Brian Farrey, who has worked as both a bookseller and as a book publicist in the Twin Cities, became a published author in 2011 with the release of his debut novel, With or Without You, a contemporary YA. Since then Farrey has become firmly ensconced in the middle grade fantasy world, with his Vengekeep Prophecies trilogy and a stand-alone, The Secret of Deadwillow Carse. His newest novel, The Counterclockwise Heart, is set in a country on the verge of war as two young people cross paths while seeking to unearth the secrets of their lives. While Prince Alphonsus and his mother keep secret that there is a clock ticking in his chest, Esme is searching for her estranged mother, the Nachtfrau, to kill her and thus lift a curse. We spoke with Farrey about who and what inspires him to write, his attempts to dispel gender stereotypes and consider representation in his work, and his belief that even the most evil villain possesses redeeming qualities.
How did the concept for The Counterclockwise Heart come about?
I think a lot of it was my previous novel, The Secret of Deadwillow Carse. It was about the importance of asking questions. When I was done with that book, I still had things I wanted to say about that. So it’s kind of where Counterclockwise was born, my wanting to talk about how we can convey information to kids, and what they can then do with that. Do they sit on it, or do they ask some questions about the information provided, to find out more? That’s really where it came from. The two books are set in different worlds but they definitely complement each other well.
The Counterclockwise Heart is very reminiscent of dark German fairy tales. Who or what are your literary influences?
I am glad you said that; that’s very much what I was going for. When I figured out where I wanted to take this, I went back and reread some of the Brothers Grimm to get a feel for those old fairy tales, so they were definitely among my influences. The original fairy tales—that were a bit darker and maybe a little scarier at some points.
There’s so much death, and sadness, and betrayal in this novel. Do you think middle grade readers can handle such a tale?
Oh, definitely. Children are so resilient. There’s nothing in this book that they don’t pick up on in the news, or in daily life. We’re doing regular shooter drills in schools. We have to acknowledge that children can choose to look at things and say, “wow, that’s really dark, but I am going to find the strength to get past that.” The original Grimm’s fairy tales are incredibly dark. You read them and you think, these are not for kids, but that’s where they ended up. Anything that is tempered with an attempt to understand—“why is it like this, why is this story being told like this, what can I take away from this?”—I think it’s going to make kids want to read more.
You play with gender stereotypes in this novel. What was your thinking in writing these strong female characters who defy gender expectations?
I guess my biggest thought was that they talk about, in books for kids, the need for representation; kids need to see themselves. In a lot of ways, that was at the forefront of my mind: let’s make this a world where people recognize that there are same-sex parents and there are women leaders, women in roles of power. I was getting away from what men traditionally do and what women traditionally do. I hope I turned that on its head a bit with this book. It’s something I was very aware of as I was writing; I had to question my own biases and my own instincts to go in a certain direction. Why am I doing it this way and what does that say when I do it this way? How can I improve on that so that a made-up world can still reflect the world we live in?
Are you concerned that because, for instance, the empress and her partner, the imperatrix, are lesbian parents, some parents and other adults will protest this book and try to ban it from schools and libraries?
I try not to concern myself.... I’ve got to do what I’ve got to do when it comes to writing and I can’t stop and worry about what if it doesn’t end up in this or that library. My first YA novel, With or Without You had gay characters and people told me that there were some libraries that would not carry this book just because of that. I am not here to please everyone.
Speaking of your YA novel, With or Without You has a contemporary setting, but your four middle grade novels are set in fantasy worlds. Is this conscious on your part, that you write different kinds of books for different age groups?
That is called, “I write what my brain tells me to write.” I can’t explain it any other way than that. When I get an idea and then I start to develop it, one of the first things I do is think about the setting‑where will this work the best? The past few books have been middle grade fantasy, but I have a couple of projects I am working on now that are contemporary. It all depends upon writing in the format in which I can best get across the things I want to say. In my middle grade books, it felt like the best way to do that is in a world where there’s a little more imagination.
The women in this novel are tough but also nurturing—in fact, their love for and commitment to their children opens them up to betrayal by those who want to seize power. Was this set-up deliberate on your part?
Oh, that’s a very interesting way of looking at it. I don’t ever see motherhood as being a weakness. My thoughts for this book were the opposite. This book is dedicated to my late friend Ann Kaner-Roth who was an incredible woman: she was an activist who was at the forefront of the “Vote No” campaign for marriage equality in Minnesota—but more than anything, she was this amazing mother. She passed away a couple of years ago and left three brilliant kids who have this shining model to look to. If anything, I tried to embody how important mothers can be in this book.
Guntram Steinherz is so evil, but at the end, when we discover his back story, there is some sympathy for him. What was your thinking in mitigating his villainy?
I try not to make anybody totally evil. Villains don’t think of themselves as evil; in their minds, they’re the hero of the story. In the first chapter of Counterclockwise, you meet the boy, and he’s very lonely. He doesn’t have anything to do, so he starts talking to the mysterious statue. People then think he’s responsible for turning around the fortunes of his village. He gets attention and begins to think of himself as special. He finally gets what he wants, but he’s frightened that it will be taken away from him. Nobody had told him before that he was special, so he had to forge his own idea of that. It would have been nice if he’d been able to figure out a way to do that without going over to the dark side. But he didn’t have that guidance. There are three main characters—Alphonsus, Esme, and Guntram. Alphonsus was brought up in a very loving family; Esme had a loving father for a while, and then was raised by lunatics; Guntram did not have any of that family love. But I don’t like to think anyone is beyond redemption. Towards the end, Alphonsus says to Guntram: “All I ever wanted to do was help people, and I never thought of how I could help you.” That compassion – it just destroys Guntram.
How does your background as a bookseller and as a book publicist inform you as an author?
I think when you work in the book world in general—be it as a bookseller or a publicist—you find yourself surrounded by a variety of ideas and voices. I strongly believe that all writers should read widely and diversely and I feel like these past jobs have exposed me to writing that, whether I know it or not, has impacted the way I write.
What’s the one big thing you want people to take away from this novel?
I want people to think about the power of compassion: what it can do for you, for your soul, and how it can help you reach out to your community and share goodness.
The Counterclockwise Heart by Brian Farrey. Algonquin Young Readers, $17.95, Feb. 1 ISBN 978-1-61620-506-5