Jonathan Auxier (pronounced “ox-ee-AY”) is a Canadian from Vancouver who now lives in LA (though will apparently be moving shortly to Pittsburgh). His first book, Peter Nimble and His Fantastic Eyes, is a magical adventure about a blind orphan thief. You should read it.
I met Auxier at Wordstock last weekend and talked to him about Peter Nimble, nonsense literature, and blogging. Well, the blogging was his fault, because he actually started off the interview with the first question.
Jonathan Auxier: I know you have questions for me, too, but how does it work at GeekDad? Are the bloggers there freelancers? Do you operate independently of the magazine?
GeekDad: Yeah, so GeekDad is tied to Wired, obviously, but it does function somewhat independently of the magazine side of things and from the other blogs, too. My understanding is that each of the blogs is kind of run on its own, with some oversight from the folks at Wired. What I really love about GeekDad is that it’s written for geeky parents by geeky parents. These are all people who are passionate about what we do, about our kids, about our hobbies, and we get this platform to write about them.
JA: That’s one of the things that I think makes the blogs stand out. In the last decade we’ve cultivated such a tone of condescension, and it can be fun to write and to read that. But there are a couple of blogs that I follow that are blogged by dads, and there’s something about them that’s just … well, at the end of the day, if I read a bunch of them, I’m not angry. There’s no other way for me to put it. We’re perpetually in a time as human beings where interested, involved fathers are important, because historically fathers are so distant. They’re away at work, we just don’t know what they’re doing, so the public perception of intellectually curious fathers is such an important thing to me.
GD: How did you get started on Peter Nimble? What made you say, “I want to write a novel” and, more specifically, a kids’ book?
JA: Well, there a couple factors. The first is that I already knew I wanted to be a writer. I studied playwriting in undergraduate and graduate school. It was actually when I was in the middle of a playwriting program and I was really struggling — in part because I was trying to write for the approval of other people: friends, advisers, or all of these other people, and I kept on trying to tell stories that I thought they would like.
After my first year of graduate school I hit this breaking point, and I had every intention of dropping out. Basically I thought I’d get kicked out, so this was preemptive: I thought I could quit and maintain my dignity. I quite literally sat down to write a letter explaining why I was dropping out of this program that people were really excited that I was doing … and instead of writing that I wrote the first line of Peter Nimble.
I had never written prose before. I mean, maybe a short story or something in 10th grade. But I kept writing. I didn’t stop for about three and a half weeks, and at the end of it I had a complete first draft. I was just eating and sleeping and typing. I had no idea what I was doing. I was an English student, so I knew how to construct a sentence, but I didn’t have any background in this.
What I discovered during that time was that basically it was sort of a desperate act to remind myself why I love telling stories. It made a lot of sense, actually, that I wrote a children’s book, because my passion for other storytelling mediums — including adult novels and movies and television and comic books and plays — that ebbs and flows. But my love for children’s books has been really constant my whole life. I started hitting on my wife when she was in grad school studying children’s literature because she was carrying a certain children’s literature anthology. I collected children’s books my whole life; I was passionate about them.
So instead of writing the types of stories that I thought people wanted me to write, this was the first time I thought, “I want to write something completely for myself.” I’m a weird person, I was a weird kid, so I can’t say that this is the book for every child. But it’s the book that I wished I’d been able to discover when I was about 11 years old; it would have blown my mind.
GD: Well, speaking of your love for children’s books, what authors or books do you feel have had an impact on you as a reader and you as a writer?
JA: Much hay has been made of comparisons between my book and Peter Pan. I write a blog called The Scop where I talk about the connections between children’s books, old and new, and I’ve talked a lot about Peter Pan, which is a book that I discovered more as an adult.
But probably the most formative book in my life, which I haven’t talked to a lot of people about because there’s no easy connection to Peter Nimble, is Alice in Wonderland, which I discovered when I was about ten years old. More specifically, I discovered the follow-up book, Alice’s Adventures Through the Looking Glass. And that book just lit something up inside me. You know how old ladies have a Bible next to their bed and they read a little bit each night? For probably close to fifteen years, I read a chapter from Through the Looking Glass every single night. I couldn’t explain it. I was very open about the flaws in the book, like I hate this part, I think he made big mistakes here. It wasn’t this blind adoration or anything, but I felt like for all that time there was something between the lines of that story that I could continue to learn from.
Storywise, it’s easier to draw connections between Peter Nimble and, say, Treasure Island. For Through the Looking Glass and Alice in Wonderland as well, I think the connection is that Lewis Carroll really set the conversation. He kickstarted what they call the Golden Age of children’s literature, where we moved from this age of heavy-handed moral instruction, like The History of Little Goody Two-Shoes, to stories that were more about just inspiring delight and fun and play. Without something like Alice in Wonderland, we couldn’t have had Wizard of Oz, we couldn’t have had Peter Pan, we couldn’t have had all these other books that we love.
I think it’s not a coincidence that the Golden Age of children’s literature was kicked off the exact same time that nonsense literature was really born. I don’t think we make enough of that, at least as a culture. Maybe scholars do, but it seems that as a culture we don’t pinpoint the fact that whatever wonderful was happening in those children’s books was really closely related to the act of writing nonsense. Which is to say that a child’s life, a young reader’s life, is entirely controlled by adults in every facet: teachers, parents, preachers, whatever. The rules and adults control everything in their lives. But then along comes this wonderful medium, this genre emerges, in which adults are made to look a little bit ridiculous.
The only way that Alice was able to survive Wonderland was by out-nonsense-ing the nonsense. Every time she tries to apply her school lessons or any adult-like thinking, she’s made to look ridiculous and she fails. What a totally intoxicating world for a young reader to enter, in which their sense of child-like mentality is celebrated is lifted up to that level. For the brief duration of that story, not only do they get to pretend “what if adults were ridiculous?” but they’re also getting a glimpse of an adult who makes himself ridiculous, because the author is an adult.
I think that teaches a powerful lesson. It’s like when we were kids, and we see a severe parent be a little bit silly, that does something inside you because suddenly you realize they’re on the same continuum as you are. For me, I think that sense of silliness and play started with Lewis Carroll’s books, and those are books that I’m still drawn to this day. That’s something I really aggressively tried to work into the fabric of Peter Nimble.
GD: That’s something that I noticed, when reading your book, that it didn’t remind me of most of the magical fantasy books I’ve read lately. That was surprising to me, that I didn’t know what was going to come next, and I loved that about it. I’ve read Alice in Wonderland to my daughter a couple times, and everyone (including me) thinks, Oh, yeah, I know the story of Alice in Wonderland — you think of the Disney movie. But when you go and actually read the book, you think, “This is bizarre!” He makes these leaps. So I can see that in your book — there’s something slightly otherworldly at the beginning because he’s doing these amazing feats and he’s blind … but then when he ends up at the island it takes this turn, and we’re deeply into the magic now, and I didn’t know where it was going to go from there.[Here there’s an interlude where we talk about The 13 1/2 Lives of Captain Bluebear, a delightfully silly novel by Walter Moers that’s not exactly a kids’ book but is filled with nonsense.]
JA: I think it’s a unique thing to our age, that we don’t consider that normal in adult books. Maybe that’s changing now, I’m not sure. But the first thing I think of when you’re talking about that is Tristam Shandy, a book that no child could read, but it has just so much pure silliness and play. Or even Gulliver’s Travels, which was a big influence for Peter Nimble, but straight-up silly fantasy. It’s an adult book, it’s for adults.
I don’t know if I know enough about contemporary literature to say we’ve lost that completely, but it feels like the only time we have impossible things happening in adult literature it’s in “genre” fiction: actual dragons, actual spaceships.
GD: I love the way that your book has all these different characters and strands that tie together at the end. How much of that did you know from the beginning, and how much did you just write to see where the characters would go?
JA: Coming from a background of screenwriting and playwriting, I was very used to structured storytelling and outlining in advance. I remember when I was a kid I read Ray Bradbury’s book Zen and the Art of Writing, and he just talks about various writing practices. He was a big advocate of exploring, letting the story find its way out. And even when I was writing plays, I’d remember that and think, really?
This was the first time I really let myself off the leash. I mean, I’d had a lot of training by then and I think I could subconsciously apply a great deal of structure. But it really did just kind of come; I think maybe my subconscious had some idea of where the story was going.
That said, there were some challenges: I fall into the trap of what I call “trauma sandwich” stories. You enter a world where there’s all these bizarre circumstances, and then in the middle of the story we learn about something that happened earlier that created this scenario. So you learn about this older trauma, and then you return back to the present story and you know how to fix it. And I had to do a lot of work to create a backstory that, hopefully, satisfactorily explained the situation that Peter finds himself in when he gets to the Vanished Kingdom.
GD: I wanted to ask about all these thieving tricks that Peter employs. When he shows up in the desert he meets these thieves, Patch and Clipper and Cough, who are named after their particular specialties. Were these all real terms, or did you make them up? Did you have to research pickpocketing and so forth?
JA: I made almost everything up. There’s little things, like I talk about one lock called the Bigelow Brank, and a “brank” is an old-fashioned torture device, basically like an iron maiden for your face. I find that a lot of the stories I write, even my adult stories, all hinge on wordplay. This goes right back to Lewis Carroll and Alice in Wonderland.
I know some writers, when they create worlds, they want to create a complete world. They want to be J. R. R. Tolkien, they want to create language, and religion, and mythologies that explain every facet of life. I love diving into worlds and creating them, but I also like keeping that sense of play that is somehow in communication with our current world. So I felt that thieving mythology and all that language was an opportunity to take words that we knew, that were common to us, and make them a little bit different and set them slightly askew.
And this is something that I do throughout the book. Take apes: animals we know about, but make them monstrous. Constantly seeing if I could rip things from our own cultural fabric and enchant them.
GD: I wanted to find out, do you have anything else in the works right now? I know, that’s a terrible question to be asked, but I have to ask it.
JA: I used to juggle, and the thing that inspires Hulk-like rage is the minute you whip out three balls to juggle and some snot-nosed kid, without batting an eye, goes: “Can you do four?” You spend six months practicing four, you’re so awesome, you do it for like thirty seconds — “Can you do five?”
I have a couple other books I’m working on right now. I’m getting a lot of kids asking, you know, “Is there a sequel?” And I really tried to deliberately make Peter Nimble a story that accounts for the storytelling energy that it unleashes at the beginning, and really feels like a full journey. I am working on another book that inhabits that same world, but the comparison I would use is that this new book is a sequel to Peter Nimble in the way that The Magician’s Nephew is a sequel to The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe. Which is, not at all. I mean, they’re set in the same universe but Digory is the only overlap between the two.
GD: Yeah, I read Peter Nimble, and I got to the end, and while I didn’t want it to end, I really felt like “this is where it ends.” The story is done.
JA: It’s funny because I’ve actually had some blowback from people about that. As you say, the story ends, and there could never be a Further Adventures of Peter Nimble, the Greatest Thief Who Ever Lived in the same way. If the character survives for another story and I bring him back, he’s a different person. I’ve had a lot of people be very upset with that.
The other side of that is there have been some people upset with the things I leave hanging, and I’ve had to tell them, even if I write another book with these same characters I might not answer those questions. For me, what is the fun if you don’t leave some unknowns? A story that explains everything is a story that’s going to let me down.
Later during the book festival, I caught a bit of Auxier doing a presentation about his book. Since he didn’t have a fancy Powerpoint presentation, he incorporated yo-yo tricks into it, performing tricks that illustrated Peter’s many talents. Unfortunately I didn’t think to record the whole performance, but it was another great example of Auxier’s love of play and fun, which carries over into his book.