Online Edition: Fall 2011

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The Great Mystery of Writing

An Interview with Tim Wynne-Jones

 by Steve Bramucci

Tim Wynne-Jones is not easily encapsulated. In fact heís the perfect proof for Walt Whitmanís famous line, ďDo I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes.Ē He has written adult thrillers and songs for the Jim Henson TV show Fraggle Rock; he has also fronted a band in which his instrument was an electric baseball bat. The only easily definable thread running through his incredibly diverse body of work (radio-plays, an opera libretto, etc.) is that the man loves to tell stories. And that heís quite good at it. He was recently awarded the Boston Globe-Horn Book Award for his latest young adult novel, Blink & Caution (Candlewick Press, $16.99), and received the same honor in 1995 for his story collection Some of the Kinder Planets (Puffin, 1996). Heís won The Governor Generalís Award for childrenís literature twice and heís Canadaís nominee for the 2012 Hans Christian Andersen Award.

I met with Wynne-Jones a few weeks after the Horn Book announcement to talk about his process, his eclectic taste, and Blink & Caution. The book follows two teens, in separate narratives that eventually intersect, as they get drawn into a kidnapping conspiracy. The story catapults off the page—it is, in the strictest sense, a thriller—but just below the surface, the reader is never able to ignore the humanity that Wynne-Jones pours into his title characters. One of the two narratives uses a second-person point-of-view to unfold the story of Blink, a street kid surviving off room-service scraps. However, the device never feels staged or contrived. Like so much of the authorís writing, it feels natural—as if the man himself, his eyes filled with excitement, sat down next to you and began, ďLet me tell you a story . . .Ē

SB: Letís start with the book. In your title characters, Blink and Caution, youíve created two people who have a lot of hard edges, yet you handle them with a tremendous amount of care and delicacy. How did you get to know these two teenagers?

TW-J: First of all, with Blink, Iíve always been interested in street people. My father-in-law ended up homeless—he came from a rich family, he was Stanford educated but he got hooked on drugs and eventually became a street person. When I first met him, I thought to myself ďHow does that happen?Ē Then it occurred to me what everyone should know anyway, which is: every street person comes from somewhere. They all have a story. That was something Iíd thought about for a long time. Then a few years ago I was in Washington D.C., put up at a very nice hotel, and I was coming out of the doors and I saw this street kid staring up at the building. I wanted to go up to him and say, ďThereís so much food in there.Ē But I knew that he could never get past the door. Of course there are always grubby kids in nice hotels—but theyíre grubby kids whose parents are staying at the hotel and nobody looks twice at them because they know they belong. That was the seed of the idea: I wanted to rescue that kid outside the hotel but I knew that the only way he could get rescued was to fall into a pit first.

With Caution, a friend of mine was killed by his younger brother in a freak shooting accident. Iíve always thought about the younger brother and wondered how you can ever move on from that. So the book became about these two people living through their personal hells and, at some point, finding each other.

SB: It was fascinating to see the way that you handled them, because we sense all along that whoever is telling the story hopes they might be saved. Are you hesitant to let your audience give up on these so-called ďlost youthĒ?

TW-J: Iím not religious, but I believe that we all get chances to turn things around and that nobody is irredeemably lost. Of course, you have to go through shit to get to that place where you can begin to put things into perspective. Thatís why I write. More specifically, I write because I love mysteries. Every book I write is a mystery in some sense because I love the adventure of solving the riddles it creates. But I want the adventure to lead somewhere and I want the solution to be some form of redemption. Iím interested in how any of us makes sense of this thing we do called living.

SB: One of the two voices in this novel is written in second person, and youíve asserted that this was not just an experiment. Where did that second-person voice come from?

TW-J: The thing with me is I canít start a novel until I have the first scene, and even then I still canít start until I have the opening sentence in my head. In fact, I donít really sit down to get going until I have three or four sentences in a row. So one night Iím lying in bed, around four in the morning, and Iím not only lining up sentences in my head, Iím putting in the punctuation. Itís no use trying to sleep any longer because clearly I should just get up and start writing. I start typing away, and Iíve typed three pages and by now the coffee is kicking in and Iím finally awake enough to notice that itís in second person and then to ask, ďHmm . . . what is that about?Ē That might sound coy, but itís absolutely true. I honestly didnít think about it. Finally, I get to about six pages and suddenly realize that I know whoís talking to Blink. Now Iím in control, because this second-person narrator is not just the author talking, itís a specific person. Itís not important to know who this is—there is a giveaway in the last chapter but to hammer the fact home would add an element that I didnít really want to add. Itís not important, but itís as if this person is in Blinkís head and knowing who that person was made the second person very clear for me.

SB: The way that you experiment in the book—dancing between second person and third, alternating viewpoints in an organic way rather than chapter by chapter—shows a certain confidence that a lot of young authors donít have. Is this a book that you couldnít have written until now?

TW-J: Iím a musician so sometimes I find it easier to find examples in music. I can remember a band I was playing in and we had this drummer, who wasnít flashy but he was very secure. If youíre a singer, which I am, a secure drummer is the one you depend on. I remember watching him play something Iíd heard a million times, and I remember it looked like he was going to hit the cymbal and then suddenly he didnít. He did something else. I remember talking to him at the break and I said to him, ďThat was so cool. I watched you go for the cymbal and then in a split second you went in another direction instead.Ē And he just said, ďYeah . . . Thatís taken a whole career to get to.Ē

When you get to know your instrument well enough you donít have to follow the obvious paths anymore. I used to try to write stylistically and thereís nothing quite so boring as writing that is trying hard for a certain effect. It has to come naturally. To go back to music, playing stylishly can produce something beautiful—but you want the raw energy too. You want both. I want to be Johnny Rotten on the page.

SB: The great thing about this piece is that for all the technique, itís never overly precious or forcibly stylized. It has an incredible sense of urgency.

TW-J: Good, Iím glad you feel that, because I want it to be constantly surprising. Jane Yolen once said, ďFiction is reality surprised.Ē I need that. For my own sake, I need to surprise myself. A lot of the surprises come from action—I donít mean like Batman and Robin, I mean that the way you learn and discover things as a kid is through action. Every teenager to some degree is a kinetic learner. I tend to think that no scene can resolve itself without action. So you put these people out there and let them collide. A scene without some sort of collision can be incredibly dull.

SB: Youíre the epitome of versatile—youíve written songs, radio plays, picture books and novels for kids, teens and adults. Is it simply a matter of sitting down to write and seeing what comes out?

TW-J: Yes, absolutely. The funniest example of that is that I started writing a picture book in the mid ’80s and it was incredibly morose. I donít know what made me think it was a picture book but I stuck to it, got it in the size of a picture book, then never sent it to anybody. But eventually it became my third novel for adults, Fastyngange. I think an idea comes to you and you alight on whatever method can help you get it out in the open. Sometimes you make terrible mistakes, like the example I just gave, but eventually you find the right path for each story. An idea comes to you and you have to figure out where it sits.

SB: What does your process look like? How is your writing day structured?

TW-J: When Iím not working Iím much freer. Iím wandering around, keeping my eyes open. Iím a detective looking for clues. Iíll have several ideas in my head at any time, but I donít know which one will catch. As I get nearer to starting, thereís always a moment where I get out of bed (because thatís when Iím at my best) and say: ďDo I have to do this? Because what Iím going to do now is going to take at least a year. And itís going to be hard work . . . Or should I just get some sleep?Ē If I do get up and write that first scene or chapter, I know I can finish it. Once Iím into it, I get through the first draft as fast as I can, sometimes as little as five weeks. Once thatís done I get to go back and see what I can make out of it. Thatís when I really get to write. When I sit down to write the second draft, to really finally carve out this block of marble, Iím very structured and regimented. I get up early, go through and rewrite a chapter. Suddenly you know where you want to go and you get to be involved in the process of problem solving.

SB: Youíre a beloved teacher [at Vermont College of Fine Arts] and you also write criticism and essays on craft. Has the teaching and the critical work that you do started to have a noticeable affect on your work?

TW-J: It certainly does. The biggest change in my life came when I came to VCFA. M. T. Anderson invited me to teach and I thanked him then turned him down. Coincidentally it was also a period where I was writing like shit. I wrote two entire books that were never published and arenít even worth looking at. So I started to think, ďMaybe Iíve had my at bat . . . and itís been great, but it looks like this is the end of my run. And if thatís the case, maybe I ought to teach, because I do have some knowledge that is useful.Ē So I phoned Tobin [M. T. Anderson] back and said, ďYou know what, do you still have that job?Ē I started teaching because I thought I could help some rookies sweeten their swings, but immediately I was thrown back into examining my own work. I have definitely had the experience of sending back work to a student and getting work back from my own editor the same day with advice echoing the notes Iíve just given. Thatís why on my website I have my eleven tips for writers. Those come out of pitfalls that we as writers are constantly and repeatedly falling into. It never comes easy. At this point in my career maybe I can just deal with things better or faster when they go bad.

As for the magazine work, like my work in The Horn Book, I can write a draft of a novel faster than I can write an eight-page essay. Itís a damn struggle. But I learn so much from doing it.

SB: Youíre a very humble guy, but youíve also won this yearís Boston Globe-Horn Book Award, and youíve been similarly lauded throughout your career—it must feel pretty satisfying, right?

TW-J: Oh, it feels fantastic. When I wrote Some of the Kinder Planets, which I also won the Horn Book Award for, the best part was that it was the book where I really feel I found my voice. As for humility, itís easy to stay humble when one has those books out there, those two books that I mentioned before, that no one wants to publish. You just have to show up and write the best you can write.

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