Interview: Will Alexander G'06
- By amanda waite
Will Alexander G'06
by Amanda Waite ’02 G’04
National Book Award winner and UVM alumnus Will Alexander G'06 chats about his time at UVM, folklore and the oral tradition, Jim Henson and more. Read the VQ story about his award-winning book Goblin Secrets
When did the novel start to coalesce?
Pretty much when I arrived in Minneapolis. I had finished an intensive writing workshop that summer (Clarion Writers' Workshop for fantasy and science fiction writers), and with my master's thesis done, I had a better sense of writing discipline and really just how to work on a long-term project, which is difficult to get your head around. It's impossible to write a novel. They're too big! Mine is fairly short, actually, but they're still too big. But you can write a page of it. It's just how to break up a very big project when you can't take it all in at once. How to focus on smaller pieces of it until it grows. I had no idea how to do that until after I had written my master's thesis. So I set to doing that. And it took a while.
Meanwhile I was adjunct teaching at Minneapolis College of Art and Design and other schools. I was also working at a really fantastic retail job at a huge, independent bookstore. Minneapolis has many fine, fine bookstores. I had no idea what a great literary town this was before coming. There are a number of novelists within walking distance of my house and so many independent bookstores. So the bookstore job was fun and everyone working there is and always has been wildly overqualified, which is why it's such a good place. So doing lots of things at once and figuring out how to pay rent and also be a novelist. Which, you know, still figuring out.
What parts of the novel did you conceive of while you were still in Burlington before moving to Minneapolis?
The goblin theater troupe I was getting to know. Rownie, the actual protagonist came later. The scene where all the masks come to life was a very early scene, and it actually moved around a fair bit in the book before it settled to where it is. And that came out of a lot of my undergraduate work. The history of theater, the mythic and folkloric origins of theater had been percolating in my brain ever since undergrad. And I was still just trying to figure out what to do with all of it while in Vermont, before and during my master's program. I did a whole folkloric project on theatrical ghost stories at Oberlin as an undergrad trying to figure out why all theaters are haunted. Because they totally are! There are ghost stories about every theater. So I collected those from theater faculty who had a bunch of Oberlin campus stories and stories about theaters they had worked at over the years.
When did you finish the novel?
I finished it several times. I thought it was done and then was invited to join a really fantastic local writers' group. There were only three of us at the time; there are five of us now. They very incisively, with good brutal encouragement, pointed out that the book wasn't done. And then I finished it again and went about trying to find an agent (and that also takes forever) and eventually succeeded, and it still wasn't done. I rewrote it under my agent-at-the-time's advice. Then it took another year to sell it to Simon & Schuster, and then more drastic, drastic revisions. I was reasonably confident in my sentence-level prose, but larger structure—I made it all up as I went along and then noticed later that I hadn't actually finished the story I'd started. I finished a story, but having lost sight of the beginning by the time I got to the end, the end was—yeah, I revised it many times. It was a two-book deal, so I had several years meandering with the first book and then I had nine months with the second. So then I learned how to do outlines, and that was helpful.
I'm still not a planner; I'm not a rigorous outliner. But there's a way to think about outlines that keeps you from being bound by them and bored. Because if you have a very, very fixed, rigorous outline and you don't deviate from it, then you know how everything goes and that's boring so why write it? So, that sense of discovery. But if you think of it as a travel itinerary that you're free to change as you go, like you're backpacking somewhere and things are going to change along the way. Train schedules are going to change. You're going to take this crazy side trip to Rome. But it's nice to have a plan because then it doesn't take several years to write.
Tell me about your work in the master's program at UVM
I studied a bit of Shakespeare because that was my focus as an undergrad (at Oberlin College)—Shakespeare and folklore. I was an English and theater major. But in grad school, I ended up working on strategies for fitting oral tradition into novels. My thesis was ultimately about comparing and contrasting Joyce and Tolkien. Part of it was perverse because of how much the two of them would have hated each other. Ulysses and The Lord of the Rings aren't usually compared, but they're both early twentieth-century attempts to make mythic things fit in a book in ways they never really had before. Just trying to come up with strategies for material that had been more or less exclusively oral—just making it fit into print, making it communicate at all.
You mention a few UVM professors in your acknowledgements. Tell me about those relationships.
Andrew Barnaby is thanked specifically because of his Shakespeare class, which was great fun. It was his reading of a bit of Midsummer that actually makes its way into the book. We were talking about the mechanicals of A Midsummer Night's Dream and how the running joke is how poorly they understand theater. And he focused on the lantern and the man in the moon and how much work they do to convince their audience in the play within the play that it's nighttime, and it just keeps going—the guy playing the moon and going out and explaining everything.
The thread that Barnaby connected is that precisely the things the mechanicals do badly are the things that the larger play does very, very well. It would have been performed in mid-afternoon, but Oberon's first line is "Ill met by moonlight." And, like done. You know? No effort. And now it's nighttime even though it's not, and we're outside and we can tell it isn't. It doesn't matter. He said it, so it's true. And in Goblin Secrets, one of the characters does the same thing. She smoothly declares that it's nighttime before everything goes wrong in the performance where everything goes wrong. And that's it, done. And that moment I lifted straight from Barnaby's class. So I figured I had to give him some credit.
You mention Professor Richard Parent, too.
His first year at UVM was my second year in the master's program. He wasn't on my thesis committee, but we're both big, big, big geeks. When he came, the department said "Hey, we have new faculty! Stop by and say hi." And I just looked at his bookshelf, like you do when you go over to anyone's office or house and just sneak a glance at their bookshelf—and quietly judge them—and his bookshelf looked like my bookshelf at home. He focused on so many things that it's so impossible to focus on in an English department. Like contemporary work that not only isn't canonical, it hasn't been digested by the academy yet. No one even knows what to do with it. So my second year, I spent a lot of time talking things over with Richard even though he wasn't on my committee. So lots of hugely helpful ideas about extremely—as in published this year—contemporary literature. And geeky stuff. Non-realism.
Also, just coming up with a theoretical framework that doesn't mind enjoying what you read, which is kind of funny to say. I remember talking to Val Rohy (English professor) about how the works that she studies aren't the works that she likes because she's too brutal to them. Learning how to dissect something without killing it is almost impossible. Having a theoretical framework that makes enjoyment not naive. Because more than one reading happens at once. We can simultaneously look at something critically and fall under its spell. This is specifically anti-Brechtian because so much of Brecht's theatrical work was undermining the narrative spell. Like, stay separate, stay sharp. Don't let me cast a spell on you, don't let anybody do that. But it's not actually antithetical. You can do that and stay critical and fall under the spell. It's possible.
I teach at an art school now and I'm teaching comp, I'm teaching writing and rhetoric and trying to foster a critical awareness—but the students are makers. They're artists. They're animators. They're here to make things, not to pick them apart so that it's impossible to make things anymore. So the juggling act required to be a critic and a maker at the same time is really difficult but not impossible. Whatever it was that sundered critics and novelists over the course of the past hundred years, I am trying to bridge.
Tell me about the second book.
The second book happens at precisely the same time. I had more to say—and I still have more to say—about that place and those characters. But I'm a brand new novelist nobody has ever heard of, so I didn't want to write a direct sequel in case nobody ever read the first one. But I still wanted them very closely connected. I'm writing about a city; I'm writing about a very big place. There's always more than one thing happening at once. So it's a separate, stand-alone novel that you could read all by itself and never care that it's connected to the first, but they do have characters in common. And you can see them happening in the background if you happen to read both. There's a lot that happens in both books.
When will it be released?
Beginning of March.
When you were writing Goblin Secrets what were your inspirations for the characters. I know for me, the witch character Graba made me think of Aughra from the movie The Dark Crystal.
Oh, perfect! I'm sure she's in there. Not consciously, but I think there's a lot of Jim Henson and Frank Oz in this book. And just The Muppet Show—this insane theater troupe totally has The Muppet Show in its DNA. Labrynth is ridiculous and silly, mostly because of David Bowie's costume, but its sense of gleeful mischief—and child stealing! —is so folkloricaly accurate. Yes, there's all sorts of Jim Henson in it.
Baba Yaga is a marvelously ambivalent Russian character, a witch, who might help you or might eat you, depending on the story. And her house has chicken legs, so I just moved the chicken legs to (the character Graba) and tried to maintain that same powerful ambivalence with Graba.
Changeling and goblin lore are all over the world—everybody's imagined diminutive and mischievous people—and we usually use the word goblin as the translation. I probably got this from both Labyrinth and the MacDonald book The Princess and the Goblin: the sense that goblins used to be children. It was a haunting thing to me long before I studied folklore. My mom was always reading us fairy tales. And that idea that goblins used to be children is very strong and often repeated and never explained, and that's always remained with me.
You also had the chance to record audio books of the novels?
Authors don't usually get to read their own audio books. I had to audition, and we had to argue pretty hard to even audition for it. They weren't going to do an audio book at all, or at least had no immediate plans, until I became a (National Book Award) finalist. So we rushed into putting together the first audio book and that was so much fun! I got to act again, which I haven't done in many, many, many years. And I got to figure out what all their voices sounded like.
I'm excited, and not just theatrically. So much of my thesis work at UVM was just from as many different directions as possible delving into the connections between the written and the spoken word and the different traditions of the written and the spoken word. Getting to do the spoken, oral performance in addition to getting to write the thing is fantastic and is so much a part of everything I've been working on creatively and academically. The way all of that fit was just excellent.