- By Tom Weaver
The Green / Just Released
On his thirty-sixth birthday, 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 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 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.”
—Amanda Waite ’02 G’04
[ BRIEFS ]
Former People: The Final Days of the Russian Aristocracy
Farrar, Strauss and Giroux
Douglas Smith ‘85
The Bolshevik Revolution meant the destruction of the Russian aristocracy and the end of an era. A new book by Douglas Smith ’85, “a mesmerizing tale,” says Newsweek, delves into that historical moment through the lens of two of Russia’s most powerful aristocratic families, the Sheremetevs and the Golitsyns. Across 435 pages, Smith presents carefully researched details about the families’ lives and deaths, telling the human stories behind the tumultuous years that would sharply change Russia’s course. Read more about Smith, an award-winning historian, author, and translator, and watch the book’s trailer on his website,
Walking Distance: Extraordinary Hikes for Ordinary People
Oregon State University Press
Robert E. Manning and Martha S. Manning
UVM Professor Robert Manning and his wife Martha profile thirty of the world’s best long-distance hikes—from California’s John Muir Trail to South Africa’s Cape Winelands Walk. The illustrated book offers first-hand accounts, anecdotes, tips, and history lessons, all imparting to readers the joy of walking. It’s an activity, the Mannings explain, that is both simple and profound, a sustainable pastime with powerful historical connections to philosophy, scholarship, literature, human rights protests, and spirituality.
The Fictional Christopher Nolan
University of Texas Press
Filmmaker Christopher Nolan is known for his tricky storytelling, where all is often not as it appears—both to the audience and to the characters. Professor Todd McGowan's recent book The Fictional Christopher Nolan takes a look at the Nolan's work (Memento, Inception, The Prestige, Batman and more) and considers how the films' structures play with truth and deceit, ultimately revealing the ethical importance of fiction. Nolan, McGowan argues,plays with the medium's tendency to deceive, ultimately achieving a new kind of philosophical filmmaking.
A Creative Approach to the Common Core Standards: The Da Vinci Curriculum
Rowman & Littlefield
Harry Chaucer G’77 G’96
What can Leonardo da Vinci teach us about how to design the modern learning environment? Harry Chaucer's book draws influence from great women and men like da Vinci—a painter, architect, sculptor, scientist, engineer, and futurist—and re-imagines how to both teach core skills and cultivate genius among students. Chaucer has been recognized as a White House Distinguished teacher, among other national awards, and the Da Vinci Curriculum, which he designed, has been featured in Teacher Magazine, Business People Magazine and on CBS News.