Is there anything in your book you’d go back and change?
As I quipped to a writer friend — everything! Before Shelter Island saw the light of a book shelf in the retail world, I had written another three novels. Writing does improve writing. I wanted to apply everything l had learned from the latter novels to the former. But, as any artist will tell you, storytelling is as much fluid and organic as it is technical. The writer grows, the craft evolves. It’s a bitter pill, but good medicine.
What inspired your book?
Inspiration for Shelter Island cannot be attributed to a single muse. Firstly, as a children’s fantasy writer, I have always been drawn to middle grade fiction. Middle grade fiction is wide open in terms of subject, especially in the fantasy genre. Think of George MacDonald’s The Princess and the Goblin, Kate DiCamillo’s The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane, The Hobbit, Narnia, the works of Madeleine L’Engle, Kathi Appelt, R. J. Anderson, Kenneth Oppel, Edith Nesbit and Lemony Snicket. It just keeps on going. So, other author’s work contribute to the foundation of my inspiration.
After submitting on my manuscript to an editor, he commented, You know you are bucking the trend here. I thought, I hope so. Shelter Island is a story for those readers, like the book’s protagonists Cary, Clarisse, and Gregory, who must look somewhere other than their own troubled hearts to find the courage they need to face extraordinary circumstances and enemies older, stronger and more cunning. It was certainly true of my life and I wish I had come across more stories of that ilk when I was much younger. A lot of children’s books beat the same feeble drum. Their message? Just dig deep enough, try hard enough, and take charge. Everything will work out. Just reach into your heart and you will find everything you need. That advice seems a naive sort of cure all – like Jake’s ol’ Snake Oil. What if his ‘heart’ should fail? What if he reaches into his heart and finds nothing but the ashes of regret and loneliness? Exploring the possibilities that arise from such questions was a strong inspiration for Shelter Island.
Do you write as you go, or do you have the book all planned out from page 1?
I do have a general map in mind, but characters, once formed, can change the course of a story. Interactions between characters give rise to exciting, unanticipated scenes and situations. I used to dismiss comments from authors who said they let their characters write their books. It seemed to me like ‘humble boasting’. But after my fourth novel, I can say a lot of that is true. A story’s characters think, speak, and act in ways peculiar to their motives, their flaws and their pluck. By allowing them to ‘live’, can oft times create an added scene, toss in a dramatic twist, or push the author in an entirely new direction. The characters, the settings, and unforeseen events all contribute to the direction of a story — watching those elements come to life is what I enjoy most about the craft. It’s what straps me into the drivers seat every morning. I’ll tell you something else, which struck me as a little strange; once completed, the story always seems to have been, as if I had uncovered a long buried artifact.
How long did it take you to write your book?
The first draft of approximately 50,000 words — six months. Subsequent edits and rewrites, and edits after my publisher took it on, while I was working on other manuscripts — 3 years!
Who are your favorite authors of all time?
That’s always a tough question. I’ll have to answer with another question? In which genre? Let’s assume we’re talking about authors of children’s books: C.S. Lewis, George MacDonald, Aesop, Hans Christian Andersen, Tolkien, and writers of the old fairy tales form the foundation of my favorite authors. E. B. White, Kate DiCamillo, Kathi Appelt, Colin Melloy, R.J. Anderson, Kenneth Oppel and Lemony Snicket are some of my more current favorites. Recently, I read Walter de la Mare’s Three Mulla-mulgars and The Mouse and his Child by Russell Hoban, two extraordinary tales I have to add to my shelf of tales most loved. Did I mention Dr. Seuss?
What’s the best advice anyone has ever given you?
Don’t lose your enthusiasm.
How do you react to a bad review?
I argue with it. I let it sit for a while, return to it, dismantle the review point by point, weigh its merits, keep the constructive bits and shred the rest!
Which authors have influenced you most – how?
I own and write articles for an educational website called thewriterslessonbook.com. It’s a free website, offering writers free tips and techniques harvested from the books we love to read. I have contributed some fifty odd articles. Among them I would say that C.S. Lewis stands apart, whether we’re talking about his books or his writing advice. For example, in that often difficult discussion around writing style, he wrote that an author’s job is first to be clear. Ask yourself, Is this what I intended to say? In doing so, you will develop a style. Two others are George Macdonald and Walter Wangerin Jr., the former for his insight and penning the best fairy tales I have ever read, and the latter for his depth of understanding in the mingling of worlds.
What is your favorite scene in your book?
Unfortunately, to describe my favorite scene would be an outrageous spoiler. My second most favorite scene transpires when Cary, the oldest of Shelter Island’s three protagonists, meets Fyrndagas Underdel Dearth, the Third — a decidedly cantankerous rat. Don’t ever mention I used the three-lettered word.
What books do you love that don’t get a lot of hype?
Here are a few: The Book of the Dun Cow by Walter Wangerin Jr., The Three Mullar-mulgars by Walter de la Mare, The Mouse and his Child by Russell Hoban & the fantasy works and fairy tales of George MacDonald.
What makes your novel standout from the crowd?
What if your own strength should fail? What if, desperately expending what resources remain, all you can do is lash out, and bar by bar trap yourself in a prison of your own making? What if events you cannot control and an evil stronger, more cunning, which pays no heed to age, conspire to drag you down? Where do you turn? My novel has heroines and heroes, just not of the super-power type.
Do your characters really talk to you?
Talk to each other? Yes. Talk to themselves? Yes. Talk to me? As mute as jellyfish.