Author Interview: B.A. Williamson and The Marvelous Adventures of Gwendolyn Gray
Meet B.A. Williamson, the author of The Marvelous Adventures of Gwendolyn Gray, releasing May 2018 from Jolly Fish Press. Surprisingly, he came up with the idea of The Marvelous Adventures of Gwendolyn Gray when one of his students was kicking the back of his seat on a bus trip and he couldn't sleep. Read his interview here.
This is one of those books I am truly excited about! I have a six-year-old daughter who's obsessed with Hermoine Granger and I can't wait to introduce her to Gwendolyn Gray, an imaginative and clever girl.
Gwendolyn Gray faces an overwhelming battle every day: keeping her imagination under control. It’s a struggle for a dreamer like Gwendolyn, in a city of identical gray skyscrapers, clouds that never clear, and grown-ups who never understand. But when her daydreams come alive and run amok in The City, the struggle to control them becomes as real as the furry creatures infesting her bedroom. Worse yet, she’s drawn the attention of the Faceless Gentlemen, who want to preserve order in The City by erasing Gwendolyn and her troublesome creations. With the help of two explorers from another world, Gwendolyn escapes and finds herself in a land of clockwork inventions and colorful creations. Now Gwendolyn must harness her powers and, with a gang of airship pirates, stop the Faceless Gentlemen from destroying the new world she loves and the home that never wanted her—before every world becomes gray and dull.
J: Hi. B.A. Williamson. I'm so glad to have you on my blog today. You're a teacher, correct? Can you tell us a little about how that impacts your approach to writing a middle grade book?
B.A.: It helps enormously. My students are my guinea pigs. I write this book utilizing the things I teach, and then as I read it out loud to the class, I use it to model and reinforce those lessons. It also gives me a rare opportunity for an author--a live audience. I love theatre, and it’s hard to think of everyone enjoying my work, but never seeing their reaction. I get that as a teacher--I get to watch my students laugh, or squeal, or cringe when I do my creepy bad guy voices. I also see when they get bored, or confused, and then it’s time for rewrites. It helps me stay grounded with my audience--some adult reviewers have criticized my inclusion of a mild pre-pubescent romance, but my kids absolutely eat it up, it’s one of their favorite aspects. And if I can’t make at least a few of them cry, I’m not reading it right. I’ve never worked so hard or been so happy to make my students cry.
J: Haha. At least it's the good kind of crying.
J: Where did you get your inspiration for Gwendolyn Gray?
BA: Inspiration? Well, it’s sort of a mash up of all the things I love, and I throw them together and see if they fit. There’s a lot of The Giver, and Neverending Story, Narnia, and Peter Pan (and the movie Hook). There’s some Matrix and Pleasantville in there. Even some Little Nemo if you know where to look.
J: That sounds like quite a mashup. It must've been tricky to make all those wonderful elements work together and create a truly unique piece.
BA: Inspiration for the story itself started at 1:00 a.m. on a long bus trip to Washington D.C. with a group of 5th graders. One of them was a restless sleeper and kept kicking my seat, so awake I was. We’d just been given staff iPads for the first time, and I wanted to play around with it. The middle of the night is a strange time, which breeds strange ideas, so rather than play a game or watch a movie, I decided to write something. I’d written a comic script before, a Batman one that didn’t go anywhere, as well as my own original comic, and a play. But I didn’t consider any of those to be serious projects, and I certainly didn’t think of myself as a writer. Looking back, however, I see how those projects (and all the notebooks filled with bad poetry from high school) had brought me to a point where the thought, “Maybe I should write a book,” was not followed by the logical “that’s ridiculous.” I’ve since learned to embrace my crazy ideas, and not say no.
J: Yes! I hope everyone embraces their crazy ideas!
BA: My wife was pregnant at the time with our first child, and I was thinking of all the reading I’d get to do at bedtime. How cool would it be to have something of my own to read to them? And that was it. I would write a book to read to my kid. We didn’t know the gender at the time. It turned out to be a boy, which I thought I had a bit of a handle on, I had been thinking about what I would do if it were a girl. How would I want to steer her through the world? What messages would I want to impart? What kind of character did I want her to read about? And I settled on this idea of a fiery little girl with an enormous imagination, who had a bit of trouble keeping it under control.
J: Well, speaking as someone who has a daughter, I'm very excited about this character.
BA: And of course, I needed a problem. A City where there was no imagination at all. Dystopian was popular, so why not? And steampunk! Steampunk is awesome! There had to be steampunk. And bad guys. I had come up with a name for some bad guys for my comic, but I never got around to using them. Mister Five and Mister Six. That sounded cool. And I had the building blocks for my story. So, I needed a title. And a name. Gwendolyn. Classical, not overdone. Gray, of course, because of the nature of her city. And being a read-aloud bedtime story, it had to have that fairy tale feel to it, that classical C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkein, J.M. Barrie, A.A. Milne feel to it (and while I’m at it, I’ll be B.A. Williamson.) And I pulled up the Pages app, and typed in The Marvelous Adventures of Gwendolyn Gray, which never changed. Then a first line, the only way to begin a bedtime story- Once upon a time, there was a girl. Which changed many times. And finally, I had to make sure I avoided deadly clichés and tried something new. Of course, Gwendolyn had never heard of any Once upon a time’s, nor any dark and stormy nights for that matter, and as far this “best of times, worst of times” business, this was certainly one of the latter. And so I had my quirky narrator, who spoke like those old-fashioned authors, but at the same time could twist conventional story tropes around in new ways.
J: I've only read the very beginning of Gwendolyn and that narrator voice was my favorite part!
B.A.: All those elements formed the core of the book, and still do. Not bad for 1 a.m. on a bus. I kept working on it, and working on it, and Googling “how to write a book” until I could do it well, and six years later, here we are.
J: Are there any special themes in the book?
B.A.: So many. Primarily, the power of stories and ideas. Stories have the power to change the world, in Gwendolyn’s case, very literally. They’re the oldest art form on the planet. There is something about stories buried in us so deep that every group of humans across the planet throughout history has told them; it’s ranks right below shelter and food, it seems. Every great invention starts with a question, and an idea, just like every story or painting or other creative work. And then, you create something that wasn’t there before. Gwendolyn just does it a little faster than most.
J: Save that quote everyone!
B.A.: Then there’s the issue of standing out and accepting your differences as your strength. That one is really close to me. As a misfit toy myself, I wanted to express that part of my own journey. As a child, I struggled with ADHD and an overactive imagination. Though it’s not stated explicitly in the book, it was my intention that Gwendolyn has ADHD as well, and finds that it isn’t something to avoid, but embrace, and use all that energy and passion to make a positive change in the world around us, and how hard it is to do it right.
J: I love that!
B.A.: Finally, there’s a third theme which will come more fully into play in book two, and it regards technology, and how we use it. There’s a definite commentary on modern society, on consumption versus creation. Technology has its perils and pitfalls, but it also has enormous power and potential to bring us closer, to share stories and information like never before, and to give a voice to the voiceless. I shudder at stories that only portray the dangers of an interconnected world. The true lesson lies in how we utilize these tools.
J: What is your favorite part of the story?
B.A.: On a deep level? The ending with her two friends. That’s all I’ll say here.
On a purely gleeful level? I love when Carsair punches the monster. And there’s a part in the climax where everything just suddenly comes crashing down, and it’s as much fun as kicking over all of your blocks. Also the soundtrack that goes with the book, the “UnOriginal Score” I’ve shared on my website, is pretty awesome.
J: Here's the link for anyone who wants to take a listen.
J: How do you think children will relate to Gwendolyn?
B.A.: I hope they fall in love with her like I have. I want them to see someone strong, and brave, and creative, and kind. Someone who struggles to make hard decisions, and doesn’t always get them right, but keeps going anyway. I want them to see someone who is not afraid to stand out, and bring a positive change to the world around them.
J: How many rounds of major revisions did you go through?
B.A.: I’m not sure I can count that high. This book was a learning experience as much as anything else. Twelve, maybe? I spent two years on an awful first draft, only to learn that I was being rejected out of hand by everyone because it was 130,000 words long. So I cut it in half (and now I have the basis for the sequel.) Then I had to fix what was now a cliffhanger ending. Then I attended workshops, did more research, and kept bettering myself as a writer until I could bring the book up to my own standards. Then a couple more rounds once I was picked up by Jolly Fish Press. Now that I’ve learned those lessons along the way, hopefully book two can be done in three drafts, with a fourth after I turn it in.
J: If you were to give one piece of advice to fellow writers, what would it be?
B.A.: It’s not about who writes best—it’s about who quits last. If something’s not working, maybe your skills aren’t there yet. Go level up as a writer. Then come back and apply what you’ve learned. If you make that cycle of learning, improving, and applying enough times, eventually you’ll have something really special. But it might take a while.
J: That is such great advice! Thank you so much for sharing your experiences and Gwendolyn with us today.
The Marvelous Adventures of Gwendolyn Gray is available for preorder at major book retailers.