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Alumnus' Book 'Goblin Secrets' Is Winner of a National Book Award

On his 36th birthday, alumnus Will Alexander G '06 got one of the better gifts any writer could receive. His novel Goblin Secrets was named a finalist for a 2012 National Book Award. "I was pretty sure it was a prank," he says -- one that was becoming "increasingly elaborate" when the news broke the next day to media. Not long after, things took another step toward the surreal when Alexander prevailed for the top prize in young people's literature.

"Writers fantasize about winning awards," he admits. "And the real way to aggressively waste your time daydreaming is to write in your head acceptance speeches rather than writing the work…But even wildly daydreaming, I never thought National Book Award."

It's not that Alexander, even at the age of 36, was new to the scene of national awards (two of his short stories had been nominated for the Pushcart Prize), but his genre of writing is often an outlier in literary circles. "Secondary world fiction is more or less famous for being the least respectable kind," he explains. "The further you get from respectable realism, the less you expect to get taken seriously -- or be accused of writing 'literature.'"

While Goblin Secrets is a fantastical story about goblins, witches, orphans and enchantment, it's also a story with the history of theater and folk tradition at its core. Set in Zombay, where theater is outlawed, the story follows Rownie, a young orphan searching for his lost brother. A goblin acting troupe agrees to help him, and Graba, the witch whose house he escaped, hunts him.

Sketches of the characters -- the goblins in particular -- were drafted in Burlington coffee shops. Alexander would fill notebooks at Uncommon Grounds and Muddy Waters, early thoughts that would grow into the novel after he moved to Minneapolis with his wife following grad school.  

He came to UVM with an undergraduate degree from Oberlin, where he studied both theatre and English. He applied and was accepted to the English master's program at UVM, and over the course of the two years, he completed a thesis on strategies for fitting oral traditions into novels.

It was a subject that set the stage for Goblin Secrets, which includes a dark, Brothers Grimm-style fairy tale at its core, but it was also the work of writing the thesis itself that prepared him for the leap from short stories to novels. "It's impossible to write a novel -- they're too big!" he says. "But you can write a page of it." That's what the thesis taught him -- "how to work on a long-term project…how to focus on smaller pieces of it so it grows," he says. "I had no idea how to do that until after I had written my master's thesis."

He's since tackled the task again. His publishing arrangement was a two-book deal, so in March, his next novel, Ghoulish Song, will be released. Not exactly a sequel, the book still takes place in Zombay -- and at exactly the same time as Rownie's tale. But the story follows a different character, one we meet briefly in the first book.

If the title gives anything away, the subject matter will be equally surreal -- and unsettling.

"If we deny kids unsettling stories, then we deny them the very best hope that they'll have for dealing with unsettling events," he says, with mischief creeping around the edges of his voice. "So we have a responsibility to tell unsettling stories."