Monday, March 2, 2009

A Conversation With N.D. Wilson

Several weeks ago, Sally at Cover to Cover approached Literate Lives with the chance to interview Leepike Ridge and 100 Cupboards author N.D. Wilson. The sequel to 100 Cupboards, Dandelion Fire, was coming out and his promotional tour would take him through Columbus with a stop at my favorite bookstore. Having never conducted an interview, I was a bit apprehensive, but couldn’t pass up the chance to talk to the author of one of my favorite books from 2008. I had even included Leepike Ridge on my Newbery picks for A Year of Reading, so I agreed to give it a shot. I sat down with N.D. Wilson, the N. stands for Nathan, by the way, on February 28 in the interrogation room at Cover to Cover.

LL: Great to meet you. Just a warning, I’ve never done one of these things before, so if I say or do something stupid, just hit me and let me know. My blogging partner, Karen, isn’t able to be here today, but her class just finished using Leepike Ridge as a read aloud. I sat down with them, talked about the book, which they loved and looked over your bio. They came up with a few questions that I told them I would try to work into the interview. Jessica wants to know how your father “accidently” became a pastor.
NDW: Interesting that she would pick up on that word! My parents were hippie Jesus People, and my dad was the guy up front with the guitar leading the singing. The church met in an old auto body shop, and when the original pastor decided to move on one Sunday, the rest of the church told my dad he should take over. He tried not to, but he was the guy up front with the guitar so in between songs he would pastor, and all these years later he’s still at it!

LL: Jonathan wondered if Tom floating down stream on Styrofoam was inspired by your childhood adventure.
NDW: Absolutely! Of course at the time I wasn’t planning to put it into a story, but my friend and I found the pieces of Styrofoam and decided it would be a good idea to ride them down the stream. It was right before a baseball game because I remember we were in our uniforms and cleats.

LL: How long did you float?

NDW: Seemed like a long time to us. My friend’s mom found us squelching our way back home in our wet uniforms and cleats. They came looking for us when we didn’t show up at the game, I guess.

LL: Hannah asks if the settings in Leepike Ridge are based on real places?
NDW: Interesting that the book, if you follow the clues, is actually set in the Northeast, but the descriptions of the settings are mostly from places in eastern Washington and the Snake River in Idaho, but yes, the rivers and caverns are definitely based on real places.

LL: Elizabeth asks are the characters of Tom (Leepike Ridge) and Henry (100 Cupboards Trilogy) adventurous because you were?

NDW: They are. They are both adventurous and cautious, same as any kid. I enjoyed exploring and a little bit of adventure, but I also had enough fear to make me cautious. Henry’s character is a little more timid and cautious as compared to Henrietta who is more rash and lets just do it kind of thinking. Most of my characters have pieces of people I know in them.

LL: I think I see Henry growing a little bolder as Dandelion Fire goes on.

NDW: Definitely, you can even see it in 100 Cupboards, starting with when he learns to play baseball and gains confidence in that.

LL: Leepike Ridge is such a great adventure and suspense story that kids love, and then you jumped genres and write a fantasy trilogy, how does that happen?
NDW: Actually 100 Cupboards was written first as a 700+ page novel. I knew it was too long and wasn’t really happy with it, but it got submitted before I was really ready for it to be. As the publisher was going over it, the idea of Leepike Ridge popped into my head and I wrote it in about 3 weeks. Then I decided I needed to turn 100 Cupboards into a trilogy, because what I had written was really a story in 3 acts, and the publisher accepted all four.

LL: Regular readers of Literate Lives know that I’m not a fantasy reader, but have been stretched in this area since becoming a librarian. When I read this stuff I can’t help but wonder, where do these ideas come from? I find myself re-reading parts and just shaking my head when I read some fantasy stories. So, where does it come from?
NDW: When I started the 100 Cupboards trilogy I was attempting to Americanize children’s fantasy. I’m a bit nervous about saying it because if I didn’t accomplish that it could be dangerous. But some of the things I was trying to do were to put the fantasy in an American setting, not an English boarding school, or put on a fake English attitude. So what’s more American than wheat fields, baseball, big red barns. I put it in Kansas because Kansas already has a history of the setting of American fantasy. The second thing I wanted to do was write so that kids weren’t bummed out when they finished the book. As a kid I remember reading The Chronicles of Narnia and being disappointed when I was finished because that world didn’t exist outside of the book. So I was trying to write so that when a kid finishes my books, they are excited about finding the magic in this world, like caterpillars really do turn into butterflies, and grass grows out of thin air with the help of that big ball of fire in the sky, and how does a several ton steel object fly when we light the engines on fire. I want my books to encourage kids to get outside and explore their magical world like my sisters and I did growing up!

LL: I’m about three-fourths of the way through Dandelion Fire and it seems to me to be a bit darker and heavier than 100 Cupboards. There’s always this debate with librarians and teachers about what age a book is written for, what ag
e do you think Dandelion Fire is for?
NDW: I’m not sure I agree with the adjective “darker” some scenes are definitely darker, but I think the book is just more intense than 100 Cupboards. I really see Cupboards as the darker of the two. As far as reading age, it’s tough to have that in mind when your writing the book. I can’t sit down and say I’m writing a fantasy book and it’s for 10 or 11 year olds. It’s also tough to generalize for readers, for instance, my 6 year old has heard the entire book and loves it. But if I was going to say I’d say 10 might be the low end of the age group for Dandelion Fire.

LL: I agree, I have a few 5th graders that will be able to read it and get it on their own, but not too many students younger than that. Last few questions. Who are your favorite current authors or books?

NDW: I love Holes. I’ve read it several times and love it every time. It’s about as close to a perfect book as I’ve read. I also like Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman, his books aren’t my favorite type, but the wordsmithing is incredible.

LL: You have 4 kids, oldest 6. What do you read to them?
NDW: Actually my wife reads to them mostly. My 6 year old has heard both 100 Cupboards books and can’t wait to hear what comes next. I’ve done my time with Sox on Fox and the fuzzy sheep sing La, La, La, but my kids like me to tell them stories. Each one gives me something to put into the story and then I have to immediately turn around and make up a story using all of those things. Some of them go on for 45 minutes or so.

LL: Will any of them turn into a book?

NDW: Some of them already have!

I stuck around to listen to his public presentation and picked up a few tidbits that I neglected to ask about, and some things I never would have thought to ask about.

-The opening of Leepike Ridge came to him while brushing his teeth and the first few paragraphs were written with a mouthful of tooth paste and the brush hanging out of his mouth.

-Book 3 in the 100 Cupboard trilogy is called The Chestnut King and should be out in about a year.

-He’s currently working on another book in the Leepike Ridge vein called Muck Flats and set in Florida.

-The idea of 100 Cupboards came from a late night conversation with his college roommate and his wife.


  1. Awesome interview! Did you use a tape recorder? Great questions and answers. Kids must be from an incredibly good school...

  2. N. D. Wilson (feels odd to write that) was my rhetoric teacher last year, and there's one thing that you did forget to ask him about: bugs.

    As our rhetoric teacher, he taught us to love what we spoke about, for "love bestows loveliness," and to learn as much as we could about everything, so that we would be copious, and would have a wide foundation upon which to build. Mostly, he taught us about bugs, and the mating habits of slugs. And leeches: South American leeches that crawl into your sinus cavities and end up dangling out of your nose in restaurants, eliciting emotional responses from excitable waitresses. And two-foot-long caterpillars that dangle from the roofs of caves to catch bats. It was a fun class, and his stories were the best part.

    My favorite story of his took place when he and his son Rory were out doing some minor landscaping before mowing the lawn. He moved a rock, and saw ants just going crazy underneath it, as they are wont to do when their rocks get moved. He apologized, but informed them of the hard truth: he cared more about his lawn than their entire existence. Then he went on his way.

    A few minutes later, he noticed Rory taking an unusual level of interest in the now rock-less anthill, went to check it out, and saw earwigs everywhere, being rounded up, herded and ritualistically dismembered by the ants.

    He commented that, to the ants, the world was disintegrating: the rock had been there time out of mind, ages before they existed, and it was now inexplicably gone. This was the apocalypse. Life as they had known it was ended, a new age had begun. So, what do you do in the apocalypse? You appease the gods that you have unwittingly offended. Everybody knows that. Or at least they used to. And what do the gods want? They want sacrifice. In this case, they want earwigs.

    Rhetoric really was a fun class.

  3. Great interview questions, Karen's kids! Great interview, Bill! Great story J.A.!

  4. DARN! Now I wish I had asked about bugs. Very cool stories, thanks J.A.

  5. I hate to interrupt your blog, but I would say a spammer got a hold of it. I am getting lots of emails from post that I commented on that now have this crazy Chinese (?) messages. I believe others have been spammed too because I am getting it from other blogs. It is by "Sexy" You might want to turn on the comment moderating.

  6. Finished Dandelion Fire last week, really enjoyed it. It was worth the wait.