’re also close to a lake,” he writes, “but everyone in Minnesota lives close to a lake.” His writing day begins when his son goes off to preschool. “Then I drink coffee, bandage my wounds from the pre-preschool struggles, and put on some music. The cellist Zoe Keating makes excellent soundtracks for fairy tales.” He writes in “a strange little room,” taken up mostly by his desk and his bookcases. Will’s wife, Alice, recently built him a standing desk, with the kind of floor mat cherished by professional chefs; he can stand up all day on it. His collection of masks lines the walls.

Will and Alice and their two children have one pet: Nyx the polydactyl cat. “Like most cats, she understands that books are filled with things we were never meant to know. She curls up on the pages of whatever I’m trying to read, always. I’m sure she’s only trying to protect me.”

Will writes through the day until “I look at the time and realize that I should have picked up my son from preschool by now.” We are all grateful for his son’s patience, for it has led to the splendid Goblin Secrets .“When I sent Goblin Secrets out into the world, I hoped it could possibly communicate my sense of theater—what it is, what it does, and why it’s important,” he writes. “And I hoped it would be fun to read aloud.”

It does, and it is.

GDS: In your acceptance speech—which was very gracious, by the way—you quoted Ursula K. Le Guin.
WA: Thanks! That line is from her book of essays Cheek by Jowl. I’ll repeat it here. It’s worth returning to, over and over again. She writes that “the literature of imagination, even when tragic, is reassuring, not necessarily in the sense of offering nostalgic comfort, but because it offers a world large enough to contain alternatives and therefore offers hope.” We need to remember that the way things are is not the only possible way that they could be.

Let’s talk about the goblins. Did George MacDonald’s The Princess and the Goblin provide a starting place for your own, who are quite unlike the goblins of, say, The Hobbit?
Absolutely. Along with Jim Henson’s film Labyrinth, with all of those goblin puppets designed by Brian Froud. There is something so gleeful and wonderful about them—even if they are dangerous. I wanted mine to be consistent with goblin lore, full of mischief and trickery. And the thing I stole from Henson and MacDonald is that goblins used to be children. They haven’t been swapped for children, as in fairy lore about changelings. They’re kids transformed.

In the novel, the goblins are often referred to as the “Changed”; Rownie is “an unchanged child” and sometimes reaches up to see if his ears are becoming pointed to discover if he is “changing.”
I’m pretty sure that this fear and curiosity about monstrous transformations explains the endless popularity of vampires and werewolves, too. They’re the monsters that you might become, so they make perfect metaphors for all of the changes we actually experience while trying to figure out who we are.

Your goblins are also outsiders: they are outside the world of Zombay, unaccepted there even though one of their missions is to protect the city.
This is what connects my goblins to actual actors at various points in theater history. It’s a disreputable, mischievous, goblinish profession, and a vital one. In Shakespeare’s day they were barely considered people. But they were also the only ones outside the nobility who could legally wear silk. All sorts of rules reversed onstage. And theatrical mischief also takes its responsibilities seriously. You have to get your cues right. You have to pull the ropes at precisely the right time or else the wrong piece of scenery falls into place, and in that moment nothing else is more important. Nothing could possibly be more important than the painted landscape on the other end of that rope. So theater folk may be mischievous, but there’s also a dedication and a clear precision to what they do; it’s not all irreverent foolishness. It can even be heroic.

To perform and to be heroic, these goblins don masks.
I interviewed some master mask makers while researching the book, and tried to learn as much as possible about the mythic and ritual origins of masks. In ritual the mask can stand in for powerful forces that we have no control over—the hunt, or the weather, or the river that might flood and kill us all. But if we can give those forces a voice and a face, then we might be able to interact. We still don’t have any control, but at least we can have a conversation. And in performance we can take on some of the qualities we’re afraid of.

Which is why Rownie becomes the giant when he puts on the giant’s mask, and why he becomes the fox at the end of the novel by putting on the fox’s mask—and so taking on some of the qualities of the fox.
Absolutely. It can be a privately transformative ritual as well as an ancient, public attempt to communicate with angry weather. The giant mask comes from one of my favorite theatrical exercises, an especially useful one for children’s workshops. You get everybody to walk in a circle and give them vivid, impossible metaphors: “Walk like your feet weigh five hundred pounds. But you’re used to it. They always have. Now walk like your head is full of honey. Now walk like your hair is on fire, and always has been.” This is great for giving each character a distinct way of moving. One of those basic exercises is “Walk like a giant.” Some stand on tiptoe as soon as you say “giant,” but they shouldn’t. “You’re already a giant. You don’t need to stand on tiptoe. You are already very tall.” That’s a useful walk to learn. No one ever bothers you when you stand like a giant, no matter how tall you happen to be.

William AlexanderIt’s also fun to put on a mask.
Yes! Absolutely. Don’t forget about the fun. Here we are talking about mythic origins and transformation, but none of it matters much without the fun.

The city of Zombay is itself a stage for remarkable and sometimes frightening events—and it’s a stage about to be overwhelmed by the coming floods. What influenced the physical world of the novel?
After high school I saved up some money and became the clichéd American traveler with a backpack and a Eurail pass. I started in England and then headed east. Zombay probably began when I landed in Florence and saw the Ponte Vecchio. It’s a very old bridge with houses and shops on it, suspended over the river. It seemed like a magically impossible in-between place. Then, just a few days later, I was wandering through Prague and crossed the Charles Bridge. That one was covered with performers: musicians with glass harps playing intricate compositions and puppeteers and painters and guitarists and people with costumes and masks, all performing together, all making a vibrant mess of art and collecting coins in hats. Then I found the old town square of Gothic streets and spires—like those in Zombay’s Southside—in direct contrast to blocks of Soviet-style apartments surrounding the city. And I saw the clock tower of Prague. They say the prince who commissioned that clock put out the eyes of the craftsman who made it so he could never build its equal. All I had to do was put the clock tower in the middle of the bridge, and the rest of Zombay took shape around it.

Parts of the story, and the setting, read as very Dickensian to me. Is it fair to cite Dickens as an influence?
That’s fair. And flattering. I have to embrace Oliver Twist as an influence.

The orphan in the company of other orphans, all bullied and controlled by the powerful Graba…
Exactly. But the larger debt to Dickens comes from his essays and articles on urban geography, stolen from the book Dickens’ London. He went for long walks and made the invisible parts of the city visible by writing about them. Southside gets much of its flavor from those essays. In one he describes, with gentle irony, an absolutely terrible play. That helped me write about a theatrical fiasco, when my goblins attempt to perform by the docks and everything goes wrong.

Zombay is very much haunted by London. The old London Bridge was a town unto itself, like a larger version of the Ponte Vecchio. And the south side of London was a rough and disreputable place in Shakespeare’s time, so of course the theaters were there.

Most inland cities seem to have grown up around rivers. London has the Thames. Minneapolis and Saint Paul watch each other across the Mississippi. The contrast between the river and the urban world that borders it is compelling. But in each case the river is very much older than the city, and it doesn’t care about us. It isn’t a malevolent force, but it does what it does as a river, and sometimes that includes swallowing our bridges whole—just as the Mississippi swallowed our 35W bridge a few years ago. The river can swallow you without bothering to notice you. I borrowed a fair bit of nautical lore for the relationship between Zombay City and the Zombay River, the reverence and terror that sailors have always had for the sea. It takes a particular kind of courage to live next to forces larger than yourself. I suppose we always do, but it takes courage to recognize it.

But there are also forces in Goblin Secrets that do what they do for evil purposes. There’s the Mayor, for example, who takes away hearts and volition, and who’s willing to let all of Southside be drowned so he can remake it in the image of Northside. Sometimes very disturbing things happen in Goblin Secrets —not the least of which are the burning pigeons. Were you ever concerned about including varied and visceral kinds of violence in a book intended for children?
Concerned, yes. Hesitant, no. I figured it was important to write what the story needed first, and then soften it later if the audience demands. Then I decided it was important not to soften it. Everyone points out that fairy tales are always dark, and everyone is right, though every few years we still have a big, public battle about it. We’ve been having that particular argument for thousands of years. Plato favored censorship. Aristotle didn’t. Puritans tried to ban theater throughout Shakespeare’s career; they insisted the stage was both dangerous and foolish, a vile and disreputable kind of lying. And it is both dangerous and foolish. That’s its power. Shakespeare admitted to the foolishness in Midsummer and the dangers in Tempest—his two fantasy stories. Both theater and fantasy are still stuck in this conversation, whether we’re talking aboutHarry Potter or Dungeons & Dragons. The argument gets even more heated when kids are in the audience.

We need to give those kids more credit. Violence and darkness in books for children creates a necessary framework of emotional possibility. Cruel and horrible things might happen in a novel, but the young reader—even a young reader to whom nothing especially horrible has happened—will recognize the reality of those dark things and their presence in the world. In his or her world. The politics of the playground are cruel and horrible enough. In a story, they can experience those events and emotions vicariously, from a safe distance.

And what does that give a young reader?
Stories are actually the only way to wrestle with such things from a safe distance. We do a terrible disservice to young readers if we deny them that chance. They need a richer sense of possibility.

Fictional pain works like a vaccine. You inoculate yourself to tragedy by learning that tragedy exists, as in Katherine Paterson’s Bridge to Terabithia. That book forces readers to make sense of a senseless death—hopefully before they have to do so in fact. And everyone has to eventually. But books can give warning, so when young readers encounter full-blown sorrow it might not be an utterly new experience. It might not be overwhelming. Things like it have already happened to fictional characters they’ve loved.

This is what A. E. Housman says of sad and dark poetry in “Terence, This Is Stupid Stuff,” when he writes that “if the smack is sour,/ The better for the embittered hour.” And he concludes the poem with an anecdote about Mithridates, who made himself immune to poison by taking small doses each day—suggesting that reading bitter poems helps, as you say, to inoculate against the devastation of later sorrow.
Exactly! Perfect example. In Goblin Secrets, the puppet show works the same way. It warns both Rownie and the reader about what happens later. That’s also basic foreshadowing, so it follows the standard rules of drama—but those rules all have more than one purpose. It’s an unjust mistake to deny children the full emotional range of fictional experience. We arm the reader as best we can inside the story, and afterwards they might continue to be armed.

And not to keep going back to Housman—except that I really like this poem—but he would affirm this as well. His narrator speaks of using ale to create a tale about a good world where everything is fine, but when he wakes up, “I saw the morning sky:/ Heighho, the tale was all a lie;/ The world, it was the old world yet.”

There’s another important side to all of this. Young readers might have experienced tragedy already. In that case we aren’t offering a vaccine or a warning. Too late for that. But we can offer solace. Trauma is alienating. If you read something that parallels your own experience, then you’re no longer alone. And the inexplicit parallels offered by fantasy can be especially useful. A direct, literal representation of trauma might turn out to be more of a trigger than a comfort. Some things you can only get at sideways. Tolkien insisted that allegory is an inferior form of storytelling because it lacks that metaphoric quality that invites multiple understandings, and Le Guin once summed up all of fantasy and science fiction as “metaphor made literal.”

I should probably point out that Goblin Secrets isn’t entirely composed of sorrow and pain! There’s a bit of fairy tale violence, it’s true, but I hope the book is also fun. Goblins are fun. We shouldn’t forget about the fun.

You mentioned the need for a “richer sense of possibility.” Can you give us some hints about this in your next book?
The next book is called Ghoulish Song, and it’s set in exactly the same time and place as Goblin Secrets. Zombay is a big city, and there’s always more than one story happening at once in a city. This story is as much about music as Goblin is about theater. The protagonist is Kaile, the young girl who brings a basket of bread to the goblins when her father tosses them out of his alehouse. The book repeats that scene from her point of view. Rownie makes a cameo, along with several other characters from the first novel, but the second one is still meant to stand alone.

And so one story can become many stories. And now that you’re back home after the National Book Awards?
Now I’m back to teaching classes, changing diapers, reading to my toddler son—with all the character voices—and finding time to write.

Gary D. SchmidtGary D. Schmidt was chair of the 2012 National Book Award committee for young people’s literature. His most recent novel, Okay for Now (Clarion), was a 2011 National Book Award finalist and the winner of SLJ’s 2012 Battle of the Kids’ Books tournament.



  1. […] You can read the rest here. […]

  2. […] the meantime here is an interview I really enjoyed, with William Alexander, the author of the National Book […]