|James Preller, photo by Lisa Preller|
James Preller is the author of The Courage Test, a new novel for kids. His many other books include The Fall, Bystander, and the Jigsaw Jones mystery series. He lives in Delmar, New York.
Q: You wrote that you were inspired by Roald Dahl’s Danny the Champion of the World to focus on a father-son dynamic in The Courage Test. How would you describe the relationship between your character Will and his father?
A: Yes, I came late to the Dahl classic and was struck that here was a loving book about a boy’s relationship with his father -- not the kind of thing I’ve seen in many middle-grade children’s books. I found it liberating, as if Dahl had given me a written note of permission.
In The Courage Test, William Meriwether Miller is a 12-year-old with recently divorced parents. His father has moved out and moved on. So there’s tension there, and awkwardness; William feels abandoned, and he also feels love, of course, because it’s natural for us to love our fathers.
Q: Why did you decide to have the father and son follow the journey of Lewis and Clark, and how did you research the historical sections of the book?
A: Before I did any research, I had a basic familiarity with the expedition. My notion was that the experience of the trip would serve to teach William a few valuable lessons that would prepare him for. . . something.
I hadn’t figured out what that something was, specifically, but I had an idea that it might be some kind of parental illness -- a sick mother, a dying father. There had to be a reason why they were on that trip together.
As my research progressed, I was drawn deeper into the details of Lewis & Clark’s exploration. They journeyed bravely, innocently, arrogantly, intrepidly into “Parts Unknown,” as the maps at the time labeled it.
So I ended up telling two stories, the road trip between father and son, a trip that reflected and echoed the original journey of Lewis & Clark. Along the way, I dropped the idea of specific lessons, per se. That’s how writing often works for me. I think I’m headed in one direction, but end up somewhere else.
Q: What did you see as the right balance between the history and the present-day narrative as you were writing?
A: I was wary of “the info dump.” That is, we fall in love with our research and in our eagerness to share this incredible information, we spew too much information upon the hapless reader. It kills the story – and the story must be king.
My primary story had to be the present-day narrative involving father and son –- the people they meet along the way, the things they do, the places they go, the way their relationship develops. I wanted the historic detail to form a foundation for their story. It had to support it, serve it, but never overwhelm my main characters.
Q: What role do you see animals playing in the book?
A: Great question. There are three main animals in the book: bear, raptor, dog.
The bear serves as metaphor and literal danger. Metaphorically, it represents the dark, frightening truth that William must eventually confront; and literally, late in the book, he encounters a black bear and her cub on the Lolo Trail. Because sooner or later in life, we’ve all got to face the bear.
The raptors, one seen at the White Cliffs in the Missouri Breaks, and another later on the Lochsa River, represent the beauty of the natural world, soaring free, untouched by man. They also connect past to present, and link back to Will’s conversation with Ollie (of Nez Perce heritage) about bravery and courage.
The Newfoundland dog they adopt, Paco, is a direct stand-in for Seaman, the dog that Meriwether Lewis brought along on the trail.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I am finishing up the revisions for a middle-grade novel, Better Off Undead, that I began seven years ago. It started as a misfit story, in this case a boy who survives his own death only to be told that, well, he might as well go back to middle school.
I figured that “zombie” made him the ultimate outsider. But I didn’t feel satisfied writing just a zombie book, so the work stalled.
As time passed, I became increasingly interested in a host of environmental issues, “climate change” in particular, even attending a huge march down in NYC.
I kept looking at these young people today and felt the caretakers of the planet had failed them. At the same time, I didn’t believe that many of today’s young people have fully grasped the severity of the situation.
The book casts a wide net, sprawls and morphs into a mystery/thriller hybrid, and touches upon bees, bats, droughts, wild fires, makeover shows, corporate greed, consumerism, politics, bullying, and, yes, zombies. It’s the damnedest thing I’ve ever written. I’m glad that I can still surprise myself and consider it a good sign.
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: I’m best known for the Jigsaw Jones mystery series. There are 40 titles in all, more than 10 million books sold (mostly through Scholastic book clubs), but the books went distressingly out of print over the past several years.
Fortunately, I retained the rights and sold them to Macmillan; they are repackaging eight of the old titles and a yet-to-be-determined number of new books.
The Case from Outer Space will be out with four classic titles in the summer of 2017. It’s an exciting development in the course of a long career -- and I feel very grateful for it.
Thank you, Deborah, for reading The Courage Test, and for inviting me to your blog.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb