When N.D. Wilson’s 100 Cupboards series debuted in 2007, Harry Potter fans rejoiced—once again they could enter a fully realized magical world, and be fond of the hero who took them there. Now, with The Dragon’s Tooth, the first book in his new Ashtown Burials series, Wilson creates another innovative and exciting world for middle grade readers.
Cyrus and Antigone live a boring life with their older brother Daniel in a decrepit roadside motel. Their ho-hum existence changes quickly when a strange man, with his skeleton tattooed on the outside of his body, arrives and demands a specific room—namely, Cyrus’ room. Soon, the man is dead, the hotel is in flames, Daniel is missing, and Cyrus and Antigone are being rushed to Ashtown, where they are bound to a strange and secret order.
Action-packed from the first chapter, The Dragon’s Tooth is an exciting blend of action, adventure, mythology and mystery. We asked Wilson to tell us more about how he crafted this appealing new series.
Mythology plays quite a role in The Dragon’s Tooth, though not in the way many books have used it recently. What makes The Dragon’s Tooth so unique?
Sheer willpower? Ha. I can only say what I’m aiming for. Readers will be more objective than I am. That said . . . for me, the uniqueness comes in the use of this particular hurtling planet as a fantasy world—and not in a Matrix-y nothing-is-as-it-seems kinda way. This world is a legitimately crazy place and mythologies are our various historical attempts to account for and pay tribute to that craziness. And mythology tends to get it right in feel, even if not always in fact. I want to tell my readers that everything (drum roll) . . . is exactly as it seems.
It seems that I’m standing on a ball right now that is hurtling through space at impossible speeds. It seems like dinosaurs actually lived, and dragonflies could have wingspans more than three feet across, and that some flying reptiles of yesteryear were bigger than my house. It seems like mountains occasionally spew molten rock into the clouds, that whole civilizations have vanished in a flash, that men have made machines that can sail through the air, that the French Revolution happened, and that there really is a huge burning ball of fire in the sky. It seems like the moon is actually up there, and that it tugs the seas around. Yep. Everything is as it seems.
All of your books for children put your characters in situations where they are separated from their parents, and forced to survive (and excel) on their own. Why do you think this works so well in books for this audience?
I hope my stories feed young imaginations whether healthy or hurting.
The answer is a fairly simple one, but it has big ramifications. My protagonists are quite young, and yet they are, in fact, the protagonists. In a blissful, healthy family situation, the kids would rush to the parents to solve any truly fantastic and deadly problem that might arise. And so authors are left with a couple of general choices if they want the kids to be the heroes—they can create dysfunction in the familial relationship (a lack of parental trust, belief, etc.) or they can create dysfunction in the actual familial situation itself (missing parents, dead parents, physically distant parents, etc.). Both of these put the burden of hero-ing on the kids, but I tend to prefer the situational dysfunction to the relational one, because I don’t like fostering a mistrust of parents. On a sidenote, there are huge numbers of kids in this country being raised in fractured families (particularly with distant or absent fathers), and they seem to easily relate to feeling very, very on their own. I hope my stories feed young imaginations whether healthy or hurting.
All of your characters have such personality—even ones we don’t see very much, such as Billy Skelton, Horace and Nolan. Where do you get your ideas and personalities for your characters?
The details of passing humanity are always accumulating in my head. On the street, in traffic, in malls and airports and truckstops. As creepy as it sounds, I’m always watching, noting and collecting. Some of the best (and most impossible) dialogue I’ve ever written was stolen directly from the mouth of a particularly hilarious individual in the Spokane airport. When I’m out to dinner with my wife, there are plenty of times when she stops talking for a moment, and then she leans forward and says, “You’re not listening to me are you? You’re listening to the other booth.” And she’s always right (and she’s extremely patient). So the faces and ticks and mannerisms of my characters are generally assembled from my fellow man. But the skeleton, the thematic root and starting point, frequently takes inspiration from someone more historical, mythical or literary. My William Skelton is taken from Stevenson’s Billy Bones, for example. In Leepike Ridge, I had even more fun, building an assortment of villains around the trials of Odysseus. In 100 Cupboards, I kick off the Kansas fantasy with an aunt named Dorothy. In The Dragon’s Tooth, my favorite side character is a cook built on the greatest literary piratical villain (and cook) of all time.
Your writing draws on a number of genres and traditions. Tell us about some of your influences for The Dragon’s Tooth.
I wanted to nod extensively to Treasure Island (and I do, with characters and plot). I can’t write a book without dragging in a whole lot of Herodotus—whether he likes it or not—so his fingerprints are all over. C.S. Lewis and Tolkien are in my blood, and I don’t have a prayer of getting them out regardless of what I’m writing. I snitched some Ovid, and some Pliny the Elder, and snatched bits from the Epic of Gilgamesh. There’s also Elizabethan historical influence, and truckloads of material from the Age of Exploration in general. But, more uniquely (for me, at least), I also wanted to salt this thing with early modern themes and a lot of nuggets from the 20th century. Most people don’t realize that Americans drafted and adopted eugenics legislation before the Nazis ever did, and my primary villain is the fictitious son of a very real historical character who had a large hand in that filthy business. Of course, a lot of other (more recognizable) names will jump out at readers in passing. And I haven’t even mentioned Brendan the Navigator . . .
The series is named Ashtown Burials, yet we only get to see a glimpse of the Burials of Ashtown in The Dragon’s Tooth. What role will the Burials, and especially the criminals kept in the Burials, play in upcoming books?
Ha! That would be telling…
Both 100 Cupboards and Ashtown Burials have a very cinematic quality. How does your work as a screenwriter influence your novels?
I’d always been interested in working with film, but I actually came to screenwriting through the novels. I watched another writer do an adaptation of my first book (Leepike Ridge), and it looked awfully unintimidating. And if I did learn screen-craft, I assumed that I would gain more control over my own adaptations. (We’ll see!) So I did six months or so as a story consultant for DreamWorks, and then moved on to working on fresh scripts. In doing that, I discovered that the screenwriter is the man in the back room inventing and reworking story recipes—the director is the actual story-=teller. And so I’ve begun drifting in that direction (crazy, right?). Now, while 100 Cupboards and The Dragon’s Tooth are both with producers and in front of studios, I’m actually a little hands-off, focusing on the next novel and working on a couple of totally distinct script jobs (one of which I plan to direct).
So . . .none of that really answered your question. I think the novels feel cinematic because I love using a traditional three-act structure for this readership, and I drip sweat on my keyboard trying to make my description as vivid and immediate as possible. The novels still influence the scripts more than the other way around. (I think.)
Cyrus joins the Order of Brendan with his sister Antigone. Who would you pick to join you in a secret mythological organization?
My kids! Of course, they’ve already joined several on their own. My kids (and their cousins) even founded their own nation (called Apollo) and built their own history, mythology, and legal system (along with some strange weekly governmental rituals). They’ve even had civil wars. So, if I were to join something as dusty and byzantine as the O of B, I’d want them along to provide a veteran perspective. And, of course, I’m assuming my wife would already be in—I’d need her globe-trotting savvy.
How do you think you would fare attempting to pass the 1914 Acolyte requirements?
Give me a few months and I think I could do it. At least I could fail gloriously! I wanted the requirements (especially the fitness requirements) to actually be possible while seeming impossible. I’d need to find a good fencing instructor and enroll in flight school immediately. My Latin would only need a little brush up, but the second language would be tougher (I’ve taken Anglo-Saxon and Greek, but nothing modern). It all comes back to wanting this world to be my readers’ fantasy world—I’d love to inspire some kids out there to really throw themselves at academic and physical training combined (not one or the other). If they do, this crazy world really will open up to them.