Folklore Influence in the Novels of Will Alexander

One night, in a hotel room in Vietnam after a long day of digging dirt and making concrete, I cracked open Will Alexander’s Goblin Secrets. When I finished, I said, “Man, does this guy know his folklore!” Will and I met up at Convergence, and I heard him read an excerpt of Ghoulish Song (I’m getting there!) and I thought, “Man, does this guy know his folklore again!!!!”

So, Will was kind enough to answer some questions about folklore in his writing. And here they are!

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Tamago: So, how’d you get to know so much about folklore anyway?

Will: This is probably my mother’s fault. She’s a gifted reader of bedtime stories—she does all the voices—and most of those early, formative stories were folk and fairy tales of one kind or another. I built on that foundation by reading more of the stuff whenever I could.

Even when I wasn’t seeking out such material deliberately, I notice, looking back, that most of my favorite books and authors draw from folkloric source material. There’s Tolkien, obviously. Jane Yolen is known as America’s Hans Christian Anderson. Ursula K. Le Guin often writes from an anthropological perspective. Peter S. Beagle’s The Last Unicorn is a metafictional fairy tale, even more so than The Princess Bride, and it includes inside jokes on the study of ballads. Lloyd Alexander and Susan Cooper both make magnificent use of Welsh and English lore. These are the authors that helped shape my young brain, the ones I sought out to help me decide what sort of person I wanted to become.

Later I studied folklore, theater, and theatrical lore at Oberlin College. That helped, too.

Tamago: Folklore can be a little spooky, and yet you are using it in children’s books. Why do you think your younger readers can handle it?

Will: I find that kids can handle this particular kind of unsettling story far better than adults. As adults we fool ourselves into thinking that we understand the world, how it works, and what we can reasonably expect as we move through it. Kids know better. They are more practiced at coping with things that they don’t understand, and at intuiting rules no one has yet articulated. They have to be.

Kids also need unsettling stories as vaccinations against unsettling events. They’ll be defenseless otherwise. We have a responsibility to tell them unsettling stories. (Tamago: My favorite quote in this article!)

I’m with Sherman Alexie on this. Here’s a quote from his WSJ editorial on the #YAsaves controversy (which similarly wondered whether young readers are too steeped in dark material): “I write books for teenagers because I vividly remember what it felt like to be a teen facing everyday and epic dangers. I don’t write to protect them. It’s far too late for that. I write to give them weapons… that will help them fight their monsters.”

Patrick Ness said much the same thing: “If you read what teenagers write, it’s much, much darker than anything a young adult author would publish… I don’t think that’s a bad thing. That’s the age you’re reckoning with stuff. And I think that if you’re a YA writer who isn’t engaging with that on some level then you’re leaving them to fend for themselves.”

I’m not a YA writer. My audience is younger. But the principle is the same. Middle Grade readers haven’t hit puberty yet, but they can see it coming. They need to gather resources for the transformations ahead. Stories help.

Tamago: In your book, Goblin Secrets, there is a great deal of mythology about masks. What interesting things should we know about masks in regard to how you used them in your books?

Will: Jeff Semmerling, a brilliant craftsman who used to make masks for Mardi Gras and now works in Chicago, sometimes wears extravagant masks while going about his daily business. Some people notice, and are delighted. Others notice, and are annoyed. They don’t understand what’s happening. It bothers them. But a large third category of people don’t even notice him, despite the massive feathers on his face. Experiments in selective attention found much the same thing by wandering through crowds in a gorilla suit. After Jeff told me about his own experiences with selective attention I wrote the scene in which Rownie and the rest of the troupe walk masked through the city, gathering up an audience from the people who are able to notice them.

Jeff also helped guide my research in mask-related folklore and anthropology. I read Richard Scheachner’s From Anthropology to Theater at his suggestion, which was hugely helpful. The use of masks has always embodied a contradiction that theater and film critics now refer to as the willing suspension of disbelief. We aren’t fooled by fictions, but we still decide to believe them. The monster isn’t real, and we know that, but we still jump when it roars. The mechanicals in Midsummer Night’s Dream misunderstand this trick completely; the guy in the lion costume explains to the audience that he isn’t really a lion, just in case they might be terrified. The actor playing the man in the moon goes to oddly literal lengths to explain his character, and yet it’s not quite literal enough because he isn’t inside the lantern/moon that he carries. The mechanicals try to fool their more sophisticated audience with the clumsy artifice of their play, but they are simultaneously terrified that the hoax might actually work. They don’t understand that the willing suspension of disbelief isn’t the same thing as literal belief. This has always been true, in every masked ritual we’ve ever performed. The antlered mask in a hunting ritual doesn’t cease to be mask. The dancer doesn’t cease to be a human performer. But together they become a third thing. No one is fooled, but something still happens.

The ritual origins of theater aren’t just a form of primitive worship, with our ancestors bowing to masks like Ewoks mistaking C3-PO for a god. Sometimes we need to give large and powerful things a face and a name in order to talk them (like, for instance, a river in flood). And sometimes we need to become these large, abstract things.

The master Noh maskmaker Bidou Yamaguchi also helped tremendously with my research, and many of the details in Goblin Secrets come directly from Noh traditions. Both Bidou and Jeff have masks named after them inside the story.

I also used a fair bit of contemporary theatrical folklore. Why are all theaters reputed to be haunted? And what’s with those odd luck rituals? (No one seems to have any idea why we say “break a leg” instead of “good luck.”) I didn’t actually answer either of those two questions, but both were very much on my mind.

Tamago: Goblins themselves have some very interesting folklore roots, but your goblins are very different. Can you discuss a little about why you chose to portray goblins as actors on the outside of society?

Will: My goblins are transformed children who become child-thieves themselves. I’m fairly certain that I got that idea from The Princess and the Goblin by George McDonald—or possibly from the movie Labyrinth. And I have to admit that The Muppet Show was a pretty big influence on my own inhuman performers.

Several other influences combined in the back of my brain when I wasn’t necessarily paying attention. Goblin lore, most of it European, mixed with the study of theater history and the way that actors in Elizabethan England occupied one of the very lowest rungs on the social ladder. They barely qualified as people—but they also performed at the palace for the very highest nobility, which gave them a unique opportunity to observe and understand the full strata of their society, even though they weren’t welcome in most of it. I also noticed that various maligned ethnicities in Europe—Jews and the Roma, for example—were accused of goblinish behavior like stealing children and building secret, underground cities full of gold. These things stuck together in the back of my brain and eventually reemerged as a troupe of outcast goblin actors.

Tamago: In Goblin Secrets, there is a Baba Yaga-like character (like you didn’t know this question was coming). What pieces of the legend do you borrow? What modifications did you choose to make and why?

Will: I borrowed heavily from Baba Yaga legends when I wrote Graba. The most obvious and iconic element is the chicken legs, which I took from Baba Yaga’s house and gave to the witch herself as mechanical, oddly-shaped prosthetics. I kept her mobility, the way that she constantly moves her house around, but shifted her haunts to an urban environment rather than deep, dark forests. The name “Graba” just mixes the grandmotherly meaning of “Baba” with the fear of getting grabbed and snatched up by those huge chicken feet.

All of this is fun—for me, at least—but the most important thing that Graba borrowed from her legendary predecessor is her moral ambiguity. Baba Yaga might help you, or she might eat you, and you’ll never know which in advance. Graba’s frightening ambivalence is directly inspired by Baba Yaga’s unknowable ethics.

The other important borrowing is Vass, a character based on Baba Yaga’s apprentice Vasilisa. Vass is a good kid, but you can’t help soaking up some of Graba’s moral ambivalence if you happen to live with her long enough.

Tamago: In your book Ghoulish Song, you explore what it means to be alive, and your main character has a funeral early in the book, even though she seems still alive. What aspects of folklore do you use to show she is dead?

Will: She isn’t dead! She doesn’t have a shadow, but she isn’t actually dead. It’s just a superstition to say otherwise—and not all superstitions turn out to be accurate in fantasy novels.

Much of the shadow lore I lifted from Vampires, Burial, and Death by Paul Barber.

There used to be only three ways of seeing someone without looking at them directly: dreams, reflections, and shadows. All three are closely wrapped up in our ideas about death, and ways that we imagine people haunting the world. We find it significant to dream about the recently deceased, as though getting one more chance to talk to them. A household will cover all their mirrors while sitting Shiva, the Jewish tradition of mourning. In China it’s bad luck to catch sight of a coffin’s reflection in a mirror. In horror movies or Buffy episodes it is a terrible idea to stand in front of a bathroom mirror, because someone dead will be standing behind you. And then there’s vampires and their lack of reflection. If you don’t show up in a mirror (or if you only show up in mirrors, especially bathroom mirrors late at night) then you might not be alive and part of the world. The same goes for shadows. Don’t trust anyone who doesn’t cast a shadow. Don’t trust shadows who go walking around by themselves. Seems like sensible advice.

We have since added a fourth way to see someone in their absence: film. And we do find photographs and movies haunting. There’s a whole swack of Japanese horror movies in which ghosts haunt screens, movies, cameras. The gorgeous short story “20th Century Ghost” by Joe Hill also explores this imaginative overlap. But there are no cameras in Zombay, so there we are limited to those first three: Dreams. Reflections. Shadows.

I wanted to stick with shadows. The mirror trick that ghosts and vampires play is too familiar, but shadows and their absence are still uncanny.

The protagonist of my second novel, Kaile, loses her shadow. This does happen in fiction sometimes. It isn’t completely unfamiliar. Peter Pan lost his. September lost hers in The Girl who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making by Catherynne Valente (love that title—the book is great, too). Link has had to duel with his shadow in various incarnations of The Legend of Zelda.

More academically, the shadow is one of Jung’s archetypes and a stage in Joseph Campbell’s structuralist, Jungian smooshing together of all hero stories. George Lucas put that bit in The Empire Strikes Back when Luke faces the possibility that he might become Vader.

My favorite shadow-confrontation comes from A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. Le Guin. A young and powerful wizard unleashes a shadow. It does terrible things until he finally accepts it as his own. This thing of darkness I acknowledge mine. (Le Guin’s most famous SF novel for grownups, The Left Hand of Darkness, also talks a lot about shadows. She wrote the two at about the same time.)

So shadow loss and shadow confrontation isn’t a new idea—but I find it more resonant of old and folkloric traditions than the too-familiar relationship between mirrors and the dead.

Kaile loses her shadow. Her family therefore assumes that she is dead, and haunts the house, and takes action accordingly. The assumption isn’t true, though. She’s still alive. But her social role, her place in the community, becomes that of a dead and haunting thing. It’s a bit traumatic.

Tamago: Zombay is a city that we’ve barely explored. What one thing that’s not in your books would you like your readers to know about Zombay?

Will: Hmm. I’m not yet ready to explain why all of the gearworkers in Zombay are a little touched in the head. And I’m definitely not going to explain how Change works.

I can tell you that most of Northside was destroyed by fire and later rebuilt into its current and precise street plan. The Mayor’s house has a private, subterranean theater. The tradition of Fiddleway sanctuary was founded by a pirate queen who settled down to become a patron of the arts. Smoked dustfish is tasty, but don’t choke on the spines.

Tamago: Congratulations on your awards for Goblin Secrets, both the audio book and the written book! How do you think hearing a book read might change the book experience for a reader from someone reading the book themselves?

Will: Thanks! I’m still flailing with bewildered muppet-joy.

I made the rhythms of each character voice as distinct as I could when I first wrote them, and tried to build on that when it came time to record them. And I very much wanted to write a story that would be fun to read aloud. It’s important to read aloud! And it was fun, for me at least. Hopefully that delight is contagious for listeners.

Tamago: What are you writing now? Are you using any aspects of folklore in your current project?

Will: I’m currently finishing up edits for Ambassador, a Middle Grade SF about an eleven year old, second-gen Latino immigrant who becomes the ambassador of our planet—right when his parents are getting deported from our country.

Bits of folklore do show up. One character loves ghost stories, for instance. And I’m constantly using my love of the stuff indirectly. Folklore isn’t just the study and preservation of old ways of interacting with the world and each other, it’s also the constant reinvention of culture. Every new generation of teenagers remakes language to suit them, and comes up with a whole new batch of inside jokes. A solid sense of folklore is a useful thing when it comes to inventing new worlds and cultures.

Tamago: Where can readers find out more about you and your stories?

Will: For more about Goblin Secrets and Ghoulish Song—including some fantastic mask templates created by illustrators at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design— go to goblinsecrets.com.

There’s a bit more about me at Willalex.net, including links to my blog and a few online short stories.

Author: Catherine Schaff-Stump

Catherine Schaff-Stump writes fiction for children and young adults. Her most recent book, The Vessel of Ra, is the first book in the Klaereon Scroll series. She is currently working on its sequel, as well as penning the middle grade adventures of Abigail Rath, monster hunter.

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