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Thursday, December 17, 2009

Interview with Alexander Gordon Smith (Interviewed by Mihir Wanchoo and Cindy Hannikman)

Official Alexander Gordon Smith Website

Read the FBC Review of Lockdown: Escape from Furnace

1] Why don't you tell us a little bit about yourself for those that are unfamiliar with your previous publications?

Hi Mihir, I'd just like to say thanks for inviting me to answer some questions on your blog, it's fantastic to be here!

My full name is Alexander Gordon Smith, but call me Gordon (my parents have called me Gordon since I was born, but put my name this way round so that my initials wouldn't spell GAS). I write books for children and teenagers. My first series is called The Inventors, and is about two young inventors who have to battle an evil genius. My second series, which has just come out in the States, is "Escape From Furnace". The five-book story, starting with Lockdown, follows a teenage boy called Alex Sawyer who is a criminal but not a killer. He is framed for the murder of his best friend and sentenced to life without possibility of parole in Furnace Penitentiary. Furnace is the world's most secure prison for young offenders, but Alex soon realizes that it is much more than this – it is a nightmarish institution filled with monsters…

When I'm not writing books I try and make films. I run a production company with my sister and brother-in-law, called Fear Driven Films, and our first feature is called Stagnant. Making films is a lot harder than writing books, but it's great fun! I'm trying to do some writing for computer games too, which is really interesting. In a nutshell, I just love telling stories!

2] What started you writing? On your bio you mentioned that you started at nearly the age of six, what were the factors influencing you at such a young age?

The main factor was simply that I loved to read. I used to devour books! For me, reading was addictive – the moment you opened up the first page of a book and felt yourself being pulled into this brand new adventure. It's an amazing feeling, the sense of whole new worlds opening up, being introduced to incredible characters who become utterly real for the duration of the story. It really was my favorite thing to do as a kid, just curl up with a book and be taken on an amazing journey. I couldn't get enough of it.

I guess it was a fairly natural transition from reading to writing. I vividly remember the time in my life when I realized that books weren't these magical things that just appeared on shelves, but that they were written by real people. My mum and dad used to tell me made-up stories, and my uncle even packaged up his own stories to look like books. I thought that if they could tell their own stories and make them into books, then I could too!

So I began to write, and I discovered that writing was even more fun than reading because you had total control over the story. It was your adventure, and you could write it any way you liked. That feeling – the first blank page, laying down the first few words, feeling yourself about to begin the story – was like being on the peak of a roller coaster about to thunder down the slope, and it was addictive too. It still is! I haven't stopped writing since I was a kid, and I hope I never do.

3] The story of your first publication is quite a tale in itself, could you elaborate on it please & the benefits you reaped from it?

Yes, getting published really was an adventure in its own right! I've been writing since I was a kid, but other than a horror novel I wrote when I was eighteen (which was rejected by everyone I sent it to for being too gory!) I have never sent anything off for publication. In the summer of 2005 my little brother Jamie (who was nine) decided that we were going to try and write a book together. We both loved reading and we wanted to see if we could write something really cool, a book that we'd both love to read.

We came up with the idea of The Inventors and set to work writing it. In the end, though, we spent more time actually trying to build the inventions in the book than we did writing. We wanted to know exactly what it was like to be two inventors, so Jamie designed and built dozens of gadgets, machines and traps and tested them on me (which was an interesting, if not entirely pleasant, experience)! Although we had plotted most of the novel and developed our characters and knew exactly what was going to happen, we only actually wrote about 13,000 words.

At the end of the holiday, Jamie spotted a competition being run in Waterstones, a national bookshop chain. It was called The Wow Factor, and was looking for "the next J. K. Rowling". All they wanted was the first three chapters and a synopsis, so we entered without any great optimism but thinking we had nothing to lose. After that, school began again and we kind of forgot about the novel…

A few months later, I got a phone call from Waterstones telling me that our book had been shortlisted for the award. It was pretty much the best phone call I had ever received in my life, until it went on to say that they needed the full manuscript by the end of the next week. I told them that we had only written 13,000 words, and they answered that if we couldn't give them the manuscript then we weren't eligible. "Can you do it?" they asked. I said no, thinking it was impossible. As soon as I put the phone down, though, I realized that this was our chance to be published, this was our big break. If we didn't take it, or at least try to take it, we would regret it forever.

So we started writing, really writing. Like I say, we had the story in our heads; we knew what was going to happen, so it flowed really naturally. Seven days later and we had a total of 96,000 words and a finished book. The experience nearly killed me – 11,000 words a day – but to be honest the mad rush actually gave the book so much of its energy and its pacing. I've written every book in the same white heat ever since. We got it to the post office about one minute before it closed the day of the deadline, and then we kept our fingers crossed! In the end we didn't win – Sarah Wray's excellent The Forbidden Room did – but a few weeks later I got a call from Faber saying they loved our book and they wanted to publish it.

After so long wanting to be a writer, it really was a dream come true! I will never forget that call. Do enter your writing into as many competitions as you can find – they really are excellent ways to get your work seen.

4] In your bio which you have on your site you mention quite a creative & copious background, could you tell our readers a bit more about it?

I've dabbled in a few different things. I have always loved books, not just the writing but the actual physical objects. I think they're beautiful. When I was at university (2000-2003) I wanted to publish them, so I used my student loan to set up a small publishing company, called Egg Box. We started off with a creative writing magazine, then gradually moved into publishing first collections of poetry. It was quite successful, as our first two books got awards and sold pretty well (for poetry…). We never made any money, in fact I lost a whole heap of money keeping the company going, but it was a labor of love so it didn't really matter. Egg Box is still going strong, although it's now being run by a friend of mine, the poet Nathan Hamilton.

After I graduated, and in order to keep Egg Box afloat, I started another company called Box of Words. In some ways it was the antithesis of Egg Box – it was designed to supply commercial editorial content for books and magazines, projects like The X-Files magazine and Scooby Doo. Although there were a couple of other people helping me out, most of the time it was me working fifteen hours a day pretending to be a company stuffed full of writers. It was exhausting! Shortly after I got the deal for The Inventors I wound up the company, but it was a great experience.

As I mentioned before, I've just set up a film production company, and am looking to maybe start up a new publishing outfit for children's books (although not my own). I was lucky enough to learn really early on that if you set your mind to something then there's pretty much nothing stopping you from doing it. I didn't have any money, I didn't have any experience, but if you've got passion and heart and you treat people with respect then things will always work out. Not every venture I've had has been successful, but the worst that can happen is that you simply forget about it and start something new. If you've got a dream then go for it, believe in yourself, and sooner or later it will be a success.

5] How much did your prolific background in Egg Box and Box of Words help you now in your current writing?

Doing the editorial stuff for Box of Words was really useful. Because I had to write so quickly to meet deadlines it taught me to think and write at the same time, and to do it fast. When I write now I don't pause much, I just think it and write it in one continuous stream (and give it plenty of editing after I've finished the book). I don't think I'd be able to do that if I hadn't have written thousands of words a day for the magazines. The most useful thing about that time in my life was actually the Scooby Doo comics! I absolutely loved writing these because you could make them as crazy as you liked so long as you kept the story within certain boundaries. It taught me a lot about how to structure a story, where to put the peaks and the valleys, how to build up tension within a very short space and how to pace it. So thanks Scooby!

6] In one of the discussions between your characters, one question gets raised without an answer being provided to the readers "Who is the best English goalkeeper of all time" care to jump in & enlighten us!

Great question! Well, there are a number of contenders including Gordon Banks, Peter Shilton and David Seaman, but I guess the winner would have to be Gordon Banks, our 1966 World Cup-winning keeper and a legend amongst legends!

7] The book series "Escape from Furnace" while being a YA series deals with some very serious themes [Freedom] and issues [morality], what was it that you were trying to explore via these stories?

I didn't set out to explore any theme or issue explicitly. What I wanted to do was write a horror story, a really scary book for teenagers. I knew it was going to deal with crime, with morality, but the last thing I wanted was to write a doctrine on how teenagers should behave, or a morality tale for young adults. If you set out to preach then there's no way you can succeed in writing a story that kids will enjoy, they will know what you are trying to do and they'll rebel against it.

So yes, I wanted to try and focus on the story, on the scares. But Alex, the main character, became so real to me when I was writing, and his friends inside Furnace – Zee, Donovan, Monty, Toby – all developed such rounded, believable personalities that of course the book did end up confronting all of these serious themes and issues. I guess when you write a story like Lockdown it's impossible to avoid the big stuff.

Much of what happens in the book I didn't plot or plan for; the characters just acted the way they would have if they were real. This means that they don't always do the right thing. Alex, for one, is a thief and a bully, he can be cowardly, he can be selfish. Morally he is a very grey character. He isn't a killer when he goes into Furnace, but he is a killer by the end of the book. I wasn't trying to say his actions were right or wrong, I was trying to make him believable as a character. And what that means, essentially, is that right and wrong depend entirely on context. Much of what Alex does can be considered wrong, but he's not a bad guy.

Freedom was definitely a theme I was trying to explore more directly. The idea of losing your freedom forever is terrifying, but what the characters do in Furnace is work out ways of giving themselves freedom within the confines of the prison. There are times, even locked away at the bottom of the world, where Alex feels free. And maybe that's a similar point to the one above, that freedom is also relative, it depends on context. Alex is a prisoner, but in many ways he is free of all the responsibilities and pressures that teenagers face. But I wasn't deliberately trying to explore anything other than the lives and actions of these characters. Any themes and issues in the book are the ones they have generated, not me!

8] Does your interest run only in the YA genre or will we be seeing you experiment in other genres as well?

What I love more than anything else are stories, and each story kind of demands its own audience. When I first thought about Lockdown I knew instinctively that it was a young adult book, it just felt right for that readership. Likewise with The Inventors, partly because of my brother's age, we knew it would be for the eight to twelve bracket. You definitely get a sense of what core age range a book will appeal to (although of course you hope it will be as broad as possible) when you're writing. I have been working on a book for adults. It started off as a horror story for teenagers but it was getting darker and darker, in a different way to Lockdown. Eventually I realized that I would get the most out of this story if I wrote it for adults. It's not that you write it differently – the story is exactly the same as it would have been – but you maybe don't hold yourself back so much with bad language and gore!

My favorite genre is definitely horror and dark fantasy too. I love the way that anything can happen, that the walls of reality can peel away and reveal so much more beneath. Many of the world's oldest stories belong to this genre. Most of what I write tends to have some element of horror and fantasy in it, even books like The Inventors which does have its scary moments although they're told in a gentler way. I'm happy to stay in this genre for now – I can't see myself writing a romantic comedy any time soon!

9] How difficult was it to write this book using the first person narrative, especially for a newcomer. What led you to this choice? What's your idea in the debate between using first or third person narratives in any story?

With Lockdown writing in the first person felt utterly natural. I couldn't have told the story any other way. I'm not sure why, that's just how it was. I feel very close to Alex for a number of reasons, not least that I went through a stage, when I was a teenager, of being a bit of a troublemaker – nothing as serious as him, but stealing things from my family, getting into fights, roaming the streets at night, drinking in biker bars. I vividly remember what it was like to rebel, to feel yourself becoming independent, the excitement but at the same time the fear, and the sadness of losing the child you had once been, all mixed up into a permanent lead ball in your stomach. When I started writing the book, Alex's voice was so similar to mine. In a way, I guess, he was a version of me that could have existed – that may exist – in another reality.

The other reason it felt perfectly natural is that shortly after I had started writing Lockdown I suffered a personal tragedy. It was a really dark time for me, and I almost stopped writing altogether. But Lockdown was one of the things that helped; it was one of the things that got me through the experience. One of the reasons why is that I began to see Furnace – this horrific penitentiary built beneath the ground – as a symbol for this nightmare period I was going through in my life. Alex was trapped inside the prison, I was trapped somewhere without walls but just as bad. I knew that if Alex didn't make it out of Furnace, or at least try, then I would never get over this tragedy. So Alex's fear and pain and desperation and hope are really my fear and pain and desperation and hope. That's what gives the book so much of its drive and its power. They are all real emotions because I was feeling them too, and writing in the first person was the only way to get the strength of those emotions across.

Generally speaking I either write in the first person or the third person limited. I don't like to write as an all-powerful narrator who can skip effortlessly between thoughts, partly because I find that style difficult to control – especially with a sprawling cast – and partly because I think it can be confusing as a reader if you're constantly jumping from one person's head to another's. If I do narrate with more than one third-person character I'll always use chapter breaks to skip between them. The reason I like third-person limited, and first person, is that as a reader you're on the same level as the character, you learn things at the same time they do so you feel more like a part of the story than just an observer.

10] Your main protagonist Alex Sawyer, is a very human character and a bit grey as well, how did you envision his origins & what were your reasons for adding the touch of the grey?

As I said before, he is a human character because so much of his emotional state belonged to me at the time. He is real to me, more real in many ways than my friends and family. He has grown so much since he first appeared in Lockdown, he really has evolved and developed as a person. I think that's so important when you're writing. You have to know your characters better than you know yourself. If you don't, then the story just won't be any good no matter how brilliant your plot. Nobody will care what happens.

As for being a little grey, isn't everybody? A character who is perfect isn't a character at all, they're a fantasy. They're make-believe. Alex has made mistakes, he does bad things, he makes wrong choices, and is all the more human for it.

11] To any new reader, how would you describe your books & writing to convince them to give one of your novels a try?

Wow, that's a tricky question! The most important thing for me when I'm writing is to keep the story moving, to keep the pace dynamic, and to keep it exciting. Because I don't plot, I often write to find out what's going to happen. That sounds strange, but really it is the characters who drive the story, they are the ones who make the decisions, who act. All I'm doing is trying to lay down the words, the track, quickly enough for them to do their thing!

Most of the feedback I have from young adults, and adults too, is that they couldn't put the book down, and that they were devouring the pages. Each book is like a roller coaster; you thunder down a slope so fast you can barely catch your breath, and just when you think it's safe to relax it takes you off on another twist. So if you like roller coasters, then give my books a try!

12] You have had some incredible praise from James Patterson & Darren Shan, how did it feel to gain such praise for your work from such luminous & best-selling authors?

The first quote I got was the Darren Shan one, which was truly amazing as he is one of my favorite authors. I love the way he writes, the pace of his books, the roundness of his characters, the sheer scope of his series and of course the way he writes horror. I even had the characters of Lockdown talk about his work, which I think he was quite tickled by when he read it! I'd had a few letter conversations with Darren over the last couple of years and he really is the nicest guy. But when he read Lockdown and gave me such amazing feedback it truly was a fantastic moment.

The James Patterson quote was such a bolt from the blue that it took a while for the reality of it to sink in. I mean he's one of the bestselling authors in the world, and was such a huge influence on me, that I didn't really believe it! For him to have read Lockdown and taken the time to commend it was just brilliant. He is obviously a huge supporter of new writers, and very generous with his time, and it is so refreshing to see somebody at the very top of their game giving so much back to those who are just starting out. It may just be a few words, but people trust authors like Patterson and Shan, they respond to their recommendations, and all of that can be so important when you've just published your first book. Even if nobody knows your name yet, everybody knows theirs, and how cool is it to be able to share a book jacket with them!

13] With the first three books in the "Escape from Furnace" series already being published in the UK and the remaining two to be published next year, how is your US publication schedule going to be like for readers impatient to read[namely me] what happens next?

The publication schedules in the UK and the US are very different and I'm not sure why. Over here all three books in the first half of the series were published this year, in March, July and October. I wanted them to come out quickly so there wouldn't be too much of a wait – I'm an impatient reader myself and always want to know what happens next! The next one won't be out until October 2010, and there's no news on the fifth and final book yet.

In the States, the second book, Solitary, will be out in September 2010, and the third will follow in June 2011 (although these dates may change). It's a little longer to wait, but the difference is that in the US they are releasing hardcover and paperback versions of each title, which was amazing for me as a writer because Lockdown was my first ever hardback book! The series gets darker and more action-packed with each installment, so I really believe they will be worth the wait!

14] Who/what's your Muse & how did you gain her assent? (any particular names for your muse)? And is there a specific life experience that influenced your writing?

I'm not sure who my muse is, but I know I owe her everything! She is there constantly, throwing ideas at me so fast I don't know what to do with them all. I remember thinking once that my muse might actually be able to time travel, and would nip into the future, find a bestselling novel, then come back and transcribe it into my head – because I wrote so quickly and without really knowing what was going to happen. But obviously I hope that's not the truth as it would make me some kind of weird, inter-dimensional plagiarist! Whoever my muse is, and however she works, I hope I never lose her.

I don't remember any key moment that influenced my writing, although I do remember the longest story I ever wrote when I was young (maybe eleven) was one I did for school. It was called The Valleys of Olaf Karnoff and was pretty much based on The Lord of the Rings. My teacher was so impressed with it, and her enthusiasm – plus the fact that I was so proud of my story – gave me a real desire to write more. My parents always encouraged me to write, which is so important. So many young writers are put off when they are told to get a proper job (and my dad did tell me this numerous times but never seriously), but writing can be a proper job if you persevere with it. Just keep writing, never give up!

15] What do you do when you are not writing or reading books? What are your other hobbies?

After the research, the writing, the editing, the fan mail, the school and library visits and the other promotional stuff, not to mention the film, there isn't a huge amount of time left over! It really is a full-time job, but I love the fact that I can spend my days doing the thing I love most. I'm so lucky. When I do get free time I love watching films and playing video games (and I can get away with calling this 'research' as they are great forms of inspiration) and just relaxing. I've also started studying Kung Fu with my family, a style called Choy Li Fut, which is so much fun and so good for me. Writing can involve a great deal of sitting around so it's great to train for an hour a day. Plus it's useful when you're writing a fight scene! Other than this I'd love to travel a bit more but absolutely hate flying, which obviously makes it difficult!

16] Which authors, that you have read & are your favorites, would you recommend to your readers?
What book/books have you read recently that have made an impression on you?

I read so much, and every since I was a kid I've kind of seen every book as my favorite until I start the next. You get so caught up in the adventure that, while you're reading, you forget about anything else you've ever read! Saying that, I do have some favorites. In no particular order they are Stephen King, who writes such amazing books with such realistic characters, Ramsey Campbell, who is just a master of creating an atmosphere of pure terror, George Orwell, who writes so simply but so powerfully, Angela Carter, Margaret Atwood, Lovecraft, Poe, Clive Barker, who was a huge influence on me when I was a teenager, Dan Simmons, Darren Shan, James Patterson, Lloyd Alexander, Tolkien, Arthur Ransome…

Okay, this is just going to be an endless list so I'll stop there. My advice would simply be to read as much as possible, as widely as possible, because each book is so different. And as a writer even if you find that you are not enjoying a book it's still really useful because you can ask yourself why. Every book will teach you something, even if it's just something to avoid when you're writing.

A couple of recent favorites though… Skellig, by David Almond, and I've just re-read Nineteen Eighty-Four which gets better every time.

17] There have been online rumors about your fascination with kilts? What would you say to kilt them off?

Ha! This is the best question ever! I didn't realize there had been online rumors; I'll have to be more careful from now on! Well, I wouldn't call it a fascination, but I do enjoy wearing a kilt. All of my family are Scottish. In fact I was the first one ever to be born outside of Scotland and in England too. I'm definitely the black sheep of the family. I still consider myself to be Scottish, in that I have Scottish blood, and there's something so awesome about being able to go back to your roots, to embrace your culture and your heritage, especially when it means dressing up in such cool attire!

For those of you who think kilts are skirts then think again! Okay, they are a bit like skirts, but it's the whole suit that I like: the smart jacket with the shiny buttons, the long socks with your own knife tucked into them, the sporran to keep your car keys in, and of course a tartan bow tie! When you're decked out in the full works you feel like a million bucks. I'd wear one every day if I could!

Hmmmm… I don't think I've done too good a job at 'kilting' off those rumors. Okay, maybe it is a fascination…

18] In closing, any last words for your transatlantic fans and what we can expect from you next?

I'd like to say a huge thanks to everybody who has read Lockdown. It really is a great feeling to know that people on the other side of the Atlantic have picked up my book and enjoyed it. I've had such amazing feedback from reviewers, bloggers and readers in the States and I appreciate your support and enthusiasm so much, it really has been a delight to be published in America. The States is number one on my list of places to visit, and I'm hoping to come over next fall to do a tour for Solitary, book two in the series. I absolutely cannot wait to see the country and to meet my fans! I'm even thinking about living in America for a while at some point in my life, although I haven't decided where yet.

As for what's coming next… I'll be focusing on Escape From Furnace for a while and finishing the last two titles in the series, but after that there will be plenty more books to come! Keep your eyes peeled!

Thanks again so much for inviting me to answer some questions on your blog, I've had a great time!


Unknown said...

Alex i like ur books I just finished Lockdown Can u give me a date when the second series of lockdown is coming out it says 2010 but when in 2010? And what about the others i heard that from a website their are 4 more series to Lockdosn.... Plz Reply back

Anonymous said...

hello alexander my name is kevin mason im a senior at mount lake terrace highschool in lynnwood, WA im doing a culminating project which is a graduation requirement and i chose to write a book and what caught me was the interesting horrific writing style you put into books like escape the furnace and id love it if you could contact me because id love to know more about your writing style and your views of horror you put onto pages i'd like it if you could be my mentor my e mail is thank you and i hope you contact me soon

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