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Interview: July 2007

In this interview with Kidsreads.com’s Sarah Wood, John Flanagan --- author of the bestselling Ranger’s Apprentice series --- describes how he created these stories as a way of encouraging his young son to read and explains how his characters have evolved over the course of several novels. He also discusses his interest in history and mythology, from which he draws inspiration, and shares what readers can look forward to in future installments, following the recently-released THE ICEBOUND LAND.

Kidsreads.com: Slavery is an important plot element to THE ICEBOUND LAND. I was particularly interested in the way you show the institution of slavery: how slaves are coerced by other slaves, and by the stupefying drugs used to keep them under control. Why did you decide to make slavery a main plot point in this novel?

John Flanagan: The concept of having slaves was pretty commonplace during the Middle Ages, so it wasn’t a big step to include it. But I’m not sure I’d agree that slavery is a main plot element. I think the drug dealer/drug addict storyline is a much stronger element in this book. The slavery concept really comes to the fore in the next novel, when the Skandians need to convince the slaves to fight against an invader. They learn then that a slave who has nothing to live for will also have nothing to fight for.

KRC: Evanlyn is a particularly strong character in THE ICEBOUND LAND. She learns so much during the course of the book. Can you talk a little about how her character develops?

JF: I love Evanlyn and I love her role in this book. It’s too much of a cop-out to have a female character who exists solely for the purpose of being rescued by the hero. In Book 2, she exhibited traits of a typical princess, pouting and sulking on occasion. In book 3, there is an early tension --- amounting to petulance --- between her and Will.

But in spite of her privileged upbringing, Evanlyn has a core of steel and a courageous and practical spirit. As times get tough, that inner strength becomes more apparent. I like the fact that she tries to accomplish things for which she has little or no training, and her persistence helps her to succeed. Her courage and determination in the face of trouble are developed here, and they become more and more important for her pivotal role in Book 4.

And later in Book 7. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

KRC: Halt's trickery of Deparnieux depends on his flouting of the traditions of chivalry. His justification to Horace of why he abandons the codes of chivalry made me feel a little uncomfortable, even though I really enjoyed the way it plays out in the book. How did you make the decision to confront the issue of when it is appropriate to use or abandon a moral code?

JF: I think Halt’s approach to this problem is rooted in his hatred of hypocrisy. Deparnieux, as a knight, has taken vows to uphold and abide by the rules of chivalry. Halt’s viewpoint is that you can’t take advantage of some of those rules while ignoring others that don’t suit you. It’s all or nothing. So, Deparnieux should not be protected by any of those rules.

I don’t agree that Halt flouts the rules of chivalry. Remember, Halt hasn’t taken those vows. He’s not a chevalier. So he’s not breaking any rules that bind him. The key to his subterfuge is that a knight is under no obligation to accept a commoner’s challenge. To ensure that Deparnieux can’t weasel out that way, Halt claims to be of noble lineage.

Is he lying? He brushes off Horace’s question. But how much do we really know about Halt? Book 8 (currently in planning) might cast some light on that question.

KRC: One of the things I really enjoyed about your previous book, THE BURNING BRIDGE, was your vivid descriptions of combat and fighting techniques. Readers could practically reconstruct the fights from your descriptions. This level of detail is also evident in the final showdown between Halt and Deparnieux in THE ICEBOUND LAND. Talk a little about your interest in weaponry and combat techniques. Is there a particular reason these scenes are so vivid?

JF: I appreciate your saying that the battle scenes are vivid. Thanks for that. It’s what I strive for when describing a battle or a single combat. I guess anyone does.

As to my interest in battles and weaponry, I’m not sure. I guess most boys are interested in such things. I was a keen participant in field archery some years ago, along with my son Mike, so I know a bit about the subject of archers and archery. I’ve always had a leaning towards archers, maybe because I love the Robin Hood legend.

I’ve also always had an interest in things military --- that’s possibly because I grew up in the period after World War II, when there was a deluge of books about people’s war experiences available. Sometimes I think that everyone who fought in that war wrote a book about it. In high school I was also in the Cadet Corps and I enjoyed the small-unit tactics, weapons training and field craft.

I feel I should put a big safety net under this and say that in my books, the battle plans always function like clockwork. I know that in real life, it seldom turns out that way, but I’m an author and I can control events any way I like.

KRC: The world of the Ranger’s Apprentice seems to be very clearly based on the geography and history of our world. Is there any reason you decided to base your fantasy world on a British/European model?

JF: Well, I could hardly base it on an American or Australian medieval model because nobody really knows what was going on in either of our two countries at that time. I’m more familiar with English/European history, so I’m more comfortable with that setting.

KRC: Nancy Farmer's THE SEA OF TROLLS made me really interested in Norse culture. It also made me realize how underrepresented Norse culture is in literature for young people. The Skandians in THE ICEBOUND LAND seem very similar to the Norse. What was your inspiration for the Skandians, and why did you choose to include them in the world of the Ranger’s Apprentice?

JF: Aaah, yes. As in high school, I was streamed into the group who concentrated on the sciences: Maths 1 and 2, Chemistry and Physics were deemed most important. I also did French and English. Note, no history there. I suspect that I felt something was missing because as a kid, I used to concentrate on books with an historic setting. I devoured books about the Romans and their legions (did you know the 9th Legion lost its eagle in Britain?) and about knights and the Arthurian legend. And I read a lot of Greek mythology. From there, it was a short step to Norse mythology. I read lots of children’s books set in these areas. They were good, exciting stories. I read THE ILIAD when I was quite young. That still surprises me. I doubt I could sit through it these days.

So, I have a passing acquaintance with Norse and Greek mythology. On top of that, I’ve always loved Vikings. They seemed such big, noisy, free-spirited people --- great characters to have in a book. Of course, as with everything else in my world, they differ from real Vikings. I’m told real Vikings never wore horned helmets. Skandians do. I invented several minor deities and demons as well, for use in non-offensive expressions of alarm. Gorlog is one of my favourites. I don’t know too much about him, but he has horns, teeth and a beard, all of which can be evoked. There’s also a mention of Loka once or twice, a name that bears a distinct resemblance to Loki, god of deceit. As to the Vallas, I think the concept of a trio of gods or superior beings controlling human life is a fairly universal one, from Atropos, Clotho and Lachesis in Greek mythology through to the Christian trinity.

KRC: Gallica and its abuses of chivalry definitely seem to be poking fun at the French and the chivalric model. The knights they meet in Gallica are either ridiculous like the first knight at the bridge, or cruel like Deparnieux (although many of the common people, like the innkeeper and his wife, are quite pleasant). Could you tell us about your decision to represent Gallica and its knights in this way?

JF: I may well have been influenced by Monty Python here. I think the point I was hoping to make was that in a power vacuum (it’s stated that the Gallic king is weak), there are always some people who will take wrongful advantage of being in a privileged position. This can be ridiculous, as in the case of the road knights, or sinister, as in the case of Deparnieux. The setting just happened to be Gallica because that’s where Halt and Horace landed.

I didn’t set out to ridicule the French. (I’m not sure what they’ll think when they reach Book 3. So far they’ve only bought 1 and 2. But I think the French people have a good enough sense of humour to overlook this).

Of course, the truth is that in the real world, France during this period was far from a dysfunctional kingdom. It was a powerful and well-organized country.

KRC: I love that you have elevated the character of the ranger --- someone who is gifted in stealth and marksmanship, rather than brute force --- into the central character of the series. What was your inspiration to make the ranger the center of your tale?

JF: I wanted to make the point to my son Mike that heroes don’t have to be big, muscle-bound types. (Mike was a small boy.) In addition, a central character whose sole skill was belting the daylights out of his enemies was a little limited. I wanted my central character to be a thinker, a planner. I wanted him to succeed, in an age where brute strength was seen as a necessary attribute, not because of physical power but because of his wits and skill.

Hey, maybe it’s because I was a small, skinny kid too.

KRC: I really love how Will and Horace started out as enemies, but have come to be such good friends. Could you tell us a little about the evolution of their friendship? Was this something that developed as you worked on the story, or did you plan it all along?

JF: It developed. In the original 20 short stories I wrote for Mike, I needed a villain and Horace was it. (After all, there weren’t too many others available.) After the boar hunt, where Will saves his life, Horace faded away. When I expanded the stories into a book, I found a larger villain in the form of Morgarath, and I decided to rehabilitate Horace and keep him as a main character. The concept of a bully who was being bullied in his turn was a strong one, I thought. The parallel storyline of his time in Battleschool and his growing ability with weapons wasn’t in the original stories. I felt his character could be a valuable foil to Will --- one of them solid, loyal and a linear thinker, and the other mercurial, inventive and instinctive. I’ve always been careful to make sure that Horace is not stupid. Sometimes, his careful linear thinking cuts through to the end result more effectively than Will’s butterfly mind and mental gymnastics. I like Horace. I love his involvement with Halt in Book 3.

KRC: The relationship between Halt and Will is really special. They have something that seems almost stronger than a parent/child bond. Will is an orphan, though the issue of his parentage has seemed less important since he's met Halt. Is this something that will be an issue later in the series?

JF: Definitely. (I’m talking about the Halt/Will relationship here. By the end of Book 1, Will knows who his parents were.)

But the Halt-Will relationship gave me a great springboard for Book 7. (Sorry to keep talking about these books later in the series.) Book 7 is out of chronological order. It’s actually set between Books 4 and 5 and deals with Will’s approaching graduation as a Ranger. Halt realises that he’s going to lose Will from his life when he graduates. Will also begins to doubt that he’s ready to take his place among the Rangers. He knows he can never live up to Halt’s example. They both have problems they have to solve.

KRC: The typical good vs. evil battle, usually drawn out through an entire fantasy series, is won at the end of the second book. THE ICEBOUND LAND features all kinds of other challenges for our characters, but does not adhere to the typical “dark lord” model. Should readers expect a return of Morgarath or some other Dark Lord later in the series? Or are you taking it in another direction entirely?

JF: No. Morgarath’s gone for good. The problem (to me) with a continuing villain is that the situation must be resolved eventually or you risk readers becoming frustrated. J.K. Rowling always planned to write seven books in the Harry Potter series covering Harry’s seven years in school, so she could build to an end where --- presumably --- Voldemort gets it in the neck once and for all. (Bear in mind that I’m writing this the day before Book 7 is to be released.)

In my case, I don’t know how many books I’ll write in the Ranger’s Apprentice series, but there are plenty of potential villains out there. I chose not to go for a continuing “Dark Lord” because I wanted a point of difference from other series. Same reason I chose not to have magic involved.

Besides, this way, if I want an evil scheming Irishman (or Hibernian, as they’re called) as a villain in a book somewhere down the line, I’m free to have one --- and I don’t have to find a way to shoehorn Morgarath into the story.

KRC: Will's friend, who went into the diplomatic corps, does not make an appearance in THE ICEBOUND LAND. Will she return in later books?

JF: Oh yes, indeed. I could tell you more, but then I’d have to kill you.

KRC: Is there any discussion of a Ranger’s Apprentice movie?

JF: We’re beginning to have feelers from producers now that the series has hit the New York Times bestseller list. Nothing concrete yet. I think it’ll happen.

KRC: What kind of feedback have you gotten from your young readers about what they like or dislike about the Ranger’s Apprentice books?

JF: I have a website now and I get around 40-50 emails a week. The general consensus is they like the characters, which is particularly pleasing to me because I think this is a character-driven series. Halt is very popular. So is Tug, the horse. A lot of girl readers (and I have a lot of girl readers) relate to Evanlyn because she’s such a strong character.

KRC: Your bio mentions that the Ranger’s Apprentice started as a bedtime story for your son. Is your son still young? Has he continued to enjoy your stories? Have a lot of things about the stories changed as they have evolved into published books?

JF: Actually, not a bedtime story. I wrote a series of short stories (one a week over a period of five months) to encourage Mike to read, and I based the central character on him. That was 18 years ago. The stories sat in a my drawer for nine years while I was busy writing several TV series. Then I went back to them and expanded them into first one book, then two, then three, then the four that make up the first series. The first book in the series is dedicated to him.

Mike is now 31, lives in Japan, and has a wife and a four-year-old son. He still reads each new book and still enjoys them. The original stories haven’t changed too much. I did “rehabilitate” Horace --- as I said earlier --- and I dropped one, in which Will and Horace fight a duel with practice weapons. But most of them are incorporated into Book 1. One of the original stories was used in Book 2.

KRC: There are all kinds of wonderful and creative fantasy authors emerging from Australia. (I'm a big fan of Sherryl Jordan, for example.) What new things do you feel Australia and Australians have to offer to the world of fantasy literature?

JF: I love the fact that Australian authors can now have their work seen on an international stage. I thank the Internet for this. It allows us to send manuscripts, to edit, to correct and to work with our overseas editors in a fraction of the time it used to take. I’m not sure that there are new things we can offer that are intrinsically because we’re Australian. I think we’re a pretty creative country. But I’m biased.

KRC: What are some of your favorite fantasy books or inspirations?

JF: Since I’ve been working on my own series, I’ve had to stop reading other fantasies, just in case I come across an idea I’m already working on. For example, when I read the first Harry Potter book (and enjoyed it immensely), I realised there was a two boy-one girl relationship developing there and I had a similar setup between Will, Evanlyn and Horace. I knew where I was taking mine, and I didn’t want to be influenced by how Ms. Rowling resolved hers. So I had to stop reading the books. Same thing for Christopher Paolini’s series.

In the past, I’ve enjoyed David Eddings’s Belgariad series and The Lord of the Rings. I love Cecelia Holland’s books. She’s a Californian author who wrote some great medieval fiction. Coincidentally, we have the same birthday --- day, month and year.

My all-time favourites are probably the Hornblower series by C. S. Forester.

KRC: What are you working on now, and when might readers expect to see it?

JF: I’ve just edited Book 7 for my Australian publishers and done a check of Book 4 for America. I’m beginning to start planning book 8, but I’m going to have a break from writing Ranger’s Apprentice for some months. I’ll probably get back to them late next year. That’s not a problem for Americans because there are still four more books to be released there.