Tuesday, February 17, 2009

My Interview with N. D. Wilson

Recently, when my rave review of N. D. Wilson's 100 Cupboards was published on MuggleNet, a publicist from Random House emailed me in appreciation. She then offered to send me an Advance Review Copy of the sequel, Dandelion Fire, to be released February 24. As you know by now, I enjoyed the book and said so in a review.

The result was yet another offer: an opportunity to give away free copies of both books (which we are doing via a writing contest on MuggleNet). Since the author and his publicist were in such a good mood, I decided to ask for a chance to interview Mr. Wilson. I submitted my questions, and now the answers have arrived. With deep gratitude to both Nate and Meg, here is our interview. My questions and comments are in bold type; Mr. Wilson's responses are in plain type.

It's not hard to pick up on a spiritual dimension in the 100 Cupboards trilogy. I can't help but be curious about the religious background you are writing from, especially knowing that you edit a journal titled Credenda/Agenda. Could you unpack the description of Credenda/Agenda as a "trinitarian" journal? What can you say about its/your general doctrinal position, denominational affiliation, etc.?

I don’t usually get asked “religious questions” in reaction to my fantasy, so this will be fun. Here’s the best nutshell description I can give of my religious background: I was raised by a couple Jesus people hippies who gradually (throughout the course of my life) became Presbyterians. My father was the pastor, and I grew up attending his church in all of its hilarious permutations (meeting in parks, auto-body shops, etc.). I attend it still with my own young tribe. The hippiness has matured into something more liturgical and formal—historic creeds, confessions, weekly sacrament, and so on. To some, it might appear Anglican (there are similarities), but it belongs to a small Presbyterian denomination. It is still nomadic--currently meeting in a gym.

My parents soaked me in Tolkien and C.S. Lewis from a very young age, and my father was involved in starting a classical school in our small, rural town so that my sisters and I would get Latin and wrangle with big stacks of classics, ancient and modern. I studied some Philosophy of Religion after my undergrad but ended up with a broader MA in liberal arts from St. John’s College (Annapolis, MD).

That’s my background, but you asked about “trinitarian.” I believe in a triune Artist/Creator God, which means that I believe that at the very root of reality there is paradox and mystery, there is eternal love and tension and balance. I think that has to be part of why I love fantasy. Looking out of my eyes, we are all living in one. Which is to say that fantasy is just another take on realism.

How have your religious beliefs influenced the overall shape of the 100 Cupboards?

My religious beliefs are part of who I am, so they influence everything I do. But I wasn’t setting out to write a religious story. I wanted to write a good one. Of course, what I think is good is informed by my beliefs. I see patterns—triumph through sacrifice, death and resurrection, small foolish things overthrowing powerful things—everywhere in the world, in history, in literature, in mythology. And I find those patterns beautiful and work to imitate them. I also see the world crawling with mystery, every corner crammed with life and the secrets that sustain it. That is certainly something I try to communicate.

Would you say that the series has an overarching spiritual message?

Not in the way that most people would think of a “spiritual message.” But also yes. Sure it does—in the same way that life has an overarching spiritual message. Only my stories are distilled and stylized. There are a lot of themes that run through the books, but one of the most important things I’ve tried to communicate is a sense of wonder. I want kids to close the book and step back into their own world with wide eyes, marveling at the grass and the wind and the sun and the trees. In some ways, this is anti-escapism. Don’t grow bored with this world and lose yourself in books. Lose yourself in books to wake up in this world. Nothing I can paint with words could ever surpass the artistry in any child’s backyard—the earth beneath, the sky above, the many narratives between.

How has your spiritual worldview influenced the development of Henry York as a character?

Henry begins in a place where many modern kids can relate to him, and then he becomes the vehicle for the wonder I described above. Henry discovers the true overwhelming madness of the world and then his place within it. He discovers strength and an ability to affect and change the world. He begins as a weak and lowly character but rises up to shake the foundations of evil. It’s one of the great patterns in literature (and history), one that not only applied to Christ (born in a barn), but also to the various Hebrew prophets, judges, and even kings in the Old Testament—Moses, David, Elijah, Deborah, etc.

Where in your thinking did the christening scene in Dandelion Fire come from?

I actually partially stole it from an old Scottish legend about a pastor (and seventh son) abducted by faeries. He could only briefly return at the christening of his son. That legend was one of the important inspirations for the whole 100 Cupboards series. But it also got me thinking about the power of naming, and I loved how it trumped faerie magic. From my earliest imaginings of the story, the christening scene was always going to be a lynchpin.

As for the flavor of the scene, Henry is stepping into a city with both Hebraic and Byzantine echoes. I wanted the christening to smell and feel like something descended from those two cultures.

What idea, when it came to you, made you sure 100 Cupboards was a story you had to write?

There are so many places in history and literature and legend that I would give anything to see. So, when I first had this image in my head of an attic wall cluttered with small, mismatched doors, and I began to think of the possibilities, well, then I was completely hooked. I couldn’t turn my head off, and I can’t tell you how many dreams I’ve had about it.

Is there a character in this trilogy you find especially difficult, or especially easy, to write about?

Henry is an old and familiar friend. (And it isn’t hard to relate to fear and surprise.) Henrietta is also a quick fit for me. But the characters that are really hard to write (and not just in these books), are the wise and noble folks. Flaws and immaturity are easy. We can all relate to them. But how do you write someone with profound insight (when you, the author, don’t have any)? Given that, I’ll leave you to figure out which characters I struggled over.

I felt a sense of closure at the end of Dandelion Fire. Was there a time when you considered ending the series at two books? How much has the overall shape of the trilogy changed in your mind during the writing process?\

When I first set out to write this story, I wanted it to be a single volume. And I actually wrote that single volume. It was bloated, enormous, and it didn’t breathe, but it was a single volume nonetheless. I still loved the story (and my characters), but I abhorred the execution. So I began to think about how to break it into two. The only problem was that it was built (roughly), on a three act structure. Through some funny circumstances (and miscommunication), that bloated manuscript was sent out to editors, and I started getting some very nice rejection letters. Could you break it into a pair? Could you cut it in half? Too long for us. That sort of thing. But it was an editor at Random House who asked to see a proposal for how I would break it into thirds—which was certainly the most natural fit. I put together that proposal, loved it, and then, rather than digging right back into the story, I got to work on a different one. I wanted to write something tight, perfect, simple, and disciplined before sweating through the more intricate story around the 100 Cupboards. That smaller book was an adventure story called Leepike Ridge, and it was sent back to RH along with my trilogy proposal. The end result was a four book deal, and we all lived happily ever after.

Actually, by the time I’d gone through the editing process on Leepike and had come back to 100 Cupboards, the ideas and characters had matured a great deal in my mind. So I rewrote the books virtually from scratch (recycling the best bits, of course). So now, when readers pick up 100 Cupboards or Dandelion Fire in stores, they are getting the final incarnation of something that began in 2002—the butterfly as opposed to the fat, greasy caterpillar.

In your autobiographical blurb, you discuss how you wanted to combine fantasy stories like Narnia and Middle Earth with a direct appeal to the imagination of American kids. Could you explain in more detail what you feel needs to be added to the world of fantasy?

It’s not that I see a problem or a profound lack in the current world of fantasy. But I think you could call it a growth opportunity. American kids have plenty of fantasy that appeals to them. The question is only how they feel about their own lives and environments when they’ve finished reading. On my last book tour, I ran a little experiment. I would ask groups of kids which country they needed to live in if they wanted to have magical adventures. Of course, fantasy and magic are global. They can wander anywhere. But that’s not what I was told. The answer (always shouted back), was England.

I love English fantasy, and that nation (in my own humble o.) has produced the best fantasy to date (a few times over). But I wanted magical imaginations to broaden, to more thoroughly include the taste of Americana mythic. I want kids to look at lonely red barns in the same way that I would have looked at a wardrobe discovered in an empty room. I want the whole world to be seen as magical, including our part of it. And so I use baseball and wheat fields and a tiny rural town in Kansas. Thanks to Oz, we know anything can happen in Kansas.

In your efforts to place magic in the middle of America, you are in good company. How would you rate L. Frank Baum, Carl Sandburg, Edward Eager, or other American authors as influences on your work?

Well, I just referenced Baum’s Oz. I play around with a few of his types as a sort of acknowledgement. But (if we are looking for honesty here), I am far more a product of the British writers. I first heard Tolkien and Narnia in the comfort of my high chair (literally). They remain the standard for me, the benchmark of creativity. But I owe debts to others outside the fantasy genre as well. Of the Americans, Twain left the most residue on me. John Buchan influenced me in ways that would be hard to describe. G. K. Chesterton’s nonfiction (though I didn’t read him until adulthood), has flavored my perspective on magic more than almost anyone. I also love Borges and his magic realism. Oh, and Tintin.

In 100 Cupboards, the titular cupboards seemed to lead to as many different worlds scattered through time and space. In Dandelion Fire, however, we learn that several of them lead to different places within the same world. Is there an overall name for this world? Is it a version of Earth? Can you spare a little description of the overall layout of this world?

At first, I thought that the world would have a name. But do we have a name for ours? It is simply the world. We call the planet Earth, but the world is nameless. And so it is for those inhabitants in that other world. To them, it is not the other world. It is the world. I’m tempted to really dig into this, but I probably shouldn’t. I’ll be the good author and refuse to give away too many of my secrets. But I will say this (a description that occurs within the books as well): it is not a version of Earth. It is branch on the same tree, a twig on the same tumbleweed. Move down to the trunk, and it is all only one single world. Move up, and history forks and splinters into different branches of reality. Does that help?

According to Dandelion Fire, that world also contains magical doors that enable people to travel huge distances within the same world. How is the magic connecting different parts of this world similar or different to the magic connecting the world of Hylfing, Byzanthamum, and Fitz-Faeren to Kansas?

Maybe I should keep mum, but I’ll give you a little something here. There are a couple types of magic in the trilogy. The most basic breakdown is between natural and unnatural. An example of natural would be the magic of the faeren. They are able to do what they are able to do in the same way that a bird is able to fly. The wizards (for the most part) are using unnatural magic. They are like men in helicopters—they have to manipulate and force the world to give them its strength. (Not that I have anything against helicopters.) The seventh sons are men with natural magic like the faeren—the world gifts them with different strengths and allows them a measure of control. Darius and Nimiane are blends, but I’ll say no more about them.

The doors... now we must apply this to the doors. The faeren have their own “natural” fluctuating connections between distant places which they can control. The forgotten wizards set themselves “unnatural” gashes in reality, and fixed them in place with stone. The cupboard doors are primarily natural connections—but they have been collected and arranged and manipulated in an “unnatural” and dangerous way.

The world that opens to us in Dandelion Fire seems very complex and fascinating. One senses there is still much to discover in it, such as the Empire that was mentioned a few times. Can we expect to see more of it in The Chestnut King? And/or will we explore other worlds connected to those Kansas cupboards?

Expect the story to focus in on the tensions left at the end of Dandelion Fire. I want to say more, but I shouldn’t. You’ve already got me spilling beans.

In her Tough Guide to Fantasyland, Diana Wynne Jones claims that a map is practically a sine qua non of a fantasy novel. Interestingly, the 100 Cupboards books begin not with a map of the world surrounding Hylfing, but with a fascinating illustration of the wall in Henry's bedroom, along with a page of notes on them from Grandpa's journal. Can you remark on the connection between fantasy fiction and a fascination with maps and complex charts? Did you make and use a map of the Hylfing world as you wrote these books? If so, can you explain the decision not to include it in the book?

I have the world pretty well mapped out. And it was helpful to me as I wrote. But I didn’t generate a map that would have been publishable, and my editor didn’t feel that one was needed, especially given the door chart that was included, and the story’s focus on the cupboards.

All right, readers have to be curious about Henry's brothers. He is supposed to be the seventh son of a seventh son, but we haven't met any of his older brothers. What information about Mordecai's first six sons can you share right now?

Ha. Look at me. Finally, a picture of self-restraint. I say nothing.

Do your kids inspire you as an author of juvenile fiction? In what ways?

Absolutely. They keep my imagination rooted. They’re young (seven and under), but they regularly gather around at night and become story beggars. As I work to construct tales for them, I’ll frequently come across ideas, characters, settings, and creatures that I fully intend to use in the future. And all the ideas have been field-tested in advance. Perhaps more importantly, having young children has enabled me to see the world through their uncalloused eyes. Turns out, it’s an amazing place.

Are any characters in the 100 Cupboards trilogy based on yourself or people you know?

Some are similar to an acquaintance or two, but the similarities were discovered after the fact (and mostly unintentional).

Assuming that you read around the genre in which you write, what handful of books would you recommend to readers who love 100 Cupboards?

I try not to read in my genre too much (especially when I’m writing). I’m too easily influenced. And when I have read, it can be unwise to comment on the work of my peers. But I can plug the Attolia books by Megan Whalen Turner. They are some of the most original fantasy that I’ve encountered in a while, and I enjoyed them immensely. {I wholeheartedly agree!}

Can we expect more juvenile fiction from you when this trilogy is done? In general terms, what do you plan to do next?

Yes you can. Expect away. I’m actually working on the structure of a rather ambitious series right now (also with Random House). Can’t say more yet, I’m afraid. But I’m quite excited. I also have a standalone to finish (more in the vein of my first book—Leepike Ridge), and an adult novel I hope to sweat over sometime in the next couple years.

Do you think (or hope) your work will make the world better? In what ways?

Of course, I would be thrilled if the world were to improve thanks to my labors. But I think of myself as a cook (a chef on my fancier days). I want to feed as many young imaginations as I can. I want to feed them well. I want them healthy. I can hope that my readers will be improved and go on to improve the world around them. But more immediately, I can hope that I have given them friends and siblings and cousins in my characters. I can hope that I am brightening days and weeks and dreams.


Tanya said...

Thank you so much for this amazing interview with Mr Wilson. As a(n adult) fan of his books, I found your questions very well informed and insightful. I especially appreciated your questions about placing magic in America (have you read Patricia Wrede's "Thirteenth Child" BTW?) As a non-Christian, I also very much appreciated your questions and his answers regarding spirituality and Christianity in the 100 Cupboards books. I feel like I got so much out of the book without that added layer, but it is good to see an extra dimension to the writing.

I also happen to be a kid's book review blogger and was reading your interview/reviews in preparation for writing my reviews of "Leepike Ridge" and "Dandelion Fire." (I reviewed "100" last year.) Extremely helpful! Thanks again for such a fascinating author interview - you questions were so much better than most! Can't wait to see what you have to say about "Chestnut King." I'm sure you have a review copy!!! Cheers and happy reading! Tanya

Robbie F. said...

Thanks, Tanya. I haven't heard a word about "The Chestnut King!" An ARC would be nice!! But the main reason I'm commenting is to let you know I'll look into "Thirteenth Child" ASAP. Ta for the tip!