One of my favorite storytelling hooks is the classic “hidden world” angle, from motorcycle-riding mice to sentient toys to wizards living among us.
In Cloak, Ohio writer James Gough brings a mix of fairy tales and science fiction and fantasy and espionage to that approach. Gough’s debut novel, released this fall by WiDo Publishing, introduces 13-year-old Will Tuttle, a long-isolated kid who learns the tangled, centuries-old truths about half-human creatures who’ve lived secretly in plain sight for ages. And he’s the only human who can see them.
The owl-man used a penlight to examine Will’s eyes. “We’ve been called many things over the centuries. Monsters, legends, myths, fables, beasts. ‘Enchant’ is what we prefer to call ourselves. It has a more positive ring than ‘monsters,’ don’t you agree?”
Gough’s a father of three who describes himself as “old enough to remember a world with only four channels, cassette tapes, and the excitement of renting the video and VCR from the store at the same time.” In an interview with GeekDad, he discussed Cloak, growing up as a science-fiction fan, mythology, fatherhood, and his sense of food adventure.
GeekDad: You wrote Cloak for a young adult audience. What were some of your biggest influences as a kid, and how do they resonate with you as a writer and a dad?
James Gough: I was raised on Star Wars, Star Trek, Starman, Stargate and The Last Starfighter. It was a cool world to grow up in — completely escapist. There was something about the mixture of ridiculous and believable that drew me in. The idea that pointed ears or an armor-plated forehead could make a whole new race of aliens was fascinating. Most of those shows applied animal traits to their alien characters. Some were furry, some had antennae, others had scales. Those images stuck in my head.
I used to have a major crush on Dax from Deep Space Nine — she was the alien with spots that went all the way down her neck and back. One of my heroines has feline stripes, and yes, they go all the way down her back.
I think the biggest difference between kids now and twenty years ago is that kids today seem to grow up faster. They’re bombarded with adult themes in every form of media. My kids have complained about books they’ve picked up that are really adult novels in a young adult or even middle grade wrapper. I wanted to write something that kids could read and parents would be okay with. No swearing. No sex. There’s plenty of ways to grab a kid’s attention without that kind of stuff.
GD: The back flap of Cloak mentions that the book was born from a question of why there are so many myths about talking animals. Talk about how you used that to create the layered and far-reaching back story that serves as the backdrop to the book.
JG: I love mythology. I’m nuts about conspiracy. I’m also a gigantic history geek and my day job happens to be in a world of madmen and spin doctors. So I wanted to combine all of my passions into a story that would uncover a conspiracy, rip the mystical away from myth, and reveal a parallel history that has been crafted to keep us all blind to something amazing right under our noses.
I think I came pretty close with Cloak.
My favorite kinds of myths have always been those where animals had distinctly human-like traits. Satyrs, centaurs, mermaids, manipulative wolves, sword-toting cats — there is something strangely believable about talking bears or whispering snakes. These stories have been woven into so many cultures that when you step back, you realize the idea of animal people is universal.
But there really wasn’t a single explanation as to why. Then it hit me: What if these human-animals were real and were covering up the truth with myths, twisting our history to hide their own existence? From there, the back story began to build itself. I could see it in my head and it became real. About 90% of the back story never made it onto the pages. It’s tucked away in my brain, biding its time. And it just keeps growing.
GD: What geeky things do you and your kids do together?
JG: My daughters are 13, 10 and 8 and are all intellectually superior to their father. They’re pretty cool kids, but I do try to raise them in the ways of the geek. Besides getting them hooked on old Star Trek episodes and memorizing the Avatar: The Last Airbender series, we have created some more nontraditional geeky traditions. There is something in Cloak called tagging. It’s skill that some of the characters have that allows them to identify what kind of animal DNA exists in a half-human. My kids and I have become avid taggers. We’ll go to the zoo and spend half the time looking at faces in the crowd, trying to figure out what kind of animal they may be hiding inside. It’s a great exercise in observation but it has to be done quietly, especially with my younger kids. Nobody wants to hear from an eight-year-old that they have a face that looks like a wombat, trust me.
GD: Who are your favorite writers, and what are your favorite movies and other pop cultural influences?
JG: Wow, I have too many. I try to read every kind of genre — from sci-fi to fantasy, thriller to biography. It’s hard to pin down favorites. I love how Tolkien created a universe. J.K. Rowling is a huge inspiration — she completely re-defined YA/middle grade fiction. Michael Shaara’s Killer Angels is probably my favorite historical fiction novel. The book 1491 by Charles Mann is another brain tickler. Hunger Games, Fablehaven, To Kill a Mockingbird, I like them all.
Movies or TV? I love stuff that messes with your head. J.J. Abrams has been doing a lot of that lately. His re-imagined Star Trek movie was awesome and Fringe is addictive. The Batman Begins and Dark Night films are brilliant. I also watch what my kids watch. The last few months we’ve been sucked into BBC’s Adventures of Merlin. I’ve also been known to delve into nature documentaries, Westerns and old M*A*S*H reruns.
GD: What are your geekiest obsessions?
JG: Hmm. I guess I’d say that I’m film physics geek. Every movie I watch, I love to pick apart the special effects and point out why it would be impossible to hear explosions in the vacuum of space or how flying backwards around the earth really fast won’t turn back time and save Lois Lane. I suppose that counts as geeky and annoying … but fun.
GD: Your author biography mentions a love for unusual foods…
JG: True, I’m a huge fan of odd food. I love that one culture’s delicacy is another’s dry heave. My wife and I call it culinary spelunking, and yes, we usually drag our kids along for the ride. The weirdest? Probably maguey worm tacos in a four-hundred-year-old gristmill in Mexico. They were these little white grubs cooked in salsa, a bit like the cricket/ant appetizer I tried in a California airport, but more flavorful. I’ve always wanted to try alligator or rattlesnake, but haven’t had the chance, yet.
For the most part, I’ll try anything … that’s not moving. As fascinating as wriggling, creeping food might be, I can’t image chewing on something that’s trying to get away.
GD: To get back to your book: Are there other stories to be told in the Cloak universe? It seems loaded with possibilities, both in terms of Will and his friends, and maybe even deeper back stories about the conflicts and histories you refer to in setting up this adventure.
JG: Absolutely. I’ve already started on book two and it’s gearing up to be an intense adventure. I’m introducing a lot more enchants and am really burrowing into their culture. Most of the main characters will be back, some with more prominent roles. The next book will also start answering questions that this one left in the air, like: Where did the Hunter (a wolf-like assassin) come from? What’s Berko’s backstory? Who will replace Dr. Bump? Does caramelized dung beetle really taste like chicken?
Maybe the biggest question that will be answered is: How does Will handle being a celebrity? I’m interested to see how that one turns out myself.