Lloyd Alexander Interview Transcript
How did you come up with the idea for the Prydain Chronicles?
We're starting off with a very interesting and maybe difficult question. Let me put it this way: From as far back as I can remember, I always loved the King Arthur stories, fairy tales, mythology - things like that. So it was very natural for me when I came to write the Prydain books to sort of follow that direction. I had always been interested in mythology. I suppose my brief stay in Wales during World War II influenced my writing too. It was an amazing country. It has marvelous castles and scenery. It has its own language. It was quite a big experience for me. I'm sure that stayed in my mind for a good many years and became part of the raw material for the Prydain books.
Did you plan the whole Prydain Chronicles before you wrote The Book of Three?
No, I didn't. The five books happened almost by accident. I had planned to write one or two - three at the very most. But each book seemed to generate still another book. So by the time I finished, which was about seven years later, I had written five books. I was quite surprised at how it worked out.
Do you think that Taran, the hero of the Prydain Chronicles, would qualify as a classical hero?
This is a fascinating question because in some ways he is a classical hero. In other ways, he's quite the opposite. He does things that classical heroes really aren't supposed to do. For one thing, he gets scared. For another thing, he makes a lot of errors in judgment. And classical heroes are usually much larger than life. They're not quite human beings. They're somehow larger than human scale. Whereas I would like to think that Taran is quite and very recognizably human. I would hope that readers would feel close to him as one fellow human being to another.
Is there a Christian theme behind any of your stories?
Not on purpose. I think certain elements of Christianity must drift into the stories, because that's how I was brought up. But I don't think they are so much Christian as things common to all religions. For example, in The Book of Three, Taran and his friends go to this lovely, peaceful valley, which is a kind of refuge for various animals. They go there and recover from injuries or illness. In Medwyn's valley, Taran sees the wreckage of what seems to be a large ship. I think there is the idea that maybe this might remind the reader of Noah's Ark. Here is a big, ancient ship associated with animals. This does suggest Noah.
Where did you get the idea for Prydain?
That's hard. I suppose the idea for the Chronicles came from my own love of mythology, my own love of the King Arthur legend, and similar things. I dearly loved those tales when I was much younger. To me, it was only natural that I should try to write a tale of my own.
Why was King Arthur one of your heroes?
King Arthur was one of my heroes because he was such a marvelous, heroic, courageous, and magnificent person that I had to admire him even though I knew perfectly well that I could never be in any way like that. I've understood over the years, much as I might wish, that I can't claim to be any sort of hero whatsoever. Too bad!
Where did you come up with the names for your characters in the Prydain Chronicles?
All of those names come from research. They come from history and mythology. And they're quite old - many thousands of years old in fact. So I didn't invent any of them. I found them and chose names that seemed to suit the personalities.
How did you come up with the idea for The High King?
The High King was the final logical development of the first four books in the Prydain Chronicles. It was not an easy book to write, but at least I was building on a foundation that I had already made. I never considered a different ending, but I know that some readers think it should have ended differently. I cried for three days afterwards. Some readers would have liked Taran to go off with all the other companions. My answer was if he had done that, would you have liked him better for it? When they stopped to think about it, they realized that Taran did the right thing. It was a hard decision, but they liked him better because he stayed.
Why did you cry when you finished writing The High King?
I had been writing the Prydain Chronicles for about seven years, and the characters were as close to me as my own family. Indeed, they felt like my family. I admit that I wept at the end - to see Taran confronted with such a brutally difficult decision. And yet, I was convinced that he did the right thing. But to me, I felt the same loss that he did when most of his other companions had to leave him. Not a happy moment.
What do you think about the Disney movie version of The Black Cauldron? Will any of your other books be made into movies?
First, I have to say, there is no resemblance between the movie and the book. Having said that, the movie in itself, purely as a movie, I found to be very enjoyable. I had fun watching it. What I would hope is that anyone who sees the movie would certainly enjoy it, but I'd also hope that they'd actually read the book. The book is quite different. It's a very powerful, very moving story, and I think people would find a lot more depth in the book. There is a very good possibility of other movies. Disney, again, is interested in an animated movie of Time Cat. This could happen in the next several years. Time Cat should be a lot of fun as an animated movie - I just hope I'm around to see it.
How did you come up with the story for Westmark?
The best answer I can give is that the questions that I dealt with in Westmark had been occupying my mind for many years. And I suppose the time simply came when I was able to deal with them. The questions still occupy my mind today, and some of them are violence, war, the abuses of power, tyranny, despotism. I've been saying a lot of bad things, I'll add some good thoughts that have also occupied my mind: questions of love, friendship, compassion; these are pretty good things to think about.
Why did you write about censorship in Westmark?
Well, censorship, in my opinion, is a way of keeping people from learning anything except what the censors want them to learn. Personally, I think this is a terrible restriction on people's intelligence as well as their freedom. In fact, our own constitution in effect makes censorship illegal.
Did you make many improvements on Westmark as you edited your work? Could you give us an example?
Yes, I made many improvements. I started Westmark some years ago, I forget exactly when, and I had written maybe 50 pages of it before I realized that I simply couldn't go on with it. My ideas were very confused, as they so often are, and I put it aside. I think I put it aside for almost ten years. The day finally came when I understood that maybe I was old enough - I won't say wise enough - but at least old enough to deal with these anguishing situations. So I began again. This time I went straight ahead and finished one volume after the other, and in fact there were hardly any changes at all to be made after the first draft. There were of course awkward sentences and things like that that I was very glad to correct, but these were small details. And they had nothing to do with the shape or sense of the books. I should mention, with great delight, pride, and amazement, that after waiting nearly ten years to write Westmark, it won the National Book Award. I said "award," but probably I should've said "reward."
How did you come up with the idea to use a garden as a spy network in Westmark?
It was an idea that suddenly just came into my mind. I'm thankful it did, because it was the kind of lucky idea that you can't think of ahead of time. Call it a lucky accident.
Did you think of Mickle being the princess in Westmark when you started writing the book, or did it just fall into place?
I thought of Mickle as the princess from the very beginning. I had planned out Westmark, The Kestrel, and The Beggar Queen pretty clearly in my mind before I actually started writing.
How did you come up with the idea for Time Cat?
One of my cats gave me the idea. It's a true story. One of my cats, his name was Solomon, used to come and visit me in my workroom. I never actually saw him come into the room. Suddenly, there he was. So, we had a nice conversation. I told him how well his whiskers and tail were looking. Then I turned back to my worktable, and he would be gone. I never actually saw him get up and leave. So I began to have a private joke, playing a game as it were, pretending that he could somehow appear and disappear whenever he wanted to. The more I thought about that, again, just as a game with myself, I wondered, where does he go? If a cat has nine lives, maybe he's gone off to visit one of his nine lives. At that moment, it suddenly occurred to me - this sounds like an idea for a whole book. Each chapter would be one of his nine lives. I didn't give him a credit in the book. But I should have, even though he didn't do any work.
How did you choose the different places that Jason and Gareth visited?
I began by doing a lot of reading and research, and I discovered that there were at least nine places in the past that a cat would logically visit. For example, in ancient Egypt, cats were considered to be divine creatures. Any sensible cat would surely like to visit there. I also found that there was a Roman Legion called the Old Cats Company. Their insignia was a cat, and it was natural that for them to adopt a cat as a mascot. The other countries and times I selected had some interesting history involving cats. What I should add is that even though it's impossible for a person and a cat to travel through time, once they have arrived at a particular place, it's very realistic. The history is accurate. So you might call it partly a fantasy, but largely real history.
Have you ever gone to the places you wrote about in Time Cat?
There is an episode in Britain, which of course is England. I have been there. And let me think... I have been to Germany. There's a chapter in Germany. I was there during the war. But otherwise, no I have not been to those other countries, except for the United States.
Would you like to experience the adventures you've written about in your books?
Yes, I would love to experience all of those adventures on one condition: that nothing horrible would happen to me! With a guarantee like that, sure. I'd like to be in all those places. As it is, even though I write about these heroic adventures and dangerous situations, at the end of the day, I'm still safe at home.
Did anything in particular inspire you to write The Wizard in the Tree?
Well, I'm trying to think... no, I think you used the right word: inspiration. And I don't think any of us really knows where inspiration comes from. We just have to hope that it will happen. So there was nothing in my own daily life at that moment that would have led me to that story. I have to repeat, simply a lucky moment of inspiration.
Why did you write the book The Fortune-tellers?
There's an interesting story about that. The manuscript was lost in our attic for about 15 years. I had written it thinking possibly I would write a whole book of stories, then decided not to do that. I put the manuscript aside and turned my mind to other things. Over the course of time, the manuscript got mixed in other papers, and somehow when I was trying to tidy up my room, which happens maybe every 15 years, all those old papers were taken up into the attic. One day my wife, Janine, decided to clean out the attic. She made me come up and see if there was anything I wanted to keep. At first, I said no, because I hate the attic. There are wasps and bees up there, and I always hit my head on the beams. But she made me do it. And while I was digging through this whole pile of stuff, I found a brown envelope. I was going to throw it away, when I realized there was something inside. I took out the papers, and, to my amazement, found The Fortune-tellers. I had long forgotten about it. That's a true story.
In The Remarkable Journey of Jen, did the six gifts have any special significance for you?
Those gifts had great significance to me. First I should say: Years ago, my father had an Oriental import store. I often went there and actually saw and handled and, in some cases, owned all of those gifts. So indeed, they have great personal significance. In effect, they all used to belong to me.
How do you create the settings for your books?
I suppose I would have to say I do it by a lot of reading, a lot of research into history, geography - everything I can possibly find that would be helpful. It takes quite a long time. The research and the preparation can sometimes take as long as writing the book.
How do you come up with your characters? Do you ever feel like they are real people?
Indeed, I certainly do feel that they are real people. What I really think is that the characters all come out of various parts of my own personality - the good guys and the bad guys as well. They are all parts of myself, and since I'm real, I believe they are real too. The reason for that is that all of us are not just one personality, within ourselves we are an infinite number of personalities. Some of them are marvelous, some of them are perfectly awful. I hope the awful ones are the smallest parts. Even so, we're not just all one thing. And I think we can find characters all within ourselves. Plus, a little imagination.
Do you have a favorite character?
Easy answer: They are all my favorites.
If you could be any character from any of your books, who would it be and why?
Oh, my, that's a marvelous question! But these questions keep getting more interesting and more difficult. Now let me think for a second. I am pretty sure that if I lived in Prydain or Westmark, I probably wouldn't last ten minutes. I'm thinking of something a little more relaxed. That's so hard. I just can't think of a good answer. No, I think when you come down to it, on the whole, I'd rather be in Drexel Hill, my hometown.
When did you start writing?
I first started writing when I was thirteen. That's so many years ago I can't quite be sure, but it was something like that. I started out writing poetry. At the time I wanted to be a poet more than a novelist. As with music and art, I have to say poetry is another great blessing for the world. But unfortunately I was not meant to be a poet. The old expression "Poets are born, not made" is absolutely true in my case. Sadly, I very quickly understood that I was not born to be a poet, and I couldn't manage to make myself into one. I could only hope that maybe, with luck, I might've been born to write for young people.
Why did you decide to be a writer?
That's a very hard question. I've tried to think about it, and so far, I don't have an answer. I can only say, "Why is it that anyone wants to do anything? Or, to be anything?" If asked, I don't think we could explain it. It's something that we know inside ourselves that we want to do, and is the most important thing that we could possibly imagine.
Why were your parents horrified when you told them that you wanted to be a writer and how did you react?
They were horrified for a couple of reasons: First, they could not imagine that anyone, least of all their son, could possibly make a living from writing. They were correct to some extent. Secondly, they were afraid that it was much too difficult a profession. In that case, they were absolutely right. Since we seldom listen to our parents, I ignored their warnings, found out how difficult it was, but kept at it anyway. I have lived to regret not listening. I didn't realize how hard it would be. If I had known at the time, I might've gone into real estate or pizza making! I do believe they were finally proud of their son. But I think even more than that, they were utterly astonished. After my first book was published, I think they finally accepted it. They really were amazed. I have to admit something quite surprising. My parents never read a book. I never in all my life saw them sit down and read a book. So it was always a mystery to them - where do these books come from, and who actually writes them? And our son wants to go into a business like that?!!
How did you develop your interest in reading and writing, especially since your parents didn't read books?
I remember very fondly a dear old, very old aunt, who read stories to me and quoted Shakespeare. I'm quite sure that she was responsible for my own love of reading. As for becoming a writer, no I can't blame anyone for that except me. What's the phrase? "I take full responsibility."
Who were your favorite authors and books when you were a youth?
I had so many favorites that I don't have time to name all of them. Ones that I can think of very quickly would be Shakespeare, certainly, and Victor Hugo, Charles Dickens, and Mark Twain, of course. The list is just endless. All I need to do is look at my shelves and there are hundreds of favorites. One thing to add: We don't need to have just one favorite. We keep adding favorites. Our favorite book is always the book that speaks most directly to us at a particular stage in our lives. And our lives change. We have other favorites that give us what we most need at that particular time. But we never lose the old favorites. They're always with us. We just sort of accumulate them.
What's the hardest part of being a writer?
Everything. I was only halfway joking when I said that. For me, writing is extremely difficult. Rewriting is even more difficult. And yet, every writer except some great genius has to rewrite. Very few get it right the first time around. I have rewritten pages 30 times. Chapters, three or four times. And in some cases, I've rewritten the whole book two or three times. That's hard. Anything easy . . . sorry, I can't think of anything easy.
What do you like most about writing?
Another easy question! What I like most about writing is when I have finished writing. That's the best part of it.
What's the happiest moment in your writing career?
The happiest moment is always when I finish writing a book and don't have to work so hard for a little while.
Which of your books was the most fun to write?
I can't pick out one, because in a way, they were all equally fun to write. And they were all equally difficult. I'm smiling at the word fun, because most of the time, I holler and scream a lot. My wife complains about the terrible yelps of pain that come from my workroom. I assure her that nobody is doing me any physical damage. But I do cry and moan an awful lot.
Why do you like to write fantasy books?
I think it's something that suits my personality and my temperament and disposition, whatever you want to call it. More important, for me, writing fantasy is very liberating. My imagination can do whatever it wants to do. This gives me a great sense of freedom. I have written other kinds of books, such as the Vesper Holly series, which are quite realistic. There is no fantasy at all in those. It is an interesting question about nonfantasy books. I'm thinking of the Westmark books. Are they fantasy, or are they realism? Difficult question. On the one hand, Westmark does not exist. There is no such place in the real world. Yet, everything that happens is absolutely realistic. Sometimes even painfully so.
As a young person, what types of things did you do for entertainment? You're very creative and imaginative - did you play lots of games? Did you have brothers and sisters to play with?
I had one sister. She was about five years older than I was. She was not interested in having much to do with her little brother. For myself, yes, I loved to play games, indoors and outdoors. I liked to play the piano. I especially liked drawing pictures. And I even hoped that I might become an artist, or even a musician. I can only say what a blessing it was for the world that I did not try to be a musician - or an artist for that matter.
What was your very first book to be published?
My first book to be published, as opposed to the many books I wrote that to my astonishment nobody wanted - except that I realized the editors were right. But in any case, my first novel was not for young people, but for adults. It was the story that almost every first novelist has to tell. Simply, the story of a young person going out into the world for the first time and finding the world a very difficult place indeed. That's the story that all of us have to tell.
How do you start a story? Do you have any tips for young writers?
I am trying to think of tips for young writers. Maybe during our conversation I'll think of some. At the moment, I wish somebody would give me some tips! I can use all the help I can get. As for starting stories, well, that's a difficult question. I suppose I start out a story even before it actually becomes a story. I try to understand my own feelings and what I want to express about life at the moment; I look to see what emotions are in the back of my mind, and what I somehow feel compelled to express. If I understand those things, then I start imagining the kind of story that will best express them. At some point I do make an outline. I write down notes, do a lot of research, and write a synopsis in as much detail as possible. Sometimes this can take a whole year. When I've done all that, I take a deep breath and try to stop trembling with fear, and I put a sheet of paper into my old manual typewriter. From then on, I hope for the best.
What book are you presently writing?
I can only describe what I'm working on now as a mess. Because, as I was describing before, I'm still at the stage of thinking, trying to understand what I want to do, and how I feel about it. I can't guess how long this may go on, but I hope it isn't too long. Time will tell.
Do you have a title for the new book yet?
Well, I'm in the happy position of having a new book that should be published in another two months. The title is Gypsy Rizka and I can pretty much guarantee that this book will make you laugh. The main character is a young half-gypsy girl named Rizka, as the title says. She is so bright and smart and sassy and clever that she outwits the solemn and overblown townsfolk who are trying to do her in. It's a very funny book because Rizka's schemes - and she's brilliant at them - are very comical. I should add that she always wins! And those idiot town dignitaries always lose, which is exactly the way it ought to be. I hope you'll want to read it, and I'm sure you'll have a lot of fun.
If you could choose a career other than being a writer, what would it be and why?
At last, another easy question! I've secretly always wanted to be a musician. Unfortunately, I'm one of the world's worst. I play the violin in a way that people have called "unbelievable." They were not smiling. But, I've also secretly wanted to be an artist. And I still love to make drawings and silly cartoons. And I have a wonderful time doing it. Too bad I'm not very good at it. But, if I did have to choose another profession, yes, I'd like to be an artist.
Did you see any action in battle in World War II?
Yes I did. And in fact, I used a lot of my own experiences during the war in the Westmark books. Especially The Kestrel and The Beggar Queen. I have been, to some extent, in situations like the ones I described. One of the most difficult things about writing those books was dredging up a number of very terrible memories.
How old are you? Are you married? Do you have a family?
All right. First, I'm proud and delighted to announce that I will be 75 in another four days. Yes, I'm married. I met my wife when I was living in Paris after World War II. We have five grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. I'm very sad to say that our daughter died a few years ago. She was our only child. She was my wife's daughter and my step-daughter.
What kind of a student were you in school? Were there any teachers that encouraged your writing?
Do I dare answer that question? I'm sort of choking at the thought! Remember, times are different today, and much better than when I was in school. So, to tell the truth, I have to admit that I did not have a happy time in school. And maybe I'd better not say anymore.
How would you describe your books to someone who hadn't read them?
Now we're back to the hard questions! I would only say that I hope that no matter what the particular book might be, that it might give them some pleasure, some entertainment, some excitement, and, possibly, something deeper to think about.
What advice do you give to kids who think they might like to be an author?
They're very simple. I'm sure you already know what I'm going to say. Three things: First, read as much as humanly possible. Read everything - fiction, nonfiction, history, biography, poetry, science, everything possible. You can't read everything that's been written, but you can try. Second, write as much as you possibly can. Write stories or poems. Keep a journal, keep a diary. Write notes to yourself, or whatever comes into your mind. It doesn't matter what it is. Don't even worry whether it's any good or not. If it's bad, throw it away. Nobody will ever know. It's a matter of practice, writing, the same way that a pianist practices the scales, or a ballet dancer who constantly exercises. Simply do it continually. It really does help. It's a matter of getting fluency, of not being scared of blank paper. It starts a good habit pattern. Writing every day, even if you have to throw out what you've written, is marvelous practice. It builds up the kind of discipline you need to keep on working no matter what else happens. Third, be as alive as possible. By that I mean be open to all your experiences. Look at things carefully, listen to things, look at the world around you. And be sensitive and responsive to it. Oh, and there's one more thing. Hardest of all. Be patient. If you're patient, you can finally do everything you want to do. This applies to everything. But that's hardest of all.
Do you have any final words for the audience?
I don't like the sound of "final words!" I would simply say, and this applies to all of us - keep reading. It's one of the most marvelous adventures that anyone can have. Beyond that, I could only add: develop and nourish your imaginations, and reading will certainly help you do that. I think imagination is at the heart of everything we do. Scientific discoveries couldn't have happened without imagination. Art, music, and literature couldn't exist without imagination. And so anything that strengthens imagination, and reading certainly does that, can help us for, oh, the rest of our lives. I'd like to say thanks for listening. But since you aren't listening, I'll have to say thanks for watching. I guess, seriously, what I want to say is, keep reading.