Alexander Gordon Smith he is a young author who seems to be coming into his own. With a growing following in the UK and abroad, his fan base is spreading with an almost viral effect. Everyone I know who has read one of his books has ended up going back and reading more. His first book The Inventors was short listed for the Wow Factor Award. In the past 6 years he has published 7 books across two series; The Inventors and Escape From Furnace. The Furnace series is a dark dangerous ride through the human psyche and a critical look at society and youth crime. He has graciously taken some time to answer questions for us at Book Reviews and More.
Hi Steven, thanks for interviewing me on your blog, it's fantastic to be here!
1. Alexander when did you know you wanted to be a writer?
It's a terrible cliché, I know, but a writer is the only thing I can really ever remember wanting to be. Of course when I was a kid I had dreams of being a SAS solider and a film star and the ruler of the universe, but writing was the thing I loved to do - as far back as six or seven years old. I remember thinking, when I was really young, that books were magic. I mean literally magic - they weren't written by people, they just appeared on the shelves. It was only when my mum and dad made up stories for me that I understood they came from real people and not thin air. My uncle Frank, too, used to write stories and make them into little books. I thought that if other people could write books and stories, then so could I - it was an epiphany!
2. If you were not a writer, what would you see yourself doing?
Well the only thing I've ever really considered doing other than writing is being a truck driver. It's been an ambition of mine for years. I'd love to drive one of those massive rigs from coast to coast in the States. I don't know why, I just love being on the road. Sometimes I think I'll take a year off from writing and be a truck driver!
3. What were some of your favorite authors in your teen years who helped shape you?
I read pretty much anything and everything I could - I used to come home with piles of books from the library. Tolkien was one of the most influential writers for me, less The Lord of the Rings than The Hobbit, which really inspired my love of adventure. Arthur Ransome's Swallows and Amazons books were so important to me, as were The Famous Five, when I was younger, and Lloyd Alexander's Black Cauldron series too. I loved Tintin and Asterix when I was a kid. When I was a teenager my tastes shifted more towards horror, mainly Stephen King, who just blew me away, and Clive Barker too. King's books I read because of the incredible characters, Barker's books appealed to me because of their astounding scope - literally anything could happen. I love Dean Koontz, too, I have very fond memories of discovering his books. I first read Nineteen Eighty-Four when I was a teenager, too, and King, Barker and Orwell, along with the aforementioned writers, really helped shape me as a writer (and a person too).
4. What are some of your favorite books and authors now?
Nothing much has changed, really, except for the fact that I read a lot more YA horror now.
5. Who were some of your biggest supporters and contributors to your early success?
My family, without a doubt. Although my dad was fond of saying 'get a proper job' every time I announced I was a writer, both of my parents were always incredibly supportive. I was so lucky - so many people get told that writing isn't a viable life choice, that it will never be a successful career, that they shouldn't do it. If your parents drum that into you again and again then you start to believe it. My mum and dad did the opposite, they told me again and again that I could be a writer - that I could be anything I wanted to be - that if I worked hard enough at it then I could be successful. They believed it, and so I did too. Without their support, especially during the tough times, I probably would have given it up a long time ago. It's what I tell other people now - anyone can be a writer, you have to love writing and you have to believe it will happen and yes, you do have to work really hard, because it doesn't happen overnight, it takes a lot of work. But people are incredible, they can do pretty much anything they want if they put their minds to it. If you've got a dream, just go for it.
6. What does your writing process look like? Takes us through the steps from idea to publishing?
I don't plan my books, I don't have the patience for it! I do spend a long time thinking about a story, though, mainly about the characters. I try to get to know them as well as I can - just by hanging out with them in my head, trying to work out what kind of people they are. I'll let a story gestate for a while, not writing anything down, just thinking about it. Then, when it feels ready, I'll sit down and blast it out. It usually takes me between three weeks and six weeks to write a book, it's pretty intense! I love it, though, because it really feels like you're in the story, that you're living it alongside your characters. It feels like you're writing at the speed of life, which I think gives a story its relentless pace.
Once the book is done, I send it to my agent and she passes it on to my editor at Faber. Each book goes through about half a dozen edits before it's ready. They do all the cover designs and page layouts, although I do get a say (not as much of a say as you'd think, though)! Then, usually about eighteen months after the first draft is completed, the book is on the shelves. It's an amazing experience! I should say that I actually got my big break through a competition. My first novel, The Inventors, which I wrote with my nine-year-old brother, was entered into a nationwide competition here in the UK. It didn't win, but it was shortlisted and Faber (who were running the competition) offered us a deal there and then. I've been with them ever since. For the writers out there, enter as many competitions as you can - it's a great way to fast track your book onto an editor's desk.
7. What was your favorite book to write and why?
I loved writing the Furnace books, but they were tough going. I was so close to the characters, especially Alex, that I really did feel as if I was buried alive inside Furnace Penitentiary with them, that I suffered every torment and humiliation and terror. The truth is that I was going through a pretty bad time when I was writing Lockdown, a family tragedy, and I knew that I was just like Alex. If he didn't find a way out of Furnace then I'd never find a way to get through this dark place in my life. So everything he felt was real, the pain and the fear and the desperation and the hope too. They were all things that I was feeling too. It made the writing extremely intense, it was an incredible experience, but I'm not sure if I'd call it enjoyable!
I think the book that I've had most fun writing was my first novel, The Inventors. I wrote this with my little brother, who was nine when we started it and eleven when it was published. We had such a great time coming up with the plot and the characters and all the inventions - Jamie, my brother, actually tried to build a lot of the gadgets and traps and he tested them out on me!
8. The Escape From Furnace series is incredibly intense and detailed. Did you come up with the concept for all 5 books at once, or did the idea grow as the work progressed?
Thanks! I didn't plan the books, I wanted to see what Alex would do inside the prison, how he'd respond to this nightmare, because his spur of the moment choices would always seem more genuine than any rigid destiny I might have prescribed for him. I realized that if I knew in advance what was going on in Furnace and, more importantly, how (and if) Alex was going to escape, then the book might lose some of its dramatic tension. If I wrote like this then I'd know how he was going to get out, and what happened to him throughout the series, and I think some of that awareness, that relief, might leak into the story. Readers would know that everything was going to be okay because it would already be written into the text, invisible but unmissable.
So I just rolled with it, I just started writing. I threw myself into Furnace the same way Alex had been thrown in, without hope and without a plan. Because I'd done it like this, I felt as desperate as he did. Time was running out for him because the Blood Watch and the gangs were closing in. Time was running out for me because I was getting through the book and I still didn't know how he was going to get out. I didn't even know if he was going to escape! I think writing like this - writing at the speed of life - is what gives the books their relentless pace. I didn't slow down when I was writing, I was living the story alongside Alex, so the story never lets up for a second. I love writing this way!
9. With the Escape From Furnace books being published at different rates in the UK and North America, do you find it frustrating that they are being released so far apart?
Only because I know it must be frustrating for readers. In the UK I asked my publisher to release the books as fast as possible. They were originally going to publish two a year, but I convinced them to release the first three between March and October 2010. The reason that the schedule is slower in North America, I think, is that there are hardback and paperback versions of each book. As an author, I feel blessed to have two versions of each book, and it does give the series more time to build up a readership, which is very important. I do get a huge number of emails asking why the books aren't all out yet, though. All I can say is that I'm sorry about that, and I hope they're worth the wait!
10. Some of the artwork for the Escape From Furnace series has gone through a number of changes and revision. The American covers are drastically different from the UK, what is your favorite cover and why?
I've been so lucky with my covers, I absolutely love them all. The UK covers were very much geared towards teenage boys, which is why they're full of guns and explosions. I like them because they resemble video game covers, they're full of action. Okay, they are a little 'clip art', but I think they work, and I will always have a soft spot for them because they were the first covers I saw for the series. The original US ones were very creepy, but I have to say that the new US covers, with the striking red and green images, are absolutely stunning. There's so much depth to them, and the whole design of the cover is wonderful. I think they are the perfect covers, and I'm so lucky to have them.
11. Do you use a playlist when writing? Are certain books written while predominantly listing to the same music?
I sometimes listen to music when I'm writing, but it can't be anything with lyrics in it or I won't be able to concentrate! I often listen to movie scores, because I try to picture scenes as visually as possible, as if I was watching them at the cinema. Hans Zimmer is my favourite composer - Gladiator, The Dark Knight, The Thin Red Line, Inception, they're all amazing soundtracks. Tron, by Daft Punk, is the one I'm listening to most at the moment. It's an amazing experience, writing to powerful music. It really does help stir the imagination, and I'll often find myself writing something that, in all likelihood, I wouldn't have thought about if I didn't have music on. It also lets you dream about what your book might be like as a movie!
12. Your books are also marketed mainly to teen and youth and yet I have read them and recommended them too many adult friends who loved them. You also appear to have a very large adult audience. Do you see yourself writing a book aimed at a the general fiction audience?
Thanks, that's great to hear! To be honest, I didn't set out to write Furnace specifically for a young adult audience. I just had the main character, Alex, and the story grew out of him. Because he was a teenager, the book settled as a YA, but I certainly didn't want to compromise on anything because of this (except, I guess, for the bad language). I wrote the story exactly as I saw it happen, and during the process it didn't cross my mind at all whether I was directing it at teenagers or adults. I think that's maybe the best way to do it - setting out to write for a particular age group might stop you writing the book you want to because there are certain expectations and constraints. Just write the story you want to tell and it will find its audience.
13. Your books are not currently available in electronic formats but many publishers are now starting to almost make this standard practice. What are your impressions of ebooks?
At first I was dead set against ebooks, mainly because I just love books as physical objects. They are wonderful - the way they feel, the way they sound, the way they smell. I guess I was a little scared that paper print might go extinct, and that if ebooks ever replaced actual books then my own stories might never be published in print. And that's one of the best things about being an author, holding your book in your hands. I realize now that I was being a snob! Ebooks are every bit as valuable as paper books, maybe even more so because they will help spread stories even further. As long as people are reading then I don't think it matters if books are on paper or on a screen. It's the stories that are important, not the means of delivery.
14. Speaking of eBooks sometimes without, vendor eBooks comes the distribution of them through torrents and other means. Do you monitor to make sure your books are not being distributed?
No, I never check. Don't tell my publisher, but I wouldn't be too upset if people were illegally sharing my books. The fact that people wanted to read them enough to steal them is kind of flattering! I just want people to read the stories, and to enjoy them. If somebody downloads a torrent of one of my books and loves it then they'll hopefully still talk to their friends about it and spread the word. And some of them might then go on to buy a copy. And even if they go and illegally download it, at least they're reading it! So long as a few people actually go out and buy a copy then I'm happy!
15. Are there any plans for translated editions of your book?
Furnace is currently being translated into French and Polish, and I think there might be a few more languages further down the line. It's astonishing, really, to see it in a different language - to have a book that you've written but which you can't read. I'm not very good with languages, I just don't have the brain for it, but I'm incredibly humbled when I see foreign editions. It's just amazing to know that your stories are being read around the world.
16. I once heard Madeleine L'Engle state that her characters were real to her and almost an extended part of her family, she said once that at the dinner table she sat up and stated "Meg just finished her PhD." Are your characters real to you, do you ever get glimpses of what they are up to now, or once you finish a book is that it?
Yes, they are totally real. They feel more genuine and more three-dimensional, sometimes, than my actual friends and family! Like I mentioned, I spend a great deal of time getting to know my characters, basically just spending time with them. With Furnace, I'd spend hours and hours just chatting away to Alex and Zee and Donovan. I was like a ghost in the cell with them. We had so many conversations - jokes, confessions, dreams - and only a fraction of those actually made it into the books. Those guys were my best friends. Sometimes I'd remember they weren't actually real and I'd be so disappointed. Saying goodbye to characters at the end of a book, or a series, is really upsetting, because they form such a huge part of your life for such a long time. I do occasionally get glimpses of them, yes, but generally they're frozen in the story we experienced together. You feel guilty for leaving them behind.
17. If you could only recommend 10 books to a reader looking to be a well rounded reader what books would you suggest?
I honestly think this is an impossible question to answer. There are so many amazing books out there, I couldn't limit it down to ten. I think the important thing is to read as much as possible, and as widely as possible. You won't enjoy everything you pick up, but every book will teach you something - especially if you're a writer. If you hate a book, ask yourself why. It will improve your writing. The same if you love it. Books are amazing, stories are incredible, just read as many as you can.
18. Completely off topic but what TV shows or movies do you enjoy?
I have to confess that I watch way too much TV and way too many movies! I love movies, especially horror movies. I'm a horror addict! As for TV, I'm a huge fan of American drama. I watch as much of it as I can, and I'll often buy box sets and sit up all night to find out what happens. The Wire, Alias, Buffy, The Sopranos, Breaking Bad, Band of Brothers, Carnivale, Nikita, V… I watch everything!
19. If you were stuck on a desert island and could only have 10 books to read again and again, what books would you want with you?
I have no idea! I just don't think I could narrow it down to ten. The Lord of the Rings would be there, because it's so long and so immersive you can read it again and again. Nineteen Eighty-Four because it's my favourite book. The Collected Works of Shakespeare, maybe, because I do love many of his plays. A couple of Stephen King doorsteps that I can get lost in. The Tintin anthology, for a bit of colour. The Bible, maybe, because it's got so many stories. There are so many classics too, I just can't decide!! I'd probably take one of my books, probably my first novel The Inventors, to remind me of home. That's not quite ten, but I really don't think I can narrow it down. Ask me tomorrow and I'd probably give you a totally different list!
20. What are your plans once the fifth and final book in the Escape From Furnace series publishes. Do you have any projects on the backburner or in the development stage?
I've literally just had copies of the fifth and final Furnace book, they were delivered this morning! It's amazing seeing the whole series, but it's also very strange to know that it's finally finished. I got so attached to the characters, especially Alex, that saying goodbye to them all was really difficult. It's also tough moving on to something new, you kind of feel like a traitor to your old characters by spending time with the new ones. Saying that, I have a few new projects ready to go, including a horror series which will follow Furnace. It doesn't have a title yet, but it is hopefully just as exciting, scary and gory! I've also started a couple of other stand-alone horror novels, but I'm not sure if they're going anywhere yet.
The other thing I'm hoping to do this year is make a horror movie. I wrote a script a couple of years ago with my sister and my brother-in-law, and it's just been taken on by a producer so we're keeping our fingers crossed that it happens. It's called Stagnant, and is about a mutant bride who kills stag parties on the Norfolk Broads!
21. What advice would you give to young aspiring authors and artists?
First, and most importantly, never give up. If you love writing, if you have stories you want to tell, if you're passionate about it, if you work hard enough and fight for it, then you will be successful. It does take work. You don't just decide you want to be a brain surgeon one day and march into the operating theatre. Writing is like anything, it takes practice and it takes patience - even if you have a natural talent for it. But it's worth it. It really is the best job in the world, you get paid to do what you love, to tell your stories. Write because you love to write, and you'll get there.
Second, don't worry about rejection, it doesn't matter. Finding an editor is like going on a date, you're looking for your soulmate, somebody who understands your writing, who loves it as much as you do. You're not necessarily going to click with the first editor you meet, or the second. If they reject your work, mark it down to experience and move on to the next one. You're bound to have to date a few frogs before you find your soulmate! Remember, Harry Potter was rejected by about twelve different publishers before Bloomsbury took it on.
Third, and equally important, read. Read, read, and read some more. It really is the best education any writer can have.
Good luck with your writing!
Thanks again for interviewing me on your blog, Steven, it's been great!
I have greatly enjoyed corresponding with Alexander on this project and other queries. His books are amazing, if you have not read them check them out. And we wish him the greatest of successes with his future book and film projects. And I for one look forward to reading more from him in the near future.
Books By Alexander Gordon Smith:
Escape from Furnace:
Execution Epilogue - Short Story
The Night Children - Short Story
The Inventors And The City of Stolen Souls
1001 Questions and Answers
Inspired Creative Writing: 52 Brilliant Ideas from the Master Wordsmiths
The Solar System
Writing Bestselling Children's Books: 52 Brilliant Ideas for Inspiring Young Readers
The Art Of Furnace
Author Profile Interview With Alexander Gordon Smith