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Goblins, ghouls bring national attention for Minneapolis writer

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William Alexander's office
William Alexander in the tiny office at the back of his south Minneapolis house. A small pipe similar to the one in front of him plays an important part in "Ghoulish Songs."
MPR photo/Euan Kerr

When Minneapolis writer Will Alexander won the National Book Award for his children's novel "Goblin Dreams" even people in his hometown said "William who?"

While Alexander is still far from a household name, he is enjoying the catapult to national prominence in literary circles. He has now published his second book, "Ghoulish Song," which is also set in the strange world he  calls "Zombay."

Filled with goblins and magic, and people with clockwork-powered limbs, it's easy to get caught up in Alexander's stories. But they are rooted in real things Alexander has seen on his own travels.

"It started with the bridge," Alexander said. "It started with a bridge in my head, a long time ago."  

Standing in the dining room of his south Minneapolis home, Alexander calls his younger self a cliche backpacker with a rail pass. Some of the striking things he saw while traveling in Europe spurred his imagination. The first was the Ponte Vecchio in Florence, Italy.

"Because it's a bridge with a small town on it," he said. "Buildings and shops and restaurants. And all of them sitting on top of this old stone bridge."

Then he saw the Charles Bridge in Prague. It's not covered in buildings, but it was awash in people, artists selling their work and performers working the crowds.

"And it was messy and beautiful," Alexander recalled. "And the clock tower -- which isn't actually on the bridge -- but the clock tower of Prague is, of course, amazing. So in my head, I just put the clock tower on the bridge."

He thought of London's medieval bridge which joined the government area with the less salubrious entertainment district, and let it all stew for a few years.

When he began to write, the result was Zombay, a town linked by a house-covered bridge and inhabited by magical beings and strange animals, such as dustfish, which somehow swim through the dirt underfoot.

How does that work, a reader might ask? Well, they just do. One of the delights of Alexander's storytelling in "Goblin Secrets" and now "Ghoulish Song" is he rarely explains everything. It's like travelling somewhere new, he said.

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"That lack of explanation is something I very much enjoy and something that makes a place more real to me," he said. "That the narration of this book isn't a tour guide. You are just in with the residents of this place, and the qualities of the place are normal within for the people who live there and so also for the reader. If you like that kind of thing." 

It's a place where Kailie, the hero of "Ghoulish Song" can make a mistake like inviting a group of goblins to perform in her mother's bakery.

Kailie's invitation leads to a curse which separates her shadow from her body and launches her on an adventure where she has to save her town.

Alexander is glad "Ghoulish Song" was finished and in production by the time he learned of his National Book Award last November.

"I actually got a very cryptic email from the National Book Foundation saying 'Please call us about a confidential matter,'" Alexander said. "It happened on my birthday. I was pretty sure it was a prank."

He talked to the head of the foundation, who told him he was a finalist. Alexander still couldn't shake the idea someone was pulling his leg.

"I actually got a very cryptic email from the National Book Foundation saying 'Please call us about a confidential matter' ... It happened on my birthday. I was pretty sure it was a prank."

"And then they announced it on television the next day, and I thought, 'If this is a prank it's getting really elaborate, but I am not quite sure yet that it isn't.'"

The Foundation brought him to New York.

"And then I won the National Book Award, which is still very strange to say out loud," Alexander laughs.  

He said the award makes him feel legitimate as a writer. It also meant his publisher wanted audio books of both his novels, which Alexander voiced himself. He's making numerous appearances for the new book, including one at Wild Rumpus in Minneapolis on Saturday and Uncle Hugo's in Minneapolis on Sunday, both at 1 p.m. He will read at fellow National Book Award Winner Louise Erdrich's Birch Bark books next weekend.

Alexander is writing a science-fiction novel due out next year, and then will return to Zombay. As readers have found out, "Ghoulish Song" isn't a sequel to "Goblin Secrets." They are parallel stories, separate but happening at the same time and sharing some characters.

"I am writing one big book as a proper sequel to these two," he said. "And all of the characters from these books will be in this third. And there will be a series of short stories that will build up to it." 

After that is too far into the future for Alexander  to describe. But probably not for long.