A lot of exciting perks come with writing the reviews on MuggleNet's Book Trolley. I love being able to share the joy of books with people, especially hungry young readers who are just starting to appreciate how much fun the world of literature holds for them. I appreciate their feedback and suggestions. It makes my day when authors let me know they appreciated my review of their books. And of course, I don't mind getting a free book now and then - though I only accept offers of books that I would have read regardless.
But when an author whose work I respect and enjoy grants me an interview, my excitement overflows the boundaries of verbal description. It's only happened once before now. This time it is P. W. Catanese, answering my questions about his latest book, Happenstance Found, book one of "The Books of Umber." Thanks again, Paul! And now for the Q&A...
RF: How far ahead have you planned the "Books of Umber"?
PWC: All the way to the very end, including the last scene. (I can vividly recall walking down a street in New York City when the final twist popped into my head.) I had to provide a synopsis for the entire series to my publisher, Simon and Schuster, as part of the process of selling the idea. It was for my own good, too, since I really wanted to be sure I knew where the story was going. This series is very tightly plotted with a lot of threads coming together and resolving. So, while I don’t always outline my novels, I did outline all the books in this series.
Is the series open-ended, or do you have a certain number of books in mind? How many?
Right now the plan is for three books. There will be a very definitive end.
Can you identify any stories or people who inspired you or served as models for the people and events in this book?
For me, the inspiration really came from the stories I had already written, and then adding the unique twist of another genre that sets the Books of Umber apart. I tend not to use real people as models for my characters – bits and pieces of people, but rarely an actual person that I know. For me, characters start with a distinguishing trait – shy, exuberant, cranky, things like that – and then other more complex layers of personality are added the more I think about them.
What specific idea led you to tell this story?
When I was writing The Brave Apprentice, probably around 2004, I included a scene where someone refers to a historian named Umber who has written about monstrous creatures. I just pulled that name out of nowhere. But the name, and more importantly the idea of a sort of ‘paranormal investigator’ in a fairy tale world, stuck with me. That was five years ago, and the story has been growing in my head ever since, even while I was writing books like The Mirror’s Tale.
What was the last piece that clicked into place before you knew this story was going to "work"?
It was not enough for Umber to run around investigating the weird and monstrous – he needed a quest of his own. That arrived in the form of the young hero Happenstance, who is just as important to the story as Umber. Once I figured out the back story and destiny of Hap, and how that intersected with Umber’s past, I had my story arc.
What rules did you set for yourself to guide your decision-making as the story unfolded? For example: This character must never be allowed to ____, etc.
I don’t know that I think of it this way as I write, but certainly there are certain traits that particular characters will exhibit. Keeping characters true to themselves is crucial – if everyone is working toward their own goal, the story can almost write itself. But there are other ‘rules’ at play I suppose – for example, the kind of knowledge that the amnesiac Hap exhibits is a very specific type of knowledge, as readers of the book will discover. And there are limits to his powers, which are specific in my mind.
Have you given a detailed backstory to many of your characters, including information the books may never reveal?
For certain characters, I definitely conceive a backstory. But it’s a fluid, unofficial thing, which I will revise internally as needed to suit the evolving story. Those things are revealed as needed. And if the character’s personal history isn’t essential to the story, I don’t bring it up.
How important will the background of characters such as Sophie and Oates be in upcoming books?
I don’t want to say too much but I will say this: In the second book, Sophie’s background – where she came from and why her hand is missing – will be revealed, and are very important to the plot.
Is it my imagination, or does the scene at the palace (with all the tension between Umber and the three princes) foreshadow troubles to come?
The first book is an adventure unto itself but it also introduces the players and sets the table for the rest of the story. A lot happens in book two, and the princes play a large part. So that’s not your imagination, lots of trouble ahead.
What is your general theory of magic as it operates in Umber's world?
There is no magic where Umber comes from. In the world where this story takes place, magic is just like technology. It can be used to improve the world and make lives better, or it can be used by wicked people for wicked reasons. But while technology is scientific and predictable, magic is mysterious and unpredictable.
Where would Umber draw the line between what technologies he can and cannot reveal to the people of Kurahaven?
Umber is extremely cautious about his inventions – for obvious reasons, given where he came from. He wants to uplift, enlighten and improve.
Will the elopement of Smudge's brother Caspar become more important in later books?
Caspar took off with all of the information about the Meddlers – you will meet him before long and find out where he’s been. (And just wait until you do!)
Was the storm that hit Kurahaven in this book entirely natural, or was there some magic behind it?
That was Mother Nature at her worst, and not a magical occurrence.
What can you tell us about the kingdom of Kurahaven - its extent, what else it contains besides the port city, etc.?
Kurahaven is the chief city of the kingdom of Celador. It’s the true source of the kingdom’s wealth, and it sits at the northernmost point of the kingdom on the Rulian Sea. Aside from a few islands and ports near and far, the rest of the kingdom sprawls south. The great forest, which provides lumber for its vast shipbuilding enterprises, lies at the heart of the kingdom. By the way, that forest is the same scary place where my story The Eye of the Warlock took place. Farther south, the borders are defined by mountains and other natural features – but it hardly matters in those sparsely populated hinterlands.
Will we see more creatures like the Tyrant Worm?
Lots of creatures ahead! There are more beasties in Book Two than in any story I’ve written – including some really creepy ones.
Where does Hoyle live, and will we see more of her?
Hoyle, who presides over Umber’s business interests and is the ultimate capitalist, would certainly have a home in the residential area, but knowing her often sleeps on a cot right at the Umber Shipping Company offices.
Besides Umber and Hap, who is your favorite character in this book?
This story is chock full of characters that I really enjoy depicting. Oates is great fun though, with his uncompromising honesty.
How did you dream up the Creep?
The creative process is often unexplainable. Without revealing too much: There’s something very distinctive about the Creep that makes him, for me, an especially horrible villain. That unique trait is born out of necessity, since I wanted to avoid comparisons to other cloaked figures that appear in other works of fantasy. So I ask myself, ‘What can I do with this guy that’s different?’ and wait for inspiration to strike.
What part of this book was the most fun to write?
The action scenes are always the easiest and most fun for me. The words fly fast and furious.
What part of this book was the most difficult to write?
Exposition is the hardest for me – when a couple of characters have a conversation that will deliver crucial information to the reader. It takes extra work to do that in an economical and interesting way.
While you were writing this book, what were you most tempted to do instead of writing?
So many answers to this question! Free time is the hardest thing to come by for me. I was most tempted to sleep, watch a great movie, or get some fresh air.
Do you ever have dreams or odd incidents in real life that your mind connects with this book?
No dreams that connected with this particular book. A dramatic event that happened in my childhood works its way into the story, mostly the second book. When I’m writing a story, I’m very tuned into everything I see, hear and learn, and little bits and pieces can find their way into the story.
Is there an idea you would like thoughtful young readers to take away from this book?
What you do with your abilities really matters.
IMAGES: Illustrations from Happenstance Found, courtesy of P. W. Catanese; a photo of the author. Check out the Books of Umber website and the author's website for more information.