Barely known in a literary field dominated by brand names like "Twilight" and "The Hunger Games," William Alexander scored the National Book Award for Young People's Literature by tapping into his burning love for books when he was 11 years old.
"Of course I still love books, I adore books. But not with the same intensity, the same need," Alexander said Friday, a day after returning home to Minneapolis from the New York City awards ceremony where he scored a major coup for a first-time novelist. "To try and have that level of impact on a new batch of 11-year-olds is ridiculously arrogant. But you've got to try. You've got to aim for that."
With his novel "Goblin Secrets," Alexander seems to have hit the mark. Set in a strange fantasy world populated by witches, masked actors, people with gears for body parts, and — yes — goblins, the book won over the five judges on the Young People's Literature panel who bestow one of U.S. literature's most important awards.
"You want to find a book that people will still be reading in 50 years, that's going to be an enduring book," said Gary Schmidt, the Calvin College professor and children's author who chaired the panel. "That's the case with this one — you just keep getting blown away by what he's doing, and then you get to the end and he brings it all together in a way that's simply stunning."
Alexander, 36, teaches creative writing at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design. Prior to the release of "Goblin Secrets" last March, he had only published a handful of short stories in mostly obscure literary journals. He was one of two Minneapolis writers to win a National Book Award last week; Louise Erdrich, long acclaimed for her novels of the American Indian experience, won the General Fiction award for her latest, "Round House."
A slight but energetic man with dark hair and a trim beard, Alexander walks with a cane due to chronic back problems. A theater actor in college who also studied folklore, Alexander crafted a novel that tells the tale of Rownie, an orphan boy who falls in with a troupe of goblin actors; together, they embark on a search for his long-lost biological brother.
"In a way it's very much a classic story of a child trying to find a family," said Liz Burns, a New Jersey regional librarian who reviewed the book for the School Library Journal. "But then he also pulls off this amazing feat of world-building, creating this entire mythology from scratch. It creates a unique place for a child to fall into."
Burns said the best audience for the book is kids ages 8 to 12. She compared it to C.S. Lewis's "Chronicles of Narnia" series and the first couple of "Harry Potter" books. Schmidt likened it to Madeleine L'Engle's "A Wrinkle in Time" and its sequels. Alexander said he hoped it would find adult readers too, particularly parents whom he urged to read it out loud to their kids.
Reviewers have also praised the book for its swiftness in a fantasy genre that often bogs down in lengthy exposition and explanation. "It moves fast, and it leaves a lot to your imagination," said Christine Irvin, an Ohio-based reviewer for the website TeenReads.com.
Alexander was born in Miami but grew up mostly in the Philadelphia area. The son of a Cuban father, he said an inherited sense of machismo pushed him into acting as a young man: "There's this horrible impulse to do things that terrify you. I was extremely shy, so I took to the stage," he said. Though he quickly came to love it, Alexander's back problems made acting increasingly difficult. He finally had surgery in 2001 to repair a double lumbar fusion.
"I think I'm technically a cyborg. There's a lot of titanium holding my spine together," Alexander said. It's a quality shared by inhabitants of his mythical city of Zombay, many of whom have missing body parts replaced by machinery. Graba, a witch who supervises Rownie at the book's start, has giant metal chicken legs; a police official has creepy glass eyes with tiny gears in place of irises.
Even when he still acted, Alexander started to realize he was interested in more than just his lines. "I was more interested in the whole story, the whole play," he said. In his writing process, he always begins with dialogue first before turning to character and motivation.
Alexander has had a busy autumn. Besides his National Book Award, his wife Alice Dodge gave birth on Oct. 29 to their daughter Iris; the couple also have a 3-year-old son, Liam. His deal with Margaret K. McElderry Books, a Simon & Schuster imprint, was for two books. "Ghoulish Song," to be published in March, is also set in Zombay and takes place at the same time as "Goblin Secrets." But it's about characters that made only brief appearances in the first book.
"You don't have to read one in order to understand the other," he said.
Alexander said he hopes to return to Zombay in future books, and that the character of Rownie is at some point likely to get a proper sequel. He's also interested in creating other fictional worlds, and said someday he might try writing a novel for adults.
Few fantasy or science fiction writers have won a National Book Award in its 76-year history. One is Ursula Le Guin, a giant of the genre who wrote for both adults and children including the "Earthsea" series published between 1968 and 2001. Alexander grew up reading Le Guin, and was overwhelmed a few months back when the 83-year-old author praised "Goblin Secrets" on her blog.
"I wish I could have read it when I was 11," Le Guin wrote.
"At 11, of course, was when I was reading her," Alexander said.