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Monday, October 15, 2007

YA Author Interview ~ N. D. Wilson

Nathan D. Wilson holds a Master's degree in Liberal Arts from Saint John'sCollege in Annapolis, Maryland. He served as a part-time Lecturer at NewSaint Andrews from 2001-2004, and was promoted to Fellow of Literature inthe fall of 2004. He still teaches part-time.Fairly fresh out of graduate school, he wrote two novella-length satires ofevangelical apocalyptic fiction but has left such misbehavior behind him. Heis currently focusing on several children's projects, rolling on the floorwith his own children, and working on his house.

(Interview conducted by YA Correspondent: Noel DeVries)

What book or project is coming out or has come out that you'd like to tell us about?

Hmm. Well, Leepike Ridge is currently out and about, and I’ve been very happy with the response to it (both from readers and reviewers). 100 Cupboards releases at the end of December and kicks off a story that is different in many ways from Leepike. Leepike is a standalone adventure, and while it’s not fantasy, I was really trying to give a magic/mythic feel to the whole thing. 100 Cupboards is the first installment in a true fantasy series, taking a modern boy through the Chestertonian discovery that the world really is a mad, mad place (and beyond).

Tell us about your journey to publication. What made you decide to pursue a secular publishing house?

The idea of not pursuing a mainstream house never really occurred to me. As far as the journey goes, I’ve always known I wanted to write and when I popped out of grad school in 2001, I started writing in the evenings. I wrote a short novella called The Seventh Sneeze, and stared at it until I knew exactly what I didn’t like, and what I wanted to avoid in my next go. Taking some of the same ideas, I then tackled a longer novel. I totally miscalculated its scope and it turned into an 800 page monstrosity that still needed more flesh in a lot places.

However, through some interesting circumstances, it was shown around to publishers in that very rough form, and while no one was crazy enough to buy it, a few different houses made happy noises and wanted to see it reshaped. Because of the scope of the project, Random House asked to see a proposal for how I would break the story into thirds. I put that proposal together almost overnight, but (as it turns out) they didn’t end up seeing it for months.

In the meantime, I was moving to new representation and Leepike Ridge began to happen to me very quickly. I wrote the first three chapters in two weeks, my agent sent them out, and several houses immediately wanted to see the full manuscript. So I had to write it. Luckily, I had story-grip my own self and needed to get through it quickly for sanity. After another week-and-a-half of caffeine, late nights and Coldplay’s “X&Y” on repeat, it was done and I was happy with the draft. Almost overnight, we had multiple offers, and the long, slow trek turned into a frenzy. Random House loved it, and loved the trilogy proposal, so we ended up selling them all four books. 100 Cupboards is the first reshaped novel born from that original jumbo manuscript.

How long had you been writing before you got the contract call, and what went through your head?

I’d been writing since the sixth grade, but I hadn’t really set out to write something for publication until the Fall of 2001. The initial offers came in the summer of 2005. I think the first thing that went through my head was, “huh.” I was excited, and extremely grateful to have gotten to that point, but it also triggered a lot of curiosity about the future. Two years into that future I can say that I’ve been very blessed in many ways. Not least of which is Jim Thomas (my editor at Random). He’s terrific and I love working with him.

Currently, there isn't an abundance of children's fiction inside CBA. What future do you see for Christian children's writers?

I’m pretty out of touch (completely) with the CBA, so I can’t comment on what is or isn’t going on in the Christian publishing world. But in any market, those who are willing to read and study and work at polishing their craft will always have a chance. Part of that, of course, means telling good stories, stories that are beautiful in their own right and don’t simply serve as formulaic vehicles for moralism.

Some readers might not classify Leepike Ridge as "Christian." After all, there are a few colorful words, no mention of Jesus, and the gospel isn't presented to any of the characters. What, then, makes a story a Christian story?

Ha. I’m going to cheat here. Any good story is a Christian story. Look at it apart from the author. Is the story beautiful? Does it pay tribute in execution, content, texture and personality, to the worthy things in this reality of ours? Then who cares who the author is or what they think? Christians should love it. Factor in the authors and things get funny. Some of the worst books I’ve ever read were written by Christians as explicitly “Christian” books and painted pictures (in my opinion) entirely antithetical to a joyful, laughing, Christian view of reality, making them anti-Christian (while perhaps well-intentioned).

I read In His Steps (that prohibitioner classic) in junior high, or sometime equally buried in my past, and you can still see the scars it left behind on my psyche. What purgation that was. Some cynical Oscar Wilde or mind-bending Borges could be truer, healthier, and in all ways more wholesome.

What fiction most influenced your childhood, and, consequently, your writing?

P.G. Wodehouse, C.S. Lewis, G.K. Chesterton, J.R.R. Tolkien – those are the biggies. Chesterton came a little later, but was no less influential. I was started on the others at my mother’s breast, so their influence is pretty hard for me to spot on account of being all-pervasive. I like them lots and lots.

What prepared you to write children's fiction?

Being a kid and having my parents, grandparents, teachers, sisters, and friends all feeding my imagination in various ways. Being read to, reading myself, and being taken out to dig for fossils or hunt for snakes with my uncle. Being taught to see endless possibilities in the world, wondering what could be under every rock, over every mountain and at the bottom of every pond. Growing up in ability, but not in imagination. That’s what did it. I still want to flip over every rock.

Most would agree that fantasy is today's alpha genre. Lewis, Rowling, Tolkien and Pullman are all hot names, often spurring heated discussions. In light of your upcoming fantasy trilogy, what do you consider the "proper" role of magic and the supernatural in children's literature?

I consider the appropriate role of magic in kid lit to be the same as the appropriate role of magic in reality—though it will look different. This is, after all, an extraordinarily magical place. Sunlight makes trees out of thin air (literally), tadpoles turn into frogs, human love turns into children, and you can trick the air into lifting an enormous steel bus full of people up to thirty thousand feet if you know how to curve a wing and harness explosions. And it’s not all cheerful, happy, kittens-in-baskets magic either.

What happens if one of our wizards splits an atom? I think magic in children’s books is at its best when it wakes kids up to the mind-blowing magic all around us—when it overcomes the numbness of modernity and makes them watch an ant war on the sidewalk with all the wonder it deserves. Ironically, Christians, who profess outright to believe in magic (what else is water into wine, resurrection from the dead, calming storms, etc?) are the most upset when you put it into a book, while authors like Pullman (a materialistic atheist who believes reality to be all mechanism as far as I can tell) works with it comfortably and well. It really should be the other way around.

Leepike Ridge was featured by Borders as part of their Original Voices program, given kudos by Christianity Today, and spotted on librarian bloggers' "Books I Wish I Could Get my Hands On" lists. On that note, how much marketing do you do? Any advice in this area?

So far, things have all gone great. I really haven’t done much in the way of personal marketing. My agent has done some networking, and obviously, the publicity folk at RH have done their thing. I mostly sit around and think about other projects. But apparently, I occasionally grant blog interviews. Is this marketing? Sorry, I don’t really have any advice. Ask me again in five years.

Can you give us a view into a typical day of your writing life?

Well, it’s not exactly normal. My computer is set up tastefully in a corner of the TV/play room. My kids (the oldest of which is five) frolic all around me, climbing on my lap, coloring on the desk beside me while I write, watching Charlie and Lola in the background and so on (just now, they happen to be jumping around behind me with paper knives and grocery bag costumes—excuse me a moment while I cut out a cardboard sword).

If they’re playing I’ll turn on music just to add to and ultimately neutralize the mayhem. If they’re watching something I’ll pod out under headphones. If I’m really into a story, there’s not much that distracts me that doesn’t involve bleeding. I also teach, and I’m remodeling my house on my own, so those things crowd up the days pretty well, but I’ll write in the gaps.

When the dinner hour rolls around I drop whatever I’m doing and pretty much mess around with the kids until we’re packing them off to bed. We’ll walk to a park, visit cousins, goof off outside, or just roll around on the floor. At some point my wife and I will have to procure caffeine for the night ahead. When the kids are finally all down (it can take a while—frequently I’ll tell them stories where they each get to pick one character, forcing me to weave something together involving a magic puppy, a creeping land squid, and a butterfly-unicorn-ballerina-princess) my wife and I will sit down and put our feet up for a short bit. Then she’s off planning the week, putting the house together again, etc. and I’m back to the computer.

When I’m pushing to finish a draft I’ll write until 1:30 or 2 most nights, and of course, in those final days, I might see the sun rise once or twice. I try not to read much when I’m in full-on writing mode, but then I’ll come out of it like a starving man, needing to rush through a stack of books to soothe the dizziness.

Is there a particularly difficult setback that you've gone through in your writing career you are willing to share?

Nothing it would be kind of me to chat about. There are plenty in every writer’s life, but you have to focus on what you can control—the quality of your own craft—and you can come through it. Things are valuable when they’re not easy, when they’re hard to obtain. Don’t be afraid of obstacles. There is nothing like resistance to improve writing.

If you could choose to have one strength of another writer, what would it be and from whom?

The comic descriptive ability of P.G. Wodehouse. I can imitate, but it would be nice to have. Of course the intelligence of Lewis would be nice too. Or the life experience of Kipling. Honestly, if this were real, and I actually had to pick one strength, I doubt that I could choose.

My definition of Good Literature is something worth reading aloud beside the fire. Books with dead authors usually work best, but without a doubt, you qualify. Can you tell us of any non-crumbling authors you've discovered who meet this criteria?

Kind of you, I’m sure. Stuff I would want to read aloud on a lazy evening would include Billy Collins, Seamus Heaney, Lewis Thomas (an MD who put together phenomenal essays and sketches), Wodehouse (Leave it to Psmith or “Uncle Fred Flits By” to give a novel and short story), Lewis’ space trilogy, Dorothy Sayers (Murder Must Advertise), and most of John Donne. With your auditory test, poetry will always have an advantage. In my own writing, I read everything out loud. The ear catches and shapes things that I miss otherwise.

What piece of writing have you done that you're particularly proud of and why?

Last fall, an editor at Esquire magazine sent me a small, paper cocktail napkin. They sent them out to around two hundred writers, and asked us all to write a story on the napkin itself, and gave us a deadline. They were hoping to run a couple in facsimile. I put it off until it was nearly too late, and then I went down to a local bookstore owned by a friend of mine and got him to let me in after hours. He has a whole flock of old typewriters. I picked one out, cut my napkin into strips, and sat down to type a short story.
I had no idea what I was going to do, but I looked up at a shelf and saw a fat volume called The Rise and Fall of the Judean State. It was late, and that struck me as an extremely hilarious title for a short-short on a napkin. I changed it to “The Rise and Fall of Circumcision: a Napkin Novel” and then banged out a story to match, stitched all the little strips together into a volume and sent it off. They ran scans of the whole thing last February. It’s a pretty uncomfortable little story, and it makes me laugh (it’s bad to laugh at your own stuff). Pride? I don’t know. It’s the weirdest thing I’ve ever done, for sure, but I’m far more invested in Leepike or 100 Cupboards. That’s where I feel the most gratification.

Do you have a dream for the future of your writing, something you would love to accomplish?

I want to get better with every project. If I did that, I would become a very happy old man.

Parting words?

If you want to write, do it. Don’t talk about it, start. Don’t have time? Do it anyway. It’s easy to hang out in a coffee shop and wish and hope; it’s hard to sit at a computer night after night disciplining yourself. When I started my first novel, I didn’t own a computer, but I could use one at work after hours. My wife would come down with me and our son would sit in a wind-up swing until I’d finished my word-count quota. When I’d finished, it wasn’t any good. But you won’t get good at anything until you’ve been bad at it.


  1. Great interview Noel and Nate. I know when Noel raves about a book, it must be fantastic. Can't wait to read this one with my son.

  2. Great interview, wonderful responses. I loved the responses about "Christian" books. Excellent point. Give me a pagan writing well and thus declaring the majesty of God over a tractarian, silly novel from a Christian bookstore any day. Not that there aren't some good books to be found in Christian bookstores. I'm sure there are a few.

  3. If you haven't checked out Christian fiction in awhile, you're in for a pleasant surprise. Lisa Samson, Charles Martin, Athol Dickson, James Scott Bell, Brandilyn Collins, Robert Liparulo, Tim Downs, just to name a very few of the many excellent CBA authors. Christian fiction has come a long way.

  4. Good interview. I like your comments about how good writing should be good writing, not preachy or moralistic. And that sometimes we have to write a lot of bad stuff before we can write the good stuff. :) So I'll keep writing!

  5. I didn't mean to disparage Christians who write well. No more that Nate Wilson did, anyway. Thanks for the suggestions on good authors.

  6. Wonderful, wonderful interview! I want to read your stuff.

  7. One of the best author interviews I've ever read, and believe me, that's saying something. :)

    Fabulous questions, fabulous answers. Bravo!

  8. Great interview. Another author to add to my list. Sigh. : )

  9. The covers are darling, well-illustrated, tantalizing. Both books have fascinating premises.

    And now, well, forgive me, but I just have to wonder and ask N D Wilson: You say, "the mind-blowing *magic all around us* —-when it overcomes the numbness of modernity and makes them watch an ant war on the sidewalk with all the wonder it deserves. Ironically, Christians, who profess outright to believe in magic (what else is water into wine, resurrection from the dead, calming storms, etc?) are the most upset when you put it into a book."

    Yes, there is definitely a numbness of modernity to overcome. The world and science and the practical are too much with us.

    I also think, wonder at nature and practicing magic are two different things, and turning water into wine is yet a third.

    Because, first, what do we do with the definition of *magic*? I look in Wikipedia, and see it called *sorcery*. And I look in the Bible and see God saying that *sorcery* is an abomination. Deuteronomy 18:9 and following says the practice of it can keep you out of the Kingdom! That's serious stuff!

    So, Jesus couldn't have been using sorcery--an abomination--when he turned water into wine, could he? He was using something else. He was anointed with the Holy Spirit and power.

    As a Christian writer, I need to know the difference between God's power and magic, and what God thinks about the difference.

    And I think that's where the Christians are coming from when they object to magic and sorcery in books, when acts of abomination--sorcery--are upheld as good examples. Where do we draw the line? That is the question.

    Not to spoil anyone's fun, but to avoid spiritual troubles.

    Or "tsuris," as the people of that Judean State would call troubles. Big time.

    That's my one big concern about some charming stories out there.

  10. Great, great comment, Margo. It is so true that Christian writers, especially those writing for the impressionable minds of children, need to know the difference between God's power and magic. Digging into that issue was my purpose in asking the "proper role of magic" question, which I felt Nate skittered around. I don't blame him! As a children's fantasy writer myself, struggling to find the balance, I know I couldn't give an answer to the question. Can any one person answer it definitely for everyone?

    Look at some fantasy authors who set standards--Lewis, Tolkien, MacDonald. What is it about magic in their books that sit well with us? What is it about the magic of Rowling and Pullman that doesn’t sit well?

    To answer these questions would require a thesis paper. There are many such essays available on the internet! This problem has bothered me quite a lot as I write my fantasy story. I found these thoughts somewhere… not sure I agree with all, but they’re fodder.

    • "Good" magic could be seen as a substitute for the supernatural intervention of God (The Chronicles of Narnia) or for the power of the imagination (Mary Poppins).
    • "Bad" magic looks and sounds very much like actual occult activity.
    • With "good" magic, God is ultimately in charge.
    • In "Bad", the magician (or witch or wizard) controls others or has power over nature.
    • In an appropriate use of magic, the human characters, in most cases the children who are the heroes of the story, do not themselves practice the use of magic or gain any magical powers. (The Wizard of Oz).
    • In an inappropriate use of magic, these heroes (often children) discover extrasensory powers within themselves or gain those powers through contact with others. (For example, the Stephen King novel Carrie.)
    • In an appropriate use of magic, the magical characters (be they fairies or wizards or even "good" witches) appear only briefly and then primarily to set the hero on his or her path. After that, the main character must rely on more "realistic" skills to solve problems and achieve the quest. (Think of the Blue Fairy in Disney's Pinocchio or Cinderella's fairy godmother.)
    • In an inappropriate use of magic, the hero solves all his problems through the use of these magical powers or by calling on the magic being.

    I hope all that helped a little bit! Have you read On Fairy Stories? Thanks again for your comment.



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