Today, I am excited to interview A.J. Hartley regarding his first M.G. novel Darwen Arkwright and the Peregrine Pact. But, as you most likely know, AJ is not new to writing great books!
(AJ Hartley) has an M.A. and Ph.D. in English literature from Boston University and is currently the Distinguished Professor of Shakespeare in the Department of Theatre and Dance at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. As well as being a novelist and academic, he is a screenwriter, theatre director and dramaturg (and has a book explaining what that is). Other credits include, The Mask of Atreus, On the Fifth Day, What Time Devours, to name a few. He has more hobbies than is good for anyone, and treats ordinary things like sport and food and beer with a reverence which borders on mania. He is married with a son, and lives in Charlotte.
Darwen Arkwright and the Peregrine Pact is about Eleven-year-old Darwen Arkwright, who has spent his whole life in a tiny town in England. So when he is forced to move to Atlanta, Georgia, to live with his aunt, he knows things will be different – but what he finds there is beyond even his wildest imaginings!
Darwen discovers an enchanting world through the old mirror hanging in his closet – a world that holds as many dangers as it does wonders. Scrobblers on motorbikes with nets big enough to fit a human boy. Gnashers with no eyes, but monstrous mouths full of teeth. Flittercrakes with bat-like bodies and the faces of men. Along with his new friends Rich and Alexandra, Darwen becomes entangled in an adventure and a mystery that involves the safety of his entire school. They soon realize that the creatures are after something in our world – something that only human children possess.
Ohhh, sounds great! Let’s jump in. You normally write for adults. What was the spark that started you on the path to writing Darwen Arkwright and the Peregrine Pact??
A combination of factors, really, probably largest of which was that my son (who is now 9) had reached the age when he was starting to devour middle grade books. I found—as I’m sure many parents do—that not only did I want to write something for him, but that I found myself remembering my own childhood through him, as it were. Suddenly I could recall the way I saw the world then because I could see it all being played out again in him. I also remembered the kind of thrill I got from reading back then and found myself hankering both to give other kids the same experience I had, and to get back to those kinds of stories from the standpoint of what I had becomes since, a writer.
What was the timeline from conception to publication?
Once I had committed to the book, the first draft came fairly quickly—less than three months—but I took another couple of months to revise it, another couple for my agent to find the right slot in the publishing calendar to submit it, another couple to sell it. Razorbill bought it and committed to a fall 2011 release which, being about 18 months away, seemed a very long time indeed. All told it was about a two and a half year process.
Were there any aspects that varied between writing this and writing your previous books? Any surprises along the way?
It took me a while to relax into the voice and I spent a lot of time agonizing over whether or not I was pitching the narrative at the right reading level. I got advice from several people (including R.L. Stine) that convinced me that to consciously lower the bar would be patronizing to my readers and would significantly reduce the richness of the story. From that point on, with few exceptions, I told the story in the way that felt most natural and stopped worrying about reader demographics and levels of vocabulary.
As to surprises, I guess it should be obvious, but I found (to my great relief and excitement) that things I’d learned before writing adult fiction about pacing, about writing suspense scenes (for instance) all applied just as well to writing for younger readers.
I used to be a pantser (writing by the seat of my pants). I told myself it was the best, most organic way to allow the story to evolve. With hindsight I think that some of this was just a desire to get into the writing which is the part I like and not worry so much about planning things out. Pure pantsing, when you really don’t know what is going to happen next, may work for some people, though they have to have some very special talents, not least of which is the ability to edit themselves ruthlessly. I find that very difficult, and it can be months, even years, before I can clearly see what a book really needs and, more to the point, what it really doesn’t. I returned to a book I couldn’t sell a couple of years ago and took out 22,000 words in a single pass. That’s clearly a bad sign, doubly so since almost half of that came from the first hundred pages. The book didn’t know what it was going to be and it took me far too long to get the necessary emotional distance from it to edit it adequately. I’m now a committed plotter. I don’t do extensive breakdowns (the whole outline is usually only about 5 pages) and I don’t follow it slavishly, particularly if I discover things in the writing of the actual book that suggest a shift in tone or direction. Nothing is written in stone, but I think that writers who don’t operate with any kind of outline are ultimately making their job harder.
What was your favorite thing about writing for this age group?
I like not having to worry about certain kinds of realism or following a set of genre expectations. So long as the story is coherent and makes sense according to its own logic, I figure my readership will roll with it. That’s very liberating.
Will you be writing other books for your middle grade audience?
Darwen Arkwright and the Peregrine Pact is the first of at least three books in this series (the next two coming out about a year apart). I’ve also finished the first draft of a ghost story which I think will be closer to YA than middle grade. I love writing for this age group and hope I can do it for many years to come.
What was your favorite book when you were 12??
My memory is a little fuzzy as to exactly when I read it, but I think it may well have been The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe. I read a lot of P.G. Wodehouse too, but I suspect I was a year or two older than twelve when I discovered him.
What else do we have to look forward to from A.J. Hartley?
My novelization of Macbeth (co-written with David Hewson) which was released this summer as an audiobook voiced by Alan Cumming will go into print in the spring (and if you’re a Shakespeare fan you might keep an eye open for my upcoming performance history of Julius Caesar!). As far as fiction is concerned, there will—as I say—be two more Darwen books, and I hope to finish up that ghost story. After that, I have no idea. The very uncertainty of it all is quite thrilling.
Wow! We have a lot to look forward to. You are prolific! Is there any advice you can give to aspiring writers of varying ages?
Read constantly. Write fast and often. Write the kind of book you want to read. When you have a draft, read it aloud to yourself slowly pausing over every phrase, every word to make sure they are exactly right and doing all they can do for the moment. Never get so preoccupied with the market, with large scale ideas, or with plot that you forget that books are finally about characters or that their medium is words.
AJ, It’s been a pleasure! Thanks for stopping by!
Erin E. Moulton graduated with an MFA in Writing for Children from the Vermont College of Fine Arts in 2007. She is the author of Flutter: The Story of Four Sisters and One Incredible Journey(Philomel 2011), and Tracing Stars, forthcoming from Philomel/Penguin in 2012. You can visit her online at www.erinemoulton.com or on Facebook as Erin E. Moulton (Author)