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Interview: William Alexander, Author of Goblin Secrets, on Baba Yaga, the Magic of Theatrical Masks

03/08/2013 23:44 BST | Updated 02/10/2013 10:12 BST

U.S. writer, William Alexander is on a mission - to change he perception of goblins. And his mission starts with his crafting one of the most exciting books for young adult readers in the past year. Goblin Secrets, a steampunk mystery about a young boy named Rownie in search of his brother. The book was named the 2012 National Book Award Winner for Young People's Literature.

Having received critical acclaim in the U.S., Goblin Secrets is set to become the next big read in the UK. In an impromptu interview, the author illustrates the process of writing, the American rite of passage and the excellence of Scrivener.

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Q: Describe Goblin Secrets in two sentences?

WA: A boy joins a goblin theatre troupe, searches for his lost brother, and learns the secret origins of masks and stagecraft. The book is probably inspired by my profound and lifelong wish to guest-star on The Muppet Show.

Q: Goblin Secrets is your debut novel. How long was the process from initial idea to book launch day?

WA: Many years of musing, daydreaming, tinkering, and generally acting like a dilettante. I wrote without an outline, without planning ahead. I loved that feeling of discovery, but it wasn't the most efficient way to work. Things have changed a bit now that I have actual deadlines.

Q: The witch Graba has clockwork chicken legs. Were you inspired by Baba Yaga?

WA: Graba is a kind of urban Baba Yaga, and she inherited her frightening moral ambivalence from her folkloric ancestor. Baba Yaga might help you, or she might eat you, and you'll never know which in advance. Graba also inherited the chicken legs, though I moved them from the house to the witch herself.

Q: What was your inspiration for the land of Zombay?

WA: When I was 18 years old I embarked on a clichéd, American rite of passage: I wandered around Europe with a backpack and a rail pass. I craved the sight of castles. All Americans who grow up on fantasy novels crave the sight of castles. But it was the bridges that stuck in my head later; the Ponte Vecchio in Florence, the musician-covered Charles Bridge in Prague, and the ghost of the Old London Bridge, the one that was practically a town unto itself. All of them are central to their cities and yet separate from them, as much a part of the wild river underneath as they are a part of the orderly streets up above. Zombay began with that kind of bridge. Once I had the Fiddleway, the rest of the city just grew up around it.

Q: Who are your favourite characters in Goblin Secrets?

WA: Rownie is certainly a favorite (pardon my American spelling). I do love seeing his world through his eyes, and I love the very shy way that he wants to become an actor. But the goblins are all favorites, too. I loved reading all of their dialogue in the audiobook; Semele's quietly archaic speech patterns, Essa's frenetic way of talking, Thomas' eloquent grumpiness... I don't think I can choose between them.

Q: The book shows goblins in a more favourable light. Are you hoping to change the perception of the creatures?

WA: That would be lovely. Goblins deserve more respect. For centuries they've been accused of stealing children, building secret underground cities, hoarding riches, and conducting all sorts of sneaky, nefarious business. It's all slander, meant to malign them and justify treating them badly. Well, most of it is slander. They do, in fact, steal children--but only for very good reasons. And they are the children that they steal.

Q: Did you always want to be a writer when you were growing up?

WA: Yes. I always wanted to be a writer, and I always intended to become a writer. Eventually. Someday. It took a long time to actually write anything down, though.

Q: Rownie is given a fox mask from the troupe of goblins. If you were given a mask from the goblins what would yours look like?

WA: Something modest and unassuming, I suppose--like a massive dragon mask covered with bright feathers. Sometimes I feel like an owl. But the fox has such an important role in Goblin Secrets because my own fox mask (see above picture) is one of my very favorites. Maybe goblins gave it to me.

Q: Do you have any weird but wonderful dreams that inspire you and weave their way into your stories?

WA: Maybe! But I never remember my dreams. Other people describe the wonderful and terrible things that they did while sleeping, and the only thing I know for sure is that I slept. Maybe I write this sort of fiction because I don't have any other way to dream.

Q: What's your favourite witch in a children's book or story?

WA: Baba Yaga. Tiffany Aching and Granny Weatherwax in various books by Terry Pratchett. Mommy Fortuna in The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle. Sunny in Nnedi Okorafor's Akata Witch. Hermione Granger, because she did all of the actual work.

Q: Road Dahl wrote mostly in an armchair using Ticonderoga pencils and yellow legal paper. What three things do you use when writing?

WA: Fancy fountain pens because they write more smoothly than cheap ballpoints, and with less hand-cramping effort. Dull and unassuming notebooks, because they don't expect much and don't mind terrible first drafts. Scrivener, which is an excellent piece of software for composing and managing very large projects. Whenever I get stuck I switch from writing longhand to typing, and then back again.

Q: What made you want to write for children?

WA: I'm glad you used the word made, because it is more of a compulsion than a decision. I've never needed books more than I did when I was 11-years-old, and I must still be responding to that need. So this wasn't really a decision, but I certainly have no complaints. I much prefer writing for kids. As adults we delude ourselves into believing that we understand the world and how it works. Children know better, and they can better handle stories about unknown, unknowable, and unsettling worlds. And kids are still gathering raw material to make themselves with, and we should offer them as wide and wild a sense of possibility as we can.

Q: Who were your favourite writers when you were a child?

WA: When I was 11-years-old they were Ursula K. Le Guin, Susan Cooper, Jane Yolen, J.R.R. Tolkien, Lloyd Alexander (no relation) and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

Q: What are you working on at the moment?

WA: At the moment I'm trying to finish my first science fiction novel. It's called Ambassador. I've always liked the word "ambassador." They seemed like such important people on Star Trek, though they usually exploded before they could do anything diplomatic and then Captain Picard would have to step in. Anyway, the book is about a boy named Gabriel Sandro Fuentes. He's a second-gen Latino immigrant to the United States (like me), and he becomes the ambassador of the planet just as his parents are getting deported from the country.

Q: What's your motto in life?

WA: I'm going to pick one, and only one. You should be impressed by this decisiveness:

"The words we speak become the house we live in."

- Hafiz

Goblin Secrets

By William Alexander

Published by Much-in-Little

First published in the UK on 18 July 2013

RRP:£6.99 (paperback)