|Tom Llewellyn's first novel, with gorgeous cover by Sarah Watts|
Sick of living in tiny apartments, the Peshiks are in for a surprise when they move into the mysterious Tilton House in Tacoma, Wash. Twelve-year-old Josh and his younger brother Aaron are intrigued by the house and its eccentric designer/previous owner, F.T. Tilton. The house possesses a seemingly infinite number of quirks: the floors tilt exactly three degrees, the walls are covered with indecipherable scrawls, the rats speak English, and a dimmer switch turns the structure invisible. "It deserved me, because I loved it. Because I wanted to know its secrets," says Josh. . . . A cross between Goosebumps and Twin Peaks, Llewellyn's debut is inventive, gripping, and shot through with macabre details.
We didn't immediately acquire the book from that original draft Tom sent. First Tom patiently revised, considering our suggestions carefully, and showing himself to be a perceptive and tenacious writer. As a writer myself, I've learned a lot from Tom--the gracious way he accepts feedback, his determination to get it right, his willingness to step back and make major changes when necessary. In one of The Tilting House drafts, a chapter changed point-of-view from Josh's, the main character, to Aaron's, his little brother. I didn't think it worked and wanted the narrative to stick with Josh. Tom wasn't sure about the idea--the book shifted point-out-view in other chapters too--but he was willing to try my suggestion. We both liked the way the revised chapter read and decided to go with it.
That isn't to say that Tom always agrees with me and when I suggested he remove a humorous scene involving a laundry chute, Tom held firm. That sort of give and take, push and pull forms the heart of the editor/author relationship. I always enjoy working with Tom on a manuscript because he brings to the process a balanced mix of openness and confidence. He wants what's best for the story and understands that that's what I want too. If I ask him to go deeper into a character or an emotion, he'll courageously plunge in.
His new story, Letter Off Dead, explores the father and son relationship with just such courage. When I finished the latest draft a few weeks ago, I felt the ending in my gut. I realized Tom had achieved something rare--a story that explores masculinity, courage, and fear, that presents the male characters as fully emotional beings. It's a story about a seventh grade boy who's trying to figure out what it means to be a man, whose imperfect father is trying to guide him while at the same time feeling the weight of his own failures as a husband and father. Tom had to work hard to get the ending to that story right, but he finally brought to it just the right mix of sadness, achievement, loss, and change. As his former editor and now his agent, I couldn't be prouder.
For our first Red Fox Literary blog entry, we decided to try an interview with a twist. The twist is that this particular interview was done via chat. Interviews that rely on a list of questions don't have the immediacy of live interviews. On the other hand, a phone interview can be a little intimidating. Tom was willing to be a guinea pig and try a chat interview. I liked the idea because, as an inveterate eavesdropper, I liked the eavesdrop-y quality of listening in on a chat. All that was left was figure out how to do it. Both of us were flummoxed by iChat and spent a good hour trying to IM each other on Microsoft Messenger. Finally, we admitted defeat and fell back on good old Facebook, which worked out just fine. Here is a transcript of our conversation, and it even includes those dandy little Facebook profile thumbnails so you know who's talking:
Alrightee. Are you there?
Great. So obviously we’ve both never done a chat interview before. Our combined tech skills are seriously dismal.
Yes they are.
First question: Why is there a big smiling cow next to your head?
It’s the Seattle Mariners Moose.
That does not look anything like a moose. I saw a moose in Alaska and moose don’t smile like that. Besides, I thought you Tacoma people wouldn’t have anything to do with Seattle.
So, let's talk books.
Yes, let’s talk books.
When was the first time you made up a story? I mean, on paper.
The first story I remember writing was an assignment from Mrs. Cates, my fourth grade teacher, and one of my least favorite teachers ever. She handed out pictures and asked us to create a story based on the photo. My picture was of an extremely cute little puppy.
Hmm. I think I can understand why you didn’t like Mrs. Cates.
Mrs. Cates had these long fingernails and if you weren’t paying attention, she would grab you by the shoulder and squeeze until you squealed.
It’s amazing how many sadists went into teaching in the old days.
She actually drew blood a few times. My mom brought me to the principle’s office to complain, showing him the blood on my shirt. True story.
She and my first grade teacher would have been great pals. She liked to pull ears.
Back to the puppy story: While I was writing the story, I was listening to my two oldest brothers talk about what was, at the time, a new movie called The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. . .
I'm starting to worry about the puppy.
It was a pretty gruesome conversation and, naturally, I was fascinated. So I took the cute little puppy from the picture and armed it with a chainsaw.
The resulting story earned me a F and the written comment, which I can still picture, “Too Violent!!!”
This from a woman who liked to draw blood.
Mrs. Cates even sent a note home to my mom expressing her concern for my psychological state. I remember thinking, “All I did was write words on a piece of paper.” And it struck me right then that words are powerful.
What did your mom say?
She probably pretended to be concerned and then laughed up her sleeve. My mom was a firm believer in the “kids-will-be-kids” school of parenting.
Come to think of it, if you published a book called Puppy With a Chainsaw, I bet you’d get some pretty strong reactions.
I don't think the puppy actually killed anyone, but he did cut a car in half.
It reminds me of the moss in your middle-grade novel, The Tilting House—something seemingly innocent turns out to have malevolent intentions.
The scariest things are the most ordinary because we can imagine them happening in our actual lives.
Sinister forces could be at work all around us! The Tilting House setting has a similar juxtaposition—it mixes the ordinary with the strange. A nice, normal family moves into a middle-class neighborhood. But the house they move into is quite unusual.
I don’t have anything against vampires and witches—I like them as much as the next guy—but it’s easy to make a vampire or a witch scary, just as it’s easy to make a magic wand magical. I’m more intrigued by magical dimmer switches, invisible porches, and mysterious laundry chutes. Possibly because I can’t remember the last time I actually saw a vampire, but I do remember the last time I saw a dimmer switch. And there’s that little nibbling in the back of my neck every time I turn the switch now: “What if this time, it actually dimmed the whole house?” That’s the kind of feeling I hope the readers have too.
Kids generally have a more animistic view of the world. They like to give inanimate objects feelings and thoughts.
Right. The same way kids make their toys talk. Or the same way adults talk to their cars.
It never quite leaves us, does it?
It hasn't left me.
Did you think of the house as a character in your story?
Definitely. As the drafts were developing, the house went through different levels of, well, humanity, I suppose.
How did you go about achieving this?
The front of my own house, which I used heavily as inspiration, looks like a face: two windows over a wide porch.
“Like a mustachioed face”?
Yes. Mustachioed. Here’s another example: When the father of the family paints the old house, Josh can almost hear the house sighing with pleasure.
And when Josh thinks of having to leave the house, he feels guilty—because the house needs him.
But at first he didn’t like the house. He thought it was weird.
He was right. And, to be clear, the house doesn’t change by the end of the story. But Josh does.
Yes, by the end of the book, he accepts the weirdness.
Perhaps he even loves it.
Josh is twelve, an age when you start to become very critical of anything not normal.
And I think that’s why it takes so long for him to come around. He says at one point early on that he could never imagine inviting friends over to this messed up tilting house. But, over time, the house wins him over.
It also helps that a neighbor girl, Lola, is jealous he lives there, precisely because of some of the house’s creepy elements.
I really liked Lola. She’s a tough cookie. How did her character develop?
I was close to my sister growing up. Janyth Llewellyn. A lovely Welsh name. She is very similar to Lola. Strong, fearless, loving, but she doesn’t take crap from anyone and she can throw a punch when she needs to.
The poor girl had quite a few brothers to contend with, right?
My sister did, yes. Four brothers. And our mom raised us on her own. Our house was chaotic to say the least. Jan learned early on how to stand up for herself. Lola, on the other hand, is an only child and lives alone with her neat-freak mother. The back story on Lola is that she’s been through some tough stuff. She’s a bit angry, but she has a right to be.
Jan also shares some traits with Rhonda, a character in the new book you’re working on, Letter Off Dead.
That’s true. Many of Rhonda’s characteristics (also a Welsh name, by the way) come straight from my sister. In fact, a number of the interactions the main character has with Rhonda are pulled from stories about Jan and me.
Letter Off Dead feels like a more personal story than The Tilting House. How did you start writing it?
Oh, I've been thinking about this story, in some form or other, for most of my life. It’s by far the most autobiographical thing I’ve written.
How is it autobiographical?
My dad died when I was five. My other siblings ranged in age from seven to fourteen. My oldest brother, who was nine years older than me, had a relatively long, close relationship with my dad. Dad was his soccer coach and his Scoutmaster. Dad taught him how to swim, to water ski, to snow ski. But for me, Dad was mostly this guy in family stories. I could barely remember him at all.
So, while my oldest brother and I grew up in the same house, we had drastically different experiences. And frankly, I was pretty jealous. I wanted to write a story that allowed the kid I was then to have some sort of a relationship with his dad—but to still go through the loneliness of not having a dad. For me, I felt the greatest need for a father in junior high school, which has got to be one of the most stressful times in a person’s life. It’s that threshold, socially and biologically, from childhood to adolescence. And that is one helluva tough threshold.
How do you think having a dad then would have helped?
I think it would still have been tough, because junior high school is just plain tough. But I think it’s vital to have that image of what you're supposed to look like when you get to the other side. If you start as a boy, what does manhood look like? A father is that image and, ideally, that guide.
The story begins with the character of Trevor writing letters to his father in the afterlife. At that point, what sort of image does he have of his dad?
Trevor has a mythological image of him. No, that sounds too academic. It’s more of a two-dimensional image. Think back to what you remember from the time you were five--it’s nearly impossible to separate actual memories from things people have told you or photographs you’ve seen. So I think a lot of what Trevor thought he remembered about his father was what he’d heard from other people. His dad wasn’t a real person—he was a character in other people’s stories.
Trevor talks about a photograph of his dad on the bookshelves in the living room.
In the house where I grew up, our couch sat right next to this wall of books and on the shelf, right at eye-level, was a picture of my dad. He was wearing a blue and white-striped shirt. The wind was blowing his salt and pepper hair around—or trying to, as he only had a crew cut. I describe that exact picture in the story.
Trevor finally has a chance to develop a real relationship with his dad when his dad writes him back.
I think Dad and Trevor have a more honest dialogue then they would have had in the real world because they both have nothing to lose. Trevor doesn’t care what a dead guy thinks of him and Dad’s dead, so he doesn’t care what anyone thinks of him. They can be more authentic.
And this is their chance to actually be part of each other’s lives--if only for a little while.
Right. It is. And they need each other. Both characters are desperate for help.
Because they’re both stuck.
Yes. They are stuck. Coming unstuck is the central theme of the book.
Trevor is having a hard time transitioning into junior high. Meanwhile, Hugh is in a strange sort of middle-world. Not alive, but not “passed on” either. Hugh hasn’t yet encountered the final mystery.
Hugh’s in a sort of purgatory. An in-between place. Junior high school--or middle school--is the same sort of thing. Buffy the Vampire Slayer sets up high school as a sort of hell. Letter off Dead sets up junior high as purgatory.
It’s not grade school, and it’s not yet high school. You’re not a kid, but you’re not quite a teenager. So it’s that crisis of of being in-between that provokes Trevor to write that letter to his dad. Who happens to be dead.
Yes. Trevor comes face-to-face with all this manhood stuff—locker rooms, liking girls, going steady—and he’s lost in the wilderness without a guide.
Meanwhile, Hugh is afraid to move on for his own reasons. Readers don’t find out exactly what those reasons are until the end of the book.
Right. Because every good book is a mystery at heart. But the mystery itself isn’t as important as the characters themselves. The mystery is just the final turn in the road.
Your vision of the in-between place where Dad exists is very unusual. It’s described as a misty fishing village that seems to dwell in perpetual twilight. There’s a greasy fish and chips shop on the pier and a few old cabins with porches overlooking the harbor.
I always try to base settings on places I know. This in-between land is based on a little beach community called Redondo on the Puget Sound, between Seattle and Tacoma, about a mile from my house growing up. On spring and fall days, sometimes the fog would roll in right up to the shore and it looked like you could step off the pier into oblivion. All the town had was a general store, a post office, and a crummy seafood restaurant called The Laughing Gull.
Why did you decide to base this middle place on something well, not exactly earthly, but with elements of the earthly?
I don’t know, but I like the idea of it. Even when the Bible describes heaven, it does so in earthly terms. Gold streets, but still streets, you know?
Yes, I see. But again, it’s that mix of something mundane, like a bad fish and chips shop, and the mysterious. Where is this place? Who or what brought them there?
I'm glad you said it was mundane. I really wanted it to be, to the point of being comical. The people are all dressed in clothes from JC Penney. The coffee is bad, “but not bad enough to be interesting.” But even with all these commonplace elements, there's still some pretty terrifying things going on in this afterlife. I intentionally don’t get into who or what brought them here because I don’t want the story to be a doctrinal exploration. I want it to be about the characters.
To put it another way, I wanted Dad’s part of the story to have the feeling of an old Woody Allen quote about death: “I don't believe in an afterlife, although I am bringing a change of underwear.”
Imagine spending eternity in JC Penney underwear!
I know. Not quite hell, but definitely not heaven. And meanwhile, back on earth, Trevor is being tormented by a bully and stressed out about a girl. Which sounds almost as frightening.
By the way, I’ve got about five minutes left. Got to go pick up a kid--one who is almost through middle school. Just three more days!
Poor guy. He doesn’t know.
Honestly, compared to junior high, I think high school is a huge relief for most kids. It was for me.
Me too! Seventh grade was the worst. But your son made it through junior high in one piece. He’s still a sweet kid, which is amazing, considering.
Yes. He is a great kid.
Here’s one last thought before I go: When I started writing Letter Off Dead, I was worried because it was for an older audience than The Tilting House. Luckily, publishing takes so long that the original The Tilting House readers will be just the right age for this book when it comes out.
That’s true. Maybe it was meant to work out that way.
Maybe. And maybe I’ll just keep writing books for a slightly older readership each time. My readers can follow me all the way to my future geriatric series of nursing home mysteries.
Now you’re talking!
That's the end of our chat. Thanks for listening in. In the upcoming weeks we'll visit with more authors and illustrators, talk about the e-book revolution, and feature a post about the twelve steps every writer needs to know to get their picture book manuscript ready for submission. Stay tuned!