Max Unger’s life is dark in every possible way. An environmental cataclysm has empowered the High Echelon, a totalitarian regime that makes Big Brother look benign. He can’t go to school because he’s got a deadly sun allergy, and while his parents are at work he’s in the care of an evil-minded woman who can’t even cook. He has regular, mysterious injections that befuddle his mind. His dreams are nightmares.
Timid and lethargic by day, Max’s only source of comfort is sneaking out at night to visit a silver owl, part of a nearly extinct race featured in magical tales his beloved late grandmother used to tell him. At the owl tree one night, he meets Rose, a feisty, self-reliant girl who is everything he isn’t. Days later, both Max and his world are in more danger than even he could have dreamed—he can save his life only by finding out whether his grandmother’s tales were true.
That’s the set-up for THE OWL KEEPER, the Christine Brodien-Jones fantasy novel that hit the stores a month ago, published by Random House/Delacorte Press. This is Christine’s second novel—her first, THE DREAM KEEPERS, was originally published in 1992 and last year came out in paperback with Simon & Schuster. She and her husband, Peter, split their time among Gloucester, Massachusetts; Buenos Aires, Argentina; and Deer Isle, Maine. The couple has two grown sons.
Hi Christine—congratulations on the publication of THE OWL KEEPER! This book offers a combination of science fiction and fantasy, with environmental catastrophe and scary government lab experiments offset by ancient magic. What planted the seed for Max’s adventures, and what spurred you to pursue the idea?
I’ve always been drawn to the idea of people caught inside a future where things have gone horribly wrong. I grew up on books like 1984, THE DAY OF THE TRIFFIDS, BRAVE NEW WORLD, LORD OF THE FLIES and FARENHEIT 451. On the Beach, a 1950s film about the world after a nuclear explosion, also had a profound effect on me. These post-apocalyptic worlds were all so chillingly believable! I started writing THE OWL KEEPER in 2001, shortly after 9/11, when everything seemed bleak and there was a deep sense of hopelessness—not only among adults, but among kids too. I think, at the back of my mind, I wanted to write a story about hope.
Max appeared one night as I was falling asleep: the image of a boy walking through a dark forest. Nearby was a river with a path alongside it. All I knew was, the boy’s story would be a journey, and that this was the path he’d follow. The novel began with ancient magic and myths, and a world shaken by a calamity; as the story unfolded, more sci-fi elements began creeping in.
I was influenced by a New York Times article about children who are unable to tolerate ultraviolet light. I couldn’t stop wondering what their lives must be like. I also saw The Others, a spooky Gothic film about two children who are fatally allergic to sunlight. So, to make Max even more cut off from other kids, I decided to give him this strange condition.
The government of the High Echelon is based on my experience living in Spain, when the dictator Francisco Franco was in power. The military police, the Civil Guardia, seemed to be everywhere in their capes and shiny black hats. It was a very paranoid society; for instance, if you were with friends in a café, you had to be careful not to criticize the government, because someone might be listening.
Poor Max is downtrodden and confused when we first meet him, and comes more and more into his own as his world falls apart. Was that psychological journey something you planned from the start, or did it evolve as you wrote?
I’ve always viewed Max as an unlikely hero. He lives in a world without friends, without books, without light—a world where, if you don’t follow the rules, you could end up in Children’s Prison. And of course the adults around him are totally untrustworthy.
It was a challenge to transform Max from a weak, timid outsider to a boy who must become brave and summon up the power to battle dark forces. Faced with impossible circumstances, he sets off on a quest he doesn’t completely understand. As the story progressed, I began to discover Max’s hidden strengths. He’s fiercely protective of his owl and determined to keep his grandmother’s magical stories alive. And, as things go from bad to worse, he’s forced to take on more responsibility.
Your silver owls are truly magic. What made you choose owls for this role?
There’s something ethereal about owls, as if they’ve flown to earth from another world. They’re night creatures, and of course much of this book takes place in the night. Owls symbolize so many different things: wisdom, death, good fortune, magic, the ability to see what is hidden. Owls are also eerily beautiful. I loved the idea of owls with silver feathers and the process of creating a myth around them.
What kind of research, if any, did you do for The Owl Keeper? For instance, did you research the owls to make them ring true?
I researched owls—their habits, physical characteristics, hunting skills, behavior—but I didn’t get too scientific because Max’s silver owl is unique and in a category all her own. One fascinating fact about owls is the way they store undigested bones, plants, feathers and other materials internally, then expel them as owl pellets. I used this in the book.
Also I gathered information on children with the rare genetic disorder xeroderma pigmentosum, or X.P., that makes them unable to tolerate ultraviolet light.
You’ve created some horrifying characters and creatures in this book. The adults we meet early on are scary enough, but the skraeks! (I won’t spoil the fun by describing them.) What recesses of your nightmares did these images come from?
I’ve always loved monsters and weird creatures, ever since I was a kid checking under my bed to make sure there weren’t any lurking. H.P. Lovecraft’s monsters have influenced my writing, along with the creepy-crawlies in William Sleator’s sci-fi novels for young people, such as THE BEASTIES and THE BOXES.
Originally I used the term skanners for the skraeks, then decided it made them sound like copier machines, so after some research I chose the word skraek, because in Danish it means fear.
Have you been a writer all your life? What prompted you to write books for kids?
I wanted to be a writer from the age of seven, when I wrote my first short story, a ten-page fantasy called “Leo the Dragon.” My mom was my first agent, typing it up and sending it to children’s magazines. The library was around the corner from my house and I lived and breathed books. I was fortunate to have a dad who read me stories and the Sunday comics, a librarian aunt who sent me the classics, and teachers who encouraged me to write.
I studied journalism and for many years wrote short stories and newspaper/magazine articles. I found myself going in another direction when I began reading stories out loud to my two young sons, while at the same time taking a children's literature course in grad school. That’s when I rediscovered the astonishing world of children’s fiction and decided to write the kinds of books I’d loved as a child.
Tell us a little about your writing process. Where and when? Are you an outliner or a seat-of-the-pantser? How long did it take to draft THE OWL KEEPER, and what was the revision process like?
I’m a plodding, dreamy sort of writer who needs long unbroken stretches of time to write. When home, I sit at a Shaker desk that I bought in Vermont last winter, writing on my iMac. When I’m in Buenos Aires I use my netbook. If I’m not near a computer, I scribble down notes. During the week I write from early morning to late afternoon; weekends I catch up with the rest of my life.
I’ve always struggled with plots and endings. When I first started writing, I never outlined; instead I’d plunge into a novel without a thought for the ending. Nowadays I’m more organized: I do rough chapter outlines and character biographies and sometimes I sketch maps. THE OWL KEEPER went through extensive revisions, before and after it hit my editor’s desk. The original ending was very different and the original manuscript much shorter. I spent ages weaving together all the loose strands because, as my editor pointed out, I had lots of ideas but they didn’t all connect. Those elements that weren’t organic to the story I had to let go.
You’ve lived all over the world, seems to me, and you visit Argentina every winter. Has exposure to different cultures affected your writing?
I think both cultures and landscapes inform my writing. My first book, THE DREAMKEEPERS, was set in Wales, a place I’ve visited often because Peter grew up there. I was immediately drawn to its ancient haunted landscape. (Thinly disguised, my Welsh in-laws appear as characters in the book.) My next novel takes place in Marrakech/Sahara Desert, and stems directly from a trip I took to Morocco twelve years ago. I’d like to write a novel set in Argentina, perhaps in the north where indigenous peoples still live.
I wrote THE DREAMKEEPERS on my Mac Classic—considered cutting-edge back then—and sold it without an agent to Bradbury Press, an imprint of Macmillan. The Internet as it exists today was a long way off. I remember that Macmillan still had typewriters in its offices! There was no buzzing your book online or asking bloggers for reviews. Book promotion for a first-time author like me was pretty much limited to local appearances and a press release/interview in my hometown paper.
Flash forward to 2006 when, at Peter’s urging, I decided to quit my job and write full-time. I quickly discovered the literary landscape had changed: the first thing I needed to do was find an agent. Fortunately Stephen Fraser of the Jennifer De Chiara Literary Agency fell in love with THE OWL KEEPER and placed the manuscript with Krista Marino, senior editor at Random House/Delacorte Press. I can’t say enough about either of them!
One aspect of the publishing world which has changed for the better is the way books are being publicized, reviewed, talked about, blogged about, tweeted, and kept alive on the Internet. Books seem to out there in the blogosphere and it’s exciting to see the exchange of ideas going on among literary-minded people in cyberspace. The Enchanted Inkpot is a perfect example!
What’s next for Christine Brodien-Jones? Will there be a sequel to THE OWL KEEPER? (I have to admit, I’d like to see what becomes of the High Echelon!)
My next novel will be an adventure-fantasy set in the Sahara Desert in Morocco, which Random House/Delacorte Press is also publishing. Its heroine is Zagora, a tough, impulsive, knock-your-socks-off type of girl, using her wits to survive in an unpredictable world.
A sequel to THE OWL KEEPER isn’t in the works just yet, but I think it needs to be written because of the open-ended nature of the book. (Hmmm, the High Echelon…)
Thanks, Ellen, for interviewing me for The Enchanted Inkpot – this was fun!