Tad Williams and Deborah Beale on The Dragons of Ordinary Farm
This summer NYT Bestselling author Tad Williams teamed up with his wife, Deborah Beale, for The Dragons of Ordinary Farm, a wonderful fantasy novel aimed at ages 9 to 12. Tyler and Lucinda, sent to the farm of a distant relative, discover--to both their delight and sometimes their horror--that the farm is not “ordinary” at all. In fact, great-uncle Gideon has a menagerie of all manner of fantastical creatures. What else does the farm hide, and how could a vacation suddenly be full of all sorts of peril? This first volume supplies the solutions to some mysteries, while making readers anxious to read the second of a planned five-book series. Perfect summer reading for kids of all ages.
Deborah and Tad were kind enough to take time out of their busy schedules to answer a few questions for Omnivoracious about their collaboration...
Amazon.com: Is this the first time you've collaborated on fiction? How'd it come about?
Deborah: It came about through the messy confluence of everything in our lives. I sometimes say it's a long conversation between me and Tad.
Tad: We wanted to do something together. Since we were both interested in writing for younger readers, and the Ordinary Farm idea (in its earliest form) was floating around, it seemed like a good choice. Deborah was my publisher once, so we've been talking about books and writing as long as we've known each other. Actually collaborating on something seemed a logical next step.
Amazon.com: Can you describe the process of collaboration? How did you divide up the writing and revision?
Deborah: The process at the moment is, I do first draft, Tad rewrites, we then have a bunch of polishing to do and issues to resolve, and somewhere after that it gets sent to our agent.
Tad: Deb's leaving out the part where we brainstorm the plots as we go. That's probably the most collaborative part, since neither of us has the reins in our hands (as we do when one of us is writing a draft) and so we can just let things fly and see where they land.
Amazon.com: What did you do when you disagreed with each other about something related to writing Dragons?
Deborah: Argue. Shout. Try and deal with it as quickly as possible so there aren't too many repercussions elsewhere.
Tad: Here's a telling difference between the two of us that comes out in collaboration: Deb's family doesn't shout for fun like mine does. In my family, any serious discussion sounds like a grease fire during dinner rush in an Italian restaurant -- lots of bellowing and hand-waving. So with Deb, I try to argue less...um...vociferously than is my wont.
Amazon.com: What was the hardest part about collaborating?
Deborah: The above.
Tad: For me, probably trying to slow down and explain my jumps of logic -- the sort of thing you don't have to explain when you're working by yourself (unless you're really weird and you don't trust your own judgment and you argue with yourself.) Because all I have to do when I'm writing on my own is feel the "ping" that says, "that fits!" and the problem is solved and I'm on to the next one. But you can't always convince someone else so quickly that you're right. (And, to be fair, you might not BE right when someone else's ideas are taken into account.)
Amazon.com: What did you learn from the experience?
Deborah: It's teaching me. It's moving me forward. I learned all kinds of new writerly skills.
Tad: She says that kind of like an Iraq war veteran, doesn't she? "That which doesn't kill me makes me stronger." I hope it hasn't been that bad. Me, I'm learning all kinds of stuff, including how to articulate and explain bits of my own process that I've never had to put into words before. Funny, isn't it, that a supremely descriptive process like writing is, at bottom so indescribable?
Amazon.com: One of my favorite parts of the novel involves Tyler and an unexpected bear. Do you guys have a part you're particularly fond of?
Deborah: My favorite part is Lucinda and Meseret together, towards the end of the novel. I always had that in mind as a climactic part of the story, and it turned out to be so. Tad took my first draft here and punched it up fabulously. I can see a clear bit of our process, so that adds to the appeal.
Tad: I'd say it's the Yrarbil-the backward library. When I was a kid, that would have creeped me out in the best possible way, the way that the mines of Moria did, or the weasels following in the forest in Wind in the Willows. I think the two most important things a reader of fantastic fiction can take away is the shiver of having found something unbelievably beautiful and the shiver of having encountered (and survived!) something strange and terrifying.
Amazon.com: Have you done any readings yet? What's the reaction been like? And do you both read from the book?
Deborah: There's a video of me reading from Ordinary Farm on You Tube. I was reading to small children and their moms, mostly. It was great--apart from the crying baby (!) it was a wonderful audience. They became so absorbed in the story. I suspect kids are the best audience anyway, but you'd better work hard to get 'em at the beginning.
Tad: Early on, when we had the first few chapters, I would read from them occasionally, and I always watched carefully to see where the audience, whether grown-ups or youngsters, reacted like kids should react to a kids' book, with wonder and delight. That's stayed with me, and so I always try to deliver less cleverness than I might for a purely adult audience, more pure excitement.
Amazon.com: Did you have any other books in mind when you wrote the novel? Like, things you'd read as kids that gave you a particular sense of adventure?
Deborah: Personally I'm inspired by [Tad's] Otherland. I often recall key scenes from Tad's fiction and go back to them imaginatively - what's interesting is how my subconscious suggests them to me for inspiration. I read lots of young adult and middle fiction--it's probably what I read most of in terms of fiction - and I think about them in terms of form, rather than ideas. Besides all that, I'm just trying to write from my gut.
Tad: I grew up on most of the great English children's fiction, more so than the American variety (except for the Oz books, which I doted on) and so there's a lot of (updated) E. Nesbit and similar influences. At the same time, of course, I have to keep reminding myself that most modern readers didn't grow up on these things, so I have to make sure we're writing modern books and not just updated versions of old favorites.
Amazon.com: What prior experience was of use in writing the book? What might be in any way autobiographical? (If you say the dragons, I'll...not believe you.)
Deborah: Being a teenager once upon a time is of great use! I think about my experiences and what I wanted to know back then, and I try and put that longing into the characters. I play on bits of myself for both the lead characters, Tyler and Lucinda, but they're not especially autobiographical, they're more about how to create a character then run with what that character brings.
Tad: I think being a kid is ALWAYS the best source for writing for kids, and the better you remember it, the better you'll do. (Some people are pure genius at it like Roddy Doyle and cartoonist and author Lynda Barry.) When I was a kid I went a few times to visit my great-aunt and great-uncle on the truly immense estate where they lived. (He was a chauffeur for an old, rich lady.) It was so big they had teams of gardeners on riding mowers just to keep the lawns mowed! There's probably some of that childhood wonder in it. And my mom grew up on California ranches, so there's probably a bit of that in there as well.
Amazon.com: Are you planning on any sequels?
Deborah: So far, four! Our German publishers want a five-book series, so that's what we're doing. Number two is A Witch At Ordinary Farm, and we'll be delivering that to Harper Collins not too long from now.
Tad: Ever since we started this version (there was an earlier, less-defined version before we knew the shape of the story) we've planned for five volumes. That will give us a chance to tell the whole story, including the REALLY wild parts coming up, and introduce all the characters, including the very, very wicked and awful Jackson Kingaree, who didn't even make it into the first volume except by name. So we're glad to have the space to tell the story properly--it gets BIG--and looking forward to showing the readers all the cool (and sometimes terrifying) things to be found at Ordinary Farm.