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Author Tom McNeal MAG
Rarely does a book’s title truly capture the enchantment of its readers. Yet in his novel, Far Far Away, Tom McNeal does just that: he guides his readers on an adventure far, far away from the limitations of reality and into the small town of Never Ever Better. In the company of a ghost and his spunky friend Ginger, Jeremy Johnson Johnson goes on a fairy-tale adventure full of love, deception and mystery.
Far Far Away is a magical book about a boy who talks to a ghost, exploring themes of terror, loneliness, and hope. What inspired you to write it?
I always enjoyed fairy tales for the way they fulfill your fondest wishes after putting you in the worst possible predicament. You’re killed and brought back to life, for example, or you’re the generous simpleton who becomes a king. Often when reading some account online or in the newspaper (Elizabeth Smart comes to mind), I’d think, That’s as strange as any fairy tale. This got me thinking about writing a modern version of that genre. But the characters in most tales are flat, almost stereotypes, which is not at all what’s needed to bear the burden of a novel.
So I began to think of telling the story from the point of view of a ghost. In researching fairy tales, I fell into reading about the Grimm Brothers, and the circumstances of their story were fascinating to me – Jacob and Wilhelm united throughout their lives, working together, Jacob living with Wilhelm even after Wilhelm became a husband and father, the awful death of Jacob’s young nephew (and namesake). Jacob outlived his younger brother, and was the more rigid of the two. The more I read about him, the more curmudgeonly yet sympathetic he seemed, and I began to think of him as the right conduit for the story. And so, before very long, Jacob Grimm became my ghost.
The characters are complex. For example, you have Ginger Boultinghouse – a cheeky, intelligent, persistent girl who just can’t seem to stay away from trouble – and your main character Jeremy Johnson Johnson who goes through life-changing experiences. Who was the most difficult to create? Which is your favorite and why?
Oddly, none of the characters was particularly difficult to write, though what I brought to each character, now that I think about it, was a little different. For Jeremy, I felt empathy. For Ginger, admiration. And it says something about me that I found it easy to identify with a stuffy 200-year-old ghost.
A favorite? While I was writing the book, I spent so much time with each that I grew pretty fond of them all.
In the book, one of the Brothers Grimm communicates with the main character. When you were young, were you interested in fairy tales and how did they influence you as a writer?
I was fascinated by the strangeness of fairy tales, by the often horrific circumstances (think “The Juniper Tree,” where a stepmother kills her stepson, cuts him into pieces and serves him for dinner) and was reassured by the restoration of normalcy at the end (the stepmother is killed, and the murdered stepson rises whole from her death-fire). The altered reality of it all is both fascinating and unsettling.
Have other writers influenced you?
I’ve always loved any book that could convince me I was entering a real world in the company of characters whose sensibilities engaged me. Which is another way of saying that the writer who influenced me was the writer of any book that I considered good, and so that would make a long list.
If you had to pick one life lesson for readers to come away with after reading Far Far Away, what would it be?
Toward the end, Jeremy promises that he will study hard in Jacob’s absence. Jacob responds, “Study, yes, but also enjoy.” Of course the complement of this is: Enjoy, yes, but also study. The balance between the two is the difficult thing.
What is your process when writing a book? Do you start with an idea for a plot? Do you develop your characters first? Do you know how the book will end before you start?
I begin with characters I think will make good company both for me and the reader. And I tend to know pretty specifically what the last scene will look like. The plot falls into place as I ask myself how the characters’ desires and willpower might be tested.
When did you know you wanted to be a writer and what advice do you give teens who want to write?
I always liked to write, but I didn’t nurture any real notions of becoming a writer until I took some poetry and fiction-writing classes in college. A summer course taught by Richard Ford was especially galvanizing.
For teens who want to write, I’d recommend to first, become a demon reader, and when you find a book you truly love, read it again to try to break down the ways the writer achieved his or her effects.
Second, don’t just write. Write and revise, then let it settle for a bit and revise again. The first writing class, the teacher ought to pass out erasers inscribed with “Revise and Conquer.”
Third, have a fallback plan. Go to college and give yourself a way to pay the bills and still have time to write. Uh-oh, just realized that I’m sounding a bit like Jacob Grimm.
Have you ever dealt with rejection and how did you cope with it? And how did you get your first book published?
Tons of rejection. Tons. For the longest time I wrote only short fiction. Occasionally magazines like The Atlantic and Redbook would buy something; more often they did not.
Finally I produced a series of linked stories and found a terrific agent, who in turn managed to interest an editor at Random House, who said that with very little work my stories could be turned into a novel. It took almost two years to create Goodnight, Nebraska.
How has being a teacher influenced you as a writer, particularly of young adult fiction?
I always liked to think of teaching more in terms of the word education, which comes from the Latin educare, meaning roughly “to lead, or draw from.” In other words, I don’t like the notion of a novel that’s meant to teach or preach. There’s nothing worse than propaganda novels, and you can see it a mile away when a writer starts dressing up political arguments and calling them characters. I want the readers – and this is true whether I’m writing for adults or young adults – to draw their own conclusions.
You and your wife, Laura McNeal, have co-authored quite a few books. How do you collaborate? Is this more challenging than writing alone?
Well, it’s not as hard as you might think. Laura and I tend to find common ground pretty easily. Our general method is that one of us writes a good-sized chunk and hands it over to the other who revises tentatively and writes the next chunk, and so forth. It’s pretty great sending your manuscript into the next room and then, a few months later, having it come back to you bigger and better.
As for the challenge of writing together or alone, it all boils down to the same thing: you have to sit in the chair, free yourself from distractions, and write down the words.
What are your writing habits? Do you set aside time to write every day? Are there rituals you follow?
When things are going well – let me pause here to try to remember when that was last – I write every single morning. No rituals. I just take my coffee to the desk, revise what I did the day before, and have at it. Do that enough days in a row and pretty soon you’ll have something.
What is your favorite book? What are you reading right now?
I have a soft spot for Great Expectations. It’s wonderful, and also the first book I truly loved. And I found out it was the first novel my father also liked. And not long ago our son, Sam, read and enjoyed it too.
At the moment I’m reading Swamplandia by Karen Russell. The last book that really knocked me out was Evelyn Waugh’s A Handful of Dust, which begins as something just slightly more acerbic than P. G. Wodehouse then morphs into tragedy. Really powerful.
On the YA front, I just finished a wonderful memoir called Rapture Practice by Aaron Hartzler and, in middle grade, I can’t wait to read Dana Reinhardt’s new book, Odessa Again.
What is your opinion on the future of books and bookstores? Do you see literature only being published electronically one day?
Everything evolves, and nothing’s evolving more quickly than the way we receive the written word. That said, I’ve always had the belief that books provide doors to other worlds, and that people will always need to walk through those doors. And nobody can more reliably steer you toward the doors that might interest you than a knowledgeable bookseller.