N.D. Wilson has had a full and busy career, with plenty of picture books and novels, as well as his ongoing 100 Cupboards series. This week, Wilson launches a new series, Outlaws of Time, a middle grade time-travel adventure set in the American West. Wilson spoke with PW about his favorite books from childhood, his second job as a filmmaker, and writing a character whose arms are also characters.
The influences at play in Outlaws of Time, and much of your work, are pretty varied. Who are some of your favorite authors? What stories have inspired you the most?
As a kid, I was an incredibly picky reader. I had fallen in love with The Lord of the Rings and Narnia. At a very early age, my dad read them to me, and I don’t remember a time of my life when I didn’t know those stories. My dad would read every night at the dinner table. He read us The Lord of the Rings when I was two and trapped in a high chair. Mom argued about whether I could track anything, but Dad pointed out that I turned bright red and sweaty in the battle scenes. He read us other stories too, but those were the ones that really stuck and defined my imagination. I returned to them constantly. It wasn’t until I was in fifth or sixth grade that my mom successfully broke me loose from simply re-reading my favorites and turned me onto other types of fiction.
Around the same time, I decided that I was going to write novels – novels like those of my favorite authors. But they were all British. I had a pretty idyllic childhood – wheat fields, baseball, and big red barns. But at the time, I didn’t think of it as magical. All the magic obviously happened in England. I could have a truly magical day, go home, read some Narnia, and then yearn for a more magical world. When I actually began writing novels, I wanted my stories to be in the same vein, but with a different flavor and a different affect. I wanted to bring global fantasy and mythology into American landscapes and American settings – mythic Americana and classic fantasy. I’ve hopped around different regions with previous books, but Outlaws of Time: The Legend of Sam Miracle is the first story that has taken me into time-travel and the Southwest.
How did this series start?
I had been trying to think of a new superhero. Not one in tights, but a character who tapped into that same ancient story framework. I didn’t make any headway at all until I had a nightmare that live rattlesnakes had been grafted into my arms. I woke up excited and that night, over dinner, I told my kids the story of Sam Miracle, a damaged and hunted kid with elbows that wouldn’t bend – until rattlesnakes were grafted into his arms, giving him the fastest hands in history. I was wondering if it was too scary, so I laced it with humor – especially in the personalities of the snakes. My kids hadn’t ever been so gripped, they drew me stacks of pictures of Sam Miracle and his amazing arms. I had to write it.
How many volumes do you see comprising Outlaws of Time ultimately?
I’ve already turned in the second book, and the plan is three. But we’ll see. I love the world, and I love the complexity of writing a character whose hands are also characters.
What prompted you to start writing for children?
I could try to give all sorts of philosophical answers, but the truth is, that’s where my imagination lives. When I sit back and think of adult stories, I think of film. But when the itch shows up to write a novel, inevitably it is for kids. You could say my imagination stopped in the sixth grade. My reading level increased, but not my imagination. Writing for kids has provided me with more than enough scope for the stories I love to tell – magical doors, time-walking priests, snake arms. I think I have too much fun to write for the grown-ups.
You have a background in film, and directed the book trailer for Outlaws of Time. Can you talk a bit about this work, and do you see it influencing your writing at all?
Writing has been my day job since 2008. But around that time I also took my first film job. I write quickly, and there were long periods of the year where I wasn’t just going to read and plan my next draft. I was pleased to have 100 Cupboards do so well out of the gate, and I thought I might get my Ph.D. and teach, but storytelling didn’t let me go. In my free time, instead of chasing a degree, I was generating film treatments. I’m a novelist first, but my process is very visual. I block out scenes like a filmmaker. I envision the space, I plan the movements and the cuts, and then I attempt to capture it, but with words. Writing is the heart of what I will do, I’ll never leave it... I can’t see myself going off to L.A. and trying to exclusively work as a filmmaker. But I love the medium of film, and I think the relationship is permanent. I recently directed my first indie feature, a YA story called The River Thief, and I’m working on my second film now. It’s a C.S. Lewis project, which means I’m beyond thrilled. In my ideal world, I would alternate book/film, book/film.
Can you say a bit more about The River Thief?
The story is set in a small town on a big river in a hot summer; it’s a bad boy meets good girl story that kicks against the mold. Think John Green dosed with a little Breaking Bad. The story was actually inspired by the repentant thief on the cross in the gospels – guilt crucified next to innocence. As for the process, I loved it – indie filmmaking is like team rodeo. There’s no stress (or adrenaline) quite like it, and I look forward to doing it more. Hopefully, The River Thief will be in theaters for a short time and then on to the home market soon.
What are you working on next?
Outlaws of Time II, and a prequel to 100 Cupboards (The Door Before) that will be pubbing in spring 2017 alongside with a relaunch of the trilogy. The rest all involves cameras.
Outlaws of Time: The Legend of Sam Miracle by N.D. Wilson. HarperCollins/Tegen, $16.99 Apr. ISBN 978-0-06-232726-0