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Interview: August 2011

N. D. Wilson knows how to merge the realities and histories of this world with one that is slightly more…fantastical. Having authored LEEPIKE RIDGE, a children's adventure story, and the multi-world fantasy series 100 Cupboards, he is now embarking on a new series called Ashtown Burials. In THE DRAGON'S TOOTH, the first installment, siblings Cyrus and Antigone swear an oath to an order of explorers who have long served as caretakers of the world's secrets.

In this interview, Kidsreads.com's Usha Rao asks Wilson why he blends elements of modern American life with mythical aspects, and why his heroes do not perform magic in the traditional sense. He also dishes about motel rooms, numbers, weapons, snakes, alchemists, and how his own kids act as his focus group.

Kidsreads.com: In THE DRAGON'S TOOTH, the first installment in the Ashtown Burials series, siblings Daniel, Antigone and Cyrus Smith live in a run-down motel after their family is torn apart. What made you decide to set part of the story at a motel? Do you have any memorable experiences from staying in a motel yourself?

N.D. Wilson: Motels were always mysterious places to me. So many people and stories and worries and problems have passed through there --- staying in a motel room is like staying in a room that belongs to hundreds of strangers. My own memories of motel rooms involve a younger me studying the worn carpet, searching under the bed, and peering into corners and behind televisions trying to find some trace of the people who came before. In that way, the whole world is like a motel room. I'm always desperate to find out who came before and what they left behind. And when we all move on, there will be others in this room, doing the same thing.

KRC: Why was it important that the children be orphans, with a comatose mother, dead father, and a missing older brother?

NDW: The Smith kids are raw from the hardships they've been through, and when the adventure comes, it comes in part because of their hardships. But the adventure is also completely theirs to overcome. They can't look to their older brother for help, they have to save him. They can't ask their mom, she's asleep. And they can only miss their father terribly. All these things are important because this story is about Cyrus and his sister Antigone, and their circumstances put the full weight of the story on them.

KRC: Cyrus and Antigone are pressed into signing up to be Acolytes in an Order about which they know nothing. Is the journey they undertake their destiny by birth? Should their godfather have offered them any choice in the matter, or at least forewarning of what was in store for them?

NDW: The godfather who shows up and makes them Acolytes in the Order is a pretty shady dude. He's an outlaw, and a guy with his own plans and ideas. He absolutely should have been more forthcoming, but if he had, the Smith kids would have held back, and he wouldn't have gotten what he wanted. He completely manipulates them. At the same time, the Smith family has a tremendously long heritage with the Order, and their return is in many ways destined.

KRC: In the story, you manage to blend elements of modern American life with its motels, diners, guns, and 911 emergency responders, with mythical aspects such as dragon's teeth, guardian snakes, and magical secret societies. What made you decide to give THE DRAGON'S TOOTH such a modern setting?

NDW: There are a couple things I was hoping to accomplish in doing that. First, I really want to connect global fantasy with young American readers --- and drawing on the familiar details of roadside Americana does that. The adventure starts here (in Wisconsin, to be specific), in a roadside motel like hundreds of other roadside motels we've all seen and driven past --- a relic of a slightly different time.

The other reason why I want to draw on the contemporary world is because I really and truly want to create an excitement about this world --- the one in which we all live. This world is amazing. This world is full of danger and fantasy. That's why I'm drawing on history and the classics and mythologies that are all as much a part of this world as motels. I also base my crazy creatures on creatures that have lived (and that currently live) on this wild planet of ours.

KRC: You don't shy away from having the children in the story possess and use guns and other weapons to defend themselves. This is a departure from many fantasy stories in which young protagonists use magical --- rather than real --- weapons. What made you include guns in the story?

NDW: This answer really has two parts. First, my heroes are not magical heroes. They are relatively normal kids who have to survive and overcome in a world crowded with magical dangers (and some pretty gnarly villains). And they are part of an Order of Explorers that is connected to real history and the real exploratory heroes of yesterlore. So it makes a lot of sense that they would need to train with the practical weapons of our own historical past --- the weapons we're used to seeing in the hands of pirates and explorers alike (swords, sabers, guns, etc). Imagine an Order that once included the likes of Daniel Boone and Teddy Roosevelt, and that didn't have marksmanship requirements. Second, while guns rightly make us (responsible adults that we are!) nervous, they are the primary weapon of the last few centuries, and to write real-world, historically-connected fantasy is to include them by necessity.

At the same time, they are also powerful (and dangerous) magic. They are another fantasy element in this, our fantasy world. Our dwarves mined ore from the stone hills, which our smiths then melted down in vats the size of small volcanoes inside steel and stone castles crowned with towers belching smoke, surrounded by wire walls capped with razors, and guarded by small sleepless electric watchers (each with only one glass eye). Then the molten ore was molded by machine and by hand into the desired shape. And while all this was happening, the alchemists of Asia were mixing up a powder potion. And that potion, when struck with a small hammer, cracks like thunder and hurls a tiny metal dart at an enemy faster than sight. Yes, guns can be used for darkness (see modern history). Yes, they can be used for light (see modern history). Like wands. And charms. In a nutshell, I included them for the same reasons I included airplanes (though neither play a role right at the center of the story).

KRC: I found the idea of Patricia, the living snake that is given to Cyrus to wear around his neck as protection, to be intriguing. Is this a part of Irish legend, or did you invent her for your story?

NDW: I did a lot of inventing with Patricia. But she was inspired by Celtic snake motifs in jewelry and art. One very old gold neckband in particular (that I saw years ago) was really the basis for her. I should also say that I find it interesting that snakes are all over the place in Celtic art, while at the same time scientists tend to claim that Ireland never had snakes at all. But the Irish legends chalk the snaky absence up to St. Patrick. So I went with that general legend, and then added Patricia and made her kind (patriks) the one snake granted an exemption to the ban.

KRC: Numbers --- Room 111; 14 hours and 44 minutes --- are assigned special meaning in THE DRAGON'S TOOTH. Do you read any significance into certain numbers? Do you have a lucky number?

NDW: Cyrus liked 111 because it felt indivisible. I used 14 hrs and 44 minutes in Order policy (the amount of time an Acolyte is given to present themselves at Ashtown) because it literally is exactly the amount of time the sun would shine on the bell tower of the Ashtown Galleria on the actual feast-day of St. Brendan. And that's cool. But I don't have a lucky number (that I know of...).

KRC: William Skelton's appearance is notable for his many "morbid" tattoos, something that Cyrus finds chilling. Do you have any tattoos yourself? What tattoo or tattoos would you pick for yourself?

NDW: No tattoos for me (present or future). Tattoos often serve as brands --- it's like we mark each other and ourselves like cattle, to show to whom we belong (tribe, motorcycle gang, cell block, Roman legion, sorority, marine corps, mom, Tweety bird...). Skelton's tats were a result of his service to a dark master. I like being free.

KRC: Did you always envision the books as part of a series, or was the project originally designed as a stand-alone title?

NDW: It's been five books from day one. And the series has me completely sucked up in story grip. I'm eager to write the rest.

KRC: What advice would you offer to an aspiring young writer?

NDW: Read like the dickens. Have strong opinions. And then...actually write. Short pieces, long pieces, doesn't matter when you're starting. Just write.

KRC: You have several young children of your own. In what ways do they inspire or inform your writing?

NDW: I'm not sure that there's a way in which they don't. I tell them stories, I bounce stories off of them, I watch what excites them and what scares them and what makes them euphorically excited. They're my perpetual focus group, and they shape my own taste and what I love.

KRC: What books would you recommend to readers who enjoyed THE DRAGON'S TOOTH and are seeking similar works? Would your other series, 100 Cupboards, be appropriate for the same age group as Ashtown Burials?

NDW: The 100 Cupboards books for sure. But if they haven't read NARNIA, they oughta. Lord of the Rings. Lloyd Alexander's books. And I really enjoyed Megan Whalen Turner's Books of Attolia.

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

NDW: I'm wrapping up Ashtown Burials II. Look for it next summer! I'm also working on some stand-alones, but I'm not sure when they'll be hitting stores.