Alex London talks new YA sci-fi thriller, 'Proxy'
Looking for an awesome YA summer read? Look no further than Alex London’s Proxy. In London’s futuristic novel (out now) kids born into poverty (a.k.a. Proxies) pay off their debt by serving the criminal sentences for wealthy children (a.k.a. Patrons). Enter Sydney Carton, a Proxy who, after a series of strange events, meets his Patron, Knox. Here, London talks about the interesting concept for Proxy, shares the literary inspiration behind his character’s names, and explains why his main character happens to be gay. Check it out after the jump.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Where did you come up with the idea for Proxy?
ALEX LONDON: It’s hard to say where a novel comes from, but I think Proxy started because I didn’t do the dishes. A few years ago, I’d left a sink full of dishes after a day at home ‘writing’—meaning watching Cosby Show reruns—and my partner, on coming home from a long day at work, saw all the dishes, and called out: “Fetch the Whipping Boy!” It brought back the memory of Sid Fleischman’s The Whipping Boy, which I’d read in 4th grade—about a bratty prince and the poor kid who takes his punishments.
I couldn’t get it out of my head, this idea that there could be a child so privileged that he didn’t need to take his own punishments, that he could have another kid act as his proxy. Being a teen already feels like you’re being punished for someone else’s mistakes—even if it’s just yourself 10 minutes earlier when you didn’t realize actions had consequences—so it felt right to imagine this story with teenagers. Though there are real historical precedents for whipping boys, it seemed like something right out of a dark vision of the future. And then I thought, “What if there was a whole society organized around this idea? How would it enforce such an unjust system? And what if a proxy had had enough of it?”
What about the aspect of financial debt? Obviously we don’t have anything as drastic as Patrons and Proxies, but there are big wealth gaps between classes. Why did you decide to tackle that specific issue?
Once I had the concept I had to figure out why the world would be that way. How would a kid end up a Proxy? And if there were many of them, why wouldn’t they just rise up against their Patrons in bloody class warfare? This was during election season, and I kept seeing all this stuff about getting rid of “government interference with the free market,” as if corporations were somehow these benevolent forces for good. Then I got a bill for my student loans and it clicked: In Proxy, there would be no government, no one to rise up against. There would be companies and they would serve their customers. If you weren’t a customer, then, well, you were the product. You could borrow to live, and they could sell your debt and that debt made you a proxy. The debt stuff in Proxy, sad to say, isn’t all that sci-fi. Most young people live it every month when the bills come due. I just took it a little farther, added some torture to the bill collections process.
I love that the Proxies are given names from classic literature. Why did you choose the names you chose? Specifically, why Sydney Carton? Are you a big Tale of Two Cities fan?
Because all the Proxies are these kids in debt, I thought it’d be a delightfully dark twist if not even their names were their own. The names are assigned to orphans, just like their debts. I used the names of fictional characters ripped out of their contexts both because it was funny (Atticus Finch as the sexy mean jock? I mean, how could I resist?), but also because this is what our culture does. We tell stories about people—especially poor people and dark-skinned people—that fit the narrative we need, and those stories often have little to do with their lived realities as individuals. I took it to an extreme: the Patrons of my society actually just assign fictions to their poor. They never need to become real to the powerful.
As for Syd, I hadn’t written the ending when I gave him his name. I just always liked Sydney Carton in A Tale of Two Cities. Dickens’ themes are all there in Proxy: poverty, revolution, justice, redemption. Looking back at how the book unfolds, it seems obvious that Syd should have that name, but I hadn’t planned it that way. I guess I owe a lot of Proxy to A Tale of Two Cities. Of course, Dickens never wrote killer robots.
UP NEXT: More with Alex London, plus the first two chapters of Proxy!
Female protagonists are the typical choice when it comes to YA, but Proxy has two male leads, and one of them happens to be gay. What influenced your decision to write those two characters?
I went to all-boys prep school as a kid, and my upbringing was actually closer to Knox’s than to Syd’s, so I’m very comfortable writing in a dude milieu. Then again, real dudes would probably never say ‘milieu.’ I wasn’t nearly as heartless (or as rich or as straight) as Knox, but I understood the way privilege can warp your views of the world. I wanted to exorcise some of those demons in my own thinking. Also, when I was a teen, I didn’t know any other gay kids, so all my friends were straight (as far as I knew), and I’ve always been interested in that relationship—how they saw me, how I saw them, even when there was no attraction involved. I wanted to explore it, but I didn’t want to write a “gay” book, or even a book about that relationship. It was just a fact of my life. I wanted to write action heroes. So I started writing two action heroes, coming from two very different points of view.
Syd kind of surprised me by coming out. It wasn’t my intention when I started writing the book. Once it was done, I realized it made a lot of sense for Syd. He is gay, but he is also a skilled technician, a tough fighter, a mensch, and a troubled kid. Knox is bratty and rich and a womanizer, but he’s also more than that. Knox is trying to be his best self, while everything he knows of the world is telling him to be a heartless jerk. That’s the trouble with being a teenager. Everyone wants to define you, to tell you who you are based on some limited piece of your identity—jock, prep, emo, geek, queer—but you know that you contain multitudes. That remains true even in a society where killer robots, assassin clones, and ruthless mercenaries are trying to kill you. For Syd, it’s not a struggle with his sexuality that defines him. It’s no big deal to be gay, but even in the future, it’s tough as hell to be an action hero. There are going to be bruises.
Proxy just hit shelves, but I know there’s a second book in the works. What’s the timeline for that, and what—if anything—can you tease about it?
The series is a duet! The sequel is called Guardian. I don’t want to give too much away, but I can say the character Marie plays a much bigger role. She fascinated me while I was writing Proxy. (I even wrote and then cut several chapters from her point of view.) She’s such a committed idealist—almost ruthless—and I wanted to know her better in the aftermath of what happens with Syd and Knox. Also, there may or may not be a new love interest for Syd, and, of course, a high stakes fight for survival and the fate of humanity
Anything else you want to add?
I’ve always wondered what it would be like to meet my characters outside of my own imagination, and, short of an epic movie franchise, it seems like fan fiction is the closest an author can get to doing that. I love how creativity sparks more creativity. It’s the only infinitely renewable resource I know of. So I guess this is my public way of giving Proxy fan fiction my blessing. Go forth and make stuff up!