Author Andrew Smith writes about the story behind his new novel The Alex Crow. The first time I met editor-publisher Julie Strauss-Gabel, she was handing out Advance Reader Copies of John Green’s Paper Towns. It was just a couple months before the publication of my first novel, and I was completely star struck because Julie is, well, Julie.
Naturally, this meeting left no lasting imprint on her memory.
The next time I spoke to her came several years later, and it was over the telephone. Julie was calling me to talk about her enthusiasm for Grasshopper Jungle
, which, of course, she eventually edited and published.
Now she knows who I am, I think.
One of the things that appealed to me about having Julie Strauss-Gabel publish Grasshopper Jungle
was her openness about seeking literary works that defy convention and don’t resemble anything else out there. She’s a champion in those regards. So, when she inevitably asked what I was going to write next, I told her that I wanted to write a book called The Alex Crow
, about a refugee kid, but that it wasn’t going to be a predictable tale—I wanted to include suicidal, formerly-extinct animals, an icebound steamship, a schizophrenic and melting bomber, a summer camp for video game addicts, and a little man (who might be the devil) frozen in ice. You know, a typical “Andrew Smith” book.
I also explained to her why I needed to write this story about survival and selfish compulsions; and the general failure of male-dominated societies.
In The Alex Crow
, the main character, a refugee boy named Ariel, wakes up after falling asleep inside a refrigerator while he’s dressed in a clown suit, the sole survivor of an attack on his little town. When he’s saved by America—which is what America likes to think it’s good at—he’s sent to a summer camp for boys who are addicted to technology, even though he’s never used a cell phone or played a video game in his life.
In the acknowledgments to The Alex Crow
, I include a statement of gratitude to my English Language Learner students—the incredible survivors who introduced me to the novel’s protagonist, that refugee kid named Ariel.
There is a real Ariel. He came from Syria. His family left behind everything they had and got out of the country when the civil war there was getting particularly nasty. It was a good idea, because the real Ariel’s family are Christian, and they came from a place that was recently overrun by the Islamic State movement.
The first day Ariel sat in my classroom was just a few days after he left the chaos of Syria. Imagine that! It also happened to be one of the days when I read aloud to my kids, and I was reading from Kurt Vonnegut’s Breakfast of Champions
(yes, I go there)—the part about how ridiculous, when you think about it, the lyrics to America’s national anthem are.
The real Ariel was very confused.
And I said, “Welcome to America, kid,” a line that’s repeated to the Ariel in my book.
That was about three years ago. And the impression I got from our first meeting—about how scared and lonely and confused this poor boy must have been—really stuck with me and informed the book I knew I had to write. Recently, I spoke to the kid again about that first day he spent in an American school, and he confirmed to me how overwhelmed he was—and is—by the strangeness of American society and culture.
He’s a terrific and highly intelligent kid.