YA Wednesday: 2012 National Book Award Finalist William Alexander and His “Goblin Secrets”
Include William Alexander among those floored with surprise by the announcement of the National Book Award finalists last week. His novel Goblin Secrets is a nominee in the Young People’s Literature category. When I caught up with him as a fellow participant in the Rain Taxi-sponsored Twin Cities Book Festival in Minneapolis this month, Alexander was still trying to process the fact that his very first book had been tagged for such an honor.
It took lots of convincing for Alexander to believe it was real. “I got the call on my birthday, and had a great conversation with Harold Augenbraum, the Executive Director of the National Book Awards—or at least a very skilled actor pretending to be him. Throughout the entire conversation I had a horrible suspicion that this was all a cruel and elaborate birthday prank. So far it seems to be real, but I don't think I'll fully believe it until I show up for the ceremony and they let me in.”
Alexander gave a spirited and fun reading at the book festival to an audience of children and adults, one that reflected his background as a theater actor. He only switched over from the theater to writing fiction in the last decade, with appearances in such publications as Weird Tales, Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, Interfictions 2, and Fantasy: The Best of the Year 2008.
His expectations for Goblin Secrets included much more attainable goals than a National Book Award nomination, like reaching “multiple audiences and ages simultaneously, and for the novel to be equally entertaining to adults reading it aloud, small children listening, and older kids reading for themselves.” But since publication, he’s also received recognition from many writers that he considers “personal heroes,” including Ursula K. Le Guin, Peter Beagle, and Susan Cooper. “These are all writers that I loved long before realizing that writers are actual people who walk the earth.”
Goblin Secrets, which received a starred review from Kirkus, is set in the fantastical town of Zomba. Rownie is the youngest boy in the household of a witch, and his only real relative is his older brother Rowan, who is an actor. But acting is outlawed in Zombay, and Rowan has disappeared. Desperate to find him, Rownie joins up with a troupe of goblins who skirt the law to put on plays. But their plays are not only for entertainment, and the masks they use are for more than make-believe. In a way, Alexander has transferred his love of theater to fiction, as the masks and theater troupe are rendered with true originality and with interesting details.
Alexander said he that the fact readers “love the masks is fun and gratifying. Masks and mask-magic have been a part of the book since the very beginning; one of the first scenes I wrote, long before I knew where it fit in the story, is a swashbuckling bit in which masks grow bodies and turn on their actors. I'm still an amateur folklorist, so backstage lore, haunted theaters, and the mythic origins of masks and stagecraft have always fascinated me. It's great to see that fascination spread. Everybody loves masks. They let you safely stretch your sense of who you are, and who you might become—though in the book this isn't necessarily safe.”
As a side project, Alexander commissioned dozens and dozens of mask designs from illustration students at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design. All of them are inspired by masks in Goblin Secrets, and all are freely downloadable and wearable. “I always bring a bunch to readings, and the kids love getting their hands on the masks while listening to that same part of the story.”
In addition to evoking the world of theater Alexander told me that he one thing he loved about writing the book was the opportunity for word-play. “I love the unexpected ways that the sound and sense of words bounce off of each other. I love reading books out loud to let them breathe. I love noticing how much of our lives and worlds are story-shaped, and realizing that those shapes are malleable.”
Ghoulish Song, the next book—“not precisely a sequel but definitely a companion”—comes out in March. “The two novels unfold in the same setting, with many of the same characters, at the very same time, so each story is visible in the background of the other. You can read either one by itself and not notice this, but hopefully they'll set off sparks of excitement and recognition when combined. Zombay is a big city, and there's always more than one story happening at once.”
What is Alexander looking forward to most when he attends the National Book Award ceremony in November? “Meeting Susan Cooper and all the other judges. Meeting Junot Díaz and all of my fellow finalists. Sipping bubbly drinks with my agent and editor.”
But Alexander notes he hopes he’ll “be able to hold coherent conversation. On top of everything else, he and his wife are expecting a second child very, very soon. “So I might be a little bit sleep deprived…”