I’m thrilled to welcome Jonathan Auxier to the Mixed-Up Files. Jonathan is a screenwriter, illustrator, and novelist who lives in Pittsburgh, PA. His debut novel, Peter Nimble & His Fantastic Eyes, tells the tale of a small, blind, orphan who also happens to be the greatest thief who ever lived. The book was an ABA 2011 New Voices pick and was named one of BookPage magazine’s Best Children’s Books of 2011. You can learn more about Jonathan by visiting www.TheScop.com, where he blogs about children’s books old and new.
I’d love to know what surprised you the most while writing Peter Nimble and His Fantastic Eyes.
I think the most surprising thing was how much fun it was to write! I’ve been writing plays and screenplays for a number of years, and while I enjoy that work, it definitely feels like work. When writing scripts, you start with outlines and treatments and do a lot of planning. When I sat down to write Peter Nimble, however, it was much more exploratory — I tried to let the characters (and narrator) tell the story to me, rather than the other way around.
I love your illustrations at the beginning of each chapter. Was that something you planned when you first wrote this novel?
I draw a lot, and virtually every story I’ve ever written has started as a sketch in one of my journals. In the case of Peter Nimble, it all began with the picture at the top of chapter one: a little baby floating in a basket with a raven perched on the edge who has just pecked out his eyes.
While I did want illustrations in the book, I didn’t originally plan to do them myself. Partway through the process, my editor learned that I had all these Peter Nimble sketches in my journals, and that started the conversation.
How did you come up with your wonderfully wacky and lovable characters and such a unique and vivid world?
My favorite books are ones that feel like they’re in conversation with the stories that have come before them. Consider how The Graveyard Book interacts with Kipling’s Jungle Books, or how the Harry Potter series breathes life into old boarding-school stories like Tom Brown. In writing Peter Nimble, I really let my inner booklover run free — grabbing bits of stories and characters and moments from all the stories that have shaped me as a human being. The goal is to take those bits and then show them in a new light so that they feel simultaneously familiar and new.
Can you share a writing exercise with us?
How about a reading exercise? When I was in graduate school, I picked up the habit of watching movies and plays with a notepad and pen. At the end of every scene, I’d jot down what had just happened — just a few words, like: “hero proposes, gets dumped”. By the end, I’d have this clean little roadmap that showed me how the story fit together. The goal is to do this so much that it becomes second nature: every time you watch or read a story, you’re making a roadmap in back of your mind. Then, when it’s time to write your own story, you’ve got this innate understanding of pacing and structure to help you along.
What are some of your favorite middle-grade novels, and why do you love them so much?
What a huge question! I actually talk a lot about favorite children’s books on my blog. To go back to my earlier point about books in conversation, I’ll list some of the children’s books that profoundly inspired Peter Nimble:
Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson
Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens
Peter Pan by JM Barrie
The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster
My Father’s Dragon by Ruth Stiles Gannett
The Thirteen Clocks by James Thurber
The Book of Three by Lloyd Alexander
James and the Giant Peach by Roald Dahl
I love your characters, incredible world, and unique voice that instantly drew me into Peter’s story, and can’t wait to read more books from you. What are you working on now?
I am working on a few books at the moment. One is a middle grade adventure about a chimney sweep. The other is a ghost story about an evil tree. I like having multiple projects because while I’m writing one, my subconscious can start to work on the other.
Thank you so much for this wonderful interview, Jonathan. I absolutely love Peter Nimble and His Fantastic Eyes and can’t wait for more of your books to be published. I’m also looking forward to trying the reading exercise you shared, and have a feeling our Mixed-Up readers will find it very helpful, too.
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Mindy Alyse Weiss writes humorous middle-grade novels and quirky picture books. She’s constantly inspired by her eleven and fourteen year-old daughters, adventurous sock and underwear munching puppies, and two stinky but adorable ferrets. Visit her blog or on Twitter to read more about her writing life, conference experiences, and writing tips.