Jonathan Auxier is a Canadian-American writer of young adult literature, who won the TD Canadian Children’s Literature Award and the Canadian Library Association Book of the Year for Children Award for his 2014 novel The Night Gardener.
Jonathan now lives in Pittsburgh with his wife and family. Find out more by visiting TheScop.com, where he blogs about children’s books old and new. I had the great pleasure of talking with Jonathan about his book Sophie Quire and the Last Storyguard: A Peter Nimble Adventure, fatherhood, and more.
Art Eddy: Let’s first talk about your book Sophie Quire and the Last Storyguard: A Peter Nimble Adventure. This is another Peter Nimble Adventure. Could you give a brief overview of the book?
Jonathan Auxier: My first book was called Peter Nimble and His Fantastic Eyes. It is a story about a small, blind orphan, who happens to be the greatest thief who has ever lived. It was this big swashbuckling adventure. I wrote it as a standalone book. I ran into this problem where readers kept coming up to me asking what happens next.
I kept on saying I didn’t know and then all of these voices chimed in my head saying we know what happens next. That is the horrible thing about creating characters. They don’t shut up or die when you want them to. Before I knew the theme and the characters in the book, Peter Nimble snowballed and became this bigger and even more epic adventure that became Sophie Quire.
Sophie Quire is a story about this 12 year old book mender who is trapped in this city that has turned its back on stories. Sophie feels completely alone in that she is the only one who likes to read these fairy stories, the folklore, and the nursery rhymes that everyone grew up with.
She finds one very rare and strange book that is more than a story. In fact the book seems to be alive. The words change on the page as she is reading. If she asks the book certain questions the book will flip the pages to show her the answer. It is with that book that Sophie discovers that the characters, the worlds, and the creatures that she has always read about and loved are not just these make believe things. They are actually real. In fact those stories are the only things that are standing between her world and complete destruction.
In many ways it was a chance to take Peter Nimble and stand it on its head. Peter Nimble is a traditional epic and sweeping adventure with a very heroic hero. I wanted to do the opposite. I wanted to take that passion that I have as a reader, the more quiet part of myself and see if I can make a character who’s born out of that and throw her in the middle of an adventure. So these worlds and creatures she has grown up with reading about are now actually real. She is in this story and everything is trying to kill her. (Both laugh.) That is where the story came out of.
AE: How do you go about crafting a new character in a series like the Peter Nimble one?
JA: For me it is kind of a chicken or egg thing. You get an idea for a story or a plot. Those things are very exciting. Right when I start to apprehend that I take a major step back and slow down. I spend a lot of time thinking about what kind of person would need that story to happen to them. In many ways the plot of a book is sort of a crucible that is meant to test and galvanize and strengthen a hero. A hero who has a misconception about the world, about themselves, something in them that isn’t quite clicking into place.
The story is that kind of machine that forces them to confront all of these things and forces them to grow or change in some way. Before I can actually start writing in earnest I can have a million ideas, but until I find that heartbeat of that character and what their longings are, what their fears are, and what their needs are I really don’t have a direction. The whole story is about testing those things. The only way that I know how to write that is to go inward and look at myself and my own flaws. In many ways these books are so hard to write because they function as therapy. I have to really push myself and look at clearly at myself. What are the lessons today that I am afraid to learn or afraid to confront? That is what the book becomes as a way to force myself to grow.
JA: Yes, absolutely. I am probably the slowest writer I know. (Both laugh.) I know a while ago you had my buddy Tom Angleberger on the show. Tom writes about fifteen books a year and they are wonderful which disgusts me on every level except for the fact that I enjoy reading them. For me it takes a long time in part because I am trying to do some sort of emotional heavy lifting that I am a bit reluctant to do.
My first book Peter Nimble took seven years. My second book called The Night Gardener, which is a haunted house story took about nine years to write. Sophie Quire took three and a half years. The book that I am writing now by the time I finish will be about seven to eight years. It takes me a long time to go over things again and again to find what I want to say and what I really want the story to do. I am trying to get faster because I have a mortgage. (Both laugh.) I find no matter how I try to rush the process the characters and the world force me to slow down. I guess at some point I have to embrace that.
AE: What were some of the first few thoughts that popped into your mind when you found out that you were going to be a dad?
JA: That is a really interesting question. I had an awesome dad growing up. I still have an awesome dad. He is a natural storyteller. He is an unflappable, fun person. He reminds me in a less extreme way of the dad in Danny The Champions of the World, the Roald Dahl book.
So my dad was always a great dad. It was weird I had friends that regularly said that they wish that they could trade parents with me, which I took for granted. Now I think back and I am like that is very sad. I want to be like a dad like my father was to me. I was very surprised when we had our first daughter. She is four and a half now. I was very surprised at my lack of connection to this brand new baby. Anytime people know that you are going to have a kid they are so excited. I felt very little emotional connection with my first daughter, and surprise with my second and my third daughter.
I think I struggled to connect with babies on this animal or instinctive level. That was actually troubling to me. I wanted to be a good parent. This was the part that everyone was supposed to love. I am feeling a lot of obligation and trust that it will get better. In that moment my spirit was really worried.
There was this really wonderful moment where my dad pulled me aside a few months after having our first daughter. He said, ‘You know what I really didn’t like babies either.’ I hadn’t even told him this. He could just see it. He then said to me that he didn’t want anything to do with is us when we were babies. That was a shock to me. For me all my memories of my dad was this amazing and very present figure in my life.
It was a relief to be able to give myself some slack. Lo and behold when my kids got older and they got a little bit verbal and I could start doing things with them they instantly turned into my favorite people in the world. Getting to just pal around with them and play with them has just been such a wonderful experience. It took a while for it to come into place. It has been immensely rewarding. It gets better every day. Every day they give a little more than they take.
AE: What do your kids think of your books and do they help you with storylines or characters?
JA: That is very interesting. I think that there are some writers that have a journalistic impulse. When they have a child they end up studying and watching that behavior. They then directly translate that in great ways into the book.
That has never been a way that I approach a story. It is very much an internal process. So what I find when I am watching my kids in action it becomes a very present and visceral way to force myself to recollect who I was at that age. So it is less of me taking things that I am seeing from my kids who are adorable and wonderful and could say any number of things that could be wonderfully deployed into the story.
It is often where I see my daughter succeed at something and remember that I struggled at it or vice versa. On a writing level presently they are functioning as a memory trigger. Now some of that is impart because they are too young to be readers for my books right now. I tried to tell them as bedtime stories the story of Peter Nimble and they just don’t care. (Both laugh.) I will give them a couple of more years before I apply that parental pressure to become fans.
JA: Oh man. What an amazing question. Seriously that is a great question. That is so much more substantive than I expect from interviews. (Both laugh.) It is a great one because I think about it a ton. I think that there are three things that are essential.
The first one is that my wife and I try to instill in our children and cultivate in our children is creative play. This includes imaginative play. We do a lot of character role playing and a lot of dress up, the whole family. We also encourage our children to play alone. Even though we have a full house right now our kids get time where they are isolated and have to play by themselves. I think that is a skill set that is easy to ignore in a world where we have the internet at our beck and call.
Then next big thing that we push on and I lose a lot of sleep over is that we all want our kids to be bright, shiny, attractive, successful people. When it comes down to it and my wife and I are lock in and step with this and it is teaching character. That is a much trickier thing. You can only teach it through modeling it, which is incredibly daunting. I feel like you can crack a whip and make your child perform academically, but you can’t pressure someone into having good character. You have to model that yourself. It puts a lot of weight on our shoulders. As many people have observed before me your children make you a better person. You are always thinking about the person that they are watching and learning from. The choices that you are making are little lessons.
The last thing that we really try and work on and is probably more of a lesson is that a few nights ago my two year old was brushing her teeth. She is now in the I want to do it all myself phase. She is grabbing the toothpaste from me. She is not strong enough to unscrew the lid. I remember one night while this is happening. I just wanted to get them into bed. Instead of taking it from her I remember saying take your time. The second I said it a lightbulb went off in my head. It occurred to me that if the three words my children heard from me for the rest of their lives most often was take your time, I would be doing it right. That was a big moment of discovery. So it is less teaching them and more me realizing what I need to be for them. It is someone who is endlessly patient and trusting that they can solve problems.
AE: What advice do you have for new dads?
JA: That’s a phenomenal question. Not to reveal too much, but our newest child has had some extremely significant health troubles. As of a day ago we are on the other side of a lot of scary things, which is great. I am exhausted. With all the stresses that we were going through I saw that the first casualty could be your spousal relationship. One of the things that my wife and I were very aggressive about was maintaining our relationship above every other thing. We are making sure that was never something that we ignored or neglected.
That is something that my parents modeled. It is not always easy to do. I do believe that a strong spousal relationship is probably the greatest gift you can give your child. I say that as a recipient of that in my own life. So in many ways the best thing for a new parent is to forget about the child and focus on their marriage relationship. I think the child will feel that security. That is not always doable and I understand that.
When you are a new parent going into that I think some parents can get so focused on this little creature that they have to keep alive that it only becomes their common ground. I plan to have much more life than the years my child is living under my roof just as I had a whole lot of life before my child appeared in my life.
Life of Dad Quick Five
AE: What is your favorite family movie you guys like to watch together?
JA: I used to watch a lot silent movies. I recently pulled them back up and watched them with my daughters. We watched The Kid, the Charlie Chaplin feature. That is phenomenal. I cry every time, which means my kids see an emotionally vulnerable man in their house. We watch that movie countless times.
AE: Do you guys have a favorite song that you all like to sing and dance to as a family?
JA: Oh my goodness. This isn’t my favorite, but we do clean up at the end of the day. We are trying to teach our kids to clean up the messes that they create. On a random day on the Pandora children songs the most obnoxious song came on. It was a Dora, The Explorer song. It is called The Clean Up Song. My four year old exploded and made us listen to it on repeat for an hour while she cleaned up the house by herself. So I love that song. (Both laugh.)
AE: Describe the perfect family vacation.
JA: Going back to the earlier point about marriage maintenance presently my favorite family vacation is dropping the kids at the in-laws and going somewhere with my wife. Taking the kids I would be hard pressed to say anything other than Disneyland.
AE: Did you have a favorite book growing up as a kid?
JA: I had a whole bunch. As many readers and then later writers do. One of the books my father read to me when I was eight years old and terrified my was Treasure Island. I read that book about twenty times.
AE: At what age did you master the Yo-Yo?
JA: (Laughs.) I was probably about 14. I had a cultivated quirkiness at that point. I remember one Christmas my family decided to cut back on Christmas presents. So we were only getting small gifts and stocking stuffers. I told my parents all I wanted was a Yo-Yo and a harmonica. They got me one of each. I played the harmonica for a week. I never put the Yo-Yo down. I practiced incessantly.
Follow Jonathan on Twitter @JonathanAuxier.