An Accidental Adventure with C. Alexander London

I met C. Alexander London purely by accident at my other middle-grade project (on Twitter), #MGlitchat. But it’s no accident that I invited him to the blog today to talk about his Accidental Adventure series and celebrate the books by giving away copies of both. The first book, WE ARE NOT EATEN BY YAKS, came out February 2011, and the second book in the series, WE DINE WITH CANNIBALS, releases this week. Both books follow twin siblings Celia and Oliver Navel as they go on adventures throughout the world, though they aren’t happy about it. They’d rather stay home and watch television instead.

C. Alexander is also an author of nonfiction for grown-ups (under the not-so-secret pseudonym, Charles). In addition, he is a skeet-shooter, a SCUBA diver, and, most action-packed of all, a fully licensed librarian.

Welcome, C. Alexander!

The Navel twins spend most of both books not at home in front of the television, which is where they’d rather be. Are you a TV watcher?

Oh yes, indeed I am. That’s how I got the idea for the series. They aren’t just some kids I made up. They’re me. Not exactly, of course. I’ve thrown in a good chunk of daydreaming, but I thought Oliver and Celia while I was on a flight between Rangoon in Burma and Mumbai, India. Mass protests had broken out in Rangoon—mostly led by thousands of red-robbed monks—and the military government had sent in hardened government soldiers to end the uprising. I literally walked into the middle of it, in the middle of downtown, beneath a temple that was said to contain a hair of the Buddha. It was also a busy traffic circle, so the scene was chaotic. Within days, the government had sealed off the country, shut down the internet and scrambled all foreign television stations. No CNN. No Cartoon Network.

And I really missed it.

Even as things were going insane in the world around me, TV made me feel safer. Even though I was having the adventure of a lifetime, all I wanted was to be curled up on the couch at home watching TV. It was on my flight out of Burma to India that I pulled out my little black notebook (I always carry a little black notebook) and wrote out the idea for Oliver and Celia Navel, who are doomed to have a life of adventure, when all they want is peace and quiet.

But you are a librarian. You must have chosen books over TV when you were younger. Right?

I’ve always been a TV watcher. When I was younger, TV and video games were how I got my story fix. I loved stories, but I didn’t like to read. At least, not until a teacher got me to pick up Redwall, by Brian Jacques. It was the first big book I read on my own. I loved it! The action, adventure, and heroism, the richness of his imagination. So I wrote to him. And he wrote me back! I was 11 years old, and I don’t recall what I said to him, but in his response, he wrote: “I hope you will grow up to be a writer, and remember, you need to use your imagination, a writer needs to have a vivid and lively imagination.” That letter played a large role in setting me on a path to become a reader and writer. I hope to live up to the vividness of his imagination and to his generosity of spirit with my own readers.

Once I started to read more, it got easier for me, and I quickly came to realize that with TV (and video games to a lesser degree) you have roughly the same experience as everyone else consuming that media, but with reading, you get your own private experience that can take you anywhere. You do half the work of building the world of the story in your mind and in that way, it becomes your book. My Redwall Abbey or Hogwarts School (before I saw the movie), looks a little different than anyone else’s in the world. I love that about reading. I like TV to unwind, but I love reading to explore.

Speaking of exploring, the hero and heroine in your Accidental Adventures series (we won’t call them explorers; they wouldn’t like it) do spend a lot of time in some pretty cool places. How did you bring those settings to life?

So considerate of you! Indeed, they would HATE being called explorers! I do like traveling a bit more than Oliver and Celia Navel do (although their dislike of travel is also based on me). I’ve traveled a lot and many of their accidental adventures are based on my own, although the settings are a bit different. I’ve been bitten by a lizard of some kind in a jungle, although it was in Thailand, not South America, and I’ve been stuck in a Buddhist monastery near the Himalayan mountain range, but in Burma, not Tibet. While I’ve been to similar places where the adventures take place, I love doing research. I studied Tibetan Buddhism in college, so many of the ideas in the first book, We Are Not Eaten By Yaks, came from that. For We Dine With Cannibals, I did a lot of reading and going through the journals of explorers, and of course, the occasional TV documentary.

Perhaps because I spent a few years as a journalist before I started writing fiction for the middle grade set, I like testing the limits of my imaginative empathy to write about people and places I’ve never been. I couldn’t do that as a journalist. If it didn’t happen or wasn’t said, I couldn’t write it. But in fiction, just because something is made up, doesn’t make it untrue. Of course, there is a danger of getting things wrong, so I try to be very careful with my research, as I am writing about real places and real cultures in these books, some of which are facing very real challenges to their survival in the 21st century. I like writing about all these places through Oliver and Celia’s eyes, because, unlike them, I am in awe of all the different ways humans have found of being human, from malls in Minnesota to the Buddhist monks at the Jumping Cat Monastery on Inle Lake in Burma.

And in We Dine With Cannibals, you have poisonous pet lizards, cannibals, and key-poop (readers: you’ll have to read the book to find out what that is!), rapids, death traps and that dreaded game of dodgeball. How do you fit so much adventure into your adventures?

Well, I have tried to lead an interesting life so far. I was in the Eastern Congo on my 22nd birthday when a volcano erupted, I accidentally wandered into the middle of an attempted revolution in Burma, and I have always been very very bad at dodgeball. I’ve found that unexpected peril keeps things interesting in life and in this kind of story, so when writing, I imagine myself in Oliver and Celia’s shoes and then I ask, what would I really hate to have happen now? Then I do it. I feel bad for the twins, as I’m constantly putting them in mortal danger, but I have faith in them to find their way out of it. They are far more resourceful than I ever was. When whatever it was bit me in Thailand and my foot swelled up all red and puffy, I freaked and complained about it far more than even Oliver would.

As for Oliver, I noticed in some places that he almost LIKED being an explorer. And Celia isn’t too bad at exploring, either. So give us a hint: in future books are they going to plan an On-Purpose Adventure?

Well, I don’t want to give too much away, but the twins do come to accept the role they have to play as the greatest explorers in the world. While they aren’t exactly thrilled about it, they do start to enjoy some parts…in different ways. Part of the series is these two twins evolving into different people. While these are certainly plot (and joke) driven stories, the characters do change and grow into their own as their adventures work on them the way adventures do. You can’t trek through a sacred landscape in Tibet or explore the last unexplored regions of the Amazon without being changed by it. And yes, to some degree, there will be an on-purpose adventure. They may come to regret it…

This has, however, been one of my challenges in writing the series. When it begins, Oliver and Celia are essentially passive characters. They don’t want to go anywhere or do anything. They’re desires are essentially to negate plot. So, coming up with ways to motivate them and to motivate actions was hard. They had to want something.

I can’t wait for the next installment! Thanks, C. Alexander, for stopping by From the Mixed-Up Files.

In celebration of the release of WE DINE WITH CANNIBALS, we will send one lucky reader signed copies of both books in the series. To enter, please leave a comment letting C. Alexander know where you’d like to see Celia and Oliver end up on future accidental adventures. We’ll post the winner on Saturday, November 19th. Giveaway open to US/CAN residents only (sorry, international folks).

Elissa Cruz accidentally wrote a children’s book after trying for years to write for adults. She now writes middle-grade fiction on purpose. You can follow her writing life on her blog, www.elissacruz.blogspot.com, or catch her talking about writing on Twitter during the weekly #MGlitchat, Thursdays 9pm Eastern.

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