Meet C. Alexander London.
Alex London has written books for children, teens, and adults. His latest young
adult novel, Black Wings Beating, begins an epic fantasy trilogy set in a world of cut-throat falconry. He’s the author of Proxy, an ALA Top Ten Quick Pick for Reluctant Readers and 2014 ALA Best Fiction for Young Adults. For middle grade readers he is the author of the Tides of War, Dog Tags, and Jr. Library Guild Selection, The Wild Ones, as well as several titles in The 39 Clues. He lives with his family in Philadelphia, PA.
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A philosophy major I see. Do you ever find yourself getting into carried away with philosophical views or themes when writing?
Totally! I think stories are the best technology humans have ever invented for carrying ideas across time and space from one mind to another, and I think a story without big ideas underlying it is just a series of random events. To me, every novel carries philosophy inside it and every novel is trying to pick apart this bizarre thing that is being human. Whether it’s a contemporary realistic novel or an epic fantasy like Black Wings Beating, they’re all asking philosophical questions: What is it to be a person in the world? How do I recognize the full humanity in others and what the hell am I going to do about that? A good story often doesn’t answer these questions, but provokes more and more complicated questions. Of course, if I can keep people turning the pages, breathless and excited while they’re asking them, that’s the goal. And filling a reader’s head with wild daydreams and giant killer birds doesn’t hurt either…
With both Picture Books, Middle Grade, YA, and Adult novels – oh my! Did you notice any difficult shifts in writing or perhaps styles when writing for different age groups?
I find that the act of telling a good tale doesn’t change much between formats, though the tools I have to tell it certainly does. There are different considerations in terms of length, word choice, and themes that make a book more relatable and accessible to an 8 year old versus an 18 year old, but the goals are the same: tell a vivid, engaging, and honest story the best way that I can. The rest is just deciding what the best tools to do so are.
Since your dog is the real brains of your writing, noted in your bio, did he or she ever inspire a scene, plot line, and or character in your novels?
All the time in just about every novel! Pieces of him have found their way into fictional dogs, a giant poisonous lizard, a killer robot, and, lately, a sweet but deadly goshawk. I think the act of observing and trying to understand an animal’s mind is a great exercise for a novelist. It’s all about studying another being’s actions and thinking through the whats and the whys of what they do to try to understand something of their inner lives, which are totally inaccessible to us. Also, I believe you can learn a lot about a person by how they interact with animals. It’s hard to know what makes a human human, but where we draw the lines around who and what deserves our care and respect is a pretty strong reflection on our character.
Coming from a once journalist background, did you ever dabble in fiction writing while reporting or did writing come later? How did you transition into becoming an author?
I’d been writing fiction since 4th grade, but I struggled to finish anything. It was through journalism that I really learned how to finish what I started, how to meet a deadline, and most importantly, how to take real people and events and transform them into words on a page that would convey some measure of vivid truth. Once I started writing fiction, the people and events were no longer “real” but the task of bringing them to life in words was the same. As to the transition, I’d published a book of nonfiction, One Day the Soldiers Came, and there was an article about it in my college alumni magazine. An editor who saw it, Jill Santopolo, reached out to me about doing a kids version of it. That never worked out, but in getting to know her, I showed her a draft I had of a middle grade novel. That became my first kid’s book! That was 25 or so books ago, so I guess you could say I found my calling.
I am super excited for Black Wings Beating!
Share the story behind your experience with falconry, I need to sign myself up for this, and how this saga came to be.
No matter the sort of book I’m writing, I LOVE doing research, so in writing this epic tale of cut-throat falconry, I read a lot about hawks and falcons and eagle’s and owls, but there is no substitute for the visceral experience of holding a bird of prey on your fist, tossing it to the sky, and calling it down again. I knew I had to experience that. So I called up Master Falconer Mike Dupuy in central PA, and arranged to visit his farm, asking him 10,000 questions, meet his cast of hawks and owls and falcons, and then, we went outside with JJ, a pretty tame Harris Hawk, and I learned the basics. My agent was with me, certainly earning his 15% that day, as we fed JJ raw chicken legs out of our hands, tossed him up and watched him fly to the trees, then—with desperate hope, raised our fists and whistled him down. With some coaxing, he came! There is nothing like calling this dinosaur looking creature from the sky to your hand. It’s miraculous. They are so light, so fragile, yet so capable of rapid, vicious violence. The gentleness it takes to care for them, combined with the ferocity of their killing strikes is what compelled me to make them to central piece of the world of Black Wings Beating.
It’s a story of a brother and sister who’ve known little but violence, yet have to find their power through gentle care—for birds of prey and for each other—if they are to survive the ordeals the powerful have forced them through. So the birds are, in a way, a metaphor. They are also, very real, very hungry, and very capable of vanishing into the sky at any moment. And that’s the pain and beauty of falconry. It is an skill and art of managing longing, the bird’s and your own. I suppose that’s also a lot like being a teen.