“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. Grow up strong and honest Sandy like a real Redwaller, kind to your family and true to your friends.” Redwall creator Brian Jacques gave 10-year-old C. Alexander London this sage advice in June 1991, in response to a letter the aspiring writer sent to his favorite author. It was counsel London took to heart. He has written two YA novels, Proxy and Guardian; and three middle-grade series: Accidental Adventures, Dog Tags, and Tides of War. The author is honoring Jacques’s legacy with The Wild Ones, which launches his own animal-adventure fantasy series, due this month from Philomel – publisher of the Redwall books.
London centers The Wild Ones, which has an announced first printing of 50,000 copies, on Kit, an orphaned raccoon in Ankle Snap Alley, a city in the midst of a turf war between the Wild Ones and the people’s pets, who call themselves The Flealess. There he follows the clues his parents left behind to uncover the secret that they died for – an ancient truce that gives Ankle Snap Alley to the Wild Ones.
“Actually I took an odd and long journey toward this book,” London said. “I hadn’t really thought I’d ever write a talking animal fantasy, even though Redwall was the reason I became a reader. Before that, I was always daydreaming and making up stories, but I couldn’t sit still long enough to read a book, let alone a book as long as Redwall.”
That all changed when London’s fifth-grade teacher, a fan of Jacques, took great pains to convince the boy to give the novel a chance, and his efforts paid off. “He knew I’d respond to the story, and he was absolutely right,” he explained. “It opened up a world of possibilities and showed me there was nothing small about my daydreams. The book validated my own imagination in a way nothing else ever had. I loved the idea of anthropomorphic animals – I’d even make up stories about anthills on the playground blacktop – and I began thinking maybe I can write stories like Redwall, too.”
Those musings inspired him to write to Jacques in Liverpool, and he was deeply gratified by the author’s response. “He encouraged me and took my daydreaming and interest in writing seriously – he didn’t laugh it off,” London recalled. “When years later, I published my first book with Philomel, We Are Not Eaten by Yaks, I was going to send him a copy of it on the day it came out, with a copy of his original letter to me, to say, ‘Thank you for sending me on this journey.’ ”
Unfortunately, London never had the chance to mail that package, since Jacques died in February 2011, just days before the novel’s release. But London eventually found another way to express his gratitude. “In a sense, The Wild Ones is a belated thank you to him for sparking my imagination and setting my mind alight,” he explained.
A Fantasy Takes Shape
Though Jacques may have been London’s muse, it was Philomel publisher Michael Green (who edited the Redwall series and knew of London’s childhood passion for the books), who approached the author about writing a series in that same vein. “When Michael, who had worked so closely with the king of the genre, told me he thought it was time for a new epic animal fantasy, and thought I should write it, I almost had a heart attack hearing my name in the same sentence as Brian Jacques’s!” said London. “I knew it would be a lot of pressure to attempt the project, and I said I’d think about it.”
The author found the answer to his quandary – quite literally – in his own Brooklyn backyard. As he stood wondering if he really could take on this project – and what stories he might tell – two raccoons suddenly popped up in the yard. “One of them crawled toward me, sat on his haunches, and raised a paw to me,” London said. “I had a communal moment with this raccoon, and said to myself, ‘I absolutely have to write about this animal.’ And then the second raccoon approached and bit the first on the butt, and I knew this was a sign that I was going to write about raccoons in the alleys of Brooklyn.”
The plot thickened as London did some research on raccoons, and discovered that paw-raising is a sign of aggression. “I then realized that my initial interaction with that raccoon was not a transcendental moment after all – I had totally misread the gesture and I was actually in the middle of a turf war!” he recalled. “So the notion of a turf war among wild animals and house pets suddenly came to me – maybe because my Boston terrier was inside my house, growling through the glass door, filled with rage that I dared interact with raccoons!”
Yet that serendipitous moment was followed by considerable creative anguish. “It was an extremely agonizing process, actually,” London confided. “I tend not to outline, especially when I’m beginning a series. I’d rather discover as I write who the characters are and what their what world is, which is fun for me, but it doesn’t drive the plot along. I wrote a version drawn from folktales, and a crime noir version, but neither worked. Part of that was the natural process of how I write, but part of it was the pressure I felt writing a fantasy that was an homage to the books that made me a reader.”
More Backyard Musing
When he was “really stuck” at his keyboard, London headed back to his yard, where he found inspiration in squirrels running along power lines and birds singing in the trees. “I knew if I stayed grounded in the world of my city, the story would come,” he said. And that indeed happened: “All the novel’s characters were in some way sparked by my own neighborhood. My own dog is in there, another character is based on a feral cat that lives under a neighbor’s stoop, and the barber on my block inspired the book’s rooster character. I am no Brian Jacques, and I had to let go of that and make sure I was writing what was my own, and that freed me up to write a book that is very much me.”
That approach served The Wild Ones well, observed Philomel executive editor Jill Santopolo, who has been London’s editor since she acquired We Are Not Eaten by Yaks, the first volume of the Accidental Adventures series, in 2009. “What’s most amazing about The Wild Ones is the way Alex is able to capture a childlike sensibility in an incredibly appealing group of animals,” she commented. “Kit is a raccoon, but he’s absolutely an eight-year-old boy. And Alex has an ability to create action and adventure that just doesn’t stop. With all that, and the back story, this is a project that came together in that perfect way that an editor dreams of.”
That’s a sentiment underscored by Green, for whom The Wild Ones has special meaning. “How poetically apropos, that Alex become the first Philomel author since the world lost the great Brian Jacques to take up the torch and create a brand-new animal adventure series,” he noted. “I can’t think of another author I’d rather have pen these books. And I don’t doubt that someday Alex will receive a fan letter from a young reader, and the torch will be lit anew.”
That prediction sat very well with London, who said, “Because of what Jacques did for me, I make a good-faith effort to answer every letter I get from readers. You never know when one response will change someone’s life.”
The Wild Ones by C. Alexander London. Philomel, $17.99 Sept. ISBN 978-0-399-17099-7