One Question with Alex Littlefield

You could say that Alex Littlefield owes at least a part of his career to Greenwich Village, that magical downtown neighborhood that in the mid-20th century gave birth to his first stop in publishing in the editorial and subsidiary rights department at Grove/Atlantic. Now Alex works as an acquisitions editor at Basic Books, another independent publisher that got its start in Greenwich Village back in the 1950s and focuses on works of intellectually-driven nonfiction. (On my to-read list: their Letters to a Young… series inspired by Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet.) Before he was an editor, I used to run into Alex at packed shows at Music Hall of Williamsburg where he wrangled interviews with young, buzzed about Brooklyn bands. A jack of all written trades, Alex was kind enough to travel back to his childhood—with a stop to Argentina, no less—in order to share with us the series of fantasy novels taught him the pure joy of reading and writing.—MML

What one piece of writing has changed the way you think about your own work?

I’ve worn a strange series of hats—as a playwright, crime reporter, essayist, music critic, now nonfiction editor—and I can probably trace each of them back to a book: Martin McDonagh’s The Pillowman, or Jonathan Ames’s What’s Not to Love?, or Miklos Nyiszli’s Auschwitz. But before them all there was Timothy Zahn’s Thrawn Trilogy: Heir to the Empire (Bantam, 1991), Dark Force Rising (Bantam, 1992), and The Last Command (Bantam, 1993).

For three years in the early nineties, my family lived in Argentina. I went to an international school with lots of other American students, and we all indiscriminately latched onto anything having to do with U.S. culture. One day, when I was nine years old, my dad returned from a business trip with a VHS tape of The Empire Strikes Back. I had never seen any of the Star Wars movies, and I watched them obsessively. After we moved back to the States, I got my hands on the Thrawn Trilogy. The details are sketchy: the books are set in the aftermath of Return of the Jedi, when Han and Leia have twins, an evil warlord is rallying the remnants of the Imperial Fleet, and Luke is dating an alien covered with blue feathers. Not exactly high literature.

But—and it’s taken me a long time to admit this—the books changed my life. I came back to the U.S. halfway through the fifth grade, and had a miserable time making friends (maybe because I always had my nose in a book of fan fiction, come to think of it). Zahn’s books offered distraction and comfort. When I finished the last of them, I started writing short stories, creating my own twists on the same universe; it was transportive, and I loved every minute of it. I even made my first friend when, during homeroom one morning, we realized we were both reading books from the trilogy.

As I gradually readjusted to life in the States, I drifted away from Star Wars. But even after moving on to new interests, I kept reading and writing. The Thrawn Trilogy had fired my imagination; it had taken me out of myself. The best nonfiction books—or music reviews, or playscripts, or crime reports—do exactly the same thing.