Hadley Stewart sits down with Simon James Green to delve into his third young adult book entitled ‘Alex in Wonderland’
Simon James Green is nervous about his latest book. “It’s terrifying,” he tells me when we meet in his publisher’s office in Euston, a few weeks before the publication of Alex in Wonderland. Following the success of his previous two books, Noah Can’t Even and Noah Could Never, I tell him there’s nothing to fear. I couldn’t put the book down, and I’m sure his readers will be equally glued to Alex’s story too. Alex in Wonderland explores the summer after GCSEs, when 16 year olds across the country are looking for something to fill the void left by exams, and hormones are raging.
We meet Alex at the start of this summer of change: dumped by his two best friends, he finds himself working at an amusement arcade, in the fictional seaside down of Newsands. He’s shy, self-conscious and head-over-heals in love with his straight best friend. But not only is Alex in Wonderland a romantic comedy for young adults, it has a hint of mystery and a subtle commentary on being a young person in a deprived seaside town. Filled with cliff-hangers and awkward moments that we all remember from our teens, Alex’s relatable personality will have you cringing and laughing in equal measure.
“I wanted to do something a little bit different from Noah, but still something funny and gay,” says Green of coming up with the idea for Alex in Wonderland. “Noah, as a character, is quite extreme and borderline hysterical a lot of the time. I wanted to explore a character that had some comedy potential still, but was a little bit quieter and maybe not so confident as Noah.” Unlike Green’s previous gay character Noah, Alex has already come out, and is navigating life as a gay teenager in a town with very few other LGBTQ+ young people. “In Alex’s case, he’s not coming out, he’s already out and already knows that he’s gay,” explains Green. “So in that sense, it was interesting to explore a character from that point of view.”
Green seems to have captured Alex’s voice perfectly in this book. The reader can hear his shyness through the page, suggesting Green seems somewhat at ease with writing from this point of view. How much of his own experiences are Alex’s? “There are elements of Alex that are me, although I’m probably closer to Noah if I’m honest,” admits Green. The process was a slow one, he tells me, and required Green to experiment with Alex’s voice before finally finding it. “I do also sometimes think about people that I know or have known,” he adds. “And base certain elements of their personality on him.” In fact, Alex’s voice is based on actor and friend of Green’s, Dylan Llewellyn. “Dylan knows this,” Green is quick to say. “There are moments when I was writing about how Alex would say something, or the way he would talk to people, that I would think about Dylan.”
Alex’s shyness seems to originate from his fear of how people perceive him. “He spends a large part of the book feeling out of place,” explains Green. The rejection from his two friends at the beginning of the novel pushing him further into self-consciousness. “Alex has nothing to look forward to over the summer. He’s really affected by that through a lot of the book.” And what about Green as a teenager? “I think for me, that was a big part of my teenage years; the fear of what other people think of you,” he shares. “I guess the gradual realisation that you can be yourself, and if people don’t like that they can sod off.”
All teenagers question how their peers view them, but is it harder for Alex because he’s gay? “I mean there are elements of it that are universal, but I’d say it’s certainly heightened if you are also gay,” argues Green. In fact, Green says that from visiting schools to promote his books, he has come to realise that most teenagers are self-conscious, irrespective of their sexuality or gender identity. “But I think there will always be that sort of gradual realisation of who you are during those teenage years.” He pauses and then laughs, “Hideous as they often are!”
The small town in which the book is set is interesting, given that most LGBTQ+ fiction seems to be set in either London or Manchester. Green, who was raised in a small town in Lincolnshire, says he drew on his memories of trips to “some of those honestly quite grim seaside towns on the Lincolnshire coast” when he created Newsands. But his choice of setting wasn’t accidental. “That was very deliberate, actually,” explains Green. “I’m always keen to look at the LGBTQ+ experience in smaller towns, because I think it’s a very different experience.” The lack of LGBTQ+ visibility in these towns results in queer young people living there having a more challenging experience, he argues.
Alex’s shyness seems to originate from his fear of how people perceive him. “He spends a large part of the book feeling out of place,” explains Green. The rejection from his two friends at the beginning of the novel pushing him further into self-consciousness.
Moreover, the book’s plot also benefited from the small town setting. “I think it makes the whole experience a lot more intense, whatever it is you’re going through. I love that pressure cooker environment of the small town experience,” says Green. “You cannot do anything without it being spotted or gossiped about in some way. That of course makes all the drama that happens all the much intense for the reader and for the characters. I think that setting certainly helped drive a lot of the drama in the book.”
There is also a subtle commentary about deprivation in coastal towns, something which Green was also conscious of exploring in the book. “I imagined it to be one of those towns on the Kent coast, where there is still an element of poverty and deprivation,” he shares. The book looks at the lack of prospects for young people in such towns, and the tension between local residents and the “hipsters” from nearby London. “It has been infiltrated by rich Londoners who have bought up cheap property, commuting back to London. But how does it feel to be a resident in those sorts of towns where you’re kind of being pushed out a bit of your own town?”
Romance is also flourishing throughout the novel, with Alex falling in love with his best friend, Will, before his heart flutters for Caleb and Ben. Alex says in the book that he has a tendency to fall in love with straight boys, something that many can relate to, so is this almost a rite of passage for young gay men? “I don’t know if it is a rite of passage,” replies Green. “I think it happens to quite a few people. Yes, it is based on a few personal experiences over the years, that’s true enough. I can imagine it could well happen to other people, especially when you’re in a situation where you don’t have many other options.” And without giving anything away, Green throws several red herrings in front of Alex, whose love life has its fair share of embarrassing moments.
The young people in this book seem comfortable discussing LGBTQ+ topics, which is something that Green has noticed during his school visits. It is important to him to meet readers, and find out their thoughts on his books and themes within them. “I was at school when Section 28 was in place, and so there was no discussion of it in classes,” says Green whilst comparing how much has changed since he was in school. He admits that although he has always been received positively by schools, there is still a long way to go before every LGBTQ+ young person feels accepted in school. And when I ask him about protests going on in front of a primary school in Birmingham, “It is alarming,” he tells me. Green credits school librarians for helping to get more LGBTQ+ books, his included, into the hands of pupils.
Alex says in the book that he has a tendency to fall in love with straight boys, something that many can relate to, so is this almost a rite of passage for young gay men? “I don’t know if it is a rite of passage,” replies Green. “I think it happens to quite a few people. Yes, it is based on a few personal experiences over the years, that’s true enough.
Green is already working on his next project, but would rather not share too many details about it. “Teen, gay and funny are three big tick boxes that I like to do. For the moment, the plan is to certainly stick in that area and see how much more mileage I can get out of it!” he laughs. Whilst readers wait to read his next book, Green was also commissioned to write a short story for the LGBTQ+ anthology, Proud. In addition to Alex in Wonderland, Green’s story about gay penguins upstaging his main character’s coming out will leave you feeling warm inside.
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Photo credit: Gareth Williams