Rubbing elbows with the likes of Louise Erdrich and Dave Eggers came as a bit of a shock to author William Alexander, who on Wednesday night received the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature for his first novel, Goblin Secrets. “It was surreal, just hanging out with these legends,” he told PW in an interview. “I’ve loved their words for so many years. Now, I just referred to Junot Díaz by his first name. That’s insane. I’ve only been a novelist since March.”
When Alexander’s name was called at the Wednesday ceremony, he says his mind went blank. “I think the only thing I was thinking about was how to reach the stage. With all those crowded banquet chairs so close together, I was plotting my route.” According to Alexander, the event was “a bit of a blur” after he gave his speech, but he says that everyone was “incredibly gracious” and that he was glad to have been able to speak with most of his fellow finalists.
Goblin Secrets is set in a world of goblins and witches in which theater is forbidden, and Alexander’s background as an actor – before a back injury put his acting days on hold – fed directly into his desire to tell this story. “All that theatrical stuff needed to go somewhere. I wanted to see how much theater would fit in a book, how much of the theatrical experience would survive the translation.”
Alexander first began writing Goblin Secrets while working on his master’s degree, and finished it during a “one-and-a-half-year concentrated push.” He credits author Holly Black, who was an instructor at the Clarion Writers’ Workshop he attended in 2006, with getting him in touch with the Barry Goldblatt Literary Agency, where he is now represented by Joe Monti. From there, Alexander says the book was on submission for about a year before finding what he calls its “perfect home” with Karen Wojtyla at Simon & Schuster’s Margaret K. McElderry Books imprint.
During his speech, the author thanked Monti, Wojtyla, and his wife, but he says he owes thanks to a much larger group of people, including those who read Goblin Secrets in its early stages, his writing group, and the friends back home watching his son. “Of course, theater is ensemble work,” he says, “but it was fantastic to discover how much putting a book together is also collaborative and such a tremendous ensemble effort.”
A companion novel to Goblin Secrets, called Ghoulish Song, will be published next March. “It’s not precisely a sequel,” he says. “It happens at exactly the same time as Goblin Secrets, in the same city, with some of the same characters, but you can read them in either order. If you happen to read both, you can see the other story happening in the background.” He also recently finished recording the audiobook of Goblin Secrets.
Born in Miami and raised in Philadelphia, Alexander now lives in the Twin Cities with his wife, artist Alice Dodge; their two-year-old son, Liam; and their two-week-old daughter, Iris. He teaches writing at the Minneapolis College of Arts and Design and, before the recent birth of his daughter, did his own writing during the day. “Liam is so good at napping, it’s made all of this possible. He gave me a solid three-hour chunk of writing time while he napped each day. He’s growing out of the nap stage, and that terrifies me, but I’ll figure it out.”
Alexander sees connections between the history of theater, which has been challenged at various points in human history, and that of the fantasy genre and of children’s literature in general. “From Plato on up, it’s been the same conversation for thousands of years, in which they are simultaneously accused of being dangerous and foolish,” he says. “You could do something worthwhile, and instead you’re writing about goblins? And at the same time, from the same people, you get the contradictory argument that this is dangerous, whether it’s people banning Harry Potter for this or that about witchcraft.”
Not that Alexander entirely disagrees with those assessments: “The funny thing is, both of those accusations are perfectly true. Of course it’s silly, of course it’s ridiculous – you’re just making stuff up. And of course it’s dangerous. The thing about all stories, really, but especially about fantasy, is that they have the potential to throw our basic assumptions about ourselves into question.”
When accepting his award, Alexander quoted at length from an essay in Ursula K. Le Guin’s Cheek by Jowl about the importance of fantasy – and indeed, Alexander joins a very short list of fantasy writers who have won the National Book for Young People’s Literature, a list that includes Lloyd Alexander and Le Guin herself. “Her whole career, she’s been defending fantasy from its detractors,” says Alexander. “I think she’s the best place to go to understand why this kind of story is important.”
For now, though, Alexander is still getting used to the turns his life has taken, between the National Book Award and a newborn daughter. “I don’t know that I’ve actually had time to take a deep breath and take stock of anything that’s happened in the past month just yet. To push the theater metaphor a bit farther, I’m just thrilled this book has found its audience.”