Vermont Arts Council

An Interview with National Book Award Winner William Alexander

William Alexander’s books take middle-grade readers to extraordinary worlds—goblin kingdoms, intergalactic spaceships, and, in his next book, floating castles off the Cuban coast. Tentatively titled The Ingenious Towers, the fantasy novel-in-progress has earned Alexander an FY2021 Creation Grant. The story follows three Cuban-American siblings as they pursue a trail of haunted domino tiles and find themselves trapped in a floating castle where they must confront their shared sense of ancestry and exile.

Goblin Secrets by William Alexander
Cover art for William Alexander’s 2012 debut novel, Goblin Secrets.

As otherworldly as Alexander’s settings are, his stories are grounded in the very real concerns of young people. His 2012 debut novel, the National Book Award-winning Goblin Secrets, is as much about a boy’s search for family and belonging as it is about goblins saving a steampunk city from tyranny. His sci-fi novel Ambassador, in which a child is recruited as Earth’s new intergalactic ambassador while his father is being deported by ICE, is driven by the idea that children are the perfect diplomats because of their empathy and curiosity. In The Ingenious Towers, Alexander brings to a story of the Latinx diaspora the empathy of personal experience. Himself a first-generation Cuban-American, Alexander knows what it’s like to grow up with a sense of exile—and what it’s like to grow up without seeing people like yourself in the books and media you love.

The lack of diverse representation that Alexander felt as a young reader persists. As he noted in his application for a Creation Grant, only 5% of books published in 2018 depicted Latinx characters. With his books, Alexander is part of the growing #OwnVoices movement in publishing, an effort to improve the representation of marginalized communities both in the stories being told and among the authors telling them. In his Creation Grant application, Alexander quoted Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop, referred to by colleagues as the “mother” of multicultural children’s literature: “When there are enough books available that can act as both mirrors and windows for all our children, they will see that we can celebrate both our differences and our similarities.”

Born in Miami and raised in Texas and Philadelphia, Alexander first came to Vermont in 2002 to study English at University of Vermont. After a stint in Minneapolis—another haven for children’s authors—he returned to Vermont in 2015 to teach in the MFA in Writing for Children & Young Adults at Vermont College of Fine Arts, where he is currently faculty chair. The Ingenious Towers will be his seventh book, which he expects to complete by the end of 2021.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Desmond Peeples: The Ingenious Towers is a Latinx story, and all of your books feature characters from diverse backgrounds. You’ve built your career during a time when the publishing industry has been under fire for its lack of diversity. What has been your experience as an author in this climate, and what do you think the industry can do to improve?

William Alexander: My experience as an author is very closely tied to my experiences as a young reader. I never needed books more than I did when I was 11 years old. The books we find at 11 become raw material we can use to build ourselves up and decide what sort of person we want to become. 

I found my own raw material in science fiction and fantasy—especially in characters caught between worlds. If I had been able to recognize myself in the pages of a Latinx story (preferably one set in outer space, thereby insisting that we have a future as well as a past), then I might have had a far less fragmented sense of self as a nerdy Caribbean kid growing up in the frozen north. Sometimes adults write the books that we needed to read at 11. 

As for the publishing industry, it should wholeheartedly embrace meaningful and structural changes. Editors traditionally start their careers as unpaid interns, and very few people can afford to spend any amount of time working for free. One of the most revolutionary projects to come from We Need Diverse Books is their grant program; by sponsoring internships for aspiring editors from diverse backgrounds, WNDB is fostering a systemic change that could potentially shift the whole publishing landscape from a relatively fragile monoculture to a thriving ecosystem. 

In your Creation Grant application, you wrote about the “paradox shared by writers and artists of diaspora,” that of “writing about an ancestral home that I have never actually seen.” Can you elaborate on that paradox, and how it has affected you as you write?

My father left Havana when he was a teenager. I grew up with stories about Cuba that transformed the island into a near-mythical place. It became Atlantis, or maybe Númenor (the lost island civilization of Aragorn’s ancestors in The Lord of the Rings). One of my favorite quotes about diaspora comes from the chef Maricel Presilla: “We yearn for the Cuba of our imaginations, but no two Cuban exiles can agree on what that means.” The Ingenious Towers is my own napkin-sketched map of that mythic Cuba. It’s my attempt to learn what the word “exile” means. 

Ambassador by William Alexander
Cover art for William Alexander’s 2014 sc-fi novel Ambassador.

You’ve written fantasy and science fiction in a variety of settings, from medieval European-inspired to the contemporary U.S., to intergalactic settings. Can you describe your worldbuilding process? Have certain settings been more challenging to write than others?

Margaret Atwood described authors as magpies. We collect shiny things and hoard them. Worldbuilding material comes from pretty much anything: a fragment of conversation, a new favorite word, or the way street performers and puppeteers carry themselves on a pedestrian bridge. Those shiny things accumulate like pieces of tinfoil in a magpie nest—or like scattered dust and rock coming together to make a planet in the early days of a new solar system. The trick is noticing when those planets start to form in the back of your brain and then feeding them whatever seems to stick. 

Ambassador and Nomad, my two science fiction novels, split their time between Minneapolis, Guadalajara, an abandoned Soviet moon-base, a detainment camp in Arizona, an embassy filled with child-ambassadors from all over the galaxy, and a starship built by the migrating, spacefaring descendants of a vanished Central American civilization (we have a future as well as a past.) That was a challenge. Maybe someday I’ll learn restraint. 

You’re one of a handful of fantasy authors to win the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature, and nearly a decade has passed since your win. How would you describe the current relationship between fantasy/sci-fi and the larger literary world?

Ursula K. Le Guin wrote an essay in 1974 called “Why Are Americans Afraid of Dragons?” Forty years later, she accepted the National Book Foundation Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters. That’s a seismic shift. She was one of the Founding Mothers who proved that reality will always exceed what realism can possibly depict or digest. 

Mimetic realism implies that the way things are is the way that they have to be, and that simply isn’t true. Science fiction and fantasy stretches the mental muscles we need in order to envision alternatives. Things can be different! Things will be different. The larger literary world is beginning to understand that we need to read about other planets in order to keep up with this one.

Your first novel was published in 2012. How has your writing practice evolved over the course of six novels?

I wrote all of my books in the morning or the early afternoon, when my kids were either napping or at school. All six novels were fueled by powerful espresso. All of them are unrealisms written for middle grade audiences (I never needed books more than I did at 11). The most important shift in those eight years has been learning how to outline. It goes against all of my improvisational instincts, but I do find it tremendously helpful to have a map! I’d miss every deadline otherwise. 

The pandemic has made schooling and childcare much more complicated, so lately I’ve been waking up earlier and drinking even more espresso (special thanks to Capital Grounds for their 802 beans). 

You’re currently the faculty chair of Vermont College of Fine Art’s MFA in Writing for Children & Young Adults, and you’ve taught in the program since 2015. What is special to you about the program? And how has the program weathered the Covid-19 pandemic?

Vermont College is an extraordinary place, and I’m so relieved that it continues to thrive under quarantine. Much of that resilience comes from the low-residency design; we’re already accustomed to long-distance, mentorship-based teaching. The relationship between student and advisor is very similar to the one between author and editor, so it models the professional writing life on a structural level. Kidlit authors also tend to be community-minded; we learn how to carry each other, even while writing alone. 

What writers and books are exciting you right now?

It’s been a joy to watch Kacen Callender conquer 2020 by winning both the World Fantasy Award and the National Book Award. Every sentence that they write is gold.