I can’t remember being particularly picky with my fiction when I was younger. A book was a book, and books were to be consumed like air. I got busy in high school, but I would still read pretty much anything; it wasn’t until college and beyond that I turned into a book snob.
I mean this specifically towards stories geared for children and young adults. Having supremely limited time to read anything is certainly a factor in why I’m so picky now when it comes to “fun” books, but there are also other variables I consider. I could write a completely different article about all of the criteria a book must meet in order for me to keep reading once I’ve cracked it open, but this article is not about me. Rather, it is about the book I finally found that satisfied my desire for a kid-to-young-adult novel that contains:
- Quality writing
- Compelling characters
- Fairness and realism in depiction of genders
Allow me to introduce you to the novel Stonebird, by Mike Revell. This is a story about a boy, Liam, whose life is uprooted when he and his mother and sister move to be closer to his grandmother, who suffers from dementia. The lives of this struggling family only become more complicated when Liam discovers an abandoned church and the gargoyle that lives inside—a silent creature who goes by night to carry out the stories Liam tells, both the good and the bad.
This summary alone had me hooked enough to buy the book without reading it. The younger me would have loved a book about gargoyles, and the older me was interested in the metaphoric potential of weaving real-world issues together with elements of dark fantasy.
Sold. Purchased. Read in two days.
That in and of itself is impressive for me—despite being an avid reader, I take forever to finish anything. But I flew through Stonebird, absorbing every bit and never wanting to put it down. Finally, I had found a book I could recommend to students. Finally, I had found a book that was a good story. This doesn’t seem like a lot to ask, but I feel as if the truly good stories written for the younger crowd are often few and far between.
I reached out to Mr. Revell—the first time, actually, that I’ve written to an author, aside from J.K. Rowling, who had Dumbledore send me a very nice letter explaining that Hogwarts was full at the moment—and he was kind enough to write back and answer a few questions. If you ever find a story you truly admire, I would definitely encourage trying to contact its author if at all possible, especially if you are a writer, a student, or simply a reader, which I believe is most of us.
Without further ado, here is our discussion. I hope you find it illuminating, intriguing, and sufficient inspiration either to pick up a copy of Stonebird and get reading, or else to pick up a pen and get writing.
One of the reasons I enjoyed Stonebird so much is its blending of tough true-life material with the fantastic. How did you reach the decision to surround what would otherwise have been a fairly straight-forward—and probably much less impactful—fantasy novel with such things?
Stonebird is really the result of two ideas I’d had kicking around in the back of my mind bumping into each other out of the blue. I knew I wanted to explore the idea of gargoyles coming alive. But I also wanted to write a story about memory, and the importance of memories, because my grandma had severe dementia for many years. I saw how it affected her, and how it impacted all of our family. And, really, the more of her life that she forgot, the more that we were forced to remember: going back through old photographs, telling stories, keeping her – the real her – alive in our minds. I don’t think it was a conscious decision to wrap dark issues around a fantasy story, it was more a realization that I could use fantasy to explore dark issues. Dementia is something a lot of people have to deal with, people of all ages, and it’s not often talked about, especially in children’s fiction. Literature is a remarkable thing, a magical thing, and focusing on human darkness in a book can help people to come to terms with issues that might otherwise be quite hard to deal with, I think.
My next question has to do with narrative voice and viewpoint. What made you decide to keep Liam as the narrative focus, as opposed to adding in multiple viewpoints? Was there ever a time when you considered using someone other than Liam? Also, what advice would you give to students/writers who struggle to settle on a narrative perspective?
I never considered having anyone else tell the story. Partly because I wanted to keep the focus tight, and having the narrative branch off in different ways could potentially add unnecessary plot threads and take away from the real heart of the story. But also because whenever I write, the first thing I do is think back to being eleven. I remember it well, because before that, I positively hated reading. It was only after Harry Potter that I worked my way through that door and found other books and other authors. So I figure that as long as I can write something that my eleven-year-old self would have read, it’ll be an okay story. And back then, switching viewpoint annoyed me more often than not, so I decided against it before I began. As for advice for anyone struggling with narrative perspective – I’d suggest that most stories, unless they’re sprawling, like Game of Thrones, most stories have a main character. Most of the time, all you need to do is stick with them. It’s their story, after all, and you usually only need one window onto it.
How, in your opinion, do authors of fiction manage to tell a truth (or truths) about themselves through their work, even when the subject matter isn’t autobiographical in the least?
With fiction, telling the truth about yourself is an automatic, inevitable process. The old adage is you should write what you know, and it’s a cliché because it works. That’s not to say I know all about magical gargoyles. But I do know how it feels to see someone being stolen by dementia, and I can imagine what it might feel like to combine certain fears inside an eleven-year-old mind. When you write any character, you put a bit of you into them, and so you can’t escape telling truths about yourself when you write – although, of course, those truths will often be buried and entwined with fiction.
How do you deal with dissatisfaction concerning your own work? Is there a point at which you have to just take a step back and accept that you aren’t going to be entirely satisfied with everything, even if others are enjoying it? What words of advice or encouragement would you give to those who are finding it difficult to be satisfied with their own writing?
I think it’s always hard to be satisfied with your own writing. The problem is, in your mind, every idea is perfect, because you can blur over any problems and you never have to deal with them. No story that you write will ever be able to compete with that, because the act of putting it on the page makes it real, and nothing real can ever be perfect. The important thing is to keep writing, no matter what. Even if you think every word sucks. That self-doubt never goes away, even after you’re published. But you may just look back on a passage you thought you hated and discover that, actually, it’s pretty good after all.
Last, but certainly not least, I’m curious as to your own literary inspiration, not necessarily just for Stonebird, but in general. What do you look for in a book? Are there specific books or authors you return to when you need inspiration?
Harry Potter is what inspired me to read, and discovering the magic of books – and realizing that so many people, like me, were missing out on them – turned me from a reader to a writer, because I wanted to try to recreate the spark that J.K Rowling gave to me. Since then, I’ve fallen in love with the writing of Neil Gaiman. There’s a lyrical quality to his prose that is warming and gripping, and I can always return to one of his books if I need inspiration!
(For more information concerning Stonebird, please visit Mr. Revell’s website: http://mikerevell.com/ . )
(Image credit: http://www.amazon.com/Stonebird-Mike-Revell/dp/1623654629 )