Interview with Django Wexler: Exploring The Forbidden Library
We’ve got a great interview for you today. Please welcome Django Wexler, whose middle grade fantasy novel The Forbidden Library hit the shelves this week!
So you’ve already seen my review and heard me sing my praises, and now you want to know more about the author and the book? Look no further, as it is with great pleasure that I present to you my fun chat with Django about The Forbidden Library as well as his love for writing and fantasy fiction. Oh, and there will be cats. Mustn’t forget the cats!
Mogsy: Hello, Django! First of all, thanks so much for this interview!
Django Wexler: Happy to do it!
Mogsy: So tell us about The Forbidden Library. Pitch the book! What can readers expect to find in it, and why might fans of your adult fantasy be interested to read it too?
Django Wexler: The Forbidden Library is about a girl named Alice who sneaks down to the kitchen one night to find her father arguing with a nasty-looking fairy. When he mysteriously disappears a few days later, she’s sent to live with an uncle she didn’t know she had, in his odd old house with a giant library she absolutely must not go into. When she (of course) does, she finds out that both her uncle and his library are a lot stranger than they appear!
Other things that are in the story: talking cats, dragons, The Swarm, strange maps, needle-elves, Ending, and books that suck you in. (Literally!)
I had a great time writing it. Even as an adult, I love well-written children’s fiction, especially fantasy – I’m a huge fan of authors like Phillip Pullman, Jonathon Stroud, J. K. Rowling (of course), Phillip Reeve, and so on. I hope that anyone else who understands that fantasy for young readers doesn’t have to be bland will enjoy it! There’s also a meta-level, if you’ve read a lot of this sort of thing. The original inspiration for the story was based on observations about the normal course of events in the Chosen One fantasy.
Mogsy: Well said. But I’ve been wondering and I think a lot of people will want to know too, why a Middle Grade novel? With your fond memories and love for well-written children’s fiction, did you start off having plans to write a book for this age group or did the idea for the story fit the category?
Django Wexler: It’s actually kind of a funny story – when I started, I didn’t know that there was such a thing as “middle grade” as a category. I had this vague idea that I was writing a children’s book, but that was it. What I wanted was something *short*, compared to The Thousand Names. I had a problem with everything I wrote ballooning out to become epic, and I knew I couldn’t commit to writing more than one book that size a year. So if I wanted to start another series, it had to be slim by comparison. (Forbidden Library is about 75,000 words, compared to Thousand Names’ 200,000.) Once I started writing it, it just felt right as a children’s book, although I didn’t change very much about my writing style. (I thought of it as leaving out sex, swearing, and gore.)
Then I sent it to my agent Seth, who thought it would work really well as a middle grade. We made a few changes – Alice’s age was adjusted a little, for example – and he sent it off to see if Penguin liked the look of it.
Mogsy: Actually, I’ve always been curious if there were special “rules” to writing Middle Grade (and you coming from writing adult fantasy might be in a unique position to answer). So like you said, no sex, no swearing and no gore, but really how how far could you go those and did you encounter any other limitations? Like maybe the story couldn’t be too dark?
Django Wexler: If there are special rules, nobody ever told me about them! Honestly, I didn’t think about it that much while I was writing it. I made a few decisions at the outset to keep things easy – a single point of view in a simple third-person past, no fancy mucking about with experimental narrative structure – and that helped keep the story on a pretty straightforward path. Other than that, I hoped that my editor would let me know if I’d done anything wrong! She did end up flagging a few things, mostly some vocabulary that was a little too much of a stretch, but on the whole we changed remarkably little. (At least, for that reason. We did plenty of edits for other reasons!) Certainly nobody ever told me it couldn’t be dark. I loved dark fiction when I was that age, so I really couldn’t go any other direction.
Mogsy: Clearly you are a lover of cats! They feature prominently in The Forbidden Library, and one of the most memorable characters for me is the talking cat Ashes. I also know from Twitter that you are a proud owner of two kitties! Did your draw much from your experience with them when writing Ashes?
Django Wexler: Everything is better with cats! I definitely did draw from my own personal cats. Anyone who has spent time with cats knows that they have a wide variety of weird little behavioral tics – the head-butt, the tail slap, the standing-in-front-of-you-to-trip-you-on-the-stairs, and so on. While Ashes talks, I wanted to make sure he also felt like a cat in terms of his behavior, rather than a tiny cat-shaped human.
|Author’s cats: Sakaki and The Tomoes|
Mogsy: So in The Forbidden Library, people like Alice who are called “Readers” have the special power to enter books, defeat the creatures imprisoned inside and in doing so gain access to their abilities. Now, if you could do the same, with any book at all, what would it be?
Django Wexler: So, that’s a really tough question. The problem, which poor Alice has to deal with, is that you have to be able to defeat the creature inside the book in order to a) gain their powers and b) escape from the book at all! While I’d love to have the abilities of, say, Jonathon Stroud’s Bartimaeus, the chance of my beating him in a fight is pretty much nil. I would have to start with something really wimpy and work my way up. Maybe Terry Pratchett’s Bromeliad trilogy. I might be able to hold my own against people only a few inches high. (But what powers would they give me?)
Mogsy: Come on, I’m sure you can handle more than Nomes! But on that note, from Swarmers to a many-legged dragon, the book features a ton of very unique and unrestrainedly fantastical creatures. At the risk of sounding corny, but I just have to know, where do you get some of these wild but awesome ideas for them?
Django Wexler: It’s often hard to answer that question, of course. The rule I made going into the book was that I wasn’t going to use any “stock” fantasy creatures, in terms of dragons, elves, orcs or whatnot – it never sits well with me when everyone’s fantastic worlds all look kind of the same. So when I needed a creature of a familiar type, I put some thought into how I might be able to “twist” it a little, so that it would look or behave differently from the familiar presentation. So, for example, Vespidian is a fairy, but a very strange-looking and threatening one, rather than the twinkly, kindly things you might see elsewhere. (He also has the coloring of something poisonous, and his name is a reference to wasps!) The Dragon has no wings, so it looks very reptilian, but the multiple legs and horizontal rows of eyes are insectoid features to give it an alien touch.
|Comissioned art of the Dragon by Nicole Cardiff (http://www.artofnicolecardiff.com)|
Some things I can’t explain, though. The Swarm looks like a flock of little black Kiwi birds, but sharing a single mind and purpose, a bit like a colony of insects. No idea where that came from!
Mogsy: Speaking of pretty pictures…what was it like to work on a book with an illustrator? What was your reaction when you saw some of the art?
Django Wexler: I love love love having illustrators work with my stuff. It’s really an amazing feeling to see someone else’s view of what you’re describing, in spite of (or maybe because of) the fact that it doesn’t look like what you were picturing. It made me really happy when they told me we were going to have internal illustrations in The Forbidden Library, and the results I think are amazing. The best part is the UK edition has a DIFFERENT set of illustrations, so I get to see ANOTHER artist’s cool take on the characters and monsters! Double the fun! (I’m hoping to have all the art up in a gallery on my website around the time of the release.)
In terms of actually working with the illustrator, the book was finished long before the art was arranged, so I didn’t actually have much interaction. In a couple of places where my descriptions were a bit unclear, they asked me for clarifications, but otherwise it was a matter of seeing what he came up with based on the text. I did make a few comments for historical accuracy, though!
Mogsy: So in the last year you’ve published an epic fantasy novel, the first of an urban fantasy novella series, and now a middle grade novel. One of the most impressive things I’ve discovered by reading your books is your flexibility in writing and storytelling. Do you just go where your ideas take you, or are there genres you’ve always known you want to dive into?
|Publisher image from UK Edition|
Django Wexler: I think mostly the former. I get ideas (so many ideas – I have an “Idea File” that’s now like thirty pages long) and try to plot out a story that seems like it works, then think about what genre it is. Sometimes I know from the idea what that ought to be – I have some stuff I want to write that’s definitely YA, for example. But genre in general is something that should be looked at as descriptive rather than proscriptive: it should be a useful tool for helping readers talk about books, and booksellers organize them on shelves, rather than something authors should feel bound by. So basically, I do what seems fun!
Mogsy: Great to hear that! So to wrap things up then, what’s next for Django Wexler? What’s occupying your time these days, both writing or non-writing related? Any exciting projects you’re working on currently or in the near future that you’d like to share?
Django Wexler: It’s going to be kind of a crazy year for me. In addition to the release of The Forbidden Library, I’ve got my novella John Golden, Freelance Debugger out now, and then The Shadow Throne, sequel to The Thousand Names, releasing at the beginning of July. That also means a ton of cons, including a trip to England for LonCon in August! I’m very excited.
As far as future projects go, I’ve got some fun stuff coming up. So far this year I’ve been finishing up editing on The Shadow Throne and working on the sequel to The Forbidden Library, along with a bunch of short fiction projects that will turn up in various anthologies. One I can already talk about is the BLACKGUARDS anthology coming soon from Ragnarok Publications, in which I’ll have a new Shadow Campaigns story. Next on the list is the first draft of the third Shadow Campaigns book, which still needs a title. After that … probably Forbidden Library #3! Non-writing-wise it’s just the usual: video games (Diablo III!), miniature painting, and anime. I’ve been writing a column on the latter over on SF Signal at Lost in Animeland.
Thanks for having me on!