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Interview: September 18, 2018

Monsters, chimney sweeping and a strong girl lead are the ingredients for a heartwarming tale of friendship and hope. Jonathan Auxier's latest middle grade novel SWEEP: The Story of a Girl and her Monster portrays 11-year-old Nan Sparrow in the a gritty world of Victorian London where, for nearly a century, the city has relied on “climbing boys” --- orphans owned by chimney sweeps --- to clean flues and protect homes from fire. Nan is quite possibly the best climber who ever lived --- and a girl. With her wits and will, she’s managed to beat the deadly odds time after time. But when Nan gets stuck in a deadly chimney fire, she fears her time has come. Instead, she wakes to find herself in an abandoned attic, and huddled in the corner is a mysterious creature made from ash and coal. In anticipation of the novel's release on September 25, we interviewed Auxier and asked him all about the world of Victorian London, the power of friendship and stories and what he hopes his young readers will take away from his book. Read on to see his answers! Your new book, SWEEP, is set in Victorian London, a time that was full of contradictions, innovations and horrors, particularly when it came to child labor. It is clear that you did a ton of research on the time period and labor laws. Can you set the scene for us? What drew you to this era?

Jonathan Auxier: The contradictions of the age are indeed fascinating --- and troubling. You have ladies and lords in fancy hats riding carriages through the park. But living alongside them are people in unimaginable poverty. I wanted to find a way to explore that contrast, and the plight of chimney sweeps was the perfect nexus: children who have the very least working in the homes of adults who have the most.

KRC: Your main character, 11-year-old Nan Sparrow, is one of the best chimney sweeps of her time, though she is bound to a truly terrible, abusive man. But Nan is no victim. She is strong, ambitious and smart in all the best ways. Did you draw inspiration for Nan from anyone you know in real life --- perhaps your daughters?

JA: Regardless of gender, I’m always drawing from my own experience. I constantly ask what *I* would do if I were in my hero’s situation. (For what it’s worth, I do this with my villains as well.) My daughters played the biggest role in the character of Charlie, who grows up over the course of the book. It was difficult for me to get into the mind of a baby or toddler --- and it was great to have an actual baby and toddler in my life to observe (and steal from!).

KRC: Early on, we learn that Nan has lost the most important person in the world: the Sweep who cared for her, taught her how to work, and, perhaps most important, told her stories. One of the best parts of Nan and the Sweep’s relationship is the stories they tell to one another, often through something the Sweep calls “story soup.” Can you tell us about story soup? Do you feel these stories were important to Nan and her survival?

JA: This is very similar to the theme of my previous book, THE NIGHT GARDENER. I wanted the stories in SWEEP to be a mixed bag: on one hand, they give Nan hope when she has none; on the other hand, they prevent her from facing the reality of her situation and moving on. What really compelled me in this book was the way a shift in perspective can change the meaning of a story. In the beginning of SWEEP, Nan identifies with the child character in the stories. But as she progresses, she begins to re-examine the stories from the perspective of an adult…and meaning behind the stories changes entirely. 

KRC: SWEEP really kicks off when Nan becomes trapped in a chimney and is chased out by fire --- a horrifying act that would kill any chimney sweep. But Nan has a secret weapon: a bit of charred coal that she has carried with her for years. The “char,” as she calls it, comes to life and is revealed to be a golem who saves her. Can you tell us a bit about golems, and why you chose to include one in SWEEP?

JA: I’ve been fascinated with golems for a long time. My first exposure was in fantasy books and games --- golems often appear as monsters crafted from various elements. It wasn’t until I was a bit older that I learned about the golem’s place in Jewish folklore. In these older stories, golems were not just mindless servants, but protectors made to save a population in need. That idea was incredibly compelling, and for years afterward, I thought about how I might be able to tell a golem story about a creature who was made to protect just one person.  

KRC: As Nan’s golem, whom she names Charlie, begins to grow and develop, she goes to great lengths to not only be a friend to him, but to educate him and give him the freedoms she did not have as a young child. There were two lines in your book that really spoke to me as a reader and, I feel, really sum up the relationship between Nan and Charlie: “What’s the point of seeing everything if there’s no one to see it with?” and “We are saved by saving others.” Can you describe their friendship and what it means to each of them?

JA: I love that you singled out these two lines because they were so important to me! You asked earlier about how my daughters influenced the book and this is where they influenced it most strongly. While I love children, I struggle to connect with babies --- even my own. Those early years of caring for babies led to a lot of soul-searching about what it means to be a parent --- to give so much to a person who can’t give anything back. Those two quotes you named are pretty much my answer.

KRC: Nan and Charlie do not initially know what Charlie is, so they do a lot of research about creatures and beasts. One word that keeps coming up is “monster,” a title that both characters are hesitant to place on Charlie. As the story continues, we learn that there are many types of monsters, and not all of them are bad. In fact, you even include the word “monster” in the title of the book. What do you hope young readers will take away from this idea?

JA: The main reason was that I love monsters! As you indicated, the word “monster” can have many meanings. I suppose I wanted readers to consider what it means to call someone else a monster --- how it impacts them and also how it reflects your own prejudices. That being said, Charlie is a monster. Part of his journey is accepting that notion while redefining what the word means.

KRC: Although it is not the main focus of your book, we also learn a bit about the lives of Jewish people in Victorian London, both through Nan’s point of view and that of two Jewish characters (or maybe three!). Can you explain what life was like for Jewish people at this time?

JA: Again we return to the contradictions of the age. In many ways, things were getting much better for Jews in England: new laws meant that Jewish aristocracy were being elevated to the highest ranks of society and political power. However, those privileges were reserved for only the most wealthy of families. Those same laws brought a huge influx of Jewish immigration --- Jews fleeing horrible persecution on the European continent. Those immigrants were mostly poor and did not speak English and were not received kindly by their Christian neighbors.

KRC: The background of your book is quite dark, and we learn a lot about the atrocities children working in Victorian London suffered, but there is also a ton of warmth, and you explore hopeful, heartwarming topics like friendship, hope and revolution. How did you find the balance between the dark and the light in SWEEP? Do you feel one is incomplete without the other?

JA: This was one of the biggest challenges in writing SWEEP. My first several drafts were so bleak that there was no chance for the light to shine through. It wasn’t until I got to the chapters with Nan raising Charlie that I began to see what the book was really about: seeing the world through the eyes of a child.

KRC: SWEEP is dark and filled with magic, but it also has some truly laugh-out-loud funny moments, especially as Charlie begins to learn to speak and misuses words. My favorite moment like this was when he walked in on Nan in the tub and remarked “Oh, you are doing privacy.” Later on, Nan and a new friend touch on the importance of language and the written word and how it can inspire imaginations and aid in revolutions. What do you hope young readers will learn from this, especially in this current political climate?

JA: I’m not a politically minded writer, and it was a sad shock to finish this book and see how aptly it fit our current moment. Nan’s journey actually mirrored my own in writing the book. I set out to write something very intimate and apolitical --- a story about a girl and her monster…but it turned into a story about an entire class of people who were being mistreated. Nan wants something similar at the start of her story: She wants to care for herself and Charlie and ignore the suffering of those around her. But ignoring suffering only creates more suffering --- and she learns that it’s only when we stand together and fight for others that we find our own peace.

KRC: Speaking of the written word, SWEEP makes reference to many classic works of literature, including FRANKENSTEIN and William Blake’s SONGS OF INNOCENCE AND EXPERIENCE. What were some of your favorite books as a child? What about more recent books you have enjoyed?

JA: I talk a lot about books I love. In back of SWEEP there’s a list of the major touchstones that sparked the story: A LITTLE PRINCESS, DANNY THE CHAMPION OF THE WORLD, CHARLOTTE’S WEB, FROG AND TOAD…and many more! More recent books that have me excited are WICKED NIX by Leanne Cockley, Jacqueline West’s THE COLLECTORS, and John Hendrix's jaw-dropping biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, THE FAITHFUL SPY --- all coming out this fall.  

KRC: Last of all, can you give us any hints about any future projects?

JA: I tend not to talk about stories until they’re ready to share with the world. Rest assured, it will contain a lot of MONSTERS!