2012 National Book Award Winner,
Young People's Literature
Margaret K. McElderry Books, an imprint of Simon & Schuster Children’s Publishing
Interview by Sofia Quintero
Sofia Quintero: Why this story now? Of all the stories you might’ve told, what compelled you to pursue this particular idea?
William Alexander: I used to be an actor. Then I spent some time convalescing from Caliban-related injuries. My brain was still fizzing with theatrical things in need of some other expression, so I switched camps from stagecraft to fiction writing. I tried to bring with me as much of the subject matter (e.g., rehearsal superstitions, backstage ghost stories, the mythic and folkloric history of masks, etc.) and as many of the narrative techniques as I could. All of that poured into Goblin Secrets.
One bit of history that continues to fascinate me is the Puritan resistance to theater and fantasy in Shakespeare's day. Shakespeare argued against that resistance in Midsummer, when Puck apologizes. "This is just a dream, it's just a show, so please don't freak out and shut us all down." Later he felt confident enough to stand up and boast about the wonders and dangers of his potent art in Tempest, but that play is also his retirement speech so he didn't have to worry about backlash. And Puritans did manage to extinguish theater in London not long afterwards.
Old arguments against the theater are still around, and still overlap with arguments against fantasy. We aren't finished with that conversation yet.
SQ: Those are complex and ongoing issues that you raise. We can point to the criticism of dystopian fantasy that’s popular among young adult readers and argue that the resistance continues, at least among adults. Do you suspect that young people “get” something that the adults around them are missing? Is there any particular reason why you wrote Goblin Secrets as middle-grade literature? Other than being entertained, what do you hope your readers take away from the novel?
WA: Oh, definitely! The latest crop of puritans complains that dystopias―or "dark" YA, or fantasy, or theater, or fiction itself―is both dangerous and silly. And it is. Both of those contradictory accusations are true. It is silly to make stuff up about goblins. It's also dangerous; any story that presents an alternative to the world we know is a reminder that the way things are isn't the only possible way that they could be. Any such story could, potentially, call into question our most basic assumptions about ourselves and the world. That is absolutely dangerous, but it's also essential. We need to be able to stretch those mental muscles and imagine alternatives.
Kids are much better at it. They have to be. They live in a strange place that operates according to unfamiliar rules. So do adults, but most of us have managed to fool ourselves into thinking that the world makes more sense than it actually does. Kids have brains set to absorb, while adults often narrow their focus to the few things they think they need to know. Kids are curious. Adults sometimes grow out of that.
I wrote Goblin Secrets for kids because I've never loved books more than I did then. I still love books, of course I do, but not with the same intensity or the same need. China Miéville said something similar about Joan Aiken (quoted from an interview in Locus): “If that kind of writing hits you at the right time when you’re a child, the impact is like nothing else ever." That was my experience, too. It seems impossibly ambitious and egotistical to aim for the same level of impact, but I have to try!
I do hope my readers are entertained. I hope they have fun. I hope they stretch their own sense of possibility and always remember that things can be different. With crazy, arrogant, shoot-the-moon ambition, I also hope to create the same effect on my readers that my favorite books had on eleven-year-old me.
SQ: Since you have a background in theater and Goblin Secrets depicts a world of performance and masks and other visual elements, one might think a natural form for this story might be a play or even a screenplay. Why did you choose to write a novel?
WA: I've always been as much a book geek as a theater geek, so it just felt natural to blend the two worlds. My writing process is a bit script-like; I always write dialogue first, and then figure out the rest from what the characters say to each other. But this time I wanted to work solo. I wanted to tackle every aspect of the story rather than split the task with an ensemble of other performers, designers, and directors. But then came the writing groups and agents and editors and book designers―all of them brilliant―so writing a book turned out to be collaborative after all. I'm very happy about that. It's still theater.
SQ: Stories in this genre are populated with all kinds of interesting beings, each group with its own history and even culture, so to speak. Gnomes, elves, dwarves… why did you choose goblins?
WA: My favorite bit of goblinish lore is that goblins used to be children. That makes them the vampires and werewolves of childhood, the monsters that you might somehow become. I love that idea. I might have picked it up from studying folklore, or from George MacDonald's books… but I probably got it from the movie Labyrinth. My own goblin troupe owes much to The Muppet Show.
SQ: Which authors did you read as a kid, and whose work in the genre do you enjoy reading now? Why? What would you like to see more of in young adult literature?
WA: Ursula K. Le Guin's Earthsea books, Susan Cooper's The Dark Is Rising, and Jane Yolen's Pit Dragon Chronicles were all hugely important to my eleven-year-old self. Lloyd Alexander (no relation, sadly) and Peter S. Beagle, too. And Tolkien. There's always Tolkien.
My recent favorites in middle-grade and YA include Nnedi Okorafor's Akata Witch, the Chaos Walking trilogy by Patrick Ness, and The Freedom Maze by Delia Sherman. M. T. Anderson is heartbreaking and hilarious; Paolo Bacigalupi mostly heartbreaking. Holly Black, Kelly Barnhill, and Catherynne M. Valente are all wonderful. Kelly Link's short stories are just about the best things to ever happen to English.
I still go back to my childhood favorites. Peter Beagle's books get better with every re-reading. Jane Yolen the folklorist is as important to me now as Jane Yolen the storyteller always has been. And Le Guin is still pretty much the wisest voice we've got.
I'd like to see more middle-grade science fiction. Might have to write some.
SQ: Many young people who are avid readers tend to be aspiring writers, and they often ask, "How did you write your book?" Describe your writing process. What is the most important piece of advice you would give to a young aspiring writer?
WA: Have patience. There's nothing about this gig that happens speedily. My own process is to listen to the characters, figure out who they are by the rhythm of their voices, and then figure out what happens by what they say to each other. It's not a terribly efficient way to go―I hear outlining is faster―but very little about fiction writing, or publishing, is efficient. That's okay. Inefficiency helps it do what it does best.
My additional advice for young writers is to learn to love revision. That first flush of inspiration is glorious, sure, but only in revision can you make certain that there is absolutely no difference between what you said and what you meant to say. And read ravenously. Everybody says that. Everybody's right.
SQ: Finish this sentence: "Adults also should read young adult literature because..."
WA: …it's fun, and because we need to stay curious, and because we absolutely must remind ourselves that we move through a world we only partially understand, and because it's really, really fun.
Sofía Quintero is the author of several novels and short stories that cross genres. Born into a working-class Puerto Rican-Dominican family in the Bronx, the self-proclaimed “Ivy League homegirl” earned a BA in history-sociology from Columbia University in 1990 and her MPA from the university's School of International and Public Affairs in 1992. After years of working on a range of policy issues from multicultural education to HIV/AIDS, she decided to pursue career that married arts and activism. Under the pen name Black Artemis, she wrote the hip hop novels Explicit Content, Picture Me Rollin’, and Burn. Sofía is also the author of the novel Divas Don’t Yield and contributed novellas to the “chica lit” anthologies Friday Night Chicas and Names I Call My Sister. As an activist, she co-founded Chica Luna Productions (chicaluna.com), a nonprofit organization that seeks to identify, develop and support women of color who wish to create socially conscious entertainment. She is also a founding creative partner of Sister Outsider Entertainment, a multimedia production company that produces quality entertainment for urban audiences. Quintero’s first young adult novel, Efrain’s Secret, was published by Knopf in 2010. To learn more about Sofia and her work, visit blackartemis.com, sisteroutsider.biz or myspace.com/sofiaquintero.