High school English teacher William Ritter never expected his short story experiment about an eccentric paranormal detective named Jackaby and his clever assistant, Abigail Rook, to one day become his first published novel. A lover of stories and mythology, Ritter has published three books about Jackaby and Rook, with the fourth and final installment, The Dire King, to be released next month. Ritter spoke with PW about his inspiration for the books, the importance of representing different mythologies in literature, and the ways in which his work as a teacher affects his storytelling.
Did you always plan Jackaby and Abigail’s story to be told in four books? Did you know where their story would end?
From an early stage, I had four installments in mind. I wrote the first without thinking it would be a novel at all; it was just a short story. Pursuing publication made me consider where Jackaby and Abigail’s story would go, only then did any ideas for a series solidify. Eventually I determined that there would be four distinct stories happening along the way to a larger story. I had a general idea of an ending. There’s a war in the final book and I knew I wanted to get to that.
How did the original short story emerge?
I was having one of those “those who can’t teach, do” moments. I was right out of a teaching job that I loved, which had focused on mythology and writing. I had been working with a science teacher, planning a class that combined a crime scene investigation course with a mythology course. Then a budget cut happened and, as a new teacher, I was first to go. So those ideas were bouncing around in my head. I began writing Jackaby. My son was just turning one; I had a kid to take care of but not a lot of intellectual stimulation.
Did you write regularly before beginning Jackaby?
I’ve been doing this for my entire life; as a kid, I wrote stories for my seventh grade teacher. But I never pursued a writing career: I was writing just because I really loved writing. My wife encouraged me after reading my Jackaby short story. She told me to write more because there was something there, maybe even something worth publishing.
Since Jackaby was your first novel, what has the experience been like, seeing this series make its way into the world and to readers?
It’s sort of like raising kids in a way. I teach seniors and send them off in the world and I know there are things they’ll be amazing at and things they’re not ready for. It’s kind of like that. Sometimes ideas feel amazing in my head, but aren’t amazing on the page. I spend a lot of time working on those garbage parts. That part of me, the part that wants to keep making the book better, doesn’t go away after publication. It’s nerve-wracking to send out a new book. I thought it would be easier by book four, but it feels just like it did with the first book.
There’s a Holmes and Watson quality to the relationship between Jackaby and Abigail—was that intentional? If directly inspired by Holmes and Watson, what drew you to this iconic duo?
I had been reading a lot of classic fiction—while preparing for the mythology meets CSI class that I never taught. Twenty years before Holmes, Edgar Allan Poe created a weird, eccentric guy named C. Auguste Dupin who solved crimes in ways you wouldn’t expect. Holmes followed; A Study in Scarlet even mentions Dupin! Holmes’ stories weren’t portrayed from his own perspective, but rather from someone looking on. I liked that style of storytelling. I wanted Jackaby to feel like that classic fiction. I used tropes and archetypes from Dupin and Sherlock to dive into the strange, weird, and quirky. And, like A Study in Scarlet mentions Dupin, there’s a similar mention of Sherlock in Jackaby.
What does your writing process look like? Do you plot in terms of the whole series, individual books, or individual characters?
When I’m really focused on a book, I try to focus on that individual volume. I leave certain threads open to tie off later, but I try to focus mostly on the events of the current book with just enough background to keep things moving. I often write individual scenes, like a movie production in my head. I might write the end before the middle, just dialogue, or 10 pages of action. Getting those parts down is important because they function as jumping off points.
I also write an outline that looks much like what teachers make you do for essays because I’m an English teacher. I usually have 10 or more pages of plot points, character studies of main players and key motivations, and scenes between characters, even if they never meet in the book. All of that happens up front. I write four times more than what actually gets published. Then I boil all of that down to bullet points and check things off as I write. Still, sometimes I find that there’s a whole scene that might need to happen between points. Every once in a while those are the best scenes in the book.
What type of research into 19th-century life did you conduct while writing the Jackaby books?
Some of it was just immersing myself in the time period by reading stories set in the same period. I tried to figure out what problems people were overcoming at the time. I would type (by typewriter) or write (by pen) exercises that I didn’t need to save. It was a good way to get into the mood of the setting. After that I would often just write to get the story happening, then fix my mistakes after. Once I had a Jackaby scene on a fire escape, but, after doing research, I found that that type of fire escape did not exist at the time. I loved writing Abigail. She’s dealing with monsters and dresses without pockets and a society that tells her she can’t walk down the street alone. I looked to Nellie Bly and other women who rose above as inspiration.
What drew you to incorporating faerie stories and lore?
I have a certificate in folklore from the University of Oregon; I intentionally took classes that allowed me to read stories [during college]. Having done that, I got my teaching degree and then was able to teach mythology. I still teach mythology and creative writing. Rather than wanting to inject faerie stories and lore into detective stories, I write the other way around. There’s so much more than Greek mythology, but most people don’t get to learn about it. Diversity in literature is important, including diversity of cultures. I try to [bring] that into the classroom, too. There’s a reason these stories survive; they are the core to our humanity.
You’ve written the Jackaby series over a four-year period, while teaching high school. What is your writing schedule like?
I worked on the first book for a year before submitting it. It was written largely between jobs in the summer. Throughout the year I have chunks of time to write, but it really only happens because I have support to sit down and focus. Teaching is a 150% type of a job; things are really tight.
During the early stages of The Dire King, I had spring break to work and wrote around 20,000 words. Then a computer glitch destroyed it all. It was only a week’s worth of work, but it was written during the only week I had. I spent the rest of year catching up. This made The Dire King the most rushed, but it also made the second draft significantly better than the first. If I wasn’t teaching, I don’t think I would have the same energy for writing though. I love being around kids.
Do you ever share early stages of your projects with students?
Ghostly Echoes and The Dire King were shared with students. They helped pick the final titles. There was one in particular that my editor, PR team, and I liked, but the students all voted for Ghostly Echoes instead! I also let them read advance reader copies.
After publication I’ve often used my work in the classroom to show students how the writing and publishing process works. Peer editing an essay is often hard and embarrassing, so, before I ask students to peer edit, I show them how the process looks for me. I show students feedback from my editor and the red ink I plowed through constantly. It’s a great way to show that the process is the same whether you’re an expert or just starting.
What advice do you give students who are aspiring writers?
My biggest piece of advice is to be willing to write the bad story, just to get it out there. Then you can edit. You can edit gold as long as you’ve written garbage. I also remind them to enjoy the parts of the process they like. To write something they feel is true to what they want to do and what inspires them. Your first draft should be play, then you begin the work of making something great.
Now that you’ve completed the Jackaby series, what can readers look forward to next?
I’ve not yet pitched a new project. I’d love to work with my editor, Elise Howard, again. The project I’ve been devoting the most time to is a story set in a similar time period to Jackaby, but in a totally different city and past. It’d be part of the same universe, but focuses more on themes of family. It’s a goblin changeling story about a kid who was brought by goblins, but at the crucial moment of the swap, both children are left and grow up together. No one knows which is the real child and which is the changeling. It’s the story of growing up being part of a family, but also being something else and learning how to be comfortable in your own skin. These are issues core to my own family; I have a biological and adopted son. I love them both to the ends of the earth and we’ve gone through things many other people don’t have to. Ultimately, it’s an adventure story about figuring out how to define family and love.
The Dire King by William Ritter. Algonquin Young Readers, $17.95 Aug. 22 ISBN 978-1616206703