Author Interview: C. Alexander London on We Are Not Eaten by Yaks

Charles London Author PhotoC. Alexander London is the author of the abundantly funny Accidental Adventure series which began with We Are Not Eaten by Yaks. 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. He’s here today to answer some questions about his writing and his upcoming Accidental Adventure novel We Dine With Cannibals which will be released on November 14, 2011.

Miss Print (MP): Can you tell us a bit about your path as a writer? How did you get to this point?

C. Alexander London (CAL): It has been a circuitous, yet somehow inevitable path. When I was young, I wasn’t much of a reader. I was lucky enough to grow up in a house with a lot of books, and I enjoyed looking at their covers and daydreaming about the stories inside, without ever actually cracking them open to find out. See, although I found reading challenging, I loved stories. My sister used to read aloud to me and do all the voices and she was the first person to really bring stories alive for me. I also loved watching TV and playing video games and looking at comic books. I also liked some of those fact-books, like the Guinness Book of World Records and atlases. I loved staring at atlases and daydreaming about all the places I could go. Each of these media fed fuel into my imagination. I would make up my own villains and levels and plot lines, my own stories about travel to the farthest places I could find on the maps.

It was around when I was 11 that a teacher shared Redwall by Brian Jacques with me. I had never read a book that thick before, and I was amazed by how much I loved it, how inspiring the tale of chivalrous mice and devious weasels was. After I had finished it, I wrote Brian Jacques a letter, and, much to my surprise, he wrote back! That was the first time I saw a writer as a real person. He encouraged me to write, to use my imagination and maybe, to become a writer myself. That was the start of the path, although it took me a long time to get to do it professionally. I was a freelance journalist. I worked as an assistant at a talent agency. I became a librarian. Bit by bit, rejection after rejection, I honed my craft and was lucky enough to find editors and publisher’s who believed in me and the vision I had for my books. I’ve been writing full time now for about four years, and I never could have done it alone. From Brian Jacques, to my literary agent, to my teachers and classmates in library school (like Miss Print!), to my current editor and publisher, I’m really standing on a lot of shoulders while I tell my stories.

MP: Before starting your Accidental Adventure series you wrote two non-fiction books targeted toward adult readers? Has your writing process changed at all now that you’re writing fiction for a younger audience?

CAL: The bigger difference for me isn’t between the ages of the intended audience, but the fact that my books for adults were nonfiction and now I write novels. In college, I started doing journalism, and I see that process as essential training for writing fiction. I got to travel and see places in the world I could never have imagined. I had a lot of adventures, and, learning to capture diverse voices across cultures and circumstances and to render places both near and far as truthfully as possible gave me the tools to attempt the same with the product of my imagination. So, turning to fiction, I became a kind of reporter of my daydreams.

MP: What was the inspiration for the Accidental Adventures series?

CAL: There are a lot of sources of inspiration feeding into these silly stories.

They are, first off, somewhat autobiographical. I’ve never actually been thrown out of an airplane or battled an angry Yeti, but I thought of the idea for this series of books while I was on a flight between Rangoon and Mumbai, having my own accidental adventure. In Rangoon, the capital of Burma, thousands of Buddhist monks were battling with hardened government soldiers, and I accidentally walked into the middle of it. There were peaceful protests and prayers and then there was chaos and violence. Within days, the government had sealed off the country, shut down the internet and scrambled all the foreign television stations so you couldn’t watch them. No CNN. No Cartoon Network.

And I really missed it.

Even as things were going insane in the world around me, TV somehow made me feel safer. Even though I was having the adventure of a lifetime, all I wanted was to be curled up on the couch at home watching TV. I left Burma to go to India, where the festival of Ganesha was underway and millions of people were celebrating by lighting fireworks and throwing pink paint all over each other. And I was just so over it.

It was on that flight in Asia that I first imagined Oliver and Celia Navel, who are doomed to have a life of adventure, when all they want is to do is watch television.

So that was my inspiration, but I made a lot of stuff up too. Oliver has parts of my personality in him and Celia is based on my older sister, but there are also parts that are totally imaginary. Sir Edmund is completely made up, although the Poison Witches are not (they are some scary stories about them in Tibet). When I write, it’s like making a stew. I take ingredients from my memories, from the people I know, from things I’ve read or heard or learned in school and also things that I make up or that I dream about, and then I mix them all together to see what comes out. That’s how I wrote We Are Not Eaten By Yaks.

I also really identified with Milo from The Phantom Tollbooth. That was one of the books my sister used to read to me. I was always struck by Milo’s childhood ennui, that feeling of being “just so over it.” I think of Oliver and Celia Navel as descendants of young Milo.

MP: How did you choose all of the places (and animals) that feature in the series (so far)?

CAL: Each book takes place in a different cultural milieu that interests me, either through the travel I’ve done, or a place and people I want to know more about. The first one was in Tibet because I studied Tibetan Buddhism and thought there were a lot of interesting elements there to fuel my story. There is a balancing act, however. I am writing about real cultures and want to be respectful. I am simply very excited by the ethnosphere, which real-life explorer in residence at National Geographic, Wade Davis, describes as “the sum total of all thoughts, dreams, ideas, beliefs, myths, intuitions, and inspirations brought into being by the human imagination since the dawn of consciousness.”  I try to share that excitement in the stories.

As for the animals, I went with what made me laugh. Grumpy lizards and mischievous monkeys are funny to me.

MP: Celia and Oliver HATE adventures and exploring. They’re couch potatoes and proud of it. Do you identify with their dislike of all things exciting? What is it like writing about such reluctant heroes?

CAL: I do identify with them! Although I love travel, I often find when I’m traveling, I just want to be home! I agree with Roy C Andrews, former president of the real Explorers Club in NYC, who disliked adventures because “they interfere with work and disrupt carefully made plans.” Adventures mean something has gone wrong and I like things to go smoothly when I travel, although things rarely do go smoothly. I love putting Oliver and Celia through things that I would hate to experience, like getting lost in the jungle or playing dodgeball.

As to writing such reluctant heroes, it is a challenge. It’s hard to motivate action, when my protagonists don’t want there to be any. It also hard to make sure that their reluctance doesn’t overwhelm their identities, that they remain likable. Oddly, the comments I get most often from parents are, “Oliver and Celia are just like my kids” and, “I really struggled to like Oliver and Celia.” I will often hear these comments from the same person!

MP: Working from the last question, Celia and Oliver have some . . . let’s say unique taste in TV shows (like Love at 30,000 Feet to name but one). How did you come up with all of the shows they watch?

CAL: I love TV and watch a good deal of it. Seeing some of the crazy shows that are out there, I just took what exists and made them just a little weirder. For example, with Love at 30,000 Feet, I thought about all those dramas set in hospitals or schools or cruise ships and wondered, what is the least likely place for an elaborate drama? An airplane seemed fitting.

MP: We Dine with Cannibals is coming out November 14, 2011 and is the second book in the series. Do you have a set arc for Celia and Oliver’s story or know how many books will be in the series?

CAL: There will be four books in the series and I do know how it ends now, although unlike many series authors, I had no idea where it was going when I started. I knew the arc I wanted for their characters, but I didn’t know how the plot would go. It ended up surprising me. I just finished a draft of the fourth book a few weeks ago.

MP: Can you tell us anything about what to expect in We Dine with Cannibals?

CAL: Well, when I wrote We Dine With Cannibals I was watching a lot of Man vs Wild, so extreme reality TV plays a role. The twins get to spend some time with Corey Brandt, teen star of Sunset High, Agent Zero, and the new reality show, The Celebrity Adventurist. Corey is, in my mind, a mash-up of Justin Bieber and Bear Grylls, which was a lot of fun to write. Of course, as always with Oliver and Celia, not everything is what it seems. Aside from teenaged a heartthrob, there are adventures in the ruins of Machu Picchu, treks into unexplored jungle, two lost cities, wild animals, poison darts, and most treacherous of all: dodgeball.

MP: In addition to your skeet-shooting skills and being a writer, you’re a librarian. How has that effected your writing?

CAL: Well, the training gave me a deep appreciation for the breadth of young people’s literature that’s available these days. It gave me a great respect for the diversity of reader experience and ti gave me confidence to believe I could play a role in the reading life of a child, whether it was doing reader’s advisory at a branch of NYPL when I worked there, or now, writing stories that I hope kids will enjoy.

MP: Can you tell us anything about your next project?

CAL: I’m doing a speculative YA novel. It is definitely for an older crowd, although it was inspired by the classic middle grade novel by Sid Fleischman, The Whipping Boy. It will be out in 2013, so I don’t want to give too much away about it. I can tell you the title though. It’s called Proxy.

MP: Do you have any advice to offer aspiring authors?

CAL: It’s pretty basic advice. Write every day. No matter what, even if you don’t think what you’re writing is any good, just keep writing. The worst writing you do is always better than the writing you don’t do. I would also say to read, but I think you’re readers understand that already.

MP: Random Extra Question: I have a minor obsession with your dog. How is he doing?

CAL: He’s good! He is snoring on the bed as I sit at my desk writing this. He’s a great source of inspiration (Beverly, the ornery poisonous lizard in We Dine With Cannibals is based on him). I think every professional writer should get a dog; he forces me to put on pants and leave the house, which is very important to do every day in that order.

Thanks again to C. Alexander London for taking the time to answer my questions.

You can also read my review of We Are Not Eaten by Yaks to learn more about the series.

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