Alex London has a David Bowie story. As an 18-year-old intern at Rolling Stone magazine, London was carrying a stack of fax messages in the office when he slammed into somebody’s chest.
“I didn’t look up at him, “ he says. “I looked at the guy who was walking with him, who was the owner and founder of the magazine, Jann Wenner. I got so nervous. A few steps away, one of the editors said, ‘Did you see who you just walked into? And I said no, and I looked back, just as they turned to the corner, and it was David Bowie.”
It’s a particularly poignant memory especially in the wake of the British rock icon’s recent passing. Now in his mid-30s, London is himself something of a celebrity, having authored numerous books for readers of all ages, from pre-schoolers to adults. He is perhaps best known for writing the young adult sci-fi novel Proxy and its sequel, Guardian. Set in a dystopian future where the haves (Patrons) pay the have-nots (Proxies) to take their punishments for them, the novel has gained acclaim not just for its rich narrative but also for featuring an openly gay lead character.
London was in the country recently at the invitation of the International School Manila. As a writer-in-residence, the author delivered talks and conducted writing workshops for grade and high school students. It was his second time visiting Manila.
Minutes before he met fans and signed a few books, I caught up with him for a brief chat about his writing, his fans, and whether there’ll be a third book in the Proxy saga. Excerpts:
GMA News Online: Was there a specific moment when you realized you wanted to become a writer?
Alex London: Yes, it was in fifth grade, I was 11 years old, and I hated reading. I was forced to read Redwall by Brian Jacques. I loved it so much that I wrote the author a letter. He lived in England so I found out how much it cost to send a letter to England. (This was before email). And he actually wrote me back. It was the first piece of mail I remembered getting, and it came all the way from England, so it made me feel really important.
In the letter he encouraged me to keep using my imagination, that maybe I could grow up to be a writer. And that was the moment when I realized, wait, maybe I COULD grow up and be a writer. And from that point on, I was hooked on reading. And I was hooked on writing stories.
You started out as a journalist. Is your writing influenced by your experiences as a journalist prior to becoming a novelist?
Very much so. It taught me how to turn reality into words, how to take a person that I met or an experience that I had and find just the right words to share that true thing to my readers.
Learning how to make the truth sound true in writing taught me how to make fiction sound true in writing. I learned how to render reality in words, and now my job as a fiction writer is to make up my own realities and make them feel as true as the lived realities.
My characters don’t exist, but because of my work in journalism, I can make them feel real, as I learned to make a person who IS real, feel real. And then also learning how to write on a deadline. (Laughs) That was a valuable lesson.
Were there things that you had to unlearn when you became a fictionist?
No. It really is a similar skill set. The same tools just used differently. Finding the right details to focus on, the telling moments that reveal a larger truth.
Is there any point in the middle of writing, when you sort of stare at the screen and you’re overcome with paralyzing self-doubt?
Every day. Even right now, I flew, what, 19 hours to get here. I’ve probably signed a thousand books so far this week. But I wrote to my editor last night to say, “What’s the point? Am I any good at this?” We all have those voices. At some point in your career, you always feel like you’re faking it. I have that voice all the time.
How do you handle it?
I remind myself that, okay, maybe I’m not the greatest author in the history of books. It’s not up to me to decide that. The best I can do is tell the story I have to tell. As honestly as I can tell it. And if nobody gives a damn, that’s sad. If one person gives a damn, that’s a miracle. The fact that more than one person has, it’s just gravy. It’s a blessing. But I can’t control any of that. All I can control is that I have a story I want to tell. And I just have to do my best to tell it and let go of the doubt.
Proxy features a gay lead character. Were there concerns or resistance right before you published it?
I didn’t know I was taking a risk when I wrote it. I just knew that I wrote the character I wanted to exist. Then I turned it over to my publisher.
I didn’t know it at the time, but I since learned that they had a lot of conversations about it, wondering, Can we do this? Is this going to sell? Are we gonna lose a ton of money because there’s this gay character? Or is it going to be branded as a gay book and only gay people are going to read it? But they said, "No, it’s time." This is the 21st century. People can judge a character whether he’s clever or brave and exciting and the stuff explodes when it’s supposed to explode. Not who he has a crush on.
I got a little nervous. Right before it came out I thought, they’re gonna ban my book, I’m gonna get hate mail. But it has been embraced. And it has been amazing, to see the response in the US. It’s been on middle school and high school reading lists all over the country, even in Texas, which is really conservative. Girls have read it, boys have read it. Gay boys and girls have read it. Straight boys and girls have read it. And people don’t seem to resist it. There’s an occasional hater. And an occasional insecure guy who’s like, “Oh, no, I can’t read that!”
But mostly, people have been willing to go on that journey because I think they already know that all of us are more than any one label. And we can all be the heroes of all different kinds of stories. And so Syd gets to be the hero of this story.
I wrote it because, being gay myself, I never got to see someone like me as an action hero. And I wanted to be an action hero! So I wrote it for me and it was very personal decision to do that and it was a very personal book in a way.
Two things I know you get asked all the time: first, is this going to be turned into a movie?
It’s still wait and see. Last time I was here in Manila, we were in talks with MTV, and I thought I would be able to announce it. But it all fell apart, so it’s not gonna happen with MTV. But it’s not dead in the water. There’s still hope. There are still active conversations going on. We’ll see.
And will there be a third book in the Proxy saga?
(Laughs) Yes I get asked that a lot. No, I am not planning a third book. It is a duology. I think the ending of Guardian, I said everything I had to say. So I don’t think I’m planning a new one.
I can’t predict the future, but right now, I have other stories I want to tell. I will be writing new YA novels, with new characters, and new adventures and new stories. But I think the world of Proxy, I’m gonna leave as it is. And leave it to readers to imagine more of it.
What’s your advice for new writers, especially for those struggling or feeling a bit lost?
Keep going. Nobody starts out knowing how to do this really well. It’s not an instant skill. You’ve gotta practice. It will be frustrating, it will be hard and there will be disappointments, and confusing times, where you just think you don’t have anything worth saying. But remember what makes you love books. And hang on to that. And you get to tell a story the way only you could. No one else has been you before and no one else can tell your story the way you would. So hang on to that and know that your story matters, if you tell it truthfully and with as much conviction as you can, your story is going to matter to someone else. But you just gotta keep going through the frustrating times. Don’t give up. — BM, GMA News
Proxy, Guardian and Alex London’s other books are available at National Bookstore. For more information, visit his website calexanderlondon.com.
Paul John Caña is a magazine writer and live music geek. He is also co-founder of libreto.org, an online collective of writers and artists. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter and Instagram @pauljohncana.