I recently had the chance to read and reviewed the first two novels in Alexander Gordon Smith‘s Escape From Furnace series. If you haven’t read them yet and are looking for a fast-paced series, then I’d definitely recommend them to you, even though technically they’re directed to teen boys more than anyone else. No matter who they’re marketed to, I’m pretty sure that even those who aren’t teen boys will get into this five novel series.
My enthusiasm for Smith’s writing means that I’m really ecstatic to interview him today as part of the official Solitary blog tour.
Alexander Gordon Smith: Hi! Thanks so much for interviewing me on your blog: it’s fantastic to be here!
YA Book Shelf: It’s my pleasure to have you here! I know you don’t plot your novels in advance, but in a previous interview, you said that it’s really important to know your characters “inside out,” so they can be free to evolve. How do you get to know your characters so intimately?
AGS: Yes, for me, getting to know your characters is so much more important than plotting. Working out every detail of your story in advance, especially when you don’t yet know your main characters, always seems a little too much like playing God. You’re working out your characters’ lives, their destiny, before they’ve had a chance to discover who they are and what kind of people they want to be. Each character’s history and personality will drive their actions, and if you don’t know what kind of life they have led, what their greatest achievements or tragedies are, what their personal relationships have been like — everything — then how can you know how they will react to the events of the story? I have attempted to plot before, but I find that my plan for the characters will always conflict with their plan for themselves! Forcing them to go against their instincts, to just do what they’re told, will make for a less believable story.
So I spend quite a bit of time getting to know the characters before I start writing a book. I try to find out as much as I can about them. I’ll set questionnaires; I’ll keep scrapbooks of things they might wear, hairstyles they might like, places they’ve been. I might even write diaries from when they were younger, especially from pivotal moments in their life. I guess more than anything, though, I just talk to — when I’m at home alone, when I’m walking somewhere, when I’m supposed to be working, which I’m on the toilet…I chat to them like they were friends, we talk about all sorts of things. I’m not sure what it says about my state of mind, but it really helps me when I’m writing — the characters feel so real that they drive the story. All I have to do is write it down!
YABookShelf: As someone who writes boy books, what do you think the YA community needs to do to make male reader read teen rather than adult fiction more often. How could it improve upon what it’s already doing?
AGS: I think the YA community is doing a great job of getting boys to read — even in the four years since I was first published I’ve noticed an increased number of male readers. It’s brilliant! There’s a huge drive at the moment to make reading an ‘acceptable’ activity for boys, in other words one they’re not ashamed to admit to the way lots of boys are (I was teased at school for being an enthusiastic reader). What I seen now when I visit schools is that reading is getting the same kind of kudos as, say, playing video games. If it gets around that a particular book is exciting, or gruesome, then most boys will want to read it. It isn’t like this everywhere, of course, but it’s definitely getting better.
As for getting boys to read teen rather than adult fiction…I’m not sure if it matters, just so long as they’re reading something! I used to read adult horror when I was a young teenager; I loved it. Also, the boundaries of teen fiction are being pushed out all the time; the line between YA and adult fiction, especially horror, is blurring. I’ve read some pretty grueling and disgusting YA books recently that, I feel, are probably more disturbing than a lot of the adult horror out there! I think as long as teenage boys know that they can stop reading a book if it gets too much for them, then they should read whatever they like the look of — it’s just great that they’re reading!
YABookShelf: The UK and US covers of the Escape From Furnace series books differ a lot from one another. What do you like and dislike about each version and which ones do you prefer? Why?
AGS: It’s one of the things I love most about being an author — seeing the different covers from each country. I do really like the UK covers, even though they are often criticized for being too ‘clip art.’ I have a soft spot for them because they’re the first ones I saw for the series. They do the job, too, because they’re often compared to video game boxes and that makes boys take a closer look. The original US cover for Lockdown (a skull with Alex’s face inside) was very minimalist and creepy. But the new US covers are simply stunning. I was gobsmacked when I first saw them. There’s so much depth and texture to the images, they’re genuinely captivating and unnerving, and the whole jacket design works so well. You can’t help but pick them up and take a closer look. I think FSG and the designer, Christian Fuenfhausen, came up with the perfect covers for the series. I’m so grateful to them!
YABookShelf: Who was your favorite character to write for the Escape From Furnace series?
AGS: It has be to be Alex, the main character. As I mentioned before, he is me, or a version of me at least. I went through a bad phase when I was a teenager — hanging out in biker bars, getting into fights, even stealing things from the people I loved. It was terrible, and it could have been so much worse except my family pulled me out of it and got me back on the right track. Alex is the me, who didn’t get rescued, who became a criminal. It was fascinating listening to him tell his story, because in so many ways, it’s my story too.
Alex was my favorite character to write, but it wasn’t always easy — especially when things got tough for him. The parts of the book I most enjoyed writing were the parts with Alex and his friends inside Furnace, the dialogue between Alex and Zee and Donovan. It still makes me smile when I think about some of the conversations they had, the ones I’d just listen in on. They had hundres, and only a few of them actually made it into the book. They were cool guys to hang around with, even if it was just in my head!
YABookShelf: You made Alex ask this of your readers, so I wonder what was the scariest moment in your life as a teen?
AGS: Great question! I guess it has to be from the time that I was starting to do some bad things — not bad bad, as in drugs or breaking and entering, but drinking a lot and getting into trouble and staying out all night. I must have been about sixteen, I think. I remember the first fight I ever had, with a guy much older than me who was built like a brick outhouse. He knocked out my tooth and fractured my cheekbone and I never even knew what was happening! There was also a knife involved, and it crossed my mind that this might be the end for me, that I might not get to see another morning. I was terrified — in fact I lost half a stone in a single night from the shock.
But even more terrifying than that, in a different way, was when I realized what was happening to me and didn’t seem to be able to stop it. I remember stealing some things from my mum — anyone who’s read the opening chapter of Solitary will understand how I felt, although it wasn’t a locket that I took. It was a horrible situation, like there was something festering in my gut, poisoning me, but I just couldn’t turn my life around. It was really frightening, and I’m so grateful to my family, especially my mum, for being so supportive and forgiving, for getting me back on track.
YABookShelf: What is your favorite monster from a book? In a movie?
AGS: That’s tough — there are so many great monsters out there! I think the monster that has most creeped me out in a book has to be It from, well, It! There’s something terrifying about a monster that can take the shape of your worst fears, and although King didn’t invent the idea he uses it so well in this book. I also love the fact that this creature, this malevolent entity, is so ancient. It’s really well done. Ghosts and witches scare me more than monsters, though, and I’ve been left with cold sweats and sleepless nights by many a short story and novel.
From a movie, I think it has to be the Blob, because I used to lie awake as a kid imagining it oozing down the corridor and into my room — even though I’ve never actually seen the film. It gives me the shivers just thinking about it!
YABookShelf: How important was creating a character whose thoughts and emotions were so closely linked to your own dark time? Did the fictionalization of your rough time through Alex make it easier or more difficult to write the books in the Furnace series than your previous ones?
AGS: It was an amazing experience writing Lockdown at that point in my life. Shortly after starting the book, I went through a really bad time — anyone who’s read the dedication will have an idea of what it was. I threw myself into the writing to try and escape, to help get through it. It was about the point where Alex first arrives in Furnace, so here I was alongside this version of me, trapped inside a horrific nightmare from which there was no realistic possibility of escape. We were both lost, both locked in the darkness at the bottom of the world. And I knew that if Alex didn’t find a way out of Furnace, out of prison, then I’d never find a way out of this awful place in my life.
I definitely owe my sanity to Alex. I don’t know where I’d be now without him. He kept me strong, because I saw how resilient he was under these terrible conditions; I saw how he kept faith even when all looked lost. I knew he was me, or a version of me anyway, so I understood that if he could do it then so could I. But neither of us could escape alone, we needed each other. This bond made the book harder to write emotionally, because I felt everything that Alex did — his fear, his hopelessness, his pain. It made it easier to write in many ways too, because I could see it all so clearly. I really was down there with him. As amazing as it was, however, I hope I never experience it again.
YABookShelf: As books with darker themes continually make their way onto bookstore shelves, people in the publishing world have been debating why horrifically realistic violence occurs in YA novels so frequently. Why do you think dark narratives, like the Furnace series, appeal to teens?
AGS: I’m not sure. I think that what’s at the heart of it is that with pure horror comes pure humanity too. When things are at their worst, we often see people at their best. Alex is a criminal to start with, and in Furnace, he is forced to commit far worse crimes — including murder. But he’s never a better person than when he’s imprisoned. Still flawed, yes, still plagued by fear and at times cowardice and selfishness, but all the more heroic because of this.
Of course, we also empathize more with characters who face the greatest threat. The more horrific the danger, the more we root for them. Everybody like an underdog story, especially teenagers, I think, because that’s the time in your life when you truly feel like the world is against you. To be able to root for somebody in the same situation — albeit a fantastical one — is an amazing feeling; it really puts you there alongside the characters. Especially when those characters aren’t unrealistically pure or noble or good, because everybody has a dark side, everybody has weaknesses. The more nightmarish the story is, and the more realistic the horror and violence, the more we become those characters fighting to escape.
Thanks again for having me on your blog!
Thanks again for stopping by, Alexander Gordon Smith. Your insightful responses to my questions made this interview work out really well. Can’t wait to read Death Sentence when it comes out in North America!