We're spookily excited about William Alexander's middle grade novel, A Properly Unhaunted Place (Margaret K. McElderry Books/Simon & Schuster)!
Rosa Díaz has a very special talent. She comes from a family of librarians who specialize in ghost appeasement. So she can't understand why her mother has moved them to Ingot, the world's only unhaunted town. What are they supposed to do there, with no poltergeists to quiet and no specters to soothe? Frankly, Rosa doesn't think anyone should want to live in a place where the biggest attraction is a woefully inaccurate Renaissance Festival.
But Jasper Chevalier has always lived in Ingot, working at the festival while his parents hold court. Jasper has never seen a ghost and can't imagine his unhaunted town any other way... until an angry apparition thunders into the fairgrounds and turns Ingot upside down. Jasper is astonished -- and Rosa is delighted.
Mist is building in the hills, and something otherworldly is about to be unleashed. Rosa will need all her ghost appeasement tools -- and a little help from Jasper -- to try to rein in the angry ghosts in this hilariously spooky adventure from National Book Award winner William Alexander.
What was the spark that ignited this book?
One important spark was a conversation with my friend Rio. She taught Japanese at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design while I was there as an intro comp instructor. We got coffee between classes, geeked out about Doctor Who for a bit, and then started talking about ghosts.
"American ghost stories are so strange," she told me. "They're all about trying to make ghosts and monsters go away forever. Nice ghosts have to find their peaceful rest and then go away. Mean ghosts are cast out, banished, and go away. All ghosts must go away. All monsters must explode. Boom. So strange."
She went on to say that, back home, ghost stories just aren't like that. Not in her experience, anyway. If a house is haunted, try to avoid it. If your house is haunted, then learn how to live with that. Don't go in thinking you'll be able to unhaunt the place.
Now, this was just one casual chat between a first-gen Japanese-American and a second-gen Cuban-American, so who knows what it may or may not mean about either Japanese or American ghost stories in a comparative folklore sort of way. But it stuck in the back of my mind, and other things started to stick to it. Margaret Atwood said writers are like magpies. We hoard shiny things in hidden places. That conversation was shiny to me.
American ghost stories are strange. Why? Maybe because of the way we look at history. Maybe because we teach history as though it were over. But history is happening. We are still haunted by it. We need to be haunted by it. Virginia Hamilton said that "the past moves me and with me, although I remove myself from it."
All of this sounds weighty, which might be misleading because my book turned out to be a goofy, swashbuckling thing set in a Renaissance Festival. But the initial questions are still there. What kinds of ghost stories would we tell if the ghosts never went away completely?
Maybe this kind.
What books do you love for their sentences? How about plot? Character?
I don't think I can separate rich characters from delicious sentences. The rhythms and cadences of good prose harmonize perfectly with the voices of the characters. I get to know those characters by listening to what they have to say.
I'll pick just one recent fav that I loved for all three: Clayton Byrd Goes Underground by Rita Williams-Garcia. The sentences, characters, and tightly woven structure all delighted me, and I've never read better descriptions of music.
What nugget of craft advice has been especially helpful to you?
Trust your weird. Kelly Link gave that advice at the Clarion workshop. She also pointed out that "wyrd" meant "fate"--not so much in the sense of "exalted destiny," but in a much more pragmatic way. Trust that which is yours. Trust your own idiosyncratic combination of burdens and gifts.
That goes for books as well as authors, by the way. A story needs to trust its own weird.
Do you write in silence? If not, what’s your soundtrack?
Current favorites include Zoe Keating and The Parlour Trick. I also choose a theme song for each protagonist, but I'm not allowed to tell you what those are.
Glorious. I've been surprised and delighted each time. The interior illustrations by Kelly Murphy are especially beautiful. It felt like writing a play and then watching the full production on opening night.
Most authors have painful stories about cover art. We have so little input or control over that process. Practically none. My first glimpse of my very first book cover was on Amazon.com. Somehow they never got around to showing it to me earlier. But I can't complain. Luckily I've loved every single cover so far.
How does teaching at VCFA affect your writing life?
During residencies I get to be a stealth student and soak up all the knowledge, wisdom, and enthusiasm. During each semester I get to be a teacher and a working writer at the same time, which is logistically remarkable. Describing aspects of the craft to my students also forces me to articulate those same aspects to myself. That's tremendously valuable.
What is your favorite VCFA memory?
A kiss on the cheek from Rita after my very first lecture. She made me think that maybe this could be home.
What advice would you give to a prospective VCFA student?
Trust your weird.
Visit William Alexander online at willalex.net, and stop by his blog here. For more info on A Properly Unhaunted Place, check out its page. You can also visit the book's awesome illustrator, Kelly Murphy, at www.kelmurphy.com.