Author Alex London (“Proxy,” “Guardian”) had just arrived from New York with a serious case of jet lag, but he sounded upbeat. “Wonderful things happen to me when I’m jet-lagged,” he says. His dog of seven years, Baxter, was adopted when London went straight to the shelter after having been in Myanmar in 2007 covering the “Saffron Revolution.”
London, newly married to his partner a few days before flying to Manila, was brought here by National Book Store to meet his Filipino fans. (Make sure to congratulate him when he signs your books!)
While the jump from conflict zone journalist to young adult novelist seems like a giant leap, London says his experience in war zones helped shape the kind of fiction he writes. “A lot of things that concern me in fiction are things that concerned me as a journalist,” he points out. “Writing about inequality, injustice, debt and freedom, about the horrible things human beings do to each other.”
He adds: “As a journalist, I focused primarily on war, but I also wrote how, in extreme circumstances, the most beautiful things can happen. Humanity is at its worst in conflict situations, but it’s also at its best and you get to see people at their most heroic in these extreme situations. I saw teenagers especially in terrible situations doing amazing, heroic things, and in my fiction I wanted to explore that as well.”
London recalls how a story he wrote while in the Congo inspired his novel “Proxy.” He had been to that country’s Center for Demobilized Child Soldiers, a facility which housed and rehabilitated children who had been forced to become soldiers.
“It was pretty horrible,” he says, “the things that had been done to these kids, or in many cases, what these kids had done. When I met them, they had all escaped from the military and they were living in this orphanage before finding what would happen next in their lives.”
A volcanic eruption forced London and others to evacuate, but the children chose to stay instead.
“These boys decided they had lost so much in their young lives; they’d all been uprooted and, in some cases, their families had been killed or they’d killed their own families as they were forced to. They didn’t want to lose anymore. They didn’t want to leave their school, it had become their home, and so they decided to stay.
“In the few hours before the lava hit, they dug a trench and worked together even though many of them had fought in different armies. They saved their school, which to this day is still there. As much as they were capable of great horror, they were also capable of amazing heroism and acts of forgiveness and cooperation, and what I can only describe as grace. That brilliance inspired me to write about young people to explore all of those things and those contradictions.”
It had been Alex’s longtime dream to write fiction, and his experience with teens in war zones gave him more solid footing in finding his niche in the young adult book market.
Most authors pen their own books after discovering a love for reading, but London says it came to him rather late. “But there was a writer named Brian Jacques who wrote the Redwall series. That was the first book I remember really falling in love with that made me realize reading’s amazing. He was a big influence to me. I wrote him a letter when I was 11 years old and told him that I hated reading until I met him. He wrote me back and encouraged me to become a writer, and to this day, I still have the letter that he wrote me. I remember what he said, the last line of the letter was, ‘Grow up brave and true, like a real Redwaller, kind to your family and true to your friends.’ He signed it, ‘Your author pal, Brian.’ I still sign a lot of my letters to fans with ‘Your author pal’ because he (Jacques) put that in my head.”
Sadly, by the time London had been published, incidentally by the same publishing house (London’s publisher was Jacques’ editor), Jacques had already passed away. When his first children’s book came out, London had written a letter to thank Jacques, sending with it a photocopy of the reply letter Jacques had sent him. But Jacques never got to see it.
Apart from writing books for teens, London has also penned a series of children’s books about dogs caught in the crossfire of conflicts. “They’re military dog books so they end up in rough situations, as do humans. I had to make it as realistic as possible, to the point that when the first book in that series, “Semper Fido”—set in Afghanistan about a young US Marine and his dog—came out, a Marine read it and called me in tears, begging me to tell him if the dog survives or not, before he finished reading the book. He was like, ‘I can’t do it, I can’t finish this book unless you tell me the dog is going to be OK.’ And this was a 24-year-old Marine. I’ve never had an 8-year-old write to me in tears; the 8-year-old readers are tougher than the Marines.”
In another book, “Proxy,” the protagonist Syd is gay. As a gay man himself, London says that today’s teen fiction has no “gay voices” anymore, and that’s a good thing.
“They’re just voices… We are beginning to get to a place where these voices can be complex. You can have gay Syd, good guys, bad guys, sci-fi heroes, and romantic comedies, and that’s not the focus anymore,” he says.
“I think it is a unique identity,” he adds, “Being gay is not a meaningless thing, but it’s also not the only thing that people have.”
His goal with “Proxy,” he says, “with Syd being in it, was that I wanted to explore the fact that it’s not about him being gay. It’s action, it’s supposed to be exciting, but I do hope that teenagers see, when they read it, that being gay does not limit the story you get to be a part of.”
“I think we’re reaching a point now hopefully where gay kids can see themselves in all different kinds of stories, and straight kids can see gay kids in different kinds of stories and not feel like it’s ‘icky’ or ‘weird’ to be reading about a gay character… As a gay kid myself, I read a lot of books about straight teenagers and enjoyed them. It’s not like I wanted to shut the book because suddenly there was a boy and girl kissing. Hopefully, straight kids, even though it’s two boys or two girls kissing at some point in that book, won’t shut it and go, ‘Ew!’ They’ll just enjoy it for the story and for the humanity. Not that there’s a lot of kissing in my books. There’s far more explosions than there are kissing.”
Alex London’s books are available at National Book Store and Powerbooks branches. Catch him today at 2 p.m. at National Book Store SM Aura. Visit www.nationalbookstore.com.ph for more details. Follow NBS on Twitter/Instagram @nbsalert.