August 22, 2017

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Newbery Magic: Adam Gidwitz in conversation with Kelly Barnhill

Illustration by Joe Ciardiello

Illustration by Joe Ciardiello

On January 23, Kelly Barnhill, author of The Girl Who Drank the Moon (Algonquin), and Adam Gidwitz, author of The Inquisitor’s Tale (Dutton), both received very exciting news. Barnhill had been awarded the 2017 John Newbery Medal for her book, while Gidwitz received one of three Newbery Honors, along with Lauren Wolk for Wolf Hollow (Dutton) and Ashley Bryan for Freedom Over Me: Eleven Slaves, Their Lives and Dreams Brought to Life (Atheneum). Below, Gidwitz and Barnhill discuss writing their books, their larger themes and goals, and the beauty of impromptu parties.

AG: I have noticed that many of my author pals were involved in theater when they were younger—or maybe still are. I think there’s a kinship between writing and acting: in both, you inhabit a voice, a body, that is not your own; you see the world through other eyes; and, most crucially, you have an audience before which you must perform this other voice and body. You have an acting background, don’t you? Tell me about playing a character and writing a character. How are your processes similar?

KB: It’s interesting that you bring up the theater. I don’t have a background in theater at all, but I have a whole heap of relatives who do. My sister is a theater artist and playwright; my aunt was a working actor in New York City in her younger years; my cousin was on and off Broadway, and another aunt and uncle work in the movie business. In addition, at any family gathering, there will be impromptu recitations and musical belting that can occur at any moment. I think you’re right—that language of performance imprinted itself in how I make stories and tell stories. As a kid, I was a delayed reader, and I don’t know if it was because of that delay, or if it was because I was steeped in this performative nature of story-making, but I grew to love the way that stories sound. My parents read to us every night (Grimm and Lewis and Tolkien and Dumas and Nesbitt and Gág and Dickens and Stevenson), and later I discovered a treasure trove of audiobooks and adapted radio plays on LPs at the library, which I would listen to obsessively in the closet of the room I shared with three siblings (it was the only quiet spot in the house) on the crappy orange and cream colored plastic Fisher Price record player that I bought with my very own baby-sitting money at a garage sale when I was nine.

There is an art, I realized then, to the pattern of the voice—tone, diction, pace, inflection—and, by extension, an art to the pattern of language. Internal sounds and subconscious rhythms did as much to make the listener feel the story as the actual story. I didn’t know this exactly—of course I didn’t; I was only a kid. And yet. I still did understand it in my bones. Sometimes the body knows what the mind does not. Anyway, even though I still wasn’t much of a reader at this point (and would not be until the middle of sixth grade), I did become a storyteller with my siblings, cousins, baby-sitting charges, and various small children who were always hanging around my home—stories about gnomes and witches and ogres and ooze and horrible tentacled monsters who lived in the lake and the ghost who sat in my room sometimes (though that one was nonfiction). And I performed the heck out of those stories.

And the thing is, I still do, even now. Performing stories is absolutely part of my process. I’d say a good 75 percent of what I do in my office is out loud. And it is loud. I will read a passage over and over, performing it really only to my dog (who is very appreciative—though I’m guessing my poor neighbors are less so), experimenting with how the story feels in my ear and in my throat and chest and belly and bones. Harmonics and theatrics and physicality. I also record myself and listen with the text, trying to get the language to lay right. I never really thought about how this is all related to being from a family of performers, but it probably does. Huh. That is fascinating. I should send everyone a thank you note.

Okay, I have a question for you.

KB: One thing I love about your book is how with each representation (misrepresentation?) of the kids’ story, both the teller and the told reveal themselves, but only at a slant. It is my favorite kind of story. But it occurs to me that in a telling with that many threads and layers, something had to get left behind. What are some cool little bits and pieces that you had to leave out?

AG: I adore the idea of the enormous Barnhill family performing for one another at family holidays, and then Kelly sneaking off with the other children and telling tales of goblins and boglins and other creatures to rapt (and likely terrified) little cousins. To me, there could be no other origin for The Girl Who Drank the Moon.

My writing style derives from my time as a teacher, telling stories to my students. And my “Grimm” books are very consciously told in that oral style. I, too, read them aloud to myself (though I never recorded myself and listened to the telling; I plan to steal—ahem, appropriate—that idea for my next book).

But The Inquisitor’s Tale was originally written in a floating, third-person narrative style, and all that fancy switching between narrators that I do wasn’t there. But this created a problem: because there were no limitations on what my narrator could know, nor any requirements from the narrator’s audience for speed or efficiency or humor (a floating omniscient third-person narrator cannot see the yawns of its readers), the book had stretched into an epic picaresque. By moving the story into the mouths of people who were recounting tales at a tavern, demands of speed and efficiency became paramount, and a lot of the slack fell off.

One piece of slack that I still miss, though, was inspired by a tomb effigy in the Cloisters Museum in New York City. There, a knight lies on a bier. Attached to his belt he wears a very strange sword—with a cloverlike handle. The sword, it turns out, is Chinese, and inclusion on the tomb effigy was evidence for posterity that this wealthy and worldly knight had gone on Crusade and acquired “exotic riches,” like the sword. In early drafts, Sir Fabian (one of my minor baddies) had this sword, and he invented a story about how he got it—which is immediately contradicted. I found the passage ironic and sad, and for that reason, I loved it. Also, for that reason, I had to cut it out. It did nothing for the plot, and you can’t put every darn thing you want to in a book.

So, for authors, a much larger, arguably richer, and likely more boring book exists in our minds. When we speak to our readers, it isn’t always easy to remember what actually made it into the final draft and what did not. The world is so much bigger in our heads.

AG: Speaking of which, I’m wondering what your readers are seeing in The Girl Who Drank the Moon that you did not foresee? And what did you expect everyone to see that they seem not to be focusing on?

KB: I started mine because of Glerk, the poetry-quoting swamp monster, who appeared in my brain one day and recited a poem. I wrote the poem down, put it in a box, and then spent the next two years thinking about it. The thing is, I had been doing a lot of other thinking around that same time about the pervasiveness of false narratives, and false stories—particularly in the news media.

So, I knew I wanted to write a story that grappled with this idea of false narratives—and how the Greedy and the Wicked and the Power-Hungry can so easily entrench their access to resources or money or power or respect by simply controlling the narrative. We’re storytellers, after all. All of us. It’s how our brains are wired. But what surprised me is that inside that, I found myself accidentally exploring the false narratives that take hold inside the very loving bonds of a family—with the best intentions, of course! Always with the best intentions. And deeper in that, the false narratives that we tell ourselves about ourselves. How we limit ourselves. How we avoid grappling with painful topics. How we prevent ourselves from growing. How we prevent ourselves—and our loved ones—from changing. Stories are powerful. They can transform and amplify and heal—but they can also stagnate and minimize and harm. It just depends on how you tell the story.

What is funny to me, is that my readers are not in alignment with who they think the main character is. The kids almost always tell me they think that Luna is the main character, which is clearly correct (though some kids insist that it’s Fyrian). But a lot of grown-ups insist that the main character isn’t Luna at all—it’s Antain. And still others—mostly readers of a certain age—tell me that they felt the main character was Xan. I think in the end, as writers we don’t build the story. We build characters, and worlds, and we hand readers a bunch of raw materials and some real pretty sentences (because we do so love the pretty sentences), and then readers build the story. So no matter what, they’re going to see things that I don’t see and feel things that I don’t feel.

So as I read your book, I kept having flashbacks to reading Canterbury Tales, which I read while taking a course in college called “Sinners and Saints: Love Among the Ruins,” which was taught by two gray-haired, bawdy, salty-mouthed nuns, one an Oxford-trained literature scholar and the other a Cambridge-educated theologian. They were awesome. And hilarious. And exacting in their analysis. And with earthy, man-of-the-people, borderline-inappropriate senses of humor. They would have LOVED the farting dragon. And they would have accused you of basing the ale-drinking nuns off them. They would have loved this whole book.

Photograph by Joe Treleven

Photograph by Joe Treleven

KB: I am now curious how the form of the Canterbury Tales ended up in The Inquisitor’s Tale. Was that the plan all along or maybe originally just in allusion rather than form? Or did the characters themselves pull you along and show you what this story needed to be? (I’m hoping it’s the latter, because I’m working on a book right now that is insisting on a whole different sort of form…and I hope these bossy characters are right. Jerks.)

AG: When I started planning The Inquisitor’s Tale, six years ago, I had this idea. [Warning: SPOILER ALERT! I’ll include brackets where you can start reading again, those of you who haven’t read the book yet.] My idea was this: what if my narrator turned out to be the bad guy? This idea might have been inspired by Agatha Christie, or by the unreliable narrators in Henry James and Ford Madox Ford and Kazuo Ishiguro. What if, I thought, my narrator was following my protagonists, and only at the end, when he caught up with them, did we realize he was trying to kill them? The problem with this idea, of course, is how you convey the complexity and interiority of your main characters when the conceit of your narrator is that he can’t get close to them. This problem seemed to me, for years, insurmountable. So I wrote the book in a sprawling third person, as I said before. And then, in December 2015, just 10 months before publication, and well after the finished manuscript was due, my editor, Julie Strauss-Gabel, summoned me and explained that the book was boring. Couldn’t I write it differently? Couldn’t I tell readers a story?

Well, I was pretty sure I knew what she meant. She meant that I should write another Grimm book, but with these medieval stories. I should talk to my readers, make jokes, warn them. I didn’t want to do that, I told her. I might have raised my voice. I’d done that three times already, in A Tale Dark and Grimm and its companions. I wouldn’t do it again! Not this time! I wanted to do something new, I told her, something hard and different. I wanted to write in a new style. And then, because an editor is part teacher and part big sister, Julie said, “You seem upset.” And then, “Adam, you know that just because you’re a good storyteller, that doesn’t mean you’re a bad writer.”

Those might have been the most important words I’ve heard in my career.

I must have been doubting that I was a real writer, without ever knowing it.

So I thought about how I could tell this book as a story, or as a series of stories. I took up the problem with my wife. She is a professor of medieval history, and was my director of research for the book. Also, we met in a Chaucer class, back in college. She said, “What about telling stories like in The Canterbury Tales?” As soon as she said it, I remembered my murderous, unreliable narrator, buried under self-doubt and technical difficulties all those years ago. How can we stay close to the kids, while he isn’t? If he’s hearing their stories at an inn, that’s how. [End of SPOILER!]

So, with only 10 months until publication, I began the process of retelling the entire book, changing voices with each chapter. With each one, I adopted the narrator’s accent and history and prejudices. And I pictured myself sitting in an inn, with half-distracted, half-drunken patrons sitting all around me. If I could keep their attention, I could keep the attention of my readers.

That’s the story of the form of this book.

Well, we’ve been talking for a while. I’ve often thought that writers are people who like the sounds of their own voices more than anyone they know personally does, and so they have to find people they don’t know who will listen to them. But we may be wearing on even these indulgent strangers.

AG: So, to wrap up: because we all want to dance and sing over these medals together, share with us one way you’ve celebrated this amazing moment.

KB: WHAT????? You completely altered the form 10 months from publication? Heavens to dang Betsy. My editor should not know we are having this conversation. THAT IS THE MOST AMAZING AND BRAVE THING I HAVE EVER READ. That’s like, jump into the hole in the ice on a frigid, windswept, -30 Northern night levels of brave: that’s like, Minnesotan brave, man. Kudos. I always knew you were secretly one of us. Here is your Honorary Minnesotan crown. You will notice it looks like a fishing hat. That is on purpose. Wear it well.

So a couple things jump out: 1. I love it that you and your wife met in a Chaucer class (not taught by nuns, alas, but still very cool) and 2. I love it that your wife pointed you in the direction that you clearly needed to be. (I knew I liked her. I’ll make her an Honorary Minnesotan as well.) It is amazing to me how offhanded conversations or random happenstance or the occasional odd object making its way into our backpacks will end up utterly reinventing our projects. Landing us where we always needed to be. It’s like magic.

So, here’s what happened to me on the day I found out about this whole awards business. I live on what is, most likely, the most awesome block in America. I’m in the middle of the city, but on a dead-end street that terminates at a wooded park with a footbridge and a creek that curves around the back of our houses and winds its way to a waterfall about a mile away. There is greenspace everywhere—reedy banks and wetlands and willow groves and fields, along with miles of trails. At the same time, I’m in walking distance of the light rail, the library, and the grocery store. But the best part are my neighbors—amazing creative, independent, artistic people and their madcap, magnificently loud, usually muddy, primarily shoeless and often shirtless children—38 kids in all.

And on the day I won the Newbery Medal, after all the interviews and visits and the incredulous, dizzy unreality of the day, my beloved neighborhood all descended on my house and massed inside: moms, dads, old folks, young folks, and hordes of kids. One kid in particular, a blond-haired sixth grader in the same class as my son, who has been giving my books as gifts at his friends’ birthday parties and has basically been my highly successful, pro-bono publicist since he was eight, gave me a giant hug and said, “I can’t believe it! I’ve never been to a REAL Newbery party before!” And I hugged him back, “ME NEITHER,” I said. And it was a pretty good way to celebrate a children’s literature award—grown-ups laughing in the kitchen or by the fire with their glasses of wine, kids in the backyard with the dogs howling at the moon, teenagers upstairs huddled around a random laptop and rewatching an episode of Steven Universe for the nine millionth time, and a gaggle of 12-year-old boys in the basement playing yet another game of Magic: the Gathering, and probably not wearing shirts. I still haven’t quite wrapped my head around what all of this means—and maybe I never will—but I do appreciate living on a block that is so quick to kick up its heels and throw an impromptu party.

Gidwitz-Adam_ContribAdam Gidwitz, a former school teacher, is the author of A Tale Dark and Grimm, In a Glass Grimmly, The Grimm Conclusion, The Empire Strikes Back: So You Want to Be a Jedi?, and The Inquisitor’s Tale: Or, The Three Magical Children and Their Holy Dog.

This article was published in School Library Journal's March 2017 issue. Subscribe today and save up to 35% off the regular subscription rate.

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