Alexandra Bracken On Magic, Prosper Redding, and Mountain Dew
Alex Bracken grew up in Arizona going to Star Wars conventions and discovering the "inherent magic in books." Now, she writes magical books – about Star Wars, among other things! Her latest effort, The Dreadful Tale of Prosper Redding, is a genuine delight. It's funny, it's spooky, and it's sure to take its place on the shelf alongside the works of Roald Dahl, Tamora Pierce, or Cornelia Funke. We're already looking forward to the sequel.
We were lucky enough to chat with Alex last month – read her Q&A below, then stop by the store for your copy of Prosper or order one online. And be sure to join us for a chance to meet Alex and have your book signed on September 19!
This is your first middle grade novel. Why middle grade?
I’m one of those authors who knew from a really young age that she wanted to be a writer, and, specifically, a writer of children’s books. I can actually pinpoint the exact year, too: third grade. My teacher at the time had us do a few creative writing units in which we wrote and illustrated short stories, which she then would bind with cardboard and contact paper. This was huge for me because it dovetailed with when I first started to read independently for fun. The idea of becoming a storyteller suddenly wasn’t such an abstract thing. Little Alex’s logic was basically, if it’s this fun to read books, it must be that fun to write books, too. Which, yes! It’s so fun! It’s also a lot of hard work that sometimes makes you want to bang your head against your desk.
In particular, I was a huge fan of Roald Dahl, Karen Cushman, and Avi. Looking back on it, it feels natural that I would eventually come to write middle grade, simply because of the impact these books had on me as a young person. Writing The Dreadful Tale of Prosper Redding let me tap into some of that pure joy I had when I was discovering the inherent magic in books. Because of that, I went all in on including the things I loved most when I was roughly Prosper’s age: Halloween, spooky and supernatural things, fish out of water scenarios, dark humor, you name it.
Your novels often have a historical aspect to them. What keeps you coming back to history as a story element?
I’m going to be honest: It’s pretty much because I love history and want to share that love with everyone. I grew up with parents who really embraced the study of history, and talked about it with us in a way that made the past feel humanized and real. Every time a reader tells me they think history is boring, or all they do is memorize dates and locations, a small part of my soul dies.
Okay, that was dramatic, but still—I think history is endlessly fascinating, and I’m always trying to find ways to prove that to readers, whether it’s introducing them to an interesting historical figure or a certain event. One way to make the past feel consequential to readers is to connect it to their modern experience. When you frame history as a narrative itself (and analyze who its authors are and try to tease out their biases and prejudices), you start finding patterns and commonalities between the past and today.
Passenger and Wayfarer play with that idea in a big, grand way, but The Dreadful Tale of Prosper Redding is a more intimate take on it. The story focuses on the feud between two rival families and the longstanding consequences of the terrible choices the Redding family made right around the time of the Salem Witch Trials. As Prosper you inherit the burden of your family’s history, and it’s up to you to write a new chapter of it.
We don’t want spoilers of course, but what’s one exciting or interesting thing you can tell us about your title character?
I really, truly adore writing in Prosper’s voice—he’s warm, funny, and very self-deprecating. But even after years of being told that he’s an embarrassment to his famous, storied family, he hasn’t become bitter or lost his compassion. His dynamic with Alastor, the fiend (a demon-ish creature), is one of my favorite aspects of the story. They work with and against each other, sometimes within the same hour, in a constant game of tug-of-war for control of Prosper’s body.
One thing I really love about Prosper is that he fits the definition of the Icelandic word skúffuskáld, which means something to the effect of a “drawer poet”—someone who writes poetry and then hides it in a drawer. Prosper has a lot of creative drive and is a talented artist, but he feels like he has to hide it because it doesn’t fit with what he perceives as his family’s rigid expectations. While my parents never discouraged me from writing, I definitely hid my stories and the fact that I was writing from most of my friends… pretty much from middle school through college. The fear of judgment or being mocked is so strong when you’re young and, like Prosper, I definitely worried about being rejected over it.
If you could live in one of your fantasy worlds, which would you choose?
Definitely Prosper’s! There’s a lot of darkness and danger there, but it’s the kind of hidden, magical world I was dying to inhabit as a kid. I think time travel, especially the kind in the Passenger series is tricky and probably not all it’s cracked up to be in the end, especially when you can accidentally cause a change that ripples out to change other people’s lives. And The Darkest Minds… yikes! No thank you!
One of your early ways to practice writing was to write fanfic. What made you choose fanfic, and what were some of the biggest lessons you learned from community feedback?
Yes! While I didn’t tell my school friends that I was writing, I didn’t have qualms about posting my stories anonymously online. There were a lot of reasons for why I wrote fanfiction that largely boil down to me not being ready to leave certain fictional worlds, or let go of a favorite character. Before there was Tumblr, Twitter, and Instagram, you had fewer outlets for joining a fandom online outside of message boards, and this was how I ultimately chose to participate in a few of them, including Harry Potter and Star Wars.
The nice thing about fanfiction is that it gives you a way to play with certain elements of storytelling without having to worry about others. When you’re writing in an established world, you can spend more time on developing characters, or teaching yourself about pacing. Or when you’re working with said characters, you can focus on taking them into different, unexplored areas of their world, or by delving their reactions to alternate realities or different conflicts. Actually, one of the most important things writing fanfiction gave me was discipline. I wanted to meet my one chapter per week goal, and the only way to do that was to sit down and work every weekend.
I’ve always been hungry to grow and improve my writing, and I knew the people of fanfiction.net were equally hungry to give me feedback, both good and bad. Having enthusiastic feedback gave me the confidence to keep going and keep experimenting. And, actually, I don’t remember any truly harsh criticism that wilted my spirit. I think I figured out very quickly—a lesson I still remind myself of today—that there’s a difference between people giving you negative feedback based on personal preferences, and true critical feedback about the writing and story development. Separating the two in your mind is key.
What’s your go-to snack / drink when you’re writing?
Oh man, I am a Mountain Dew maniac. It’s awful. I try to only drink it while on major deadlines and stick mainly to coffee in the morning and tea in the afternoon. When I was in college and writing every single morning before classes, I would buy “breakfast” from the vending machine: Cheez-its and a bottle of Coca Cola. I really need some healthier snacks!
What’s currently on your bedside table?
A notebook and pen to do writing and/or plotting before bed, my phone, and whatever novel I’m reading that week. I’m currently re-reading Sabaa Tahir’s An Ember in the Ashes so I can dive into its sequel.
Which is your favorite of your traits?
I’m loyal to a fault with rare exception. I basically turn into Buffy when it comes to battling my friends’ monsters.
Plans or spontaneity?
I like planning, personally. I have never liked surprises…
Favorite book when you were a child?
Oh no! This is too hard… if I had to pinpoint one, I think it’s probably Catherine, Called Birdy by Karen Cushman.