7QT Interview with Author John McNichol

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Join up with Seven Quick Takes Friday over at Jennifer’s Conversion Diary.

 Today I bring you the first time I’ve let my kids help me interview an author!  One of our favorite middle-grade books we’ve read in recent years is The King’s Gambit by John McNichol. Let’s meet John!

John McNichol and his new book.

 John McNichol was born in Toronto, Canada at the dawn of the swinging 70s…which likely explains why he is such a fan of the Big 80s. He lived the first eighteen years of his life in Toronto, leaving to attend college at Franciscan University of Steubenville in Ohio.
 College agreed with him in more ways than one. He received an excellent level of academic and spiritual formation at FUS, and credits it to this day with his ability to focus a life of faith onto creative pursuits. Most important, it was at FUS that John he met his American wife, and later lived as a legal resident in the United States since his graduation and wedding in 1992. John now lives in Vancouver, Washington, with his wife Jeanna, their seven children and The Dumbest Dog In The State Of Washington. John is a Middle School teacher by trade, and continues to pursue excellence in his vocation while writing steampunk-themed science fiction about his favorite authors and literary characters. He became a proud American citizen on September 19th, 2012. John’s first book, “The Tripods Attack,” was published by Sophia Press in March 2008. Part of a trilogy titled “The Young Chesterton Chronicles,” the second volume, “The Emperor of North America,” is now available from Bezalel Books. His novel for the 9-12 year old Market, “The King’s Gambit”, was published by Hillside in October of 2013. He is currently at work on the final volume of the YCC, “Where the Red Sands Fly.” John loves loaded pizzas, meaty lasagnas, killing 3-5 hours at a stretch at his local Barnes & Noble on the weekend and seeing fan art based on his works. He hates broccoli. Hates it. Still.

So now you know the basics.  Here come some details.  It was really exciting for me, both as a writer and as a mom of voracious readers (well, two out of three of them…) to interviewwith my kids someone whose work we knew before we got to interview him.  I hope you enjoy this interview as much as First Shift and I did!

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Q: This question is from the older member of my First Shift of Kids:  Where did you get the idea for The King’s Gambit? A: Initially, it came from an image that popped into my head during my daily drive to work. And that image, now that I think of it, had at least three or four sources: First: I’ve always loved reading adventures and creating new ones in my mind. [Going] to school in the mornings, I’d often knock around little fantasies in my head of fighting bad guys alongside Buck Rogers, Flash Gordon, and later fighting evil Martians who were trying to invade Narnia alongside King Peter and King Edmund, and in the process winning the hand of Queen Susan… Yeah, it was a long walk to school from my apartment building. I had a lot of spare time to think up story after story in my head Moreover, when I was growing up, the North York Public Library in Toronto (which is what I based the Library in The King’s Gambit on) was like a second home to me. If I had reason to believe that the bullies might bother me anywhere on that long walk home, I often found the Library was a safe place to wait them out. Reading books there transported me to different worlds and times. It could have been a dip in the shallow end of the mental pool with a Choose Your Own Adventure book, or something deeper like George McDonald’s The Princess and the Goblin. Walking home, I’d continue the stories and adventures in my head, figuring out Who Killed Harlowe Thrombey, or helping the character of Curdie in doing the bidding of the beautiful spirit princess. Second: I learned to play chess when I was about eleven years old, after I read a comic book in which the heroes of the Justice League of America fought some villain from space who used giant robots based on Chess pieces to do his dirty work. Years later as a teen, one of my favorite video games for the Commodore 64 computer was Archon, a Chess-type game where your chess-like pieces fight each other in a fantasy forest setting, complete with laser blasts, fireballs and a host of other cool special effects. To me, it was a wonderful melding of two things I’d learned to love- battles between fantastical creatures and games based on iron rules of logic and strategy. A third source was a story I heard about, but have not (as of yet) read called Inkheart, in which I’m told characters from books leap out and attack the young heroes. Back to me as an adult: Driving to work down highway 205, I was in-between finishing and editing the first draft of my sequel to The Tripods Attack! and an image jumped into my head: I was a young boy sitting and reading Choose Your Own Adventure book titled Who Killed Harlowe Thrombey in the Children’s Fiction section of the North York Public Library. Suddenly a medieval Black Knight on horseback burst out of the bookcase and began chasing the younger me through the stacks and into the auditorium where we used to watch movies and hear speakers talk. After this thought knocked about in my head for a while, I started asking other questions: Where did the knight come from? Why was it attacking? What did it want? If I was the boy, how could I escape?  Eventually I hit on the idea of another world where these attacking pieces would come from, a world where ideas became real and where actions there could have huge consequences here in our own world. Drawing on my own experiences of school, bullies, Chess, and other things, I had a great time building the world Edward King runs through in order to save his dad, as well as basing the characters on people in my circle of friends and beloved family members. Of course, the funny thing is the whole process took about a five minutes at most from the time I first thought about the black knight to finishing the end of the basic plot of the story, but it took years of built-up thoughts and experiences to come together at just the right time for me to turn them into a book.

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Q: This question is from the second member of my First Shift:  Why did you choose to be a writer? A: That’s a good one! For folks who like to write, that question usually gets a smile. It’s like asking a professional athlete why they chose to play sports instead of be an office worker. Writing is something I’ve always liked to do. Creative writing was my favorite subject as a child in school (sometimes the only subject I liked), and one of the few areas I found any consistent academic success in as a kid. So, to answer your question: I never really chose to be a writer. I just love to write and tell stories. I’m blessed to live in an age when one can share their stories with more people than ever before. If I wasn’t writing, I’d be talking. And if I wasn’t talking…well, I’d be thinking different stories non-stop.  Today, I make my living as a Middle School teacher at a wonderful Catholic school in the Portland, Oregon area. I only write part-time, but that’s probably a good thing for me. Teaching keeps me grounded, since it’s a profession that by its nature ensures you can’t take yourself too seriously.

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Q: Another from the elder of First Shift:  Do you consider TKG fantasy or science fiction? A: That’s a good question! I’d suggest it depends on how you define them. Personally, I define a Fantasy as involving building stories around ideas, events or things that we can now only wish were true in some fashion. Conversely, I say Science Fiction involves building stories around things that are true, or at least are remotely possible from a scientificstandpoint.  Thus, The Chronicles of Narnia is a fantasy series, since it involves magic, dwarves, talking animals, and a host of things that we only can wish could be true. But C.S. Lewis’ Space trilogy would be Science Fiction, since the idea of space-faring vessels, voyages to Mars and alien races are arguably possible.  But to answer your question: Since there’s a less-than-zero chance for a knight to burst out of the local children’s fiction section of your local library, I’d lean towards calling The King’s Gambit a fantasy. But a philosopher named Plato has suggested that our ideas for various things come from another place called the Realm of Ideas. Since our heroes in TKG travel there, you could say it’s a bit of sci-fi as well. Maybe it’s better labeled philosophical fiction?

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Q: AnOTHER from the elder:  Are you good at chess? A: Not really. I have a few strategies and tricks up my sleeve, but my sons beat me most of the time.  I am still fascinated by the game for many reasons, though. I’ve always been intrigued by how the best games mirror and prepare us for real-life. Chess as we know it today is modeled on medieval army combat in many significant ways. The ratio of pawns to knights, for example, was roughly the same in medieval armies, and the goal of medieval warfare was not the obliteration of your opponent’s forces but to corner him and leave him without options, just as when the King is checkmated. As a practicing member of the Catholic faith, I also can appreciate how the medieval world seemed to collectively fall in love with Mary the Mother of God, leading to the increased ability of the Queen in the game of chess, even though the game itself still turns on the fate of the King. Chess is also a game dependent completely on skill instead of luck, with the pieces relying on each other for defense and successful attacks. I try to illustrate that during the final scenes in The King’s Gambit as well.

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Q:Finally!  I get to ask a question!  Idea, research, editing, design…What was your favorite part of working on this project? What was your least favorite? A: My favorite part was and always is giving a voice to the stories that bounce around in my head, and working in people who are important to me as characters in my projects. For me, grades 7 and 8 at D’Arcy McGee Catholic School in Toronto from ’82-’84 were the best years of my school days, which is probably one reason I teach Middle School today. I enjoy revisiting my own school days through my characters, and bringing to life the thoughts and stories of my students. So, technically the mining in my head of all the conversations and experiences I had during this time could maybe be considered research?  Of course, it’s also fun working adults I know into the book as secondary characters. There are a number of folks I based characters on after they have helped me as consultants, such as Dr. DeOna Bridgeman and Mr. David McCarthy. I also was able to base the character of Edward’s mother on my own Mom as well as my wife, Jeanna. I’m going to cheat and write a 2nd part I like- can’t help myself, sorry… I’m from the Atari generation, and back then we saw the birth of ‘easter eggs’ in video games- surprise messages or graphics placed by game designers in video games for players to find. Today in the Internet age, authors do the same with trivia in their novels that the reader can go look up on ask.com or other places.  In my case, I had a lot of fun fitting in chess trivia into all the nooks and crannies of The King’s Gambit. Almost all the characters are named after important people or ideas in the world of chess, and I get feedback from readers surprised that this-or-that person or place was named after a chess grandmaster or a chess move. My least favorite part was and always will be editing. “Writing,” a friend told me a long time back “is easy. Editing is hard.” I’ve always got about a ton of thoughts I can put on paper without difficulty. But if I want anyone to share my vision and plunk money down to read my story, I have to make those thoughts flow well and keep my readers interested. And in the process, I sometimes have to chop out sections of the book I like but that may slow down the story or distract from the main plot.

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Setting, characters, plot, mood, tone… What would you describe as your greatest strength as a writer?  Conversely, if you could change one thing about your writing style, what would it be and why? I’ve been told one of my better strengths as a writer is my ear for dialogue and pacing. It’s reassuring when fans tell me I recreate well the adventure and angst of living in that twilight zone between childhood and adult life so many of us have to navigate. In truth, I remember well what it was like to be in middle school and high school. I still remember many of the conversations in my head from that era of my life, and bring them to my writing when applicable. Teaching teenagers for the past two decades has also taught me that the details of youth life and even slang haven’t changed all that much, really. Acceptance, achievement, finding a place in the world, and avoiding boredom, these and other themes work their way into my fiction because they were the things I and other young people were concerned about then, and still are today. We give different names to the dances and the steps may change, but the music and the beat remains the same for youth always. If I could change one thing about my writing, I’d be more correct on grammar and other language conventions the first time through. I’ll never forget when my editor sent me an email all in capital letters, shouting “BAD, BAD AUTHOR!” because of a particular punctuation-based goof-up I’d repeated dozens, maybe hundreds of times over the course of a 400-page manuscript. Oops.

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Q: Tell us about your other work, how we can find it (a. k. a. Give you our hard-earned cash), and tell us about any other projects we can expect from you in the future. A:  My main projects aside of The King’s Gambit have been books 1 and 2 of The Young Chesterton Chronicles, an adventure series featuring a fictionalized, teenaged version of GK Chesterton. In the first book, The Tripods Attack, young Gil Chesterton fights giant bloodsucking aliens from Mars and a conspiracy bent on world-domination with the help of his mentor, Father Brown, and his best friend, a young HG Wells. In the sequel, The Emperor of North America, Gilbert travels back to America to escape danger and foil the plans of a would-be dictator and con-man, all the while dodging steam-powered cowboys and the dangers of a floating city. I’m currently working on the third novel in the trilogy, Where the Red Sands Fly, in which Gilbert and co. travel to Mars for the final confrontation with the conspirators who wish to rule both worlds.  The first two novels have won the Catholic Writer’s Guild’s Seal of Approval, and can be found by clicking on the on the websites of my publishers: The Young Chesterton Chronicles, Book 1: The Tripods Attack! at Sophia Press, And the sequel, The Young Chesterton Chronicles, Book 2: The Emperor of North America at Bezalel Books. And, of course, The King’s Gambit, over at both Hillside Press and at Chesterton Press …or, if you want to save a few mouse clicks, you can just go to my Amazon page. ….Thank you Erin, for giving me this opportunity! Oh, thank YOU, John!  Tomato Pie readers, do go out and get John’s books and share them with your young’ns!

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