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Interview with J. FitzGerald McCurdy
Here is our complete interview with J. FitzGerald McCurdy. A slightly abridged version appears in Challenging Destiny Number 20.
interview by Fiona Scannell & James Schellenberg
CD: How do you develop the characters in your books?
JFM: In The Serpent's Egg trilogy, I had just been watching television, looking at what kids were watching. I thought that girls and women were portrayed as weak and vulgar. Hollywood had them wearing clothes that, when I grew up, were worn by prostitutes. The kids who watch these shows are young. It really bothered me that they were buying into something and nobody was caring about them. They want to dress like Shania Twain and other people they see on TV. So they think that's how these famous people really dress. But when stars dress for appearances, they're not thinking of the kids who are going to emulate them. But kids are wearing these awful clothes to school and it's causing a lot of problems. When I was growing up women became strong and fought hard for equality. Now, I feel that young girls are worse off than we were. I hear twelve-year-old boys calling their twelve-year-old girlfriends "my bitch." I wanted to create strong girl characters -- a strong, strong girl protagonist. I seriously believe that as long as women are sane, our world will be a better place. If they go crazy, then we're lost.
I wanted to create a girl like Miranda that girls would like and also one whom the boys in my books would respect and like. I want to create characters that kids can want to be friends with. My girl characters can have a boy friend, a friend, without any nonsense, an "I would die for you" friend. With Nicholas, I wanted him there because I wanted boys to read my book, because boys are the big problem. I get a lot of letters from boys who weren't reading until they found my books. I get letters from parents and teachers about these problems.
If all of the characters in the book are the same it gets boring, so I threw in Penelope. Everyone knows someone like Penelope. I knew someone like that in school and I was probably mean to her, or him. I wanted to show the geeky kid developing and learning about friendship. I also wanted to show Miranda and the other characters learning to accept Penelope and coming to consider her a friend.
Muffy, Penelope's dyed pink poodle is in the books to create controversy and to ease tension. At one boys' school I visited after the release of my first book, The Serpent's Egg, the boys were outside the school holding signs. The signs said: "Kill Muffy in Book Two." It was hysterical. Boys dislike Muffy. But they don't want Muffy to be gone -- they want to think up ways to hurt Muffy without killing her. Every now and then I'll bring to a school a little pink poodle Muffy and a boy will usually win it. If I say, "I'll give you a book for it if you give it back," no, they won't give it back. Muffy is a great opener. I just have to ask, "What do you think of Muffy?" and all the kids are right into it.
I had a poodle and a black lab at the same time. These are characters in my first three books. The lab is Monty and the poodle is Muffy. My real Muffy was exactly like Muffy in the books. Really evil! We had to put hockey gloves on to get her out from under anything. She was savage. Monty was just a big -- Monty-lump. The poodle would lie on my bed and I wouldn't go on my bed. I would say, "I'll just sleep on my sofa." A dog ruled at my house! Muffy had my whole queen-sized bed and Muffy was about an inch long. So a lot of my characters develop because I want to say something or make a point, and others, like Muffy and Monty, come from life.
CD: What about the background characters?
JFM: Hate, the Demon and her evil minions? I used to write films on terrorism before you were born. Every airline in the world, including Air Canada, had to give protection money to the PFLP (Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine) in order to fly, or they'd get blown out of the sky. Hate is a terrible thing. Religious hate is horrible. Hate is the easiest thing to say. I hate this or I hate that. But it's created every war that's ever been fought and the deaths of millions of people. I created a character out of the worst emotion you could ever have and called her Hate. She is pure evil. And once I created her, I could not make you laugh at her, or make her funny, or cute, or make any jokes about her. Because there is nothing funny or laughable about Hate. Then, I had to create characters that you could make fun of. Like the Wobbles, who are evil, but also sort of stupid and they aren't affiliated with Hate. There are also the Thugs. They're evil because they're humans who had the choice to be good and strong or to live forever. They sold their humanity for that thing in our society that's called instant gratification. I wanted them to represent the lost way. And the Hellhags are the same, only I made them women and the Thugs are men. Or once were.
Who else? Indolent! The wizard. I liked the concept of indolence. There was an old poem written in the 1700s called "The Wizard of Indolent" and I figured, "Hey it was done in the 1700s, I can borrow that by now." But I have never read the poem, I just know about it. I borrowed the title and made Indolent and the Castle of Indolence mine. I love the Castle Indolence and the wizard Indolent. Other characters like the Fire Serpents I borrowed from Pliny the Elder, who wrote a book about natural history about 2000 years ago in Rome. In his book, he tells a story about a magical egg. If you ever find this egg, you would have powers for the rest of your life. He said one day he saw serpents pushing this egg out of a cave. To hatch it they hissed at it. I loved his story. I made it the title of my first book, The Serpent's Egg. That was when I started to write. My first book came together with that title.
The Augers -- they are very odd. They really creep me out. They sort of come from life experience. I used to live in Bermuda. One day a nurse friend invited me to lunch with her and the patient she was caring for. My friend left the table and went to the kitchen. I was sitting beside this tiny frail old woman. I put my hand on the table between us and asked her if she had any grandchildren. In a flash, she raised her fork and stabbed at my hand. The fork went into the table. I thought I was going to have a heart attack. It was the scariest thing that had ever happened to me. Still sitting in my chair I managed to "bump bump" my way to the other end of the table faster than lightning. My friend said her patient had dementia. The thought that someone so tiny and frail could be so strong and violent was such a shock, I think I created the Augurs to exorcise the Bermuda incident out of my mind. The Augurs represent senility and dementia and things we don't understand.
CD: Is developing characters different now that you have a major editor?
JFM: I probably learned more writing my latest book, The Fire Demons, (Book one of The Mole Wars) than writing The Serpent's Egg trilogy. I learned how to develop characters from another character's point-of-view. I learned conventions that I hadn't known when I wrote The Serpent's Egg. Before 2001, I had never written a book! I did whatever I wanted so long as it told a story. Lynne Missen at HarperCollins is my editor now, and she is fantastic. I find it incredible that she knows my book better than I do. "Why don't you write it?" I said to her once when I was working hard on revisions. And she said, "It's your imagination that is so good and strong."
I develop characters differently now, because I don't go off on my own little diversions. Everything... even the way you describe what a character is wearing... must advance the plot. In my second book, The Burning Crown, I talk about September 11 because I was devastated by that. I had to write about it. Now, I think an editor would want to delete that reference to September 11. There's no reason for it to be there -- it doesn't advance the plot. That was just my own ranting or my own grief coming into a book. I think that Lynne would have said, "No, that's a very nice thing to want to do but you're writing a book for kids now, and twenty years from now that's not going to have the longevity, you know." They're always looking at the life of the book, not to make it a book for this Christmas but for all Christmases. So this book should be a Lord of the Rings rather than a book that has its time and fades away.
CD: How did you get started writing?
JFM: I used to write films. The first film I wrote was a documentary called Stories in the Snow and there was a broadcaster, a famous broadcaster, called Lowell Thomas, an American on CBS. He came right after Walter Cronkite's news. He was the first Westerner in Tibet, and wrote a book on it. He was a great explorer and he was very intelligent. He narrated my film. I had never written anything before that. I was living in Montreal then and I went to see a filmmaker to see if I could learn how to write films and he said, "Well, there are seven writers coming in. Do you want to watch the film and write it too?" So I did. Then I went home, stayed up all night, wrote the narration, and sent it to the studio by taxi the next day. All the other writers sent theirs a month later. They were smarter. But the filmmaker bought mine. A hundred bucks. I was so excited. Lowell Thomas read it for $10,000. And then I said, "Oh my gosh, you better do something or you'll never make any money writing." Which I never have, really. I'm not good at fighting for my own money. And if I like something I do it for free, it's true.
So I wrote Stories in the Snow. It won the Conservation Award of America. The film -- not necessarily my script. And Lowell Thomas, the great ad-libber, read it word for word. I ended up working for Jack Zolov, Zolov Productions in Montreal, for a long time. I also worked with Christian Duguay, who did Hitler: the Rise of Evil, two years ago for CBS, and the motion picture The Assignment, and The Art of War with Wesley Snipes. He asked me to be a consultant on The Assignment, the terrorist film. So I worked on that, as the terrorist consultant.
When I moved to Ottawa from Montreal, I used to go up on Parliament Hill. Those buildings are so gorgeous that I could not believe that I had not really looked at them before. And I thought that we should bring those buildings across the country. And unite the kids through those buildings. Well, then I discovered the tunnels, which are real. The first line of my first book, "North of Ottawa, deep in the Gatineau Hills" just would not leave me, and one day I started writing. It took three months to write The Serpent's Egg. It must have been growing since I read Lord of the Rings, when I was a little kid.
CD: So the location partly got you going for the story?
JFM: Definitely! If I had been living in Montreal I probably wouldn't have begun a book. There was something about the Parliament Buildings that totally inspired me. But then people said, "Make it generic, don't make it Ottawa, it won't sell outside Canada." Well, it did. My Ottawa trilogy is now in Italy and Brazil. It's kind of nice to see Canadian kids saving the world for a change. I also felt that our kids are always given this negative outlook. Have you ever turned on a television in any other country in the world where it said, "What is a Canadian?" We're always questioning who we are here. And there are other little countries that live beside giants like the US and they're fine. Why do we have this major problem? It really bothered me. I wanted to have Canadian kids save the world. That's what I'm doing. My little kids are out there.
CD: Do you have to actually spend time in a city to write about it?
JFM: No. I do a lot of research. Underground New York in that first book of The Mole Wars, is all research. And I spent days with maps of New York so I knew where we were. Chicago is in Book Two of the new trilogy, where they get out at the end of Book One, and it was really hard to do Chicago because I couldn't get the maps that gave me the right perspective. And to get inside the Tribune Tower and the Water Tower and all these buildings was really hard to do. The research took a long time. And I'm not finished.
CD: With The Serpent's Egg trilogy, the first trilogy that you wrote, that was Ottawa -- did you know enough about the city before you started to write it or did you have to do a lot of extra research?
JFM: I knew Ottawa, but I had to research the Parliament Buildings. The chapter entitled "The Hellhags" in book one takes place in Confederation Hall, The Hall of Honours, and The Library of Parliament. I wanted to make the setting as real as possible so that when kids visit Parliament Hill, they can see where the Hellhags leaped from the balcony. In that chapter, when the Hellhags blast apart the library door, I had a bit of a problem. How could I keep the Hellhags out of the library with the doors gone, and still give Miranda time to find the moving bookshelf and hide? In researching the library, my son discovered that there was a pair of iron doors that had saved the Library of Parliament from the famous fire in 1916. The doors are still there. I used them in the book to buy time for Miranda. But for The Mole Wars (my new series), I didn't go into Toronto, New York, or Chicago to do research. I can research underground, so I kept it mostly underground and did the streets, some landmarks, and the area around the magic limousine so that my readers would have a sense of what Steele was seeing when he stepped out of the limo and found himself in another city.
Maddie Fey's limo is so cool. I hated travel in The Lord of the Rings. I'd think, "Frodo, just get there!" And I hated those long trips where it took forever to get to Mount Doom, so I wanted something that would get them from Toronto to New York really fast. The limo was perfect. There's that twelfth door on one side that Steele keeps looking at, wondering what's inside or where it leads to. We don't know where that particular door is going to go.
CD: Are there any situations that you use based on other children that you know? Or does it come with the character?
JFM: No, I haven't based any of my characters on kids that I know. I've always treated kids as adults. My own kids would say that I never treated them like children. They think I'm childish -- that I still live in Gondor. I visited an Ottawa school recently and a boy made a card for me and it said, "I think you really did come from Gondor." I think my young characters are all sides of the child in me. Even Dirk the Jerk or Penelope.
CD: Earlier you mentioned an older poem that had inspired you. Are there particular authors that you think are influences on your writing?
JFM: I think in my books there are legal writers. Certainly all of my English literature background is in there. I think that learned allusion goes through the whole series, without me even being aware that I'm doing it. I grab from mythology. Blatantly, I will take something that I like and reshape it. There's a part in The Burning Crown, where the character is hungry, dying of hunger, yet stuffing his face, gorging on food while starving to death. That's Greek mythology and I just loved that concept so I wanted to use it as the worst thing you could do to someone was to give them that wanting. The concept was so evil. J.R.R. Tolkien was the biggest and greatest inspiration. But a lot of authors have inspired me in different ways.
CD: Are you able to read a lot while you are working on a novel? What kind of reading do you do?
JFM: I'm very jealous about reading. I used to read a lot, but I haven't been reading as much. It takes me a month to read a book now, where I used to read a book a day. I'm too busy writing and trying to meet deadlines, and when I go to bed I pick up a book and read a paragraph before I'm out. I've been reading some mysteries lately. My son has given me some science fiction, which I really didn't know a lot and I didn't know a lot of fantasy. So I've started reading some of the new fantasy. Some of it I don't like. I find that it's not the kind of fantasy I want to read because it's breaking with the pure tradition. To me, Tolkien is so pure. If I'm writing fantasy I want to read it, because it helps you stay in that fantasy world.
Frances Fyfield, the British mystery writer, is brilliant. I like the way she calmly leads up to something horrible. She is a wonderful inspiration.
But I'm not a writer really. I just wrote some books. I never aspired to be an author. I don't know what the rest of writers in Canada would think of my books -- I don't know if they think that fantasy writers are writers. But I don't want to write anything but this. I want to write for kids. I want to change things. I want to make them want to make change. So there is a little goal there. You have to write today like a video game. I know people don't believe me. They think, "What are you doing, you're hurting literature." I don't know what literature is and I will never profess to. But, boys have to read and they've stopped. And we've anesthetized literature in the past where kids stopped reading. Everything in our society is reduced to the lowest common denominator.
I have a manuscript for a little tiny kids' book I wrote a few years ago. I sent it to an editor and it came back with every sentence marked with things like, "You can't use that word if you are writing for five-year-olds." And I'm thinking, "Wow, I read Tolkien, I was thirteen, I didn't know what every word meant but I knew what the sentence meant. I knew what the paragraph meant." Kids need to be challenged.
CD: How did the whole Saratime publishing venture start?
JFM: My son Gregor wanted to be a publisher, always talked about it from the time he was quite young. When I finished The Serpent's Egg, he and an associate, Laine Cooper (who had the finances) came and said, "Could we do it?" "Sure," I said. They took the book to Book Expo in Toronto that first year. We didn't even know that you needed a distributor to get books in a bookstore. That's how naive we were. But they got Jack Stoddart's company GDS to sell and distribute The Serpent's Egg. They sold most of the first 10,000 hard cover prints, but Saratime didn't see a cent. GDS and Stoddart Publishing went under. That hurt Saratime. They didn't qualify for a grant, because they didn't meet the definition of a publisher. They had published only one book. They could have published four little ones and then they would have been considered a publisher. So I said, "I guess I better do the sequel for you guys." We did the sequel and then McArthur and Company became the distributor. Then we did the third one, and I said, "OK, that's it now." They had no contacts for the foreign rights, so I had retained those rights. Last summer HarperCollins acquired the foreign rights and became the publisher of The Fire Demons, book one of The Mole Wars.
CD: Why did you go with HarperCollins for your new book?
JFM: I think that maybe I became more serious about wanting the book to get out there. To get into the U.S., maybe. It's hard to be a little publisher. Do the tours and pay for the promotion. Do everything. It gets to the point where you can't just put it all back -- you have to start living. So I thought, well, Saratime did not have a new author. They had read some manuscripts. They probably had a hundred manuscripts over the two years, but there was nothing there that they considered that they would like to publish. They wanted to publish for young readers. I said, "You have to be a serious publishing company for me to stay. If you don't publish anything but my books we lose something here. Lose the momentum." So I decided I would do The Mole Wars for HarperCollins. I hadn't even discussed it with Saratime -- they didn't know I was working on The Mole Wars. It wasn't a secret, it was just something I sent to Harper and they were quite keen to have it. I've been really happy with HarperCollins.
Oh, look, it was really fun doing Saratime. I could take a book if I were going to a school -- go into Gregor's room, take a book, give it away. And say, "We're going to draw for a book today." It's different with a big publishing company. They watch their books -- they're not just going to let me steal books. I tell the kids that. I say, "Who owns all those books in the bookstore with my name on the cover?" They think I own them and that I can just go into the store and take one. With a small company, there was always a sense of excitement. I could phone Gregor and say, "Greg, how are our sales?" So I knew day to day. With a big company, they're not going to phone all their authors and say, "You sold two books today."
I think that HarperCollins will, in the long run, be the better choice. They are totally committed to their authors. That is, if I can produce really good work, and if I can have the time to produce what I want to produce. I had four months to do The Fire Demons, and I didn't do my best work. I didn't have the time. I was thinking deadline, not book. I was so afraid of having a big publisher who would be critical. But we worked on it. We worked on it from January to the end of July to get it right. I was totally intimidated, and now I'm not really. That's why we're going to wait to put my new one out in the spring. I just worked until July -- I went on tour out to Vancouver, then I went to Toronto. You have to have a block of time to get into the world you're writing about.
CD: Why do you write books for young adults?
JFM: I have this idea that it's time to pay back. I feel that no one's looking out for the kids. No one is taking responsibility for the things they do that affect kids. Someone has to talk for them, stand up for them, fight for them. I just want to make them strong. And I want boys to read. That's very important. If they stop reading, and they go into more of the video -- which boys do more than girls -- you're going to have a major problem when these kids get older. The girls are all going to be readers and doing very intelligent stuff -- it's going to change the dynamic. Because technology is going so fast, and it's scary.
There's no entitlement in my books. You start to see more and more: "I'm entitled to it now." That's what you're seeing with young kids today because parents are doting on them. That's a terrible thing to do. I find that kids can't accept failure. They have to win. In my books, the kids don't gain self-confidence by winning. They fail. They fall down. They get up. They start over. They face adversity. They take responsibility for their actions and they're punished if they don't. It's hard out in the world of constant struggle. But we become better through the struggle. That was my goal. I don't even know if it's subliminal. I hope not. I hope it's really a strong message that comes through in my books. That you can fight and you can do something wrong but it's not the end of the world. You face it and you become stronger.
CD: Would you consider writing in other genres?
JFM: No. I think reading fantasy is the first time these kids -- outside home, religion, maybe school -- confront the big moral issues of good and evil. For children nothing is grey. Things are black and white. It's a learning phase that helps them find their way through the grey areas as they mature. I was at this psychiatric conference recently at the Royal Ottawa Hospital, and they were talking about the effects of fantasy on kids -- studying whether if a child is denied or misses this sort of intro to the big moral questions -- at a certain age, is the effect the same as if someone took an eraser and rubbed out part of that child's moral development? I think fantasy is the way to teach children to want to fight for the good, to join the good fight.
CD: In terms of other writing that is going on right now, is there anything that you would like to see other authors do in the young adult fantasy genre?
JFM: I have not had time to think about it for other authors. When I wrote my first book for young people, all I had in my head was Tolkien and the effect he had on me when I was that age, and how it changed my life. Probably made me do better things than if I hadn't read The Lord of the Rings. Would I have turned out to be a delinquent? Probably not, but I don't know. I'm very rebellious. Tolkien's ideas helped me see a bigger picture that I wanted to be part of. It took me out of me and gave me something noble to work for.
I haven't had time to look at other authors. I've read Harry Potter -- the first three. I think that J.K. Rowling did a good job of bringing kids back to literature. I love Kenneth Oppel's bat series -- I think they're just gorgeous. He's using magic, too. And Allan Cumyn -- I love his stuff, too. He's very funny.
CD: Do you find that there is a writing community in Ottawa?
JFM: You know what? I don't know. There's no time. If you really think of the touring that a writer does to promote books, and research, and meeting deadlines, there's no time left. When you come back your voice is finished, you're usually sick because you catch something from the kids in the schools. The last thing in the world that you want to do is sit down with other writers and chat. So, I just come home and I light the fire and read. And renew myself so I'll stop worrying about whether I've used up all my ideas.
CD: You've mentioned video games several times. Is that just from watching kids or do you play video games yourself?
JFM: I play Civilization and Pinball. They're rewards for when I do a lot of writing. My books are like video games. I do that on purpose so that boys can't put the book down. There are now studies that show that there is a link between too much video and TV and ADHD -- for kids. I guess I'm partly fascinated and partly horrified by video games. I worry that kids might stop reading altogether and play video all the time. I worry about what this would do to them. I find that in the schools, the kids who are not watching TV or playing video games are the brightest. The kids whose parents turn off the TV from Monday to Friday night are very, very spontaneous. They're not displaying attitude. They aren't depressed, they're out there running and playing and exhausting themselves.
CD: A lot of writers get really distracted or procrastinate -- do those things affect you?
JFM: I haven't had time yet. I'm almost finished my fifth book in four years. From having worked in film and as a lawyer, you learn very quickly that time is important. If you had a client and you showed up late for a court appearance and discovered the judge had already found your client guilty, you have a problem. I'm very disciplined. But I won't sacrifice my work. Let's put it this way -- I won't not do the best I can do just to get something in on time anymore. I did that once and it bothered me a lot. After I finished my fourth book, The Fire Demons, I went through a period of not being able to concentrate on anything. I'd sit down to work and be on the balcony washing windows before I knew it. I couldn't settle down long enough to get into the fantasy world I was writing about. It took a lot of resolve, but I'm back there now.
CD: So some of your writing discipline is from your previous career?
JFM: Yes, and it was learned behaviour. In film if you don't have your script ready, and the director and actors are there to film, they're going to be very angry with you, and you're going to cost the film company a lot of money. So you do get that discipline.
CD: What sort of input do you get from young readers and how do you go about getting input from them?
JFM: They find you. They send me titles for my next books, and plots, and how to hurt Muffy without killing her. They write stories and send them to me. I get hundreds of letters from readers who just want to talk about my books. I can't use their ideas, but I try to encourage them to write it for themselves. Some write to advise me on what kind of character I should have in my new book. I have some kids' manuscripts -- the novels are all called The Serpent's Egg 2. With all my characters, who are perfect. And some of their ideas are really clever. One eight-year-old girl came up to me at one of my book launches and handed me a large, but thin, envelope. "What's this?" I asked her. She said, "It's my first novel. And the first chapter of my second novel." Well, it was seven pages in total. One of the books was called Demons Don't Do House Chores. I'd love to have that title. I think it's a great title.
I've never had any of the kids say that they didn't like my books. Once there was a bad email from a parent, who threw the book out the window because she found it so awful, but you don't judge a book by the first chapter or the cover!
CD: You're very conscious of having strong female characters and you also want to make books that boys enjoy reading. Do you find that you get different kinds of feedback from the boys in your audience versus the girls?
JFM: Yes. Boys like the action, the fights with the trolls and Hellhags. They like the military part of it. That's why I had Nicholas (one of the main characters) train with the Elven military and carry a sword. Most boys like the same characters, Naim the old Druid, Typhon the untamed Dragon, and Elester, King of the Elves. They make a point to tell me what they'd do to Muffy. But they all include Miranda among their favourite characters. Girls seem to like the girls, and Miranda's friend Nicholas and, of course, Muffy. But if I ask a child to name his or her favourite character, every child seems to have a different favourite. I had expected that everyone's favourite character (after Miranda) would be Naim, because he's "Gandalf." Basically that hierarchical father figure that you sneak into fantasy so the kids won't have to take their parents on their adventure. But I have emails from kids in the U.K. and the U.S. who said Penelope was their favourite character because she was the most interesting. Other kids will write and say Nicholas, or Elester, or Gregor the Dwarf.
Curiously, in The Fire Demons, all the kids like Steele. Perhaps that's because the book is written solely from Steele's point-of-view. Everything happens through his eyes, so you never get into other people's heads the way I did in The Serpent's Egg trilogy. Perhaps it simplifies the story and makes it a younger book.
CD: What do you mean by a younger book?
JFM: When you're getting into multiple people's heads, that's into adult complexity. It never occurred to me that there's the one-person perspective. I think that young readers can grasp things a lot easier if it's written like The Fire Demons. They only have to contend with what the hero sees and hears and feels. It was a very different experience. I found it very difficult to stay in Steele's head. But what a wonderful exercise.
CD: You've mentioned that you've gone into a lot of schools for different book readings and things like that over the past couple of years. Has anything really unexpected happened while you've been there?
JFM: I was so nervous the first time I visited a school and read to the kids. I was terrified of them. But about three schools later, I'm thinking I'm getting to be an old pro at this. I'm beaming on all these little kids who are sitting on the gym floor, when one of them lets fly with the loudest fart I've ever heard. All the other kids go, "Euwww!" hold their noses and scoot away from the farter on their behinds. I felt horrible for that one child all by himself in the middle of the floor. "You're an adult. You can't laugh! What are you going to do? You have to do something." I didn't know what to do. It was new to me. The teachers acted as if nothing happened. That's what I tried to do, but my face just turned beet red because I felt so sad for that little kid. That's happened a few times since, and I'm getting better at it. I can talk through my mouth without breathing.
One little boy put up his hand once and he said, "Do people die in your book?" "Yes." "My mother said that's bad. And I'm not allowed to read those books." I've had schools cancel a visit because some parents objected to my books because there is magic in the stories and magic, according to those parents, is evil. What can I say? Magic in my books is just a metaphor for inner strength -- a fun way to show that if we look deep inside ourselves we can do great things. How can I argue with someone who doesn't understand what a metaphor is?
A year ago, at a book signing, a parent came up and stood in front of me and blocked the kids and said, "Are you a Christian?" And I said, "That's very personal." She kept going on about how evil magic is. She wouldn't go away until some of the store personnel finally noticed. I looked at her and said under my breath, "Go away. Or else, I will make you disappear with my magic wand." All the kids around started giggling. That was very scary to me because that was all my first year. And these are the same kind of people who would rather keep their children from reading. They probably go to hockey games and beat up the kids who score goals. Ignorance is a scary thing.
CD: What response have you had from other readers, like adults who read your books? It sounds a bit mixed from the parents.
JFM: I have had the most amazing, amazing letters and emails and phone calls from parents. I have only had one parent write to me and just say she was concerned that the book was beyond her son's level, and what age did I think that they should be able to read it? And I said, "Well, I don't know your child. You have to judge your child's reading. You have to read with your kid. You have to know what they're reading. So I can't judge that your child is old enough to read my book."
I'm now getting stacks of letters and emails from grade twos and threes who are reading my books and analyzing them. I could not have read my books at that age. I wasn't smart enough. At a recent visit to a local school, the teacher had to let a grade two student join us. He had read all of my books, and seemed to understand what he was reading.
CD: What sort of comments have the teachers you've met along the way given you?
JFM: They've been fantastic. I have a letter that just arrived. It's from a teacher in Hamilton, Ontario where I toured last spring. I visited inner city schools, but when I arrived in Hamilton, the manager of the bookstore said, "You're going to all the wrong schools." Well, it was my tour. I wanted to go to the kids who need an author. They need to be encouraged. At the book signing, they were lined up out the door, and the bookstore sold every copy of my books that they had in stock. The bookstore manager had tears in her eyes. The letter I got from the teacher in one of those schools said that the impact I had on her grade five students was so great, one boy drafted four letters to me over the Christmas holidays and asked her to help him revise one that was perfect enough to send me. Apparently this boy's life was changing as he read my books. Those letters make me cry. Good tears. I have an eight-year-old fan in Boise, Idaho, who e-mailed me and said he got my book somehow and every night pesters his family to move to Ottawa so that he can feel he is close to my characters. He thinks his parents might cave, just to shut him up and have peace at the dinner table.
What the kids say, more than any other book they've ever read -- even Harry Potter, is that the characters in my books are their friends. Isn't that incredible? I have tears in my eyes, and I save those letters. I get a lot of those that are just -- "Thank you, you've saved my son's life." And it's always about a boy. But the girls, the girls just write and tell me how I've become their role model and how they want to be writers and how they "absolutely adore Muffy."
CD: What are you working on now?
JFM: I'm finishing The Prince of Darkness, Book Two of The Mole Wars. That's very interesting. A little bit of the sci-fi stuff that came into this book was new to me, which was kind of fun to do. Then, I'm going to be doing Book Three. This book will come out in the spring with HarperCollins, then the third book will come out probably the following spring. It's called The Wardens. And then I'm making notes for The Bloodstones, which will be a stand alone inspired by The Serpent's Egg trilogy.
Last modified: February 18, 2005
Copyright © 2005 by J. FitzGerald McCurdy