This resulted in two things: 1) I fell head-over-heels in love with an Artificial Intelligence named Cohen; and 2) I went to Chris Moriarty’s website to email her and tell her how much I loved Cohen and demand his phone number and ip address. It was then that I discovered that in addition to another Spin novel, she had (drumroll) a middle-grade fantasy coming out in October of 2011, The Inquisitor’s Apprentice.
This, of course, resulted in a whole lot more squealing at the time. Then, joy upon joy, I got my hands on an advance copy, and it was everything I could have hoped it would be. I remember tugging on at least three people’s sleeves at a kidlit drinks night around the time of BEA and waving the book delightedly in their faces. Since then, it has gotten starred reviews from Publisher’s Weekly and Kirkus, and I’m sure there are more of those on the way.
The Inquisitor’s Apprentice is set at the turn of the century-before-last in a reimagined New York in which magic is everywhere—but mostly illegal. At its center is Sacha, a Jewish boy with the ability to see the emanations that are used to perform magic. This ability brings him to the attention of the NYPD Inquisitor’s Office, the division tasked with preventing magical crime. There, working under Inquisitor Maximilian Wolf with the other new apprentice, Lily Astral (of the fabulously wealthy Astral family), his first assignment is to help track down a would-be assassin who’s after Thomas Edison. Edison’s new etherograph does what Sacha can do naturally: spot etheric force. It has the potential to aid organizations like the Inquisitor’s Office—or start an all-out, quite literal, witch hunt. And somewhere at the center of it all is James Pierpont Morgaunt, one of the greatest of the Wall Street wizards.
So, without further ado, we are so excited to have Chris Moriarty with us today to discuss The Inquisitor’s Apprentice here at the Inkpot. I’ve taken the liberty of inviting my husband Nathan to join us for this interview, since I owe my particular fangirldom to the fact of his being a Chris Moriarty fanboy.
Kate Milford: Hi, Chris, and welcome! In case it wasn’t clear from my giant preamble, I absolutely adored The Inquisitor’s Apprentice. What inspired the move to writing for younger readers, and this story in particular? How did you find the transition from adult sci-fi to middle-grade fantasy?
Chris Moriarty: Actually, there was no move ... mostly because I never set out to write for grownups! When I started writing I was teaching K-8 art class in an inner city school, and I wanted to grow up to be the next Maurice Sendak. That obviously didn’t happen! But at some point along the way, I started writing books without pictures, mostly science fiction and fantasy. The first book I actually sold happened to be Spin State ... so suddenly I was a ‘science fiction’ writer. But the truth is I’m also a dyed-in-the-wool fantasy geek. I spent half my childhood buried in the kid’s section of the library reading everything I could get my hands on by Lloyd Alexander and Diana Wynne Jones and Susan Cooper and Ursula K. LeGuin’s Earthsea books. And though I probably shouldn’t admit it in public, I was one of those alarming children who memorized most of Tolkien and could actually write elvish. So it was really just a matter of time until that strand of my writer’s DNA showed up in my published writing.
Still, the transition from writing for grownups to writing for kids was an amazing learning experience. Writing for kids demands a level of discipline and focus that far exceeds what you need to write a good book for grownups. You can’t afford to waffle or waste words or wander around figuring out where you’re going with the story. You just don’t have room for anything that doesn’t pull its weight. So, yes, I learned a huge amount about the writing craft in the process of writing and revising my first middle grade novel.
KM: I keep telling adults this is why they should be reading middle-grade books. Kids won’t stand for weak storytelling.
Nathan Milford: The experiences of different Jewish cultural groups play significant roles in each of your books. Can you talk a little bit about this, and how it figures into the world and events of The Inquisitor’s Apprentice?
Chris: Judaism is definitely an ongoing theme in my books ... albeit one that’s probably personal enough that I’m the last person to be able to accurately assess it! In my science fiction books, the Jewish themes evolved very organically, and weren’t always something I was totally conscious of, at least in the early drafts. Though obviously when you find yourself halfway through a novel draft and writing a lengthy explanation of the halakhic status of artificial intelligence there is inevitably a little voice in your head that starts to ask is this a Jewish thing?
But The Inquisitor’s Apprentice was different. I started writing it because I wanted my son to be able to read a fantasy series about a Jewish boy wizard. So the fact of Sacha’s Jewishness was central from the very start. And it was a story where the Jewish-American experience was the bedrock of everything from the choice of historical setting, to the magical system, to the nature of the cosmic struggle between good and evil.
As for the portrayal of different cultural groups ... well, the main Jewish characters in my science fiction books are mostly post-human versions of the people I grew up around: people who might have a ‘hyphenated’ ethnic identity or an ambivalent relationship to organized religion, but basically when the right-wing commentators start ranting about ‘secular Jews destroying America,’ sooner or later someone’s always going to say, “Yippee! We’re on TV!” Or ... um ... slightly less polite words to that effect.
So in a way those earlier books were easy: just write what you know. But in The Inquisitor’s Apprentice I needed to take that family back three generations and figure out how to write about them in a way that would work both for readers with a deep knowledge of Judaism and for readers who only know what they’ve gleaned from watching Seinfeld. And that was hard! Frankly, it’s impossible. But I hope I at least managed to show some of the cultural and intellectual breadth of the Jewish experience in America. And I really tried to show a family like many real life families on the Lower East Side in that time: one where different family members had radically different ideas of what it meant to be Jewish in America, and where questions about assimilation, cultural identity, and the role of religion in life formed a sort of running argument around the kitchen table ... complete, of course, with free-floating mockery and ridicule of your nearest and dearest. Because after all isn’t that what family’s for?
KM: Well, free-floating mockery and ridicule is definitely the rule in our household.
NM: No comment. Something we’ve enjoyed a lot about both The Inquisitor's Apprentice and your adult books is the way you incorporate concerns of politics, class, and religion, and how they provide the fuel for the great happenings that take place. Can you talk a little bit about how you approached this for younger readers?
Chris: That was a huge part of the challenge of writing this book: talking to kids about politics. And specifically talking to them about how Jewish immigrants on the Lower East Side transformed traditional ideas of tikkun olam into a broad vision of political action that profoundly shaped American history in the 20th century. Partly this is because I think it’s an important chapter in our history, and one that has a lot to teach us about responding with grace and generosity to the challenges America faces today. But also it was because a book about being Jewish in America that didn’t talk about social action ... wouldn’t actually be a book about being Jewish in America. And it would validate the political pundits who call people like Jon Stewart or the lawyers at the Southern Poverty Law Center ‘secular Jews’ as if to imply that if they’d just get more religion, that would be the end of all this annoying stuff about raising taxes on billionaires and fighting racism and religious intolerance. I mean what planet do these people live on? At some point you just have to shake your head and wonder if they’ve ever been to a Passover Seder.
Of course this means that the NYPD Inquisitor books are almost by definition pushing the envelope of what you can do in a middle grade fantasy. They run eighty to ninety thousand words instead of the usual fifty thousand, which pretty much makes them the middle grade equivalent of Big Fat Fantasy Books. They’re historical novels with substantive mystery plots. And they have a Jewish main character, which means you need to do much more worldbuilding than you would in order to get across the culture and family life of the typical ‘non-practicing default Christian protagonist.’ And they present younger readers with ideas about American history, the immigrant experience, and the challenge of being authentically religious in a changing, fluid, multi-cultural society that ... well, honestly, if you turn on the evening news on any given night I think you’ll see that many adults find some of these ideas too complex for comfort.
So to do all that in a readable middle grade package? Sheesh! We started out with an early draft of an insanely humongous single book that included both the Edison-Houdini mystery and the story of the Industrial Witches of the World strike at the Pentacle Shirtwaist Factory. Then we split that into a first book about Edison and Houdini and a second book (which I’m just finishing now) about the Pentacle strike. Then we cut, cut, cut, and cut some more. So The Inquisitor’s Apprentice as actually published is the tip of a massive iceberg. And whether we chose the right stuff to keep and the right stuff to throw threw away ... fegh! You could go crazy worrying about that!
That said, middle grade fantasy is a complicated genre that can’t really be boiled down to a simple measure of age group or reading level. There are middle grade books that are geared to the youngest readers in the age group, and middle grade books that are at least as demanding of readers as grownup fantasy. This is partly because readers in that age group are really complicated and unpredictable. When you ask middle school kids about what they’re actually reading, you often get back lists of books like one I got from a ten year old who had recently enjoyed Milo and the Phantom Toll Booth, several well-known superhero comic books, Jane Eyre, and The Lord of the Rings. That’s a reading list that spans a mind-boggling range of reading ability as well as subject matter. So how do you get from that to any clear idea of “age appropriate books” for middle grade readers?
And then of course there are the running debates about whether specific middle grade books even are middle grade. Is Philip Pullman’s The Golden Compass middle grade or YA? It’s been classed as both and bookstores are all over the map about where to shelve it. And what about the later Harry Potter books? Well, they’re shelved with middle grade, and every librarian I’ve ever talked to about them says that 9 olds routinely come in, take out the first Harry Potter book, and rip through the whole series in a matter of weeks. But the later books in that series are big, dark, complicated stories that would never be published as middle grade if they weren’t part of a larger series that matures with the main character.
So when you deal with complex themes in a middle grade book there will always be questions about whether the book is still ‘appropriate’ for kids. I think that’s just grownups underestimating kids. Some 9 to 12 readers may not have the vocabulary or reading speed of some adult readers (though obviously that’s a matter of averages). But most kids are are at least as comfortable with complex characters and ethical problems as grownups are. And on the up side, kids are much more willing to grapple with big ethical or moral questions in their fiction. In fact, the best definition of middle grade I’ve ever heard is that it’s “books written for kids who are still young enough to think they can change the world.” That definition still works for me at forty. And if I ever “grow up” enough to stop believing I can change the world, someone please put me out of my misery!
KM: That’s a fantastic description of middle grade, and I’m completely in agreement with you about the tendency of grownups to underestimate young readers. On that topic, this would be a tremendously great book for parents to read with their kids. It would open up some wonderful discussions.
Shifting topics a bit, how did you approach building your world? It’s rich with detail, but there are some notable, carefully-chosen departures from the historical record. How did you make those choices?
Chris: Heh heh! Funny you should ask! Those ‘departures from the historical record’ were the subject of more copy edit emails than any other single thing about The Inquisitor’s Apprentice. One of the huge challenges of the book was that we were trying to present not so much a specific moment in history but the experience of a whole generation of Jewish immigrants who passed through the Lower East Side between about 1880 and 1930. So we had to figure out how to evoke a sense of time and place for readers that would match up with the larger Jewish experience, and the larger themes in American history, we wanted to talk about.
And then there’s the political side of the story. I mean, I hope I’m not committing a plot spoiler here, but I figure that most people can sort of grasp intuitively that a fantasy novel in which Robber Barons crush labor unions while Wall Street Wizards run the stock market and poor magic-workers struggle to pay their rent is ... um ... not completely unrelated to real world events in the here and now?
This might be the first time any children’s book writer has ever cited people like Howard Zinn, Paul Krugman, Robert Reich, and Fareed Zakaria as research sources, but their thinking was hugely important to me. They made me realize that though people talk about the Gilded Age, the 1920s, and the Great Depression as if you can separate them into hermetically sealed compartments, you really have to look at the early 20th century as a whole if you want to examine the underlying historical trends and see the parallels with the America’s Second Gilded Age.
KM: Absolutely true. And the way we learn about history in school—or the way I learned it, anyway—is in these little chunks. It’s easy to miss the cause and effect that way, and I do think that can prevent one from being able to draw parallels between different periods in history. Makes it easy to miss opportunities where we could, perhaps, stop ourselves from repeating the mistakes of the past.
Chris: So a lot of the ‘carefully chosen’ alterations you noticed were aimed at creating a blended historical setting that would evoke all three time periods and let us talk about the political and economic trends that link them -- and that have once again come to dominate America today. Even the illustrations were geared toward creating that blended feel; we purposely chose Mark Geyer as the illustrator not just because he is incredibly talented (which he is), but because he had a rare combination of the technical ability to evoke the Gilded Age with intricate pen-and-ink drawings while still keeping the gritty, Depression-era feel he brought to his illustrations of Stephen King’s The Green Mile.
And then of course there were the anachronisms that we put in just for fun. Because, come on, there was no way I was going to not put Meyer Minsky and Magic, Inc. in the book!
KM: Same question for historical figures? How much freedom do you give yourself to re-imagine them?
Chris: It really varied with each character, and to some extent their names reflect that variation. I wrote the first few drafts of The Inquisitor’s Apprentice mostly on a gut feeling about where I wanted to change character names. And then in the editing process we had to go back and decide for each and every historical figure whether we wanted to change their name or not. One of our big rules was that if we made someone look more evil than they were in real life, we changed their name. Same thing for real historical figures who were major characters in the book so we knew we were going to have to rewrite their life stories to fit the plot. So Thomas Edison got to keep his name because he was a relatively minor character who we were careful not to make look like more of a schmuck than he really was. Same for Teddy Roosevelt and Harry Houdini, two minor characters who both get very sympathetic portrayals. But J. P. Morgan and Belle Da Costa Greene obviously needed name changes since they are both major characters ... though this statement should in no way be construed as constituting a definitive statement regarding their ultimate goodness or evilness! Like they say on Wall Street, past performance is no guarantee of future results.
In fact, the only major character in the series who kept a historical name is Philip Payton. And in his case, that’s because the character in the book is actually the son of the real Philip Payton who founded the Afro-American Realty Company. The story of the Payton family’s move to Harlem is going to be at the center of book three in the series. And of course the real historical Philip Payton will show up in that book. But since the story will be told from the kids’ point of view the focus will be on the imaginary character of Philip Payton, Jr.
KM: One of the things I love about this book is the presence of two distinct and very different malevolent presences, in Morgaunt and the dybbuk. Nathan has a theory that your villains in general derive their awfulness from being superb manipulators, which he thinks is one of the scarier abilities in the world, when put to evil uses. As readers who love great villains, we would love to hear about how you approach writing them.
Chris: I know I’m not the first writer to say this, but I honestly don’t set out to write villains. For me that’s the single biggest secret to writing a really good bad guy. I try to think of the villain as a powerful, intelligent, committed person who strongly disagrees with the hero about the basic moral question at the heart of the story. And I try to give the villain a chance to articulate why he disagrees. Even if I think he’s wrong. Especially if I think he’s wrong. It’s easy to build an imaginary world with a bright line separating Good from Evil. And lots of people do that, not just in books but in real life too. It’s harder -- but I think a lot more honest -- to admit that usually being a good person means trying to do the right thing in a world where you can never fully predict the consequences of your actions and it’s often hard to even figure out what the right thing really is.
In some ways I think that’s the essence of what a great villain does: he offers a vision of the world that is completely opposed to the hero’s vision, but so compelling that it puts a seed of doubt in the hero’s mind about whether he really is doing the right thing or not. If there’s never a moment in a book where you listen to the bad guy and think ‘Well, you know, he kinda has a point there....” then I don’t think the writer has really given the villain the emotional and intellectual depth to be a true antagonist.
Sometimes in The Inquisitor’s Apprentice it was pretty hard to do that and still remain relatively faithful to the underlying historical characters. Thomas Edison, for instance, was so virulently anti-semitic, and so dishonest in his business dealings, and so incredibly unpleasant to practically everybody, that ... well, there were times when I had to make him nicer than he really was or he would have been a completely unconvincing fictional character.
J. P. Morgan, on the other hand, is a writer’s dream. He was a tremendously complex, enigmatic, and brilliant man, and one who contributed things of real value to America. He largely built America’s modern financial and banking system, which though it has not been performing satisfactorily of late, does have a lot going for it. He viewed this as his life’s work, and staunchly defended the Wall Street of his day against the same obsession with short-term profits that brought us the Crash of 2008. In fact, he’s almost the best case you could make for a vision of America that stretches from Alexander Hamilton to people like Alan Greenspan: a vision of a republic run by an intellectual and business elite who supposedly can manage the economy in more farsighted and efficient ways than the ignorant plebes.
Obviously this isn’t my vision of a desirable future. But if any single American since Alexander Hamilton managed to stand for that vision without ending up looking like a morally bankrupt hypocrite, it would have to be J. P. Morgan. And his personal life was fascinating too. Among other things, Morgan employed African-American art historian Belle Da Costa Greene as the curator of the Morgan Library. Rumors about Belle Greene’s race swirled around her throughout her life, and her enemies were only too happy to pass those rumors on to Morgan. But he just shrugged and ignored them. And Belle’s letters give a picture of a powerful intellectual and emotional bond between two formidable people that lasted throughout the final decades of Morgan’s life. In fact, Greene wrote what may be the best epitaph Morgan ever had, when she told a friend he was a man who “aimed always to be a builder--not a wrecker in the world of things.” What a huge gift for a writer to have such a complex and intelligent character to hang your villain on!
KM: Although this book isn’t advertised as the beginning of a series, it ends with a pretty significant cliff-hanger. What’s next for you? When can we expect to see Sacha again?
Chris: You can expect to see him this time next year! I’m just now finishing book two in the series. Book two is basically the second part of the monster book that turned into books one and two of the series. It’s where I tell the story of how the Industrial Witches of the World organize their strike at the Pentacle Shirtwaist Factory. And it’s where the payoff happens on a lot of the more overtly political themes that were introduced in The Inquisitor’s Apprentice.
KM: Oh, thank goodness! Except, of course, the waiting until next year part.
Chris: I have to say it’s been interesting working on the book this week while watching the Occupy Wall Street saga unfold! Here I am writing about Sacha’s sister Bekah going to jail with the Industrial Witches of the World to stand up for free speech and bring down the oligarchy ... and suddenly the same real-world IWW history that I’m basing my story on is repeating itself a century later. Teenagers and college kids are getting thrown in jail for exercising their free speech rights. Cops are arresting them. And IWW organizers are preaching in the jail cells. Word to the NYPD: I know it’s been a while now, but in case you’ve forgotten this critical lesson: Do not throw Wobblies in jail. All they do when they get there is make more Wobblies!
That’s really the single overarching theme of the NYPD Inquisitor books: that kids can change the world. Fourteen and fifteen year olds were the backbone of the Triangle Strike of 1909. Student activists were at the heart of the union-building movement of the 1930s, and child workers were on the front lines of the most violent strikes (little known fact: we only abolished child labor in 1938). Eight year olds changed history when they marched with Martin Luther King in Selma and faced down police dogs and fire hoses. Kids have changed America again and again and again. And every time they’ve done it a whole lot of grownups have wasted a whole lot of breath criticizing them for being naive or disorganized or dressing like a bunch of crazy hippies. Though of course in 1909 the word was bohemian, and in 1930 it was bum....
Later on, those same grownups always claim they were with the kids from the beginning, but that’s a bunch of self-serving bunk. As Howard Zinn pointed out, history always gets rewritten to make it seem like change happened from the middle. We ignore the voices that were calling for every major change in America -- from abolition to women’s suffrage to ending segregation -- for decades before the rest of the country was willing to listen to them. Because, really, isn’t rewriting history easier than admitting you were wrong?
The reality is that kids taking to the streets to speak out against injustice and inequality have pushed America, time and again, to live up to her values. And if you had to ask me, based on a sober reading of American history, who’s more likely to turn our country around right now: the ‘Serious People’ with their well-polished talking points or the ‘disorganized’ kids camping out on Wall Street? I pick the kids every time.
Which, basically, is why I write for kids. And why political writers from George Orwell to Cory Doctorow have always written for kids. Kids are the people who make change happen instead of just talking about it. So if you want to change the world and you’re not talking to kids ... you’re pretty much wasting your time.
KM: Heck yes! Anything else you’d like to talk about?
Chris: Uh ... right ... ‘cause you were thinking I hadn’t talked enough yet??!
KM: You keep talking, I’ll keep formatting. This is all fascinating stuff, and I love the idea that a book like this—especially fantasy, which I think a lot of not-usually-fantasy-readers dismiss as mere escapism—can both entertain the heck out of a reader and challenge him/her to think about the world we live in.
So there you go, friends! Go out immediately and hunt this book down. The official release date is October 4th, but I have it on good authority (namely the fact that I shelved some on Monday) that The Inquisitor’s Apprentice is in stock at certain independent bookstores already.
The NYPD Inquisitor books website is at www.inquisitorsapprentice.com, and you can visit Chris Moriarty’s blog at her general website, www.SFness.com. Additionally, she’ll be appearing at several events in NYC in October. More information to come at www.SFness.com/events.
Thanks again to Chris for stopping by, and for the beginning of a stellar new series.