“My parents were horrified when I told them I wanted to be an author,” Alexander recalls. “I was fifteen, in my last year of high school. My family pleaded with me to forget literature and do something sensible, such as find some sort of useful work.
“I had no idea how to find work, useful or otherwise. In fact, I had no idea how to become an author. If reading offered any preparation for writing there were grounds for hope. I had been reading as long as I could remember. Shakespeare, Dickens, Mark Twain, and so many others were my dearest friends and greatest teachers. I loved all the world s mythologies; King Arthur was one of my heroes; I played with a trash can lid for a knightly shield and my uncle’s cane for the sword Excalibur. But I was afraid that not even Merlin the enchanter could transform me into a writer.”
His parents could not afford to send him to college. And so when a Philadelphia bank had an opening for a messenger boy, he went to work there feeling, he says, “like Robin Hood chained in the Sheriff of Nottingham’s dungeon. As a would-be writer, I thought it was a catastrophe. Asa bank employee, I could barely add or subtract, and had to count on my fingers.”
Finally, having saved some money, he quit and went to a local college. Dissatisfied with not having learned enough to be a writer he left at the end of one term. Adventure, he decided was the best way. The United States had already entered World War II. Convinced that here was a chance for real deeds of derring-do, he joined the army — and was promptly shipped to Texas where he became, in disheartening succession an artilleryman, a cymbal player in the band, an organist in the post chapel, and a first-aid man. At last, he was assigned to a military intelligence center in Maryland.
There he trained as a member of a combat team to be parachuted into France to work with the Resistance. “This, to my intense relief, did not happen,” says Alexander. “Adventurous in imagination a real parachute jump would have scared me out of my wits.”
Instead, Alexander and his group sailed to Wales to finish their training. This ancient, rough-hewn country, with its castles, mountains, and its own beautiful language made a tremendous impression on him. But not until years later did he realize he had been given a glimpse of another enchanted kingdom.
Alexander was sent to Alsace-Lorraine, the Rhineland, and southern Germany. When the war ended, he was assigned to a counterintelligence unit in Paris. Later he was discharged to attend the University of Paris. While a student he met a beautiful Parisian girl, Janine, and they soon married. Life abroad was fascinating, but eventually Alexander longed for home. “If I was to write anything worthwhile,” he says, “I would have to be closer to my own roots.”
The young couple went back to Drexel Hill, near Philadelphia, where Alexander wrote novel after novel which publishers unhesitatingly turned down. To earn his living, he worked as a cartoonist, advertising writer, layout artist, and associate editor for a small magazine. It took seven years of constant rejection before his first novel was at last published.
During the next ten years, he wrote for adults. And then he began writing for young people. It was, Alexander says, “the most creative and liberating experience of my life. In books for young people I was able to express my own deepest feelings far more than I ever could when writing for adults.”
Doing historical research for Time Cat he discovered material on Welsh mythology. As Alexander says “It was as if all the hero tales, games dreams, and imaginings of my childhood had suddenly come back to me.” The result was The Book of Three andthe other chronicles of Prydain, the imaginary kingdom being something like the enchanted land of Wales. In The Remarkable Journey of Prince Jen Alexander explored yet another fantastic world. Evoking an atmosphere of ancient China, this unique multi-layered novel was critically acclaimed as one of his finest works. Trina Schart Hyman illustrated The Fortune-tellers as a Cameroonian folktale sparkling with vibrant images, keen insight and delicious wit.
Most of the books have been written in the form of fantasy. But fantasy, Alexander believes, is merely one of many ways to express attitudes and feelings about real people, real human relationships and problems. “My concern is how we learn to be genuine human beings. I never have found out all I want to know about writing and realize I never will. All that writers can do is keep trying to say what is deepest in their hearts. If writers learn more from their books than do readers, perhaps I may have begun to learn.”
copyright ? 2000 by Penguin Putnam Books for Young Readers. All rights reserved.
An Interview with Lloyd Alexander
On the occasion of the publication of The Gawgon and The Boy in May 2001, Michael O. Tunnell, an educator and a longtime friend of Lloyd Alexander, conducted an interview with the author.
Lloyd Alexander is one of the most respected and best loved of children’s-book authors. He has written over forty books for adults and children and has received most of the major children’s-book awards, including the Newbery Medal and the National Book Award. He is known for tales of high fantasy and adventure and for modern folktales.
Michael O. Tunnell is a professor in the Department of Teacher Education at Brigham Young University, where he teaches children’s literature. His professional articles about children’s books and reviews have been widely published, and he is the author of numerous books for young readers, as well as several children’s-literature reference texts. Dr. Tunnell has served on several children’s-book award committees, including the selection committee for the Newbery Medal.
The house in Drexel Hill, Pennsylvania, that has been Lloyd Alexander’s residence for more than thirty years is only blocks away from his boyhood home. Except for his time in Europe during and shortly after World War II, he has never lived anywhere else. Nevertheless, his stories of magic and adventure are filled with moving and accurate insights about the world.
The Gawgon and The Boy is unlike anything Lloyd Alexander has written for young readers—an autobiographical novel. In this, his most personal book, he introduces readers to a wild and eccentric cast of family members, including his old Aunt Annie, the eponymous Gawgon of the title, and mixes fantasy, raucous humor, and splendid shenanigans with the powerful narrative we have come to expect from an Alexander book. Just as Alexander himself has inspired scores of young readers, The Gawgon changes The Boy, David, forever. In one year, the old woman with the bright heart of a girl gives him a lifetime’s worth of memories—and the most important gift of all: belief in himself and the confidence to be whatever he wants to be.
In celebration of four decades of literary contribution, I share this interview with Lloyd Alexander fans. It was conducted in the magical aura of his living room, where I was surrounded by Fflewddur Fflam’s harp, Prince Jen’s ink stick, and a stunning likeness of the author himself, painted by Trina Schart Hyman. This was the perfect atmosphere for listening to Lloyd Alexander talk about his work.
MT: You have many fans who have been devoted to your work for years. I think they would like to know if certain aspects of Lloyd Alexander’s life are the same as they remember. For instance, do you still rise at 4:00 a.m. so that you can write undisturbed?
LA: Not exactly. I’ve been getting up at 3:00 a.m. now. At my age, I need that extra hour to get my metabolism cranked up.
MT: Music has always been an important part of your life. Does it inspire your writing?
LA: Yes. What it’s given me, on top of a lot of other things, is first a sense of tonality. The same way, I suppose, that a composer chooses a certain key, I need to hear the tonality of what I’m writing–the tone of voice, the key, the pitch. Literally, what it sounds like. Orchestration of characters is a lot like the orchestration of instruments. In other words, each character has a voice of his own, just as each instrument has a voice of its own. Combining those is definitely a sort of musical process.
Another thing is a sense of structure. Very often, to one degree or another, I can relate what I’m doing to a musical form. The Iron Ring, for example, is structured like a four-movement symphony. Gypsy Rizka follows the form of a divertimento.
MT: Do you read your writing aloud to yourself to get a sense of those tonalities?
LA: Yes, exactly. I think that writing should be readable aloud. You shouldn’t have jawbreaking sentences and awkward structures. If you do, then you’re in trouble. It should read easily.
MT: Do you still play the violin?
LA: Indeed I do, and I’ve made definite progress: noticeably worse. That’s progress of a sort. I’ll put it more positively: I’ve become positively worse. I can now play Mozart, Haydn, and Bach all with exactly the same degree of competence.
MT: Cats have been another of your loves and tend to appear prominently in many of your books, including your newest picture book, How the Cat Swallowed Thunder. You used to have half a dozen felines around the house. Is that still the case?
LA: No, sad to say. My dear Banjo and Jimmy Silvercat died within a year of each other. We still have Nikk, who’s big enough to count for several cats.
MT: As a young man, you wanted to be an artist. You’ve done illustrations for Cricket magazine. Do you still spend time drawing?
LA: As little as possible. If I did more, I might get to like it too much and not want to do anything else. Then I’d be in very bad trouble. Once a year, I draw my own Christmas card, and everybody agrees that’s quite enough.
MT: Have you acquired any new passions in the last few years? For instance, I hear you’ve become a baseball fan.
LA: Yes, I’m thoroughly caught up in baseball. I holler and shake my fist at the television–that’s when the Phillies are losing, so I do it a lot. But I’m devoted to the Phillies; it’s my home team, after all. I’ve understood they play an important role: designated losers, and they perform that function very well. I’m proud of them. As you pointed out to me, the Phillies never lose. They just come in second.
MT: Your picture-book texts have been illustrated by a variety of well-known illustrators: Evaline Ness, Ezra Jack Keats, Lester Abrams, Trina Schart Hyman, Diane Goode, and, most recently, Judith Byron Schachner. Please comment on the experience of having an illustrator interpret your story in pictures.
LA: The experience is basically one of envy. I envy their art; I wish I could do it. I envy their imagination, their gift of externalizing language, turning words into images; whereas I’m stuck with language and all its limitations.
MT: How do you feel about illustrators extending your text, even adding story elements, with their artwork?
LA: It amazes me that they transform the words into images that never would have occurred to me. In one case, Lester Abrams was illustrating The Four Donkeys, and for reasons best known to himself, he had a wonderful illustration including an otter. Now, there?s not a single otter mentioned in the text, but he was fond of that image and wanted to keep it. So I said, “Okay, I’ll change the story and include an otter.” He surprised me, but it’s great when that happens.
MT: When people think of Lloyd Alexander, they think of fantasy stories, like the Prydain Chronicles. Is that a fair assessment?
LA: Yes, I couldn’t ask for better.
MT: Three of your last four books–The Remarkable Journey of Prince Jen, The Arkadians, and The Iron Ring–are most certainly high fantasy tales. The Westmark series, the Vesper Holly books, and Gypsy Rizka were not, yet they still have a fantasy-like feel about them. Will there always be at least a touch of fantasy in future books by Lloyd Alexander?
LA: I’m sure there will be. Even The Ga