It’s no exaggeration to say that Adam Gidwitz’s new novel, The Inquisitor’s Tale, was hundreds of years in the making (although it “only” took him six years to write). Gidwitz, who gave the willies to many young readers with his A Tale Dark and Grimm series, reaches back to the Middle Ages for the legends and lore on which to base his latest story, a quest starring three exceptional, persecuted children, an incredible dog, and a dragon who kills with flatulence. He spoke with PW about his inspiration, his process, and the debt he owes his wife.
Your author’s note begins, “My interest in the Middle Ages is entirely my wife’s fault.” Want to explain?
Yes. We met in college in a class on Chaucer. Initially, we were both English majors but she was concentrating on medieval literature and eventually she switched to history [Gidwitz’s wife, Lauren Mancia, now teaches medieval history at Brooklyn College], which she had always been interested in. In fact, the first trip we ever went on together was to York, England, because she was writing a paper about some missing stained glass. I was not all that interested in the Middle Ages because, like most people probably, I thought of the [period] as remote and homogenous and boring. But I was proven wrong almost immediately on this trip, which turned out to be less a vacation than a scavenger hunt across England for this stained glass that went missing from a cathedral during World War II. And we found it! It had been put into small churches [for safekeeping] during the war. So, immediately there was this Indiana Jones aspect to medieval history that hooked me, and since we wound up traveling to Europe every year, eventually I began to wonder if I could get a book out of it. I started trying to organize the stories I had collected about six years ago.
You also mention in your author’s note that reading a plaque at the Museum of Jewish Art and History in Paris was a turning point in your decision to create a novel from your travelogue.
Yes. This plaque described the burning of the Talmuds in Paris in 1242 by King Louis IX. These were handwritten manuscripts, books that must have taken years and years to make, written on animal hides that had been tanned and bound together by hand. Louis had ordered the collection of all the Talmuds in existence in France at the time and had them burned. More than 20,000 volumes were destroyed. I was knocked out for days emotionally thinking about what an inconceivable loss that was. From that, the idea that there would be someone who would do something to prevent the burning, or at least try to save some of the books, grew into the idea for the novel. I already had a lot of material.
Another experience that switched me from just enjoying our travels to turning them into something was seeing the Bayeux Tapestry, which is like this 270 foot long graphic novel about the Norman Invasion sewn by a group of nuns in 1070 that depicts all these incredible scenes, including the [scene depicted in The Inquisitor’s Tale] where the knights sink into the quicksand outside Mont Saint-Michel. After I saw that, every place we went became a potential setting for another scene. That was the easy part.
What was the hard part?
I wrote for a long time without really knowing what the grand quest of the book was. I gave the first draft to Laura Amy Schlitz [the Newbery Medalist for Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! Voices from a Medieval Village was Gidwitz’s school librarian] because she has expertise in medieval literature and because she’s a great storyteller. She was very complimentary and very encouraging but both she and my editor [Julie Strauss-Gabel] had a lot of comments for me.
Did you ever consider, given the subject matter, that what you were writing wasn’t a novel for young readers?
No, not really. There were certainly moments when I got scared. When I wondered, will anybody read this? But what I have learned is that young people are the best audience to write for by far. If I wanted to write for adults, I would have to make a decision about whether I wanted to write something funny or philosophical or write an adventure, but with kids you can write all of those things at once.
You mention in your acknowledgments that this book produced the “most tempestuous and intense editing process yet” with your editor. Can you expound on that a little?
It was intense. It was serious. I’m going to tell you the truth. She read the first draft and said, “Where’s the rest?,” and I said, “Maybe I’ll write a sequel,” and she said: “No. You need to tell the entire story in this book.” At that time, the story was being told in this sort of floating, omniscient third-person narrator and she felt it wasn’t working. It was the same story but it was a slow, flaccid version of the story. So [Julie] and I had a series of conversations where she basically told me, “You learned a lot of these stories as stories. Someone told them to you. You told me the story of the Holy Greyhound. You told me the story about the farting dragons. Why can’t you just tell me those stories again?”
Basically, I felt like she was asking me to write A Tale Dark and Grimm again and I think what I was trying to do was make sure I didn’t write another story like the ones I had already written. But her argument was, “Just because you’re a good storyteller doesn’t mean you’re a bad writer.” She put her finger right on what I was trying to do – something different than Grimm. But by doing that, I was not only getting away from my strength, I was getting away from my passion. So I rewrote the book by setting it in a tavern, and it became tales told, like Chaucer, by different voices. When you’re telling a story in a tavern, you don’t have time to go on long dispositions. You’ll lose your audience. So that structure worked for me.
Gosh, is it okay to say I think she was right?
Make sure you put in there that she was right. She’s pretty much always right.
When in your research you came across the legend of the farting dragon, did you drop to your knees and thank the writing gods?
Yes, I did. When I heard that story, I knew it had to be part of the book. I mean, what could be more me than a farting dragon that kills people by sitting on them? And the holy dog, too. That is a legend, too, and that had to be in the book.
But did you think that the farting dragon and the miraculous dog also could be used to leaven some of the much heavier elements of the plot? Because this is ambitious territory you took on – religious intolerance in the Middle Ages for fifth graders.
Absolutely. What I have found is that when you are writing for kids, you can be as ambitious as you want because kids love engaging with difficult topics, but you have got to figure out a way to get them to read every page. Once they’re reading, once they’re into it, then I can do something interesting and challenging and those readers will be glad I did.
When you got to the editing stage, did you get called out for anachronisms? Was it hard to stop your modern sensibilities from seeping into 13th-century France?
Yes. But my wife was really great at enlisting scholars she knows to check my work. They picked up on both larger things and smaller things.
Well, one thing was that I had two monks with beards. Monks were not supposed to have beards. So one monk with a beard I might be able to get away with, but not two.
The adults who have read the novel love it – you have four starred reviews so far. Have you had any actual kid readers yet?
I have, and I am so relieved and excited by the response I’ve gotten from the few kids who have already gotten their hands on it [Gidwitz posted a letter about the book from a young fan to his Twitter account]. I have been going to schools in advance of the book coming out. I describe what scapegoating is, giving examples from history. Among the fifth, sixth, and seventh graders I’ve been talking with, I’d say nine out of 10 times, somebody on their own has raised the issue of how it relates to contemporary politics and how certain politicians have tried to blame Mexicans and Muslims for larger problems. They draw their own conclusions.
The Inquisitor’s Tale: Or, The Three Magical Children and Their Holy Dog by Adam Gidwitz. Dutton, $17.99 Sept. 27 ISBN 978-0-525-42616-5