No, it’s not an interview that is 11 years old. I actually mean that my 11-year-old daughter, Giuliana, here interviews author Daniel McInerny.
Here’s how this came about: I was having trouble keeping up with my reading and previewing books for this month’s column on great fiction. I asked Giuliana to read the first book of The Kingdom of Patria series and she quickly finished and raved about it, and moved onto the second in the series (and also loved it). Full disclosure: after Giuliana's enthusiasm, I did also finish Stout Hearts and thoroughly enjoy its silliness.
First, a few questions from me (Nancy), then I promise to step aside so that a young reader, actually from the target Patria audience (middle-grade readers) of the books, can ask the good questions:
Nancy: Tell Reading Catholic readers a little bit about yourself, your family, and The Kingdom of Patria series.
I am the husband of the beautiful and talented Amy McInerny and the father of three adorable and perfect (so say their grandparents) children: two teenage girls, Lucy and Rita, and a son, Francis, who is eleven.
I grew up the last of my parents’ seven children in South Bend, Indiana, and, after graduating from the University of Notre Dame (BA English, 1986), I eventually obtained a PhD in philosophy from The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. I spent some 18 years in academia, teaching and working at various universities, but just over a year ago I decided to pursue a dream long deferred of launching out on my own as a writer. That’s when I founded my children’s entertainment company, Trojan Tub Entertainment, which features my humorous Kingdom of Patria stories for middle grade readers (the first anniversary of Trojan Tub’s legal “birth” is Friday, August 3, 2012). My family and I now live in Virginia.
The Kingdom of Patria books are e-books only, and the companion, interactive Kingdom of Patria website (visit here for that) is very popular with Patria fans. The site has free short stories (both text and audio), character blogs, and clubs for kids to join. Folks can also "Like" the Trojan Tub Entertainment Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/trojantubentertainment) and follow along on Twitter: @kingdomofpatria. There's also a book trailer for the series here on YouTube.
Nancy: You are a son of Ralph McInerny, the noted Notre Dame philosophy professor and leading Catholic light, and one of my heroes. (link: I wrote a little about his autobiography here. Do you think your writing is similar to his, and are you influenced by your father’s example as far as writing goes?
Thank you so much, Nancy, for your kind words about my father and for your appreciation of his autobiography on your blog. He is much missed. Although I have learned a lot about the craft of fiction from my father, I don’t think my style is similar to his. My children’s writing owes more to the comic stories of P.G. Wodehouse and Roald Dahl, as well as to the more whimsical portions of the Harry Potter books. One of my reviewers on Amazon compared the first book in my Patria series, Stout Hearts & Whizzing Biscuits, to the film version of Ian Fleming’ children’s novel, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. I like that comparison. Rob Reiner’s film, The Princess Bride, also masterfully hits the tone I am striving for.
But about the principles of good fiction, and the discipline--and enthusiasm--required to produce it, I learned from my father a great deal. My father loved to say, “A writer is someone who writes.” Sound advice I try never to forget.
Questions from Giuliana:
Q: How old were you when you first started to write, and what did you write about?
My first published work was the thrilling Danny and the Monsters, which I self-published around the age of six or seven with loose leaf paper and my mother’s stapler. The skin-creeping pictures of Frankenstein’s monster, Dracula, and the Werewolf, are all from my own hand. This book was quickly followed by Island at War, an epic tale which had to do, if memory serves, with an island and a war. I remember enjoying drawing the bullets flying through the air. The hero was a soldier named General Danny, who had been promoted due to his success in the previous encounter with the monsters.
Q. Who was your favorite author (or book) when you were a kid?
When I was very little I loved Enid Blyton’s Noddy books. In those years you also would have been hard pressed to pry a Tintin or Asterix book (what today are called “graphic novels”) out of my hands. (As I lived two years of my childhood in Italy with my family, my early book favorites are European ones.) When I was a little older, I grew to love John Fitzgerald’s The Great Brain series, probably my favorite series from childhood. There was also a series I enjoyed very much called The Happy Hollisters, written by Andrew E. Svenson under the pseudonym Jerry West. The Hollisters would have adventures and solve mysteries, and I really liked the fact that they did it all together as a family.
Interestingly, I did not read much fantasy as a child. If you can believe it--and I won’t blame you if you don’t--I never cracked open the Narnia books or The Hobbit until I was a parent reading them to my own children. I remember in an upstairs bookcase in my childhood home a big, fat paperback copy of The Lord of the Rings sitting on a lower shelf. Though my sister raved about it, I avoided it like Shelob’s lair. I found the sheer size of it, not to mention its ominous title, both attractive and forbidding.
Q: What was your inspiration for the Patria series?
Some years ago, when my two daughters were small, I was reading Humphrey Carpenter’s biography of J.R.R. Tolkien, where Tolkien is quoted as saying something to the effect that, in imagining a new world, it was important for him (the professional linguist) to start with a name. So, for example, he began with the strange name “hobbit,” and extrapolated an entire mythological universe from there. That very night, in telling a bedtime story to my girls, I copied Tolkien, inventing the name “Twillies” for a microscopic guild of fairies who minister to their princess in various ways, by helping disentangle her hair, keeping soap bubbles out of her eyes in the bath, etc. In continuing to tell “Twillies” stories I elaborated upon the world that eventually became the Kingdom of Patria.
At that beginning, in these family bedtime stories, Patria was a magical world, deeply indebted (I believe the more usual word is “stolen”) from the imaginations of Tolkien and C.S. Lewis. But as I began to think about how to approach a written version of my Patria stories, I found myself increasingly disinterested in writing about a magical world. I suppose I was afraid of writing clichés. But I also became very much attracted to the idea of a fantastic world that, given a rather wacky take on history, is very much part of our world. That idea is at the very heart of what Patria is today. Nonetheless, it took me a long time to bring this new world of Patria into focus. Stout Hearts & Whizzing Biscuits was begun in earnest about three years ago, and only completed in the summer of 2011.
Twillies, by the way, being magical creatures, were left on the cutting room floor (as it were) in the re-imagining of Patria. But my daughters still miss them intensely. Perhaps there will be an occasion to work them into the series later on, to introduce the magical element. But at present I’m very happy exploring Patria as a tiny kingdom hidden in the midst of contemporary northern Indiana.
Q: Is there a reason you put Thomas Jefferson in the first book?
Being that Ted Jooplystone was one of our tallest presidents, not to mention the only one with red hair, I thought it important to put him in the book. Actually, I think I originally brought Jooplystone into the mix because I was imagining Odysseus Murgatroyd (a character from Stout Hearts & Whizzing Biscuits) being part of the Lewis & Clark Expedition, which was a project of Jooplystone’s. I changed that detail, but kept the tall, red-haired president.
Q: I thought the Gentleman’s Etiquette Class in Stoop of Mastodon Meadow (and how resigned Miching Malchio was about it) was really funny. What’s your favorite funny part of either book?
I find Mr. Stoop a lot of fun to write, and reading back the scenes when he is first encountering the Patrians, or directing his colleagues in the Midwest War-Historical Re-enactment Association, always brings a cheerful tear to my eye. The scene from Stout Hearts & Whizzing Biscuits in which Mrs. Stoop and Aunt Hazel bring the fast-food breakfast from Burger Land to the Patrian Royal Family will also cause me to giggle silently behind my closed office door.
Q: Are you planning any more books in the series, or a different series of books?
I am most certainly planning more books in the Kingdom of Patria series. Though I am at present working on my second novel for adults, when I am finished I will turn to the next Patria novel, which at this point I am envisioning as a kind of prequel, explaining how the original refugees from the Trojan War found their way to Indiana. But I will always, I think, tell tales about Oliver, Prince Farnsworth, and Princess Rose, too.
(Now a quick follow-up from Nancy about e-books versus physical books.)
Q. The Patria books are available only as e-books. Do you have any plans to make them available as print books? What in your view are the positives (or negatives) of e-book exclusive for a series like this?
In the last three years or so digital books, electronic reading devices such as Kindles, Nooks, and iPads, and the appearance of new book distribution channels such as Amazon, have combined to help introduce a series of seismic changes into the publishing industry. One of the very positive developments, to my mind, is in the area of self-publishing. Long regarded as a minor, even slightly embarrassing, aspect of the industry, self-publishing is becoming more and more a respected and established way for authors to get their work out into the world. Digital media now makes it possible for authors to to take their book and, with the help of Amazon and other outlets, make it available to a global audience literally overnight. It's an exciting phenomenon, and, given both Pope John Paul II's and Pope Benedict's call for Catholics to re-evangelize culture by making wise use of new media, it's an especially exciting time for Catholic writers with a mission.
But with all this power comes responsibility, not least responsibility for the marketing of one's work. What one gains in immediate (and free!) distribution in self-publishing with Amazon, one loses in not having the marketing arm of an established publisher. All the burden now falls upon the author to make his or her work known to the public (in an increasingly competitive field of authors). But as even many traditionally-published authors will admit, the marketing arms of established publishers do not give the same attention and resources to all their authors, and so many traditionally-published authors find themselves having to undertake for themselves the same kinds of marketing efforts that self-published authors do. So having to hustle is not something that only self-published authors have to do.
For me specifically, the main challenge comes with my choice of genre: middle grade children's ebooks. Self-published children's books are not (yet!) experiencing the boom that self-published adult fiction is enjoying especially in the thriller, romance, and (sad to say) erotic genres. Although there is evidence that more and more kids and parents are reading on electronic devices, it is still a nascent phenomenon when it comes to kids, especially, and when they do read digital books they are mainly still reading the established names such as J.K. Rowling and Rick Riordan. But, as hockey great Wayne Gretzky said, "skate where the puck is going, not where it's been." As time goes by I believe more and more kids and families will be reading electronically, and that self-published authors will become a more and more established part of the mix. I plan to be waiting with my Kingdom of Patria series when the boom hits!
As of this time I have no plans to make print versions of my Patria books available, but it is an issue I will revisit, as folks from time to time do ask me if there are print versions of the books. If I do go in that direction, it will likely be via a publish-on-demand paperback service (so as to avoid the problem of storing books). For now, however, my Patria ebooks are available at Amazon, barnesandnoble.com, and iTunes. There's also available, from Worldwide Audiobooks, an unabridged audiobook of the first installment in the series, Stout Hearts & Whizzing Biscuits. All of these venues can be easily reached through the venue buttons on the homepage of the kingdomofpatria.com.
Some of your readers may be interested in my first novel for adults, released this past Spring. It's a darkly comic thriller called High Concepts: A Hollywood Nightmare, which owes much of its inspiration to the early satiric novels of one of the greatest Catholic writers of the 20th century, Evelyn Waugh. High Concepts is available as an e-book at Amazon and barnesandnoble.com.