Author Interview & Giveaway: Alexander Gordon Smith

By Karen Rock

Award-winning, international bestselling YA author, Alexander Gordon Smith is best known for his Escape From Furnace Series, comprised of Lockdown, Solitary, Death Sentence, Fugitives and Execution. 

His latest series, The Fury, is eagerly anticipated for its stateside arrival in 2013. His creative writing handbooks, Inspired Creative Writing and Writing Bestselling Children’s Books are a must read for writers. 

But his creative reach stretches beyond the page and into publishing and film as the founder of Egg Box Publishing, an independent, non-profit imprint designed to publish and promote talented new writers and poets, and his the co-ownership of Fear Driven Films, a production company filming its first feature in 2011.

Your ground-breaking YA series Furnace and latest series, Fury, are terrifying in the best way. What do you enjoy the most about writing horror fiction? What is the real magic of horror?

Thanks! It’s great to know that they’re terrifying, as that’s the kind of story I set out to tell. I love horror. I always have, ever since I wrote my first book – The Little Monster Book – when I was six. That one wasn’t exactly scary, but it did show me what I wanted to be when I was older. I understood the power of horror.

You’ve hit the nail on the head there, describing horror as magic. Because it is. I honestly don’t think there’s a more magical genre out there. That magic comes from childhood. When you’re six years old and somebody tells you there’s a monster under the bed, you absolutely believe it with every fiber of your being. When you get older you learn to analyze things, you apply logic and science and common sense to them. And that takes away the magic.

Alexander with Wheezer

But horror lets us believe again. For the time that you’re reading a terrifying book or watching a scary movie, you completely and utterly believe that the horror is real. Horror opens up our imaginations, lets us be kids again, open to limitless possibilities.

For readers, it’s a wonderful feeling, because if anything is possible, then maybe you’re capable of believing the impossible of yourself too, suddenly you’re capable of achieving anything you put your mind to.

The other reason I love horror is that I don’t think you ever see heroism, humanity and hope like you do in a horror story. When things are at their worst, you really do see people at their best.

When things turn bad, people fight tooth and nail for everything they believe in. They fight for their family, for their friends, for their loved ones; they fight for what is right, and what is just. They fight because they know they must.

People sometimes accuse horror books of “corrupting” young minds, but I believe the opposite.

I believe that horror makes teenage readers aware of their own powers, their own strengths and abilities, their own priorities too. In the same way that fairy tales unconsciously bolster the confidence of young children, horror teaches teenagers that whatever challenges and obstacles they may meet in their teenage years – and there are many of them – they can overcome them.

It teaches them, without explicitly teaching them, that they have what it takes to survive.

It teaches them about friendship, too; the kind of friendship that keeps you standing shoulder to shoulder with someone even when the world is falling apart around you.

I honestly believe that horror makes better people of us, it makes heroes of us, even if that heroism is just facing up to our everyday lives. It gives us hope when things seem lost. It makes us human, and all the better for it.

Like Furnace, you’re trapped in an underground, nightmare of a jail with no hope of escape. However, unlike your novel, you’re allowed to bring books and movies. What three books and three movies would you bring? What three television shows would you watch?

Wow, great question! It’s a tough one too, though, because I don’t know if I could ever really narrow it down.

For the books, it would have to be something long and totally absorbing. Something I could get lost in.

I’d probably go for some good fantasy. Maybe Game of Thrones, or The Lord of the Rings, or The Wheel of Time (but only if I could have every volume, including the ones that haven’t been written yet, or is that cheating…?). They would certainly keep me going for a while!

 Oh, and maybe my SAS survival guide (which I use for book research), as it might give me some clues on how to escape.

As for movies and television shows, I’d probably pick my two favorite films of all time, “The Goonies” and “Labyrinth,” plus “The Wire,” “Breaking Bad” and “Prison Break.”

I do watch far too much telly…

If you could raise the dead, who would you talk to and what would you ask? 

Another great question, but just as hard to answer. There are so many cool dead people!

I’d love to talk to Ernest Hemingway, just because I think he would tell some incredible stories. Lovecraft, Stoker, Mary Shelley and Poe would be on the list too, but I’d worry that they wouldn’t be great dinner guests because they all seemed a little morose…

So yeah, Hemingway, and I’d ask him what his greatest adventure was.

What influences did you draw from in creating such menacing, gruesome, secondary characters and monsters? If you could enter one of these creatures in a battle against another author’s fictional fiend, who would you choose as your entrant and who would you like to see as its opponent?

I drew from so many different influences. Books, films, television shows and video games. Everything from Manga to “Resident Evil” to “Prison Break” to One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. It’s far too long a list to write down here.

But that’s one of the best parts of being a writer – part of your job is literally sitting down and reading books, watching movies and playing video games. You let all those images and atmospheres and characters and story lines mix around in your head and they metamorphose into something completely different and unique. That’s what I always tell people, anyway, when they ask why I’m playing video games in the middle of the afternoon…

As for the battle…

Well, I’d have to pick a Berserker, and I’d love to see one in action against something traditional and ancient, like Grendel, or the Balrog.

Wait, actually maybe a face-off between the Stranger in Execution (who is one of the most terrifying creatures I have ever created) and Pennywise the Clown. That would be epic!

There should totally be a television show where literary monsters try to kill each other.

What is the worst nightmare or fear you had as a child and did any of these frights find their way into your books?

Definitely! I always say that if you’re writing a scary book then write about something you’re scared of. That way the fear will be genuine, and will help fuel the story. Readers will sense that there is something real there, and they will respond to it.

Luckily for me I’m scared of everything! But especially being accused of a crime I didn’t commit, being buried alive, being chased by huge dogs, being beaten up. You can see why I decided to write about a terrifying prison! Many of these fears have existed from childhood. I vividly remember watching a friend get their ear chewed off by an Alsatian when I was about ten.

When I was very little (like six), my gran let me watch some really terrifying films, including “Texas Chainsaw Massacre,” which filled me full of fears.

Oh, and when I was eleven I tried to spend the night in a haunted house so that I could write the scariest story ever written. I lasted seven minutes before running out puking – literally running and puking at the same time – because I was so scared.

It taught me an important lesson, though, because after that I knew the kind of writer I wanted to be. I didn’t want to be the kind of writer that just sat down and wrote. I wanted to be the kind that went out and experienced the world of the story, that tried to get inside the heads of my characters, that tried to make their lives real in my own.

I still do that, try to make the story real in as many ways as possible (though I don’t puke over myself quite as much these days).

The other thing it showed me is that you need to use your emotions in your work, as much as possible. It’s why everyone can be a writer, because everyone experiences life in a slightly different way. It’s what I tell students when I go into schools: that nobody has experienced life in the same way as you, nobody has experienced the same emotions as you, so nobody can ever tell the same stories as you.

My biggest fears now… Porcelain dolls and slugs. So there might be a very weird book coming along one of these days…

Mutated, disease-ravaged beings roam the pages of your novels. What would a mutant version of Alexander Gordon Smith be like? What modifications would you make for yourself?

What an awesome idea! People are always telling me that my laugh is deafening, and I do laugh a lot. My girlfriend often claims that I’ve made her ears ring by laughing.

So a mutant sonic boom laugh would be a cool power – so loud that it can demolish buildings and make heads explode! I could have a lot of fun with that…

From the apocalyptic world in your latest YA series, Fury, to the subterranean horror of an inescapable prison, Lockdown, in Furnace, your terrifying worlds boggle the imagination. How did you conceive of these unforgettable worlds and how does your world-building process work from inception to realization? 

I’m a really, really impatient writer. As soon as I have an idea I want to sit down and write it. There’s no right or wrong way to write a book, everybody does it slightly differently.

But for me it feels more honest not to plan the story. I don’t want to know what’s going to happen in the story, because if I know then the characters will know, and then there will be a kind of safety net in the writing. They’ll always know that come hell or high water they’ll survive. That sense of security will be built into the book, invisible but unmissable. It strips away some of the tension.

Alex, in Furnace, is based on me as a teenager (I went off the rails, got into some trouble), he’s the version of me who didn’t get steered back on track, whose life got worse and worse and who ended up in Furnace. I was him, the same person, the ghost in his cell.

The only thing I knew when I started these books is that he was going to Furnace. Everything that happened after that we discovered together.

I know I’m straying from the question here, but it does tie in. I write very quickly. I call it writing at the speed of life because you’re almost at speed with the characters. You experience things at the same time they do, which means you have to react in a very instinctive, immediate way. You don’t always have time to think things through, so some of the decisions you make are wrong, but you have to live with them the same way you do in real life.

The only “world building” I really do is with the characters. I get to know them as well as I possibly can – every like, every dislike, every fear, every good and bad memory. They’re more real to me than my own friends and family. Once you know your characters as well as this, everything else is easy because you see it through their eyes.

So I saw Furnace Penitentiary at the same time as Alex, and just described what he was seeing. Likewise with the wheezers, the rats, the berserkers, Alfred Furnace – I just felt like I was seeing it all first hand. The story played out in front of me, the world built itself. All I had to do was keep up!

What advice would you give other writers of horror fiction or YA fiction in general? 

Midge and Grub

There’s so many hints and tips I have learned along the way from amazing writers – way too many to list here. The one that has been most useful to me, though, is what I was talking about above.

Get to know your characters. You can start writing a book without plotting past the first line, but I don’t think you can write a good novel without knowing everything there is to know about at least your main character. Ask them questions, about everything. Make them write a diary, a journal, about their worst memories, their favorite people, their relationships with their parents and friends and enemies. Know them better than you know yourself and they’ll write most of the book for you.

But there’s only one really, really important piece of advice, and this one is essential. Never give up. It’s the most essential thing in life. It doesn’t matter what you want to do – writer, actor, musician, scientist, doctor, bank robber, anything. Human Beings are amazing, every single one of us. We are capable of doing absolutely anything with our lives, accomplishing any dream, I honestly believe that. The only thing that can stop us, the only thing that can keep us from achieving our goals, is if we stop trying.

If anyone tells you that you’re not good enough, or that you can’t do it, then ignore them. If that little voice in your head tries to convince you that you’re not special, then ignore it. You can do anything you want to do (even if you don’t know what that is yet). The only difference between people who live their dreams and those who don’t is that the ones who do just didn’t stop fighting for it.

If everyone gave up then we’d still be living in caves, and the world would be a very dull place. Everyone gets setbacks and rejections, just pick yourself up and try again. Never, ever give up.

If you had to chose, what writer would you consider your mentor? How has that writer inspired and influenced you?

Every book you read teaches you something, and every author has something to offer, even if it’s teaching you how not to write!

George Orwell has probably taught me the most about the actual craft of writing, because he’s an absolute master. I love his books, and Nineteen Eighty-Four will always be my favorite book.

But you know I think I’m going to pick Stephen King as a mentor, because it was his books that really inspired me to write, and which taught me the most about how to craft characters. He’s a master at creating realistic, believable, three dimensional people. It’s what he’s best at. Opening one of his books is like walking into a crowded room, because you’re actually there with those people. And when the horror starts, you have no choice but to see it through, because these guys are your friends, your neighbors. You’re right there with them whether you want to be or not. He’s a genius!

And his books still fill me with that sense of nervous excitement that I felt when I first discovered him when I was a teenager. It’s an incredible feeling, the knowledge that absolutely anything can happen, that you’re in for an incredible ride. You’re standing on the lip of a waterfall ready to jump. It’s why I started writing horror, because of that freedom, that incredible sense of limitless possibility.

What can we look forward to seeing from you in the future?

The Fury is my next book, and it comes out in the U.S. next July. I can’t wait! It’s two books over here in the U.K., but my U.S. publisher has actually put them both together into one huge behemoth of a book.

It’s a real monster. It tells the story of what would happen if one day, without warning, the whole world tries to kill you – your mum and dad, brothers and sisters, friends, teachers, neighbors, stranger in the street, they come after you and tear you to pieces. The weird thing is that as soon as they have, or as soon as you escape, they go back to their lives as if nothing has happened. They completely forget that you even existed. It’s about a group of teenage characters trying to work out what’s going on, and why the world has the Fury.

After that there should be a new series, another fast-paced, explosive, gory action/horror roller coaster ride which is tentatively called M.E.R.C. (you’re the first to hear about it)! I can’t say too much about it yet, as I haven’t quite finished the first book. But it’s wild!

And after that… Well, I’ll always write. I love it. It seriously is the best job in the world, and I’m so lucky to be able to do it. And remember, for the writers out there amongst you, just never give up!

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Enter to win a signed copy of Execution by Alexander Gordon Smith. Author sponsored. Eligibility: international.

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Cynsational Notes

More on Karen Rock

In a quest to provide her eighth grade students with quality reading material,
English teacher Karen Rock read everything out there and couldn’t wait to add her voice to the conversation of books.

a debut YA series author, Karen is thrilled to pen stories that teens
can relate to. When she’s not busy reading and writing, Karen is
downloading live versions of favorite songs, watching “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” marathons, obsessing over reality TV contestants (Adam Lambert
you were robbed!), cooking her family’s delizioso Italian recipes, and
occasionally rescuing local wildlife from neighborhood cats.

lives in the Adirondack Mountain region with her husband, her very
appreciated beta-reader daughter and two King Charles Cavalier Cocker
Spaniels who have yet to understand the concept of “fetch,” though
they’ve managed to teach her the trick!

Check out her website, her co-author website, her Facebook page, and follow her on twitter @karenrock5. Then check out Camp Boyfriend.

11 thoughts on “Author Interview & Giveaway: Alexander Gordon Smith

  1. LOVE this interview and giveaway! I'm reading book #4 in the series and can't wait to read Execution. These are great horror stories! I was thrilled to be familiar with the authors and movies Alexander was talking about. They have obviously been a terrific influence on him. And I also love the photo of the Wheezer! Creepy but cool! I look forward to his next series as well. Thanks for the offer!

  2. Wow. This has got to be one of the best interviews I've read. Hands down. It's not only full of great insight behind the author's pen and how he crafts his stories, but wonderful advice for other writers out there. Thank you so much for this! Loved it!

  3. Thanks for the interview. I am a big fan of Orwell's as well and I also agree about King's book. Even for a non-writer it was a valuable insight into the process and made fascinating reading.

  4. What a great and inspiring interview. I'm also a horror writer, although for adults, and also scared of so many things. I wonder if us scaredy-cats make the best horror writers?

  5. Interviewing Alexander Gordon Smith was an amazing experience. I've been a huge fan of his work since Lockdown exploded on the scene. After working with him on this piece, I'm impressed even more with his wit and generous spirit. I'm thrilled that you've enjoyed his responses as much as I have. He truly is a writer to look up to and emulate, regardless of your genre. He's even tempted me over to the "dark side" and has me playing with horror fiction… don't know how that will feature into my contemporary YA work… but if the heart wants what it wants than a writer should write what they want as well.

  6. Um, WANT!!! Great-sounding books, great advice, and a very scary book trailer at the end. I'm inspired!
    I think I'll go write something scary now.

  7. Thank you for this interview – so insightful! And always great to know others love Stephen King and "On Writing" asmuch as I do. Oh, and can't wait to read The Fury!!

  8. I've only read the first book in the series, but absolutely loved it. Need to get on my tail with reading the other books 🙂

    Thanks so much for a fabulous interview—I look forward to reading Execution!


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