Earlier this month, The Portalist had the opportunity to meet with Alex London at New York Comic Con. London is the author of the groundbreaking young adult dystopian duology Proxy, and recently published Black Wings Beating, the first novel in his new fantasy series, The Skybound Saga. Set in a culture centered around birds of prey, the inaugural title in London's first fantasy trilogy transports readers to an incredibly queer, incredibly unique new world.
We spoke to London about writing stories that challenge our society's assumption of heterosexuality as default, how his background working with refugee children informs his fiction, and why he's become fascinated by birds of prey.
There's a really great thing happening where a lot of creators are now writing and telling the stories they wish they’d had when they were kids. Is that something you relate to?
Yes. For me, that’s the driving force. When I started my first young adult novel, it was a sci-fi novel, Proxy—at the time, this was 2013 when it came out—this was the height of dystopia. And I love dystopia, but there were never queer characters in the dystopian futures, and I was like ‘where are we?.' Certainly we were never the heroes.
And teen me was always reading between the lines for queer heroes and inventing them where they weren't. And I needed it so badly that I was like ‘okay, I guess I need to do it myself.' And the response was so amazing, queer teens who'd never seen themselves as heroes in the kind of stories they loved rushed to it. But I was surprised and delighted to see the straight readers embrace it and judge the character by their bravery and their kindness, not by who the character wanted to kiss. In that book the main character is gay, but it’s not about that, you could make him straight and it wouldn't change the plot.
And looking back I thought 'oh, I wish it was more central. It's central to who he is, but I wish it was more central to the story,' so when I sat down to write Black Wings Beating I didn't want to just have a queer hero, I wanted to have a queer world, queer heroism, where his queerness is inseparable from the universe.
So in inventing a fantasy world, I didn’t have to import our gender constructs, our sexuality constructs into the world. Those didn't have to be the axes on which power moved. And so I could create a world where straight and cisgender were not assumed, where they were not the default. And to see that when I was a young reader would have been mind-blowing to me. Like, ‘oh my God, straight doesn’t have to be normal, and maybe not everyone you meet is cisgender.’ And that's not loaded with a societal value that is negative or positive, it's just a fact of the world. And Black Wings Beating is a falconry-based fantasy world, the main character is a falconer, and there's just a lot of cool bird stuff that relates to that.
"My job as a writer for young people is to break open the veil of assumption and say look, there are other possibilities."
Female birds are two to three times the size of male birds—in real life—because they have to be bigger and stronger to defend the nest, and the boys have to be quick and fast to hunt food. And the males are usually more colorful because they have to be more ornate and attract mates. So birds don’t have the same gender assumptions that we do. And I was like 'oh, that makes a good little metaphor.' So all that stuff, especially for young readers, it's a way to lay a groundwork [and say] the way our world is, the way we construct these things, aren't the only ways to do it, there are other possibilities. And I think that’s my job as a writer for young people is to break open the veil of assumption and say look, there are other possibilities.
In terms of worldbuilding in general, is it something you’re very deliberate about and plan out, or something you more discover as you go along?
It’s my favorite thing, worldbuilding. It’s simultaneously deliberate and accidental. Writers describing their process is weird, because some of it is just magic. So we’re always trying to catch lightning in a bottle; everything I say I reserve the right to also say the opposite. It was very deliberate, I knew I didn’t want to have straight as assumed, I knew I didn't want to have the male-female divide be so specific and policed, I wanted to be very deliberate with pronouns of background characters. Not everyone was he, not everyone was she, and the gender didn’t define the roles, so you have shes and theys as soldiers, and hes as parents. So that was very deliberate.
But also when I catch a concept for a world, I kind of play it out and discover it as I go, but I stay very focused on the key concepts. So for Black Wings Beating, I knew that it was birds of prey, and so it would be a community that worshipped them, that used them for everything, the center of their economy, their religion, their culture. And that dictated then the geography, so I was like 'okay, they're going to be at a high altitude because they long for the sky,' so everything they do would be skyward, and that dictates how their funeral practices work. They do sky burial, and the worst thing that could happen to you would be to be buried under the ground.
Whenever I got stuck in the worldbuilding or something didn't make sense, I could always know look to the birds, let the birds be my guide, for all the relationships, and the culture, and the power. And that was also helpful in describing characters. I didn't want to import our racial constructs, either. I had to understand how power moves along racial lines in our world in order to break that, and write it differently, and know that power in Black Wings Beating moves along lines of who has access to birds, and how they use them. That’s how power moves. Not along race, gender, or sexuality. So those were the deliberate things. And then the rest is the joy of going on an adventure.
Stories are the best vehicles for meaning humanity has ever invented.
Where did the idea of focusing a book around birds come from? Have you always been fascinated by falconry?
I was so not a bird person. It started in a couple of ways. There are birds of prey that fly around my neighborhood, and just watching them, and being fascinated by them, was one thing. And then I saw a picture on Pinterest that was basically just a really cute guy with a hawk on his fist, and I was like, ‘what’s going on there?’ And I had a dream on a flight, I was listening to the audiobook, randomly, it was the only audiobook I had, the only one I’ve ever finished listening to in my life, it was Helen McDonald’s H is for Hawk. It's a dual biography of her [Helen McDonald] grieving her father and training a goshawk, and T.H. White training a goshawk, and failing. I identified so much with T.H. White’s pain and struggles and traumas, that I wanted to explore it. And the deeper I dug, I couldn't believe no one had written a falconry-based fantasy world yet.
Aside from the coolness of birds of prey as I started learning—things like the Lammergeyer, which is a vulture that only eats bone marrow, so they crack bones open and eat them—so there's lots of cool bird facts. But also just on a metaphorical level, this world where power comes through birds of prey—you can't train a bird of prey unless you have your emotions under control. If you get too worked up they will freak out, they’re just balls of rage and air. So they're super stressed all the time and your job is to keep them calm, keep them happy, keep them fed just right. It’s an art of managing longing, and to me that’s also what it means to be a teenager. You’ve got all this want, but not quite knowing how to get it, and all this responsibility, but you don’t know how to manage it, so on this level it kind of just really works as an image.
And so the only way to train one is deep attention to their needs, their wants. And what is that essential relationship? It’s care, it's attention, it's love. The world of Black Wings Beating is very violent and dark, but the only way to attain power in it is through gentleness, and kindness, and love. That to me felt very powerful, and it felt very queer.
The ones who try to attain mastery in this world through brute force, spoiler alert, they’re not the ones who win in the end. I’m not naive, there’s ugliness in the world, and sometimes the only way to beat Nazis is to punch them in the face. Our grandparents stormed the beaches of Normandy and shot as many Nazis as they could, so I’m not a pacifist. But I do believe that violence destroys, love will win in the end, so I wanted to build a fantasy world where that could be true even in its ugly brutality.
You worked as a journalist in the past, and a lot of your nonfiction writing is about refugee children. How did you discover that you wanted to write fiction, and how does that body of work [as an international journalist] inform your writing now?
I write for the kids I met all over the world. Young people can survive dangerous situations. They do every day. They live in very unsafe, unstable situations. Humanity has survived because kids are tough, but they can't survive without meaning. And stories are the best vehicles for meaning humanity has ever invented. And so as I was traveling the world and talking to child soldiers and refugees, they were always telling stories, and making sense of their traumas but also telling funny stories, and the ones who could read clung to their books, and found hope and laughter and a sense of self through these books.
And I realized I didn’t want to be documenting their lives anymore, I didn’t want to be writing about them, I wanted to be writing for them. And so it shifted my life’s work. And I also saw that these kids had lives that were as epic as anything spoken by Homer. They were epic heroes themselves, they were activists in their community, young people are changing the world constantly, fighting political power that’s much bigger than them. You look at the Parkland kids, Mari Copeny—Little Miss Flint—or the Water Protectors who fought the Dakota Access Pipeline were largely young people. All of these kids are in our world fighting to be the protagonists of their own story, they do heroic things, they are surviving horrific things, making great art, having complicated romances, they're doing all the things that heroes do. So I wanted to celebrate that, and explore that, and so I knew 'okay, I've got to write stories for and about young people.'
Is there anything you want our readers to know, about anything you're working on?
I'm just finishing up a sequel to Black Wings Beating which has even bigger adventure. I love writing a trilogy, it's my first trilogy, so you get to zoom out. Black Wings Beating keeps its focus pretty narrow on Brysen and Kylee, the brother and sister, and their friends and lovers and all that, so it’s a pretty zoomed-in journey.
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The sequel zooms out a little and you get more of the world, and you get heightened stakes, and bigger action, and war is coming, and there are battles on sky and on land. And I kick the romance up a notch. I won't say more than that, but it gets romantic. Oh yeah. I finally got brave enough to write the kind of queer romance I also wanted to read, and I hope readers will go there with me, because I’m pretty excited about the sequel.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.