It's another Sunday, which means only one thing here at PickMyYA: we have another amazing author joining us for a chat! Today's special guest is Alex London, who might just be the most interesting person we've ever had here on Beyond The Bio. Before becoming an author, Alex worked as a journalist who reported from some of the most dangerous places in the world. Now Alex writes books for people of all ages. His young adult debut, Proxy, was an American Library Association Top Ten Quick Pick for Reluctant Young Readers and included on their 2014 Best Fiction For Young Adults list. If you haven't checked it out yet, you'll definitely want to after this interview. And don't forget to stop by our Twitter page, where you can enter to win a signed copy of Alex's most recent book, Guardian.
James: Thanks so much for joining us today, Alex. You've written what has to be one of my favorite dystopian YA novels. For those readers who haven't read Proxy yet, can you tell us a little bit about it?
Alex: Sure! Proxy is a cyberpunk action-thriller. I prefer the term cyberpunk to dystopian, mostly because it sounds cooler, but also because there is a history of cyberpunk literature and film (Neuromancer by William Gibson and Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep by Philip K. Dick--which became the move Blade Runner) that were definitely an inspiration for me, perhaps more so than what we think of as classics of dystopian story-telling (although I loved/was terrified by 1984 and The Handmaid's Tale as a teen).
Anyway, Proxy is set in a world where the rich can pay for the poor to take their punishments. It's about two boys from opposite ends of that world--Knox, a rich teenager and total brat with the best of everything, and Syd, an orphan who is forced to take the punishments for Knox's many, many transgressions...until things go too far and both boys end up thrust into events much larger than themselves. They're going to need to trust each other if they're to survive, but they'll have to survive each other first.
James: One of the things I love most about cyberpunk is the way that it blends social commentary and entertainment. With Proxy, you tackled some really important topics, including debt, involuntary servitude, sexuality, and the widening class gap. And yet, as I was reading Proxy, I never once felt bored or lectured. How do you find that balance between challenging your readers and entertaining them?
Alex: Well, my books usually start from the place of something that's bugging me--in the case of Proxy, it was debt, income inequality, and the growing power corporations have over all aspects of our lives--and from those nagging things, a concept arises. But a concept isn't worth much without a good tale to go with it, so once I have the concept, the characters are what drive the story. I don't set out to make commentary; I just put honest, interesting, flawed characters into extreme situations and see what happens. The commentary arises naturally from the intersection of the (hopefully) realistic human beings I've created with the conceptual framework I've put them in. I've created a system and within that system I make my characters want things--Knox to live consequences free and party, Syd, to simply live free--and their wants are set in conflict with each other and, as in most dystopian stories, with the world itself.
Unlike in a contemporary novel, the society of a dystopian story is often the antagonist, whether its Panem in The Hunger Games or Gildead in the Handmaid's Tale. People who get along with the system do fine; people who rebel or resist find themselves in conflict...and that's where the excitement of a story gets rolling. I guess that's a fancy way of saying, I focus on the entertaining my readers part and let the bigger ideas work themselves out from the clashes inherent in the world I've created. That's one of the great virtues of dystopian writing, or genre writing in general: if the concept itself if interesting enough, it'll carry interesting ideas with it, even as I get to focus on blowing things up and tearing things apart.
James: Do you think that dystopian/cyberpunk literature will change considering our new political climate?
Alex: Change? No more than any literature changes with its time, which is to say: of course! Every creative endeavor is a product of its time and the anxieties I had while writing Proxy in 2011-2012 will be somewhat different than the ones writers will have now. I think issues of free speech, the limits of empathy, the nature of resistance itself will be explored a lot. At the same time, there will probably be a good deal of escapist stories too. People like to look away from politics for a bit, although to me, that has never been what dystopian literature is for. From its earliest days, I think dystopian lit has always had political content and loses its sting without it.
James: Probably my favorite aspect of Proxy is the way that you deal with Syd's sexuality. He's gay, and he's the kick-ass hero of a kick-ass book. Why was that an important decision for you?
Alex: Yes, that was essential to me. Being gay myself, when I was a teen, I never got to see characters like me reflected in the stories I enjoyed. All the "gay" books that existed were realistic, usually sad, and to my mind, dull dull dull. I loved sci-fi, which was a very straight, white genre. However, in 7th grade, I read Ender's Game, and thought, oddly, that it was a "queer" books. Ender loved his male best friend. The whole book involved a lot of naked fighting and deep male affection. For 13 year old me, it was definitely jaw dropping and exciting to read, to see myself reflected back in a kick-ass hero of a kick-ass story before I even had words to describe how I was feeling differently from the other boys around me. And the book wasn't about that stuff, it was just a part of who the characters were as the book explored themes of just war, morality in combat, self-realization, leadership and friendship. I loved it. Only years and years later did I learn, somewhat ironically, that the author of Ender's Game is a vicious unrepentant homophobic bigot (an accusation I do not use lightly or casually, but in this case, applies). I was shocked and dismayed. I had become a writer largely influenced by that reading of Ender's Game. Luckily, good books are smarter than their authors, and Orson Scott Card's work knows so much more than he does. It was what I needed at the time.
That said, I wanted to write the book I wished had actually existed for teenaged me, one where I didn't have to invent some subtext about the gay characters, I could put it right there in the text and then get on to the action packed explosions and big ideas. I like to believe we are in an age when no single facet of your identity limits the kinds of stories you can see yourself in. I've been touched to see all kinds of readers embrace Syd's story and root for him even if they'd never rooted for an LGBTQ character before. I get some pretty cool letters from readers about that. Straight football playing bros and trans GSA presidents alike. Syd would be embarrassed for the attention, but I'm thrilled.
James: Considering all the pulse-pounding adventure in Proxy, I wasn't surprised at all to learn that you've had some pretty crazy adventures yourself. You've survived a volcano, a hurricane, and multiple civil wars. You make me feel like a dweeb, Alex. The only thing I survived was a years-long battle with acne when I was a teenager! Have any of those adventures made their way into your books?
Alex: Pretty much all of them in some form or another. I created the characters largely to celebrate the sorts of kids I met all over the world who were surviving--and in many cases thriving--in places that looked a lot like imaginary dystopias. I got to know child soldiers and refugees from the Congo and Sudan, migrant laborers from Burma, young activists in Kosovo...and their spirits-and it some cases their neighborhoods-found their way into Proxy in some form. Syd's neighborhood--The Valve--is basically a sci-fi reimagining of the Kibera slum outside Nairobi. And Liam--in the sequel, Guardian, is a basically a child soldier no different than the ones deployed and exploited on various battlefields today, albeit he's got that cool high tech metal hand...
James: As a teacher, I just want to say how impressed I am with the way that you've made yourself available to classes around the country. You've done Skype calls, school visits, and even writer workshops. What are some of the things that impress you the most about this next generation?
Alex: I'm always impressed by their openness to new ideas and their absolute the certainty that they have a right to ask questions. Asking questions is the most essential thing humans in any field can do, far more important than knowing answers. I love hearing questions.
James: Your next YA book feature falcons. (So does his Twitter profile pic, BTW. Check it out here.) What else can you tell us about Other Bloods?
Alex: Other Bloods is set in a land of high stakes falconry, where all eyes turn to the sky, even as intrigue and danger pull them to the ground. It's the story of a brother and sister on a reluctant quest to capture the legendary eagle that they believe killed their father, although of course, there is more afoot than they know. There's love and longing, mystery and danger, and a matriarchal owl cult that I'm ridiculously giddy about writing. I think Proxy fans will be delighted. If you like Syd, you'll love my new character, Brysen...I actually think the book's better than Proxy) and I hope die hard fantasy readers will like it too. And LGBTQIA readers. And, really all readers...I mean, who doesn't want a book that can be described as "The Scorpio Races meets Lord of the Rings…with falcons" (which is how my agent put it...I might have yelped/peed a little with that description). There will be Feels. There will be Thoughts. There will be...uh... a lot of birds and some killer aerial battles. It's the first in a trilogy and won't be out until 2018, but I'll certainly be sharing more details on my mailing list as the date approaches.
James: Alright, Alex, I know you're a former librarian. Somewhere in between the volcanoes and hurricanes, you found a way to shelve books, right? I know you've given out tons of book recs over the years, but I want to turn the tables a bit. Answer the questions on our new-and-improved book rec generator and let's see what book you get. Ready? Let's do it!
That's it for today's interview with Alex. If you have any questions for Alex or want to let him know how much you love his books, be sure to check out his website or visit him on Twitter. And don't forget to check our Twitter account, where you can win a signed copy of of Alex's book Guardian. And whatever you do, don't forget to come back next week, when we'll be interviewing Hena Khan, whose new book, Amina's Voice, comes out next week!