Alex London recently released his first YA novel, Proxy which is an incredible exciting page-turner filled with a diverse cast of characters (some likable and some . . . less so). He is also a non-practicing librarian and, true story, one of my classmates from library school as well as an all around nice guy (not to mention an author of lots of other books under other pen names). He’s here today to answer some questions about his writing and his fab new novel.
Miss Print (MP): Can you tell us a bit about your path as a writer? How did you get to this point? (Please also feel free to tell us about your other writing personas!)
Alex London (AL): It has been a long and winding road. In 2nd grade I wrote a book called Lawrence & Luther Lizard go to Summer Camp. Then I spent a few years playing kickball, going through puberty, reading Kerouac, temping, and working when I could as a freelance journalist. In my twenties I published two books of nonfiction for adults—One Day the Soldiers Came and Far From Zion, both under the name Charles London (which is my first name). I had trouble making a living that way, but I knew I wanted to be around books and readers, so I got my masters in Library Science from Pratt, and worked at NYPL. It was there that I really began to read literature for young people and fell in love with the diversity of voices and stories on those shelves, as well as the passion of the readers. I started writing middle grade shortly thereafter (as C. Alexander London, so as not to encourage 10 year olds to stumble upon the rather heavy stories of young people in war that fill the pages of One Day the Soldiers Came). I was a YA librarian at NYPL, and I simply loved teen literature. I knew one day I would write a novel I hoped would be of interest to teens, but I wasn’t sure what it would be. I was drawn to books like MT Anderson’s Feed, Lois Lowry’s Giver, and an ARC I’d picked up of the as-yet unreleased first book in Patrick Ness’s astonishing Chaos Walking trilogy. The imaginative scope of dystopian stories always intrigued me. Even in High School, I loved 1984.
MP: What was the inspiration for Proxy?
AL: I’ve said elsewhere that writing a novel is like summoning a genii, and geniis are wily creatures. They’re found in unlikely places and often grant wishes you didn’t ask for, so the inspiration for the world of Proxy, the story, and the characters, came from more sources that I’m probably even aware of and it isn’t exactly the book I thought it would be when I began.
The concept in Proxy, where the rich pay for the poor to take their punishments, came from The Whipping Boy, which I read in elementary school and which my partner reminded me of one day when I’d forgotten to do the dishes. He took one look at the sink, one look at me sitting on the couch having spent all day not doing the dishes (or much of anything) and called out “fetch the Whipping Boy!”
For those who don’t recall, The Whipping Boy is the story of a bratty prince and the poor, put-upon boy who takes punishments in his place. So that fateful neglected household chore provided the initial spark.
The main character in Proxy, Syd, got his name assigned to him as an orphan from a database of literary names—his full name is Sydney Carton—so it’d be hard for me to deny that A Tale of Two Cities inspired me. I do know that Syd’s crushes on the popular guy and his banter with his straight best friend are right out of my own high school life, as is the sense of entitlement among the elites of the society. I am, myself, a prep school boy and Proxy grapples with that upbringing. At the same time, I love sci-fi, so there’s as much Blade Runner and Mad Max informing my imagination as there is Franz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth. I like my books filled with big ideas and big explosions. I hope Proxy satisfies on both counts.
MP: In Proxy, foundlings taken in by the Benevolent Society are named from a database that uses names from classic literature. If you were such a foundling what name would you hope to get from the database? Is there any name you’d really want to avoid?
AL: I have a deep and abiding hatred, instilled in me in 6th grade, for the book Johnny Tremain, so I would loathe being named after that particular character. In he grim cosmology of Proxy, however, it seems likely that name would be exactly my fate. Sticking with Dickens, like I did for Syd’s name, I think I’d enjoy being named Oliver Twist, because I am deeply partial to the name Oliver for some reason.
MP: How did you approach writing a story about such distinct future? Did your vision for Syd and Knox’s world start with a specific place or aspect?
AL: The Whipping Boy concept was where it began and the future I imagined really stemmed from that. I had to create a world where young people would enter into such a system, would not rebel against it right away, and where such a system would even be possible. So the idea of the free market run amuck, the privatization of everything, and a class of people whose only value to society was as debtors informed all the decisions I made about the world where Syd and Knox live. And that world, of course, informed their characters as they were each shaped (or warped) by their society.
MP: In addition to some crazy action sequences, Proxy has quite a few twists and surprises. As a writer, how did you go about pacing this aspect of the story and deciding what to reveal when?
AL: I don’t really make outlines, for good or ill, so I wrote first and foremost to surprise myself. I didn’t know most of what would happen before it happened. In revision of course, I had to make it all make sense, control the pacing and the revelations. My goal was to make the book unputdownable, the kind of book I enjoy reading, so in a way, I served as my own beta reader. If I was surprised by the twists and turns, I could believe my readers would be too. Although, there are still places in it where I wished I handled it more elegantly. I often feel I could have done better if I outlined. I’m an ‘aspirational plotter’ trapped in ‘pantser’s’ mindset.
MP: One of the coolest, most refreshing things in Proxy (besides the premise) is the casual diversity. Syd is gay but the story isn’t about him being gay. He is also brown. I hesitate to reveal more because of spoilers but you have a diverse case of characters here. Did you always know that Syd was gay? Did you have to strive to include diversity in Proxy or did it come organically?
AL: The diversity really emerged organically. I live in a very diverse neighborhood in Brooklyn and looking around myself, I couldn’t imagine a future that was not diverse. There was no world I could see in which races, religions, and ethnicities didn’t continue to mingle. So that aspect of the story just seemed a fact of the future. As to Syd’s sexuality, that was not at all planned. He surprised me with it, but it really did seem right as I explored it (there were drafts when it was more heavy handed). As a gay man myself, I was happy to create a gay action hero whose gayness was not central to the story. It informed him, but didn’t define him. I liked writing a story like this where the hero had no interest in that tired old trope of ‘getting the girl.’
MP: In addition to the delightful Syd, Proxy’s other main character is the more-troublesome-but-still-charming Knox. Which character did you identify more with while writing? Was one character more fun to write than the other?
AL: Knox, being such a charming jerk was definitely more fun to write. He was much more of a challenge too, making him if not exactly likable, redeemable in a way. I had to find a path to forgive him for so much of who he was and that was not easy. I also have a lot more in common with Knox than I do with Syd (other than Knox’s womanizing), so writing him was a chance for me to explore my own relationship with privilege. I also just really enjoyed writing the dynamic between Syd and Knox. The straight-gay friendship has always interested me (for obvious reasons…in high school all my guy friends were straight).
MP: Can you tell us anything about your next project? What should readers expect in Guardian?
AL: I actually wrote Proxy as a standalone novel, and then my publisher really wanted a sequel, so I had to figure out what story I still had to tell in that world. It turns out, I had lot. I need more time with a certain character in Proxy who I didn’t focus enough on. And of course, Syd’s story is far from over. Without giving too much away, the stakes of Guardian are even higher. The action comes faster and perhaps more mercilessly, and there is, at last for young Sydney, a possibility of romance…
MP: Do you have any advice to offer aspiring authors?
AL: 13 books into my career and I’ve only learned one thing, really. Every book is different and the only way to write is to write. There is no difference between what I do and what an aspiring author does when they stare at a blank page. We get the stories out as best we can and then try to make sense of what we’ve got through revision.
As to making a living doing it…that is another question. For me, finding early readers I trust and an agent who is committed to helping me reach my goals have been essential. There is only one name on the jacket of a book, but there are countless people whose hard work goes into making the book happen. Find those people however you can.
Thanks again to Alex for taking the time to answer my questions and be epic.