November 20, 2008

The WBBT, Day Four: John David Anderson

Something we tend not to think about is the idea that heroes, for all their great deeds, are also regular folks a large percentage of the time. That goes for writers, too--we're often regular people who just happen to achieve something that not everyone else does: we create worlds simply from words on a page.

Take our WBBT guest for today, John David Anderson (who actually goes by Dave). Dave Anderson was just a regular guy who taught English for seven years at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana, but stepping out of the role of your average college professor, Dave became a stay-at-home dad to his adorable twins, now age three, and while juggling dad duties, he used his word-spinning magic to create a world both fantastical and funny, about heroes who aren't exactly intimidating muscle-bound swashbucklers, but just...regular guys.

No Patronus charms. No wizarding skills. Just, regular guys lugging around an adventure guide which clearly states on the cover that it's "for the Unadventurous," but these regular guys still manage to do some amazing things.

Standard Hero Behavior is a middle grade novel which is enjoyable to boys and girls. It was a nominee for last year's Cybils in the Fantasy and Sci-Fi category, and filled with bad barding, crazy names, inept witches and cranky orcs, it captured our imaginations as a great first novel and--hopefully--a harbinger of more fun and funny fantasy from Mr. Anderson.

Finding Wonderland: Standard Hero Behavior is an amusing and satisfyingly un-heroic novel. Do you remember the first words you wrote for the story? Did they stay the same, or change? What did you think of the cover the first time you saw it? Did it depict your imaginary images of Cowel and Mason?

John David Anderson: The first sentence I wrote was "Mason was a bard for would-be heroes from a town that had nothing left to sing about." That was the dilemma I decided to work from. The same thought probably appears at least two dozen times in some fashion or another, though I don't think that exact sentence shows up. The closest you get is "Mason was a bard for heroes without victories, old men looking for immortality, young ones looking for self-esteem, wives hoping to get their husbands something different for the holidays."

The cover is wonderful—I think it captures the insecurity of two characters suddenly thrust into a world that they had heard about a million times but never experienced before. What's funny is that my editor wrote me soon after the cover art came in. Turns out the artist, Peter de Seve, gave Cowel a cap with a plume in it (a logical artistic addition). But there was no mention of Cowel wearing a cap anywhere in the novel.

Thus I was asked to add a few sentences. Art imitating art.

Okay, how cool is that???

FW: We notice that Standard Hero Behavior includes a lot of character types familiar to fans of fantasy and role-playing games: bards, evil orcs, heroes in search of fame and gold. Are you a gaming aficionado yourself? Was there specific inspiration behind the two main characters of Cowel and Masion?

JDA: Between movies, novels, and video games, I have spent a fair number of hours slaying orcs, dragons, aliens, and other beasties in other people's worlds, and I readily admit that much of the novel has its trappings in those worlds. What I enjoy is taking the familiar and twisting it slightly, to see how the characters react. As for our two protagonists specifically, Mason can thank just about every pig-slopping, almost-orphan, coming-of-age fantasy hero from Lloyd Alexander on up. Cowel, on the other hand, is me. The smart-aleck who manages to get it right once in a blue moon, but always takes a shot at it regardless.

FW: We absolutely LOVE that the Duke had signs indicating the threat level of monster invasion in Darlington. What do you want your readers to take away from your book about fear and feeling threatened?

JDA: Obviously much of Dirk Darlinger’s story comes out of my own post-9-11 sense that we are most afraid of fear, to borrow Roosevelt's line. The majority of the people in the novel place their trust in Darlinger because they simply don't know any better. They find comfort in his "Mission Accomplished" bravado. Of course, when confronted with real danger, as it turns out, most of the characters in the novel—the otherwise normal characters—still find the courage to confront it—as I think we all do.

True. And this is conveyed in a funny subtle way that middle grade readers will definitely get.

FW: Of all of the over the top and ridiculous characters in this comedic novel, my all-time favorite moment has to be the first time Cowel and Mason met the ‘somnamtillist.’ What was the inspiration behind your creation of a sleepwalking swordfighter?

JDA: I was tired, probably. Ha!

Of course everyone has flaws. They keep us balanced and provide room for growth. I imagined many of the "heroes" of the novel as larger than life, with skills and deeds worthy of a Saturday morning cartoon. The greater their ability, the more outlandish their flaw had to be to keep them balanced. The somnamtillist is truly a man to be feared—ten or twelve hours out of the day.

That said, I still think Corner the sleeping swordfighter would make a cool action figure...

Like one of those little toys where you push the button, and all of the limbs go slack, and it falls down…? Okay, that could work...

FW: Standard Hero Behavior is not only a fantasy adventure, it's also hilariously full of in-jokes for fellow fantasy fans. Did you set out to write a humorous book? How do you think young adult readers respond to a funny fantasy as compared to adult readers?

JDA: I set out, more than anything, to give readers a good time, and humor was the primary vehicle for that. This isn't to say that there isn't anything meaty in the book. In fact, in many ways, Mason and Cowel's sense of humor is their primary defense—maybe not from ogres and such—but from their realization of how absurd the world can be sometimes, and how difficult it can be to grow up in. I think today's young adults especially have highly developed senses of humor, with a keener appreciation of irony, satire, and sarcasm than previous generations. Besides, it never hurts to take a moment to step back and look at just how serious some fantasy fiction can be—and maybe chuckle at it a bit.

FW: Writing humor can be tricky – but Mason and Cowel come across as effortlessly amusing, with their earnest attempts and gigantic failures. What do you see as the role of humor in your writing? Do you have previous experience at humor writing? What are your favorite comedic books or films?

JDA: Actually, humor is my defense mechanism as well. Most peoples' lives are fraught with responsibility, stress, and mendacity. There are moments of great joy and moments of tragedy worthy of tears, but most of what happens in a day can either be laughed at or cursed at. I prefer to laugh at it.

As for comedic inspiration—when I was in high school I would read "The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy" every six months or so. I date my appreciation of English literature to Jonathan Swift and my favorite American authors are Twain and Vonnegut. Dave Barry, M.T. Anderson, Terry Pratchett, Bill Bryson—many of the authors I love have taught me that there is nothing that can't be laughed at with the right perspective.

Yay! Another Pratchett fan!!

FW: Mason and Cowel are sort of anti-heroes, regular guys who do what they have to do to save their town. At the same time, they take their own heroes' journey and come of age over the course of the book. On the surface, this book is about that quest, yet another strongly delivered message is about fathers and sons, and the fact that a person’s future does not have to be dictated by their father’s past. What specifically do you hope to convey to young people about the idea of “standard” heroism?

JDA: I think sometimes our definitions of heroism are limited. To me, those individuals society trumpets as heroes are almost super-heroic: fire fighters, police officers, nurses, those who serve our country in the armed forces. What they do is extraordinary. But there is also a kind of everyday heroism that exists in the rest of us. A sense of honor and duty and responsibility. Someone battling a drug addiction or facing bullying at school, a single mother of three working two jobs. My wife is an elementary school teacher, and she has a chance to be an everyday hero just about every day.

Mason and Cowel aren't “standard” heroes. But that doesn't necessarily mean that they don't stand up for themselves or what they believe in. Sometimes I think that just managing to make it to adulthood is a heroic act. Of course, sometimes I think that getting my three-year-old son to eat anything besides Pop-Tarts should earn me a medal.

We do hope you realize that Pop-Tarts are a food group???

FW: What are you working on now? Do you plan to return to the world of humorous fantasy or the town of Darlington?

JDA: I really felt a sense of closure at the end of this novel, though I'm sure other readers will feel differently. That doesn't mean I'm done with fantasy by any stretch, and I'm certainly not done with humor. The other projects I have in the works still rely on that formula—to take some of the conventions of speculative fiction and shake them up a bit and see what comes out. Of course, if somebody wants to make a movie out of SHB, I'd be happy to write six sequels.

FW: What would you like your readers to know about you or your novel or your WIP's that interviewers have never asked?

JDA: Pretzel rods, Atomic Fireballs, and Diet Coke. Personal brain fuel. But every writer has to have at least one vice...

FW: One vice? Can you eat just ONE Atomic Fireball?? Ooh, and pretzel rods... *sigh.* You don't even want to go into our lengthy list of required writing bribes... er, treats, but it's definitely reassuring to know we all have our vices!

Mr. Anderson, thanks so much for taking time out from writing like a madman plus parenting busy three-year-old twins to answer our questions so thoroughly! As just-starting-out writers, we know how hard it is to balance life v. the writing life, and we really appreciate your time. Thanks also go to Mr. Anderson's publicist, Jenny Groves, for her kind assistance.

(Does anyone else want Atomic Fireballs and pretzels now? Is it only us?)

Psst! Don't miss our review of Standard Hero Behavior at Readers' Rants.

Regrettably, that's it from us!

It's hard to believe that this week is almost finished, and the weeks of working to chase down interviews and the excitement of talking to authors we really love and respect is... over for now. We're already wondering who we should get for next time, when we have the Summer Blog Blast Tour!

Though this ends our part of the tour, please keep reading and poking around the web to catch up on the other great interviews and discussions going on in the YA and children's blogosphere! Don't forget to visit the other stops on today's Winter Blog Blast Tour:

Martin Millar, Led Zepplin, and werewolves @ Chasing Ray!
John Green, & the I-drove-two-hours-for-this @ Writing and Ruminating
Brilliant Beth Kephart and her cute kid @ Hip Writer Mama
Newcomer Emily Ecton at Bildungsroman
Brandon Mull at The YA YA YAs
Lisa Papademetriou at ">Mother Reader


Vivian Mahoney said...

Great interview! You had me at your intro. Sounds like a book my kids will love. Thanks!

Kelly Polark said...

Great interview, sounds like a great book! I went to University of Illinois....would have loved to have teacher like JDA for my English class! I'm sure his classes were amusing and informative!

mbpbooks said...

Another great interview. And I am an atomic fireball addict. Yum.

MotherReader said...

It took me a minute to connect the author's name with the book - and then, Wham! I love that book! In fact, thanks for reminding me of it so I can use it in my Books n' Gifts list. Glad to get to know the author better.

Camille said...

I have to congratulate EVERYONE who participated in the WBBT this year. I think the interviews were the best ever.

Erin said...

SUCH a fun, fabulous interview! I'm definitely putting this book on my to-read list.