Karen Cushman

Karen Cushman

Newbery award-winning children’s book author

Karen Cushman

On Fantasy: Will Alexander

For the next few weeks, in celebration of my new fantasy novel, Grayling’s Song, this space will feature a few of my favorite fantasy authors answering four questions about their own writing. First up, Will Alexander.

Will AlexanderQ: What is the hardest aspect of building a fantasy world for you?

A: Getting lost. I’m not sure that I build fantasy worlds so much as grow them in secret. Margaret Atwood compared writers to magpies. Or maybe ferrets. Both creatures collect shiny things. A pet ferret will hoard forks, coins, paper clips, and bits of foil underneath your couch.

My fantasy worlds start out as similar piles of strangely shiny ideas. I hoard them under the couch in the back of my mind. Each pile grows until it becomes a place, and then I go exploring. It’s a fun process, but inefficient. Sometimes I get lost.

Q: What do you feel is different for you, particularly, as a writer about creating a fantasy novel rather than writing a realistic or historical novel?

A: I can only guess! None of my fiction is realistic. My brain lacks the knack for realism. Goblins and/or ghosts will show up no matter what kind of story I set out to tell.

I do believe that there is a significant overlap between fantasy, history, and the two sets of fiction that use either (or both) as raw material. Ursula K. Le Guin describes that overlapping territory in her introduction to Tales from Earthsea, so I’ll defer to her wisdom:

The way one does research into nonexistent history is to tell the story and find out what happened. I believe this isn’t very different from what historians of the so-called real world do. Even if we are present at some historical event, do we comprehend it–can we even remember it—until we can tell it as a story? And for events in times or places outside our own experience, we have nothing to go on but the stories other people tell us… When you construct or reconstruct a world that never existed, a wholly fictional history, the research is of a somewhat different order, but the basic impulse and techniques are much the same. (xiv)

NomadQ: Did you read fantasy novels before you wrote your book? If so, what’s your favorite fantasy novel and why?

A: Lots. Endlessly. Especially when I was eleven. The books we read at that age change everything—maybe because we’re about to change ourselves. We can see puberty coming, and we’re justifiably scared, so we need to gather resources, explore possibilities, and explore impossibilities to figure out the sort of person we want to become.

When I was eleven I read Ursula K. Le Guin, Lloyd Alexander, Jane Yolen, J.R.R. Tolkien, and Susan Cooper. I don’t think I can choose any one favorite from that magnificent pile of books, but I will say that Le Guin’s Earthsea taught me the most about the grownup that I wanted to turn into.

Q. Is there a character in one of your fantasy novels that you wish you could invite over for dinner? What would you talk about?

A. Semele the goblin playwright. I suspect that we would swap backstage ghost stories. Maybe she knows why all theaters are haunted. I’ve often wondered.

Thank you, Will, for sharing your thoughts with my readers. I hope you’ll read all of Will’s masterful books but especially his most recent, Nomad, and his National Book Award-winning Goblin Secrets. Learn more about Will on his website.


bk_grayling_180pxGrayling’s Song will be available on June 7th from Clarion Books and your favorite bookseller. Kirkus Reviews gave it a star, “The eventual revelation of just who unleashed the destructive power manages to be simultaneously unexpected, plausible, and thought-provoking. Despite her self-doubt, Grayling is cut from the same cloth as the author’s other sturdy heroines, but she is also an entirely original and endearing character that readers will cheer on as she seeks to save her mother and return her world to rights.”