Alexander Gordon Smith is the writer of the Inventors series for children and the YA/Fantasy Furnace series. I met Gordon in London at a Forbidden Planet’s event (the Guillermo del Toro signing) and prompted by his passionate talk about his books, I decided to give Furnace a go and wouldn’t you know, I LOVED it.
When we decided to extend our YA Month, I thought we should invite Gordon to write a guest post and he came up with what we think is one of the bravest Inspirations post we have ever been graced with:
Inspiration for Furnace
Alexander Gordon Smith
It’s often difficult to pinpoint exactly where the inspiration for any book comes from. But I guess with Furnace: Lockdown it can be boiled down to one truth:
Alex Sawyer is Alexander Gordon Smith. Or at least he’s the person I could have become.
In the first draft, Alex (the main character) didn’t have the name Sawyer, he had the name Smith. And it wasn’t just my name he shared – in many ways he was me, with the same loves, the same fears, the same insecurities. I never set out to write a book with myself as the main character, but as soon as Alex took life on the page I realised that he was one version of the teenager I had been. He was me, but a me that had never been allowed to exist. And his story, his horrific ordeal in Furnace, was a parallel version of my history that, fortunately, was never written in reality.
This makes more sense when you know what kind of character Alex is. He’s no hero, not the conventional kind anyway. He’s the bad guy, a school bully who robs kids of cash so he can buy himself new trainers, new bikes, new computers. He’s a burglar too, the kind of person who would steal a wedding ring from a lonely old woman so he can play the latest computer games. He knows he’s in the wrong, but this only makes his behaviour worse: there’s nothing innocent about Alex’s criminality, he does it because he consciously buries those bad feelings so deep that they can never rear their ugly heads.
Now, I was never as bad as Alex when I was a kid, but for a while I could have been. I remember all too well that lure of easy money – the desire to control at least one thing at a time when it feels as though your life is spiralling into chaos around you. I never robbed a house, but I was a thief: I stole money from my Mum and Dad, never more than ten or twenty quid at a time, but I stole other stuff too, things I could sell. Sentimental things. Things I knew I could never get back. Those same horrible feelings clawed their way through my gut every time I betrayed someone I loved, but like Alex I knew how to force them down, so deep inside me I could pretend they weren’t there at all.
And it got worse, too. I began hanging out at a biker bar, drinking lots, absorbing hours of heavy metal then letting it all out of my system in drunken scraps. I wasn’t a bully like Alex – I never picked a fight with anyone – but I was just as lost as him. And with each bloody nose and lost tooth I found my grasp on life, on myself, slipping away a little bit more. I hated it, but it was fast becoming who I was – without it, I faced the far greater fear of being nothing at all. And when you’re that age, absence is so much worse than substance, even when that substance has begun to rot.
I don’t know how bad it could have become. I’m guessing it never would have gone too far – I had the best family in the world, a safety net that was always there for me no matter how bad my behaviour became. Maybe that’s why I felt I could get away with it – I knew I could never lose myself completely. After I’d failed my A-Levels (not just because of my behaviour, I should say, I’d also written my first novel and assumed I wouldn’t need qualifications as a famous writer) I calmed down. I started to uncover some of those buried emotions – the guilt, the loathing, the shame – and only by confronting them and coming to terms with what I could have become did I truly realise what I wanted to be.
The Alex in Furnace has the same realisation, but in his version of history there is no escape. In his version of history there is the Furnace Penitentiary. Alex Sawyer is punished for the crimes that I committed, he suffers the worst fate that I could have imagined for myself when I was a teenager. This is why the events that take place in Furnace feel so real. When I was writing the book, Alex wasn’t just a character – he was me and I was him. I had to do everything in my power to try and find a way out, because if he couldn’t escape, then neither could I. Our lives may have taken different paths, but for as long as Alex was buried alive in the guts of the world we were one and the same again. His actions were mine, his terror was mine, the friends he made were my friends, the pain he felt was pain I felt too. And, most importantly, we were making a break for freedom together.
Being a writer sometimes means you have all the power in the world – in the world of your story, that is. But with Furnace I felt just as powerless as Alex. I didn’t plot the books, the story just unfolded, sometimes in a way that I never could have predicted. And there were many times when I had no idea how a scene would turn out, whether or not Alex would even survive. During these periods I felt that the pages of the manuscript were a mirror backed up against some impossible inter-dimensional void; the words on the page bars, through which I saw myself fighting tooth and nail just to stay alive. It was the same feeling I had when I was a teenager, wanting to be free but unable to control the chaotic world around me, unable to find a way out of the depths to the light and air on the surface.
I don’t know what will happen to Alex over the course of the series, but I know one thing: I’ll be there with him until the end. There’s no way I could abandon him in the pit of Furnace Penitentiary. Everything he goes through, I go through too, and when he changes – and he does change, so much, over the course of each book – so do I. His life is mine, and mine is his. And if I ever need a reminder of that I only have to read back over this piece of writing and notice how similar it is to Alex’s. That was unintentional, but I guess it was also inevitable when you not only become close to your character, but have always been him.
A HUGE thank you to Gordon for this incredible piece.
Find out more about his Furnace books here . If you already read Furnace: Lockdown and wants a sneak peek for the first chapters of book 2, Solitary, check this out. Warning: contains spoilers for book 1!
Now for the giveaway: Gordon is generously offering copies of Furnace books 1 AND 2 plus assorted goodies to 4 lucky winners! All you have to do is to leave a comment here. The contest is open to all and runs till Saturday 22 August 11:59PM Pacific Time. Good luck!