July was a month of mostly teaching, and it was good.

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First I joined the faculty of the Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults. The on-campus residency was an intense fortnight full of warmth, welcome, and an exacting dedication to literary craft. Writers need community, and VCFA is an amazing place to find it.

Next I taught at Shared Worlds, a writing camp for teenagers. Students create worlds in the first week and write stories set in those freshly minted places during the second. My classroom of kids came up with a brilliant setting and a nuanced way to write about violence. I wish this workshop had existed when I was fourteen. Writers of all ages need community. You might find yours here.

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After Shared Worlds I went on a virtual classroom visit with journalist and 6th grader Grace Clark. The video is here. (Scroll down a bit.) Don’t miss the Kathi Appelt interview on the same page.

Now July is over. The next thing on my calendar is the Mythopoeic Award Ceremony, though sadly I won’t get to be there in person. Myth-makers, world-builders, and scholars of the Inklings will be honored. One of the following novels will win in the kidlit category:

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Shadows by Robin McKinley,
Conjured by Sara Beth Durst,
Killer of Enemies by Joseph Bruchac,
Doll Bones by Holly Black,
or Ghoulish Song by me.

This is thrilling and intimidating. Holly Black is a friend, mentor, and one of my Clarion instructors. Joseph Bruchac has written approximately a bazillion badass books. Sara Beth Durst has won the Mythopoeic Award before. And I’ve read and loved Robin McKinley’s novels since eighth grade.

Feels good to stand in such company.

 

 

WRITING PROCESS BLOG TOUR

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I caught a meme from Delia Sherman. She is wise, and kind, and a wonderful writer. She won the Mythopoeic Award in 2012 for The Freedom Maze, a book that absolutely everyone should read. (I’ll have more to say about the Mythopoeic Award in my next post.) She tagged me with a meme, and I couldn’t say no.

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This is Delia’s contribution to the great, internet-spanning Writing Process Blog Tour. She says blush-inducing things about me there.

For the next stop on this tour visit Kelly Barnhill, to whom I have passed on the meme-germs. I got to read an advance copy of her next novel, The Witch’s Boy. You are insanely jealous of this, and you should be.

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Kelly will be posting answers to these selfsame questions early next week. Meanwhile, here are mine:

1.  What Am I Working On?

Science fiction! As a kid I always assumed that I’d grow up to write science fiction. I wanted to tell stories that made sense of things. The universe is unsettling, but we can always count on Spock, or Data, or the Doctor to tame otherworldly terrors by making them make sense.

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This did not go as planned. At some point during adolescence the world ceased to make sense to me. (Adolescence usually does that to people.) I started to prefer stories that followed sideways and associative sorts of logic. I went back to reading fairy tales, and books based on fairy tales, all of them filled with unsettling and otherworldly terrors—but not the kind you can just explain away. And when I started writing, I wrote fantasy.

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But now I’ve come back around to more omnivorous reading habits. Now I like splitting my time between the two hemispheres of speculative fiction’s hivemind. I also write for kids, and I still need to tell stories for the young reader that I used to be—the one who craved science fiction in particular, the one who wanted to fight monsters by making them make sense.

Ambassador, my first SF novel, comes out in September. It’s about Gabe Fuentes, a kid who becomes the ambassador of our planet. Right now I’m writing the sequel.

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2.  Why Do I Write What I Write?

Because I’ve never needed books more than I did when I was eleven, and because I love stories that unriddle the world, and because otherworldly tales are always necessary for changing the shape of our own.

(The phrase “unriddle the world” is me quoting Susan Cooper quoting Alan Garner.)

3.  How Does My Work Differ From Others Of Its Genre?

I stared at this question for a long time. Then I tried to answer it. Then I gave up, because this isn’t really a question for writers. This is a question for readers.

Books and stories make up a vast ecosystem. As I writer, I can’t see the shape of the landscape while I’m trudging through it. As a reader, I’m more interested in shared conversations and similarities than the differences that set each book or author apart.

4.  How Does my Writing Process Work?

First I need my own small children to nap. If the kids are awake and at home, then I’m not writing. Maybe this is just a parental time-management issue, or maybe I siphon off my books directly from their napping dreams. I don’t know. You’ll have to ask them.

Step One: Pour stolen nap-dreams into a large flask or cauldron. Step Two: Add espresso. Step Three: Slowly stir while adding instrumental music. Step Four: Continue stirring until the mixture thickens into ink.

I usually start a book with notebook and pen, because the pale glow of a blank computer screen is unhelpfully hypnotic. Then I transcribe those messy, scribbled first drafts. Then I move words around to shrink the distance between what I said and what I meant to say. Then I read it aloud. It’s good to know what your own sentences taste like.

Whenever I get stuck I abandon my computer and return to my notebook and my bubbling cauldron of nap-ink.

 

AMBASSADOR ARC CONTEST

My next novel, AMBASSADOR, will soon exist. Kirkus just gave it a starred review. The fantastically retro cover will have… wait for it…

HOLOGRAPHIC FOIL. Oh yes.

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The book is Middle Grade science fiction. It stars Gabe Sandro Fuentes, who becomes our planetary ambassador to the rest of the galaxy. And I have an advance copy to give away.

Interested? Then tell me what message you would send to alien civilizations.

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In the past we’ve put maps, music, and line drawings of pale, naked humans on board spacecraft before sending them out into the deep. What would you send instead? What would you say?

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The winner will be chosen at random from the comments below, and will receive a signed and inscribed ARC of AMBASSADOR. Note that, unlike the Pioneer spacecraft, this inscription will not include naked doodles. Also note that only the final, finished book will boast holographic foil. The advance copy will not catch and fragment light like Newton’s own prism. Sorry. It will show off the fantastically retro cover design.

Send me your galactic messages. You have until midnight on Monday, May 12th.

#WeNeedDiverseBooks

Everybody go tell Twitter that #WeNeedDiverseBooks, and why. If you don’t know why then please click the hashtag and start reading. You’ll find out.

(My Twitter handle is @williealex, by the way.)

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Here’s Junot Díaz with more reasons why:

“You guys know about vampires? You know, vampires have no reflections in a mirror? There’s this idea that monsters don’t have reflections. But what I’ve always thought isn’t that monsters don’t have reflections in a mirror—it’s that if you want to make a human being into a monster, deny them, at the cultural level, any reflection of themselves. Growing up, I felt like a monster in some ways. I didn’t see myself reflected at all. I was like, “Yo, is something wrong with me? That the whole society seems to think that people like me don’t exist?” And part of what inspired me was this deep desire that before I died, I would make some mirrors so that kids like me might see themselves reflected back, and might not feel so monstrous for it.”

A few recent and forthcoming anthologies have stepped up to champion diversity, challenge the literary monoculture, and foster a more flourishing narrative ecosystem. Long Hidden is one. Here’s an interview with editors Rose Fox & Daniel José Older.

“These stories haven’t been “long hidden” because a mountain happened to fall on them. They were deliberately buried, and we are deliberately digging them up and bringing them to light.” – Rose Fox

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Kaleidoscope is another such anthology. I’ll be in that one.

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Read widely. Some of these stories will be strange to you. As strangers, give them welcome.

EDITED TO ADD: Just spotted Diverse Energies on my bookshelf and slapped my forehead for leaving it out of this post.

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Long time the manxome foe she sought.

Three months ago, when the second Hobbit movie came out Hobbitish news was trending, Michelle Nijhuis wrote about swapping pronouns on Bilbo Baggins. Her five-year-old daughter insisted. It worked perfectly.

Bilbo, it turns out, makes a terrific heroine. She’s tough, resourceful, humble, funny, and uses her wits to make off with a spectacular piece of jewelry. Perhaps most importantly, she never makes an issue of her gender—and neither does anyone else.

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Girl Bilbo art by Lanimalu, pasted here from original post

Both of my kids are younger, and neither will sit still for The Hobbit. But lately I’ve been able to lull my one-year-old daughter to sleep–or at least into a sleep-like trance–by reciting Jabberwocky. She’s small but fierce, and already seems like a monster slayer, so I swapped the pronouns for her. Easy enough.

One line of the poem ends in “son,” however, and another in “boy.” I changed both to “girl” (“daughter” has too many syllables), and adjusted the rhymes accordingly–which had the unexpected consequence of turning the Jubjub bird and the frumious Bandersnatch into the same creature (Jubjub is its species and Bandersnatch its name). This also made the father twirl around at the end. Not many words in English rhyme with “girl.”

The rest of the text is unchanged. I have transcribed it here for your amusement.

Jabberwocky
by Lewis Carroll
revised by William Alexander

‘Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
   Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;
All mimsy were the borogoves,
   And the mome raths outgrabe.

“Beware the Jabberwock, my girl,
   The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!
Beware that Jubjub bird and churl,
   The frumious Bandersnatch!”

She took her vorpal sword in hand;
   Long time the manxome foe she sought.
Then rested she by the Tumtum tree,
   And stood awhile in thought.

And, as in uffish thought she stood,
   The Jabberwock, with eyes of flame,
Came whiffling through the tulgey wood,
   And burbled as it came!

One, two! One, two! And through and through
   The vorpal blade went snicker-snack!
She left it dead, and with its head
   She went galumphing back.

“And hast thou slain the Jabberwock?
   Come to my arms, my beamish girl!
O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!”
   He chortled as he twirled.

‘Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
   Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;
All mimsy were the borogoves,
   And the mome raths outgrabe.

 

Gender-swapped Hobbit photoshoot by photographer Alexandr Turchanin

photo by Alexandr Turchanin

In Which I Conduct Many Interviews

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The National Book Awards Ceremony is this Wednesday.

The Finalist Reading is tomorrow. (You can watch the webcast here.)

I interviewed all five finalist authors of Young People’s Literature, and I asked them about their first remembered bedtime stories. This is what they said.

(Click through the names for the rest of the interview.)

Kathi Appelt: My father read Rudyard Kipling’s poetry to me; in my deepest memories, I hear his voice reciting “Mandalay” and “Gunga Din” and all of those old poems. When I’m quiet, I can still hear my dad, still hear Brother Rudyard.  

Cynthia Kadohata: My father usually wasn’t around for bedtime because he worked such long hours, and I don’t believe my mother read to us or told us stories. I’ve told my son, Sammy, every story I can think of when we have our pre-bedtime life talk that I think we both really, really enjoy. 

Tom McNeal: My mother tells me that whenever she would take out a book to read to me at bedtime, I would say that I wanted a story “from her mouth.” Meaning a story that she made up. Evidently I knew even at that early age that she was the real storyteller in the family. And she made it even better by “drawing” illustrations or maps on my back while she told her tale. Her fingers would trace the progress of the story’s hero here and there, and draw the castle or forest or towering mountain that the hero was approaching. She continued this tradition with our sons, who would go to her house and ask for a “back story.” I suppose one of these days they’ll learn that backstory has another important, yet less charming, meaning.

Meg Rosoff: My mother was a wonderful reader—all our early bedtime stories were courtesy of Maurice Sendak and Dr. Seuss. To this day, iambic pentameter makes me incredibly drowsy.

Gene Luen Yang: My mom used to tell me Monkey King stories at bedtime. My favorite were about how he peed on stuff.

I didn’t get to interview the other authors on this year’s (first ever) NBA longlist. Instead I’ll list them yet again. Go forth and read them.

Kate DiCamillo, Flora and Ulysses: The Illuminated Adventures 

Lisa Graff, A Tangle of Knots

Alaya Dawn Johnson, The Summer Prince

David Levithan, Two Boys Kissing

Anne Ursu, The Real Boy

 

Interviews & John the Fisherman

Two new interviews just hit the interwebs: One at Strange Horizons, in which David Schwartz and I interview each other, and one at Inkygirl, in which I am interviewed by Debbie Ridpath Ohi.

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Photo by Beckett Gladney

After the Inkygirl interview I asked Debbie about the first bedtime story she can remember, because this is still my favorite question to ask my fellow authors. She sent me this:

Although my Dad read me picture books, my Mom wasn’t as comfortable reading English. Instead, she used to tell me fairy tales that she remembered from her childhood in Japan, but would use Western names.

One of the earliest stories I remember was the tale of John The Fisherman. The story changed from time to time, probably because I kept asking my mother for it over and over again, but the basic story I remember is this: 

— Story begins —

Fisherman John saves the life of a turtle during one fishing trip. As a reward, the turtle takes John to an underwater kingdom, where the fisherman is given a fine meal and a comfortable bed. He is invited to visit for a few nights, and he agrees. When the time is up, the Queen of the underwater kingdom tries to convince him to stay longer, but John misses his home and family too much.

The Queen gives him some gifts to take with him, including a small ornately carved box which she says will protect him but that he is NEVER TO OPEN.

After John thanks the Queen, the turtle takes him back to the surface and John returns home. To his shock, however, his house is barely recognizable: only a few broken-down walls remain, and there is no sign of his wife or children. The rest of the village has changed as well, and John does not recognize a single soul. After asking around the village, John discovers that while he spent few nights in the underwater kingdom, a hundred years have gone by above.

Grief-stricken that he will never see his family again, John opens the box. White smoke emerges and within a few seconds, John ages until he is a very old man.

— Story ends —

As a child, I remember finding this story extraordinarily sad but also fascinating, which is why I asked for it so often.

My mother died from cancer years ago, but the story still brings back strong memories of how I felt back then: deep sadness, horror at John’s predicament…but also the reassuring touch of my mother’s hand while she gently stroked my forehead as I fell asleep. 

If you’re interested, you can read about the original Japanese story (“Urashima Taro”) in Wikipedia.

Oceans

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Blog! I have one. I had forgotten.

A couple of weeks ago I emerged blinking from my author cave, having turned in the manuscript of my third novel. The book might be finished. It might not be. Only my editor will know for sure.

Since then I’ve given the commencement speech at my old high school, performed a wedding for a couple of very old friends, and attended my grandfather’s 90th birthday. In my travels I got to see the ocean. I don’t see oceans very often, living right smack in the middle of the continent as I do. My very small daughter seemed to enjoy the taste of salt. She smacked her lips together and grinned at the saltiness. Then she fell asleep in my arms, in the ocean.

Speaking of oceans, Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane just came out. It is astonishingly good. I reviewed it here. My review is Neil’s favorite, apparently—though he spelled “favorite” in the odd way that they do across the ocean:

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This makes me extremely happy, but not in a squee-ish sort of way. Well, not only in a squee-ish sort of way. “It says nothing about the plot & everything about what the book is.” That’s important. Book reviews usually read like reluctant book reports. They follow a very specific format: a paragraph or two of inadequate plot summery (and all plot summaries are inadequate), followed by a single sentence of evaluation. That tiny smidgen of opinion at the end will tell you whether or not the reviewer liked the book, but it isn’t likely to tell you what the book is, or what it does, or whether it does so successfully. And it should.

So this a challenge. Read well, everybody! Prove that your reading of any given book is one worth reading about…

Lions, Lambs, & Hats

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March is over. They say the month is supposed to come in like a wintery lion and go out like a lamb frolicking in sunshine. This particular month slunk away in a trail of dirty slush like a mutant lion-lamb hybrid. But I got a book published in March, so for me the month was glorious.

Addendum Books organized the launch party. PW covered it here. We drank hot chocolate and listened to live music from Dreamland Faces.

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DreamHaven and Red Balloon and Wild Rumpus and Uncle Hugo’s and Birchbark Books all hosted splendid events. This town is so very rich in bookstores.

Wild Rumpus made me a great big mask.

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Louise Erdrich joined me at Birchbark and gave me a hat.

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It was a very good month. The frozen resentment of mutant lion-lambs can’t possibly compete with such celebrations and hospitality.

I leave you with links to three articles:

Nancy Holder asked me all sorts of excellent questions at The Enchanted Inkpot.

The Route 19 Writers blogged about favorite passages from Goblin Secrets and offer insights into why those particular bits of the book worked for them.

Amy Goetzman wrote about me and unsettling stories for MinnPost.

And that’s all for now.

 

Places Where My Voice Is

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Two entirely different podcasts decided to interview me. One dedicated to the challenges of making art while simultaneously raising small children. The other is hosted by the Department of Sociology at the University of Minnesota. Both were very fun conversations to be in; hopefully they’re also fun to listen to.

Pratfalls of Parenting Episode 39

William Alexander on Fantasy & Social Theory

Also! My second audiobook just arrived in the mail. GhoulishVoice

And today I blogged about music and magic at the Enchanted Inkpot. That doesn’t have much of anything to do with my voice, but it happened today so I should probably mention it.

Tomorrow my second novel comes out and we will party.