The finalists for the 2012 National Book Awards were announced recently, and we were thrilled to learn that Will Alexander had been nominated in the "Young People's Literature" category for his novel Goblin Secrets. In honor of this (and because we think he's awesome), we are republishing our review of this novel, along with our interview with Will about the book. Enjoy--and congratulations, Will!
There are books that make you feel good for having read them. Not virtuous or well-behaved, but good. More whole-hearted, more brave, more likely to look at a stranger and see the fine face beneath the mask of their unfamiliarity. Goblin Secrets, William Alexander’s debut novel, is just such a book. It is an adventure story with a heart of gold, a fantasy dressed in the ragtag garments of fairytales, clockwork, and theater, but for all its disparate curiosities, it is also a story that feels exactly right.
Rownie is an orphan in the city of Zombay. He lives with a witch named Graba who carries behind her the shadow of that other famous, child-collecting witch, Baba Yaga. Rownie used to have an older brother named Rowan, but Rowan is gone. Vanished, taken, disappeared. It is up to Rownie to find him, and Goblin Secrets starts out as the story of that search, but expands along the way until the search for family also becomes the search for an immense and very strange magic that will save the city and everyone living inside it. The entire book billows and shifts in the same way. Sometimes it races along the comfortable lines of a young person’s fantasy, and then swivels around a corner to become something much odder, larger, and more clear. Clockwork bears itself with grace when powered with the hearts of living creatures. Masks both hide and overwhelm the person who wields them. There are characters who feel familiar, as if you’ve met a version of them before in some other story, but as you spend more time with them, you realize they aren’t familiar at all. They’re distinct, particular, and memorable.
There are so many things about this novel that play right into my personal quirks of affection. There are masks and theater and a traveling band of goblin actors. There are laws against pretending to be someone else and there are people who recognize the importance of such a transformation, and so do it anyway. It is an immensely likeable book. And I don’t mean that in a bland or non-committal way. It is likeable in the way that the great Lloyd Alexander’s books have always been likeable to me. Welcoming and refreshing because you imagine that at the heart of the story, no matter how dark or bizarre it might become, is the conviction that there are so many things in the world that are worth being excited about and believing in.
Goblin Secrets is fun. It is also unusual, unsettling, and written with a very spirited grace. It is aimed at that peculiar beast called the “middle grade reader,” but it is the kind of book that will read well at any age. Because it will make you feel good while you’re reading it and, most likely, for quite some time after.
Megan Kurashige: Where or what or when was the beginning of Goblin Secrets? Can you let us peer into the shadowed box of your story-making brain and tell us about the first inkling you had about this story? And what snatched you about it? What made you decide that, yes, this is something I want to write?
William Alexander: I think it was Margaret Atwood who described writers as magpies. Or ferrets. We steal and hoard the shiny things. So here's a few of the very first shiny things I hoarded while Goblin Secrets took shape.
As a student I collected a whole swack of backstage ghost stories and other bits of theatrical folklore. It was great stuff, ranging from little anecdotes of unexplained creepiness to grand theories about why all theaters are haunted—and they are haunted, all of them, whether or not anyone died on the premises. New theaters don't take very long to become haunted. My boss on campus, the lighting designer, shrugged when I asked her why. "People pour out their hearts onstage. All of that has to go somewhere afterwards. Except it usually doesn't go very far. It hovers near the stage, and drops things from my grid when I'm not looking." Bits of backstage lore from that project eventually became part of my book.
Years earlier, I passed through Prague as just another American teenager with a backpack. One particular bridge, and one particular clock tower, both became part of Zombay—but I'll talk about that when you ask me about the setting, which I suspect you're going to do because I've already peeked at the other questions…
For the very first inkling, I might have to go all the way back to bedtime stories and my mother reading The Princess and the Goblin. The idea that goblins used to be children has haunted me for awhile. Even when we think of goblins as monstrous things, they still aren't entirely alien or separate from us. They're sort of the vampires and werewolves of childhood, the monsters that we might turn into. I've been reading up on Japanese folklore, and all sorts of yōkai used to be human (and some used to be pets, or umbrellas) before they took a step sideways to become something else. Such sideways steps might not be so very monstrous, afterwards.
All of that was waiting in the back of my head when I started to write about Rownie.
MK: The people in this book are absolutely extraordinary. I fell in love with all of them, even the nasty ones. They are so vivid and particular and kind of weird. Where did you find such a cast of characters? Do you have a favorite? Are there any who follow you around and creep into your dreams?
WA: Thank you! I learn who my characters are by listening to them talk to each other. Dialogue always comes first for me, long before all the other building blocks of fiction, and I figure out what happens next by following conversations.
Essa might be my favorite, just because of the way she talks. Her words fly off in all directions at once. Thomas might also be my favorite. He's an old goblin and the first actor in the troupe (the first actor in that world, really, but that's another story); he's so very formal and bombastic and grumpy. Maybe Graba is my favorite. She keeps stealing the show by doing things I never expected and hadn't planned for. She also creeps around the edges of my dreams sometimes. I wish she wouldn't. Those are unsettling dreams. And my little hero Rownie is still a favorite. He's so quietly curious—even though he also wants to stand on a stage and loudly proclaim things.
Okay, so I guess I don't have a favorite.
The only thing I know for sure about their origins is that I found them by listening.
MK: The world of this book, the city of Zombay and everything in it, is also a stunner. What made you decide to put all those disparate things together? The witchiness and the clockwork and the masks and the hearts (oh, the hearts!)... Do they come from things you like? Or from things you're nervous about?
WA: Both! Zombay is another messy, mutated accumulation of shiny things—things that delight me and things that make me nervous in approximately equal numbers.
The astrological clock in the center of Prague is one of those things. (Check out what they did for its 600th birthday..) The Charles Bridge is another. It's one of those iconic landmarks that spy movies use quickly to say "We're in Prague!" Kiosks and painters and musicians and performers all flock to it. When I crossed that bridge I saw two performers wearing goblinish, Brian Froud-ish masks. They stood off to the side and slowly moved the way their masks insisted they should move. No lines, no story, nothing more to their performance: just breathing life into masks with movement.
The Fiddleway Bridge is a cross between the Charles Bridge and old London Bridge, back when it held a separate town over the Thames and between the two sides of the city. I stuck the clock tower on top, set a pair of dueling fiddlers against each other at the entrance, and called it the Fiddleway. Zombay began with that bridge. The rest of the city grew up around it.
MK: I believe you studied theater... How does being a performer infect and affect your work as a writer? In Goblin Secrets there are some things about standing up in front of people and becoming someone else and the power of doing so that ring so wonderfully true.
WA: I did study theater at Oberlin, and I worked on a bit of summer-stock Shakespeare before switching camps and writing fiction instead. I do miss the visceral exhilaration of standing in front of a crowd and holding their attention, and I wanted to see if it was even possible to capture that in writing.
The sense of sound, of tasting words spoken aloud, is still with me. I'm sure my time on stage explains why dialogue always comes to me first, why I always hear what characters say aloud before I can come up with any other part of the story.
I also wanted to write a secret history of theater itself, from the origins of masks to the contradictory reasons why puritanical people in every century have tried to ban theater and make it go away.
MK: I've been obsessed with this particular curiosity recently. How did this story happen in your head while you were writing it? Did you see it? Did you hear it? I am a visual person, but I know a lot of people are not (or, not so much). When I write, it's like I'm seeing a movie in my head, only somewhat out of focus, and the writing makes it clearer. How does the story happen to you?
WA: Sound and voices, every time. Sometimes I wish I could see it all happen and describe what I see; figuring out physical descriptions and visual information takes me forever. But I can't see it. I just hear what people say, and then struggle to fill in the rest.
MK: You curate a wonderful collection of bedtime story memories on your blog. What is the first bedtime story you remember?
WA: Ha! I've been asking authors this question for years. It was only a matter of time before someone asked it back at me.
My parents had different gifts when it came to bedtime stories. My mother was much better at reading them. She did the voices. My father was better at making them up on the spot. He got bored while reading aloud. His mind would wander and his voice would slip into monotonous autopilot. But he told far better stories if he got to use his own words.
The very first one I remember was about Flash Gordon. We had just watched the movie adaptation at the drive-in (the silly one with the Queen soundtrack, starring Brian Blessed's teeth). I was convinced at the time that a) the events of the movie had actually happened, and b) that Dad would know what happened next. So I demanded an immediate and swashbuckling sequel, and he made one up.
MK: What are you excited about right now?
WA: That my toddling son can sing in tune—almost—and that he says "Hello, shadow!" whenever he sees his own. I'm also excited about turning in the manuscript for my second book set in Zombay. Which I have done. It's finished. Out of my hands.
MK: Is there anything else you would like to tell us about Goblin Secrets? Or about you, Mr. William Alexander himself?
WA: I would like everyone to know that magnificent students at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design have created dozens of masks based on those in Goblin Secrets, and that you can print out these masks and wear them with string.
Anything else about me? I think books should be read aloud whenever possible. Gives them a chance to breathe.
Review and Interview by Megan Kurashige