Tom McNeal may be best known in the young adult world for his collaborations with his wife Laura; together, they have written four YA novels, including Crooked, Zipped, and Crushed, all set in the same upstate New York town. But right now they are each working on their own projects – and for Tom this means Far Far Away, a modern fairy tale narrated by the rather serious ghost of Jacob Grimm. The book, which will be published by Knopf in June, focuses on Jacob’s relationship with a lonely boy named Jeremy, who ends up in a nightmarish trap when he trusts the wrong person. Here, McNeal talks with Bookshelf about his most recent solo work, what fairy tales teach readers, and a magical project his family is working on outside of their writing lives.
How did you decide to write a modern fairy tale?
This started as a project that would be collaborative between Laura and me. She always wanted to do a book based on a fairy tale. I liked the idea, although I have never been as fascinated with the fairy tales as she has. I had always wanted to write from the point of view of a ghost, so in doing research on fairy tales and people who assemble them, I read more and more about the Grimm brothers, and I became more and more interested in Jacob, the more severe of the two.
Also, the brothers’ interdependence was very, very keen. So when Wilhelm, the younger one, died, it was very easy for me to project Jacob’s deep unhappiness. He seemed like a person who would make the right kind of ghost for the book I wanted to write.
By this time Laura had gotten fed up with how long it was taking me to get anything done. She’d begun her own book, Dark Water, which was nominated for the National Book Award – I always have to throw that in. We’ve done several books together that have done fine, but nothing that’s been nominated for that award. She does it on her own, and bam.
The other impulse for the book was my need to take the last chance to write a book that might be more customized to our two boys – they are now 13 and 15. I had begun to see how they were taking their important conversations to their peers, rather than to us. And I felt pretty bad about that. So I thought, OK, I am going to try to write a book that will allow me to say some of the things that I’d like to say to them.
What were you hoping your sons would pick up?
If it’s OK I am going to be cagey about that answer. I get very apprehensive when I think there’s a real agenda to a book. When the characters start feeling as if they are opinions dressed up like characters, I run as fast as I can.
It wasn’t as though I wanted to preach or teach, it was more that I wanted to illustrate a more expansive and generous view of the world, where the world’s good intentions can prevail. Towards the end of the book when Jacob’s about to leave, Jeremy says that he promises to study, which Jacob’s been asking him to do. Jacob says, “It’s important to study. But also to enjoy.” It’s that broader view that I was hoping to put in place for them to look at, at some point in their lives.
Your book includes some charming and fantastical details, but also a lot of menace. Was it difficult to find a balance?
Evidently, because in the prior version those basement scenes were even darker. My wife, and Nancy Hinkel at Random House – and before that, Joan Slattery – did not want it that dark. In hindsight they were right. It felt more balanced in the final version. But I think it’s very hard for the writer to figure out what he’s written until people read it. You’re so close to the material. It’s familiar to the point that you almost can’t stand to look at it.
Plus, fairy tales can be pretty dark.
What is interesting about fairy tales is that they allow you to peer in on your fondest wishes: you complete a quest and you live in a castle and you live happily ever after. Or they allow you to peer on your darkest fears.
In [the Grimm tale] The Juniper Tree, the stepmother cuts the stepson’s head off, props him up so he won’t look dead, cuts him up, puts him in the stew, and feeds him to the boy’s father – who then remarks how wonderful the stew is and how he wants more. That’s about as nightmarish as it can get. And yet, it’s important at the end of the tale that the boy is made whole again.
The ability of the reader to imagine and immerse, and then step back, can’t be undersold. That’s the process for all readers, whether they’re 8 or 10 or 80. Depending on the age, they will think about the story, and they will carry certain things with them.
You’ve also written for adult audiences. Is your process different?
In some ways, yes, and in most ways, no. Clearly in a young adult book the protagonist is going to be young. I also feel as if things need to keep moving right along. I don’t think you can be as reflective as you might be in a book intended strictly for an older audience.
That said, I do not write down in any way for a younger audience and I always worry about the sentences and the prose, the clarity and the quality. I reread and revise and reread and revise because I want it to be something that the best reader would want to read – and age doesn’t go with that.
Right now, I am working on an adult book. It’s a more reflective book – I guess that’s why when you asked for the distinctions, I thought of that. It’s about an older man who has been asked to take over the management of an avocado grove where a woman and her three daughters live. He had a pretty debilitating episode in his own life that he never completely recovered from. And it’s his story, and how his life intersects with this woman, her daughters, and the woman’s boyfriend.
I am enjoying it because I am interested in the characters. That’s usually the first question: Can I live with these characters for two, three or four years? If the answer is, “Yeah, I think these will be good ones to spend time with,” then I go forward.
Are you and your wife involved in each other’s work even when you are not collaborating?
We are always each other’s first reader. I give her pages, she gives me pages. We’re hoping to do another book together. But right now she’s finishing a book she’s under contract for, and I am working on the adult book. So we’re on parallel tracks, I don’t know when they’re going to converge. We talk about it.
Typically when we do things together, one of us will do a chunk, whether it’s 50 pages or several chapters. Then when we hit a breaking point, it goes to the other, who then will edit kind of carefully, and take it from there. It goes back and forth.
Far Far Away’s publication date is June 11, which happens to be our 20th anniversary. We got that news on conference call with Nancy Hinkel. When she told us the publication day, Laura let out this little – not a shriek – but this little noise. She smiled and said, “You know what that is, don’t you?” And I drew a complete blank. It was a low point.
But, really, for me, everything good has happened in those 20 years, and the publishing stuff specifically has all occurred during that time. I don’t know what she’s done, but her influence has really helped. Maybe because she keeps saying, “ Go sit back down at the desk!”
In an article in the New York Times, you talked about having secret doors in your house – which seems a bit like a fairy tale. Do you think this has any influence on your work or your creative process?
That inclination for the secret passages must align in some way. I don’t exactly know why. I know the history of it. The house in which I was raised had walk-in closets with incomplete walls – the walls went up like 6 or 7 feet, but didn’t go to the ceiling. My brother, sister and I would climb over those walls all the time to get into the next room.
I always knew I wanted to build a house and I always knew when I built a house I wanted a secret passage in it. When Laura and I married we finally did that. I think it all goes back to the fun of not leaving your room to go into the hallway, but sneaking into your brother or sister’s room.
We’re building a house right now and the boys are finally going to get their own rooms – and just like the other house, this will have a not-so-secret passage. They will have bookshelves that roll away or swing out. That will lead to a ladder that leads to a trap door to the attic. They are very keen on this, of course. So now they are going to get the bug too.
Far Far Away by Tom McNeal. Knopf, $17.99 June ISBN 978-0-375-84972-5