Better Know a Word-Writing Man Alum: Jonathan Auxier

A few months ago, I had the pleasure of interviewing award-winning author and TWU grad Jonathan Auxier (BA Honours English, ’03) for a piece in the Trinity Western Magazine. As often happens in publishing, word count necessities required that we drop most of the interview but thanks to the Internet, all is not lost. Once we decided to publish a full article online, I was struck by the challenge of telling the story of someone as well spoken as Jonathan in a way that valued simplicity without sacrificing the subject’s eloquence. But every attempt I made to write that piece turned out the same way: large blocks of quotes after large blocks of quotes with my compulsory commentary crammed in between. What follows is the lazy writer’s alternative: the interview transcript. So please, forgive the form and relish the words. \ Thomas Gage

Jonathan Auxier is the award-winning author of Peter Nimble and His Fantastic Eyes and The Night Gardener, which Disney purchased the rights for last year. His latest book, Sophie Quire and the Last Storyguard, hit the shelves April 5th of this year.

TWU Alumni Association: How did you know you wanted to be an author?
Jonathan Auxier: I think it took me a little while to realize I wanted to be an author and specifically that I wanted to write children’s fiction. I always loved telling stories and I spent a lot of years figuring out how to tell stories and also what type of storytelling, what medium fit me the best. And that led me everywhere from illustration to theatre to screenwriting and finally to fiction. And it was sort of a long journey where I bounced between all these different forms but every time I tried something new, I started to get a stronger sense of who I was as a storyteller and the types of stories that I wanted to be telling. So when I finally sat down and started writing books, it really felt like coming home.

TWUAA: When was that that you started writing books?
JA: I was a late bloomer. I was in graduate school studying playwriting [at Carnegie Mellon] and I was realizing my own limitations as a playwright, so in desperation looking for something to rekindle my creative enthusiasm I just started writing basically the book that I wished I could read at that moment, which turned out to be Peter Nimble.

TWUAA: So when you went to grad school it was more of a general creative writing you were going after?
JA: Very pointedly, it was an MFA in playwriting with a secondary focus on screenwriting, both of which I ended up doing, but I learned after starting a career in screenwriting that it just wasn’t quite the right fit for me. I understood the craft, but the extra gap where you need to live and breathe the medium didn’t really happen for me. I was much more of a reader than I was a theatre-goer or movie-goer and so I didn’t quite have that extra measure of passion that was really necessary to carry you all the way.

TWUAA: Why did you come to Trinity Western University?
JA: The first answer is probably the most honest: my parents are both faculty at Trinity, which meant I had a great opportunity to get an affordable undergraduate education. That’s why I went there in the first place. The reason I stuck around is primarily because I realized very quickly that I had a tremendous amount of access: my classes were so small and the faculty were incredibly willing to extend opportunity to people who were hungry for that and it provided a tremendous opportunity to experiment and fail as I was figuring myself out as an intellectual and an artist. Having taught in a number of college and universities since then, I realize now that that is an incredibly atypical experience but it was one that was immensely rewarding and it shaped me in a tremendous way.

TWUAA: Other than being faculty at TWU and giving you this opportunity, how did your parents shape you as an author?
JA: My family is great, and they’ve always be really wonderful and supportive. They’ve also always been really fun people. My parents had really interesting lives. They brought a lot of enthusiasm and a lot of passion to the things that they pursued. And more importantly to me, selfishly, they really encouraged all of their children to really explore and pursue things that most excited them. I think most parents would have had a heart attack if their adolescent son with mediocre grades started declaring he wanted to draw picture books or illustrate comics or be a singer-songwriter or any number of quite unlucrative career paths that I threatened to pursue and my parents never batted an eye. They always had a very clear sense that remuneration was secondary to the inner fulfillment that could come with true vocation and they really encouraged all of us to find the things that we were drawn to in the world and whole-heartedly dive into them. Talking to a lot of other artists, that’s not the kind of supportive environment I think a lot of people experience and I think they end up carrying frustration and resentment with them for the rest of their lives, whereas I really only had encouragement in my family, and that’s just a tremendous gift. And, as I have children now, I am constantly reminding myself that it’s a gift that I need to pay forward.

TWUAA: Do you have a course that you remember that you loved?
JA: I had a course that I didn’t love that was really formative for me. Probably when I look back on it, one of the most valuable courses I ever took was actually one that I wasn’t super excited about. It was a course taught by Norm Klassen who I believe now teaches at Waterloo, in the English Department, and it was about eighteenth-century poetry and prose. I took the class because I liked the instructor and I knew nothing about the subject, but I suspected it would be quite dry. And it was. Quite dry. But the context and background for the eighteenth-century were really profound and had profound implications for my life later on. I became very interested in that century, and even when I finished at Trinity and I kept on writing, a lot of the projects I would gravitate towards were stories that were set in or around what people call the long eighteenth century. That space became really fertile ground for me as a storyteller, still sort of naturally where I return to to this day. My new book is set very much at that time and I think the reason it interests me is because it’s this moment in history where ideas of mysticism and superstition are being replaced by Enlightenment-thinking and the rationality that came during the Enlightenment. And I think it was really the last moment in history where magic and science were allowed to coexist because western culture as a whole was making a massive shift into modernity. That moment of transition is a tremendous moment of trauma and it has lasting effects — some of them good, some of them not so good — and to me that’s a really wonderful space to inhabit especially because my stories are all prefantastical. So I’m interested in those moments, the moments of collision between the rational world and the mystical world.

TWUAA: What can you tell me about Sophie Quire?
JA: Sophie Quire and the Last Storyguard is the story of a twelve-year-old book mender trapped in a city that has waged war on all of its stories and when some mysterious people show up at her shop with a very rare and unusual book for her to repair, she’s thrown into her own adventure that’s greater than anything she’s ever read. It was a really fun book to write. It is a companion to my first novel, Peter Nimble and His Fantastic Eyes. It’s not a direct sequel. I specifically wrote them so they could be read in any order. I like to think of them as connected in a similar way as the Narnia books are connected, which is to say, they inhabit the same worlds and wrestle with similar themes, but each one is telling its own story.

TWUAA: In what ways did writing Sophie Quire stretch you?
JA: Sophie Quire was a unique challenge in a couple of ways. One of them just had to do with timing: I’m a very slow writer. It takes me a long time to figure out what I want to say. So in the instance of my first and second book, they took me seven years and nine years respectively of almost constant revision until I could really hone in on the themes and the ideas and the characters that mattered to me. In the instance of Sophie Quire, I had a much more compressed timeline. I wrote the book in about two-and-a-half years, which compared to other authors is extremely slow, but for me, it was a massive leap in productivity. Some of the growth just had to do with learning to write more quickly. But I think with [Sophie Quire], the most stretching thing was really trying to be punishing on the themes at the core of the story. Because Sophie Quire is a book story about a book mender who finds a magic book, it’s very easy to make it on a surface level a sort of pandering celebration of the whimsy and magic of story books, but I really wanted to take that idea and push it a lot farther, which proved to be extremely difficult because the importance of stories is very a difficult thing to actually articulate or quantify. I believe in my core that stories are valuable, but stories don’t fill an empty stomach, they don’t suture a bleeding wound, they don’t seem to have any discernable and direct impact on the physical world and yet I know at my core that what happens, what transpires between an author and a reader when a story is happening is something that is almost mystical in its significance. And so for me, this book was basically a meditation and exploration of what’s actually happening when we engage with stories and also what happens if we discard them.

TWUAA: What’s your revision process like? Do you just rephrase passages or throw away and rewrite entire plot points?
JA: Revision for me is a little bit of everything. I would say I’m probably the most violent rewriter I’ve ever met. I’m extremely quick to throw away huge chunks of writing if I begin to suspect that at their core they don’t work. In the instance of Peter Nimble my first book, I wrote twenty page-one rewrites or complete rewrites of that book starting from scratch and certain elements remained all the way through in every iteration, but for me, if something doesn’t work, it’s much more helpful just to throw it out completely and start over than it is to fiddle with the commas and think you can tart it up with some adverbs.

TWUAA: How did you find about Disney purchasing rights to the Night Gardener?
JA: Disney picking up rights to The Night Gardener was, of course, a thrilling thing. I knew that Disney was interested through my agent, but, because I worked as a screenwriter for a number of years, I also was aware that these sort of deals don’t really always fall through and fall apart at any second. And so really, and truly, I learned that the deal went through the same way everyone else did (actually a little bit after them because I started getting emails that the announcement had come up in Variety or the Hollywood Reporter, you know those trade publications.) And so I felt like I was the last one to get the news. But it was good news so I welcomed it.

TWUAA: Can you talk about the appearance of the theme of Justice in Peter Nimble?
JA: I don’t really write about childhood, most of my books are really about the end of childhood, and one of the hallmarks to me to that moment in everyone’s life is this slow and sometimes very difficult realization that the world is not as starkly contrasted as we had been told it was or would like it to be. And I knew I wanted to do that in Peter Nimble, but that for me at least was a fairly difficult thing to put in a story so I found that even though I had a sense of what I would like to accomplish, figuring out what to actually make that happen in the book took a number of iterations.In Peter Nimble there’s sort of a building theme that appears in a number of different ways, the theme being justice, and over the course of the book, I think what I might have been trying to do was signal the disconnect between the way the world was, or the way the world first presents itself in the story and the way the world should be when everything is righted. Generally speaking — this is not true of all books — but a lot of books basically start with the premise of a broken world, some kind of order that’s been thrown into chaos and the story is basically the steps and events that need to occur for a new order to be restored or the old order to be restored and to me, that’s what justice wants to do. Justice wants to right a broken thing, or repair a broken thing. In the instance of Peter Nimble I was interested in two things: first, I was interested in having this character Peter Nimble kind of finds himself thrown into an extremely broken world that had a lot of pain and trauma that it was still dealing with. But I also was interested in confronting and playing with a reader’s notion and by extension Peter’s notion (and my own notion) of what justice would look like in that situation. When Peter gets to this world, he quickly gains a sense of who is good and who is evil and what must be done and then as the story begins to unfold, we start to realize that the perceived villains and the perceived heroes might not be as unambiguously right or wrong and so it throws into light the question: how do you apply justice in this situation where right and wrong are not so easy to discern.

TWUAA: The scop appears as a boat in Peter Nimble, then as an acronym in The Night Gardener. Is the scop more than an easter egg? And are we going to find a new iteration of it in Sophie Quire?
JA: I’m a big fan of words. When I was in my first year at Trinity, I decided to memorize the entire A volume of the dictionary, which led to some incredibly difficult to read essays because I insisted on applying these words in my writing. But all this to say I like words and I like language a lot, and actually when I was at Trinity I took a course — I believe it was on either medieval literature or it might even have been a fantasy literature course — in which we read Beowulf and scop is an old English term that appears there in that text. It means storyteller. And the word has pretty much fallen completely out of usage. You have to find a very robust dictionary to find an entry on that word. But it was a word I liked, I liked the sound of it. And so originally when I was writing Peter I just worked it in because I had for a while thought it would have been a really nice name for a boat and so when Peter Nimble the main character finds himself on a boat I decided to name it that. And then, as the book came out, the word sort of gained more significance to me and I ended up naming my website, ended up finding a way to work the word scop into my next book The Night Gardener and, yes, in fact it does also appear in my third book, Sophie Quire.

TWUAA: What’s the best piece of advice someone’s given you about writing or being an author?
JA: When I first moved to Los Angeles after graduate school, I was trying to become a screenwriter, and one of the best things I ended up doing was actually basically making a goal for myself to go on fifty… I would call them meetings, but really what I did was I reached out to anyone who was working or doing something interesting and offered to buy them lunch. So for my first year, at least once a week I was sitting down with someone who was kind enough to talk to me. I wasn’t asking them for anything. I was just picking their brains about their journey and their experience. And at one point I was sitting down with a screenwriter who had also directed some movies and I asked him why he stopped directing movies and why he only stuck to writing and he made a comment that I really liked which was, (he was talking about film directing,) he said, “It takes a very specific type of creativity to film a guy walking out of his front door for six hours.” What I saw that as was a commentary on the fact that in order to in fact do a thing, you need to make sure you love the boring parts. And the second he said that, two thoughts occurred to me. The first is, I would hate filming a guy walking out of his front door for six hours in a row. But the second thing is actually, and this is maybe the real advice, many years ago, Margaret Atwood was being asked a question about what it takes to be a writer, and she, in her rather wonderful Margaret Atwood fashion, responded watly, “Well you have to like words.” And the second this guy said the thing about directing, I thought of that Margaret Atwood quote, and I thought about the fact that actually I do love words. I just like looking at them, I like thinking about how they connect together, I like language quite a bit. And that was one of these pivotal moments when I started to realize that it wasn’t enough to just be good enough to do something. Skill was only one of the ingredients and you really needed this extra enthusiasm and passion that would carry you through, even when things got really hard. And that was probably, those were some of the first moments of my realization that having a cool job like working in film and television wasn’t actually going to sustain me in the long run and I needed to make sure that whatever form of storytelling I was doing was something that would feed me even if no one ever appreciated or responded to it.

TWUAA: Three last questions: who is your favourite author, what’s your favourite book and what are you reading now?
JA: My favourite author changes quite a bit. My standard answer is that my favourite children’s author is Roald Dahl and my favourite book by him is Matilda, which I think is unquestionably a masterpiece. It was also primary inspiration for Sophie Quire. The image of Matilda Wormwood lying on the floor reading these enormous books was something that had been pouncing around in my head for years and years and really was instrumental in creating the character of Sophie Quire. As far as adult authors go, I’m an enormous fan of Robertson Davies. The first book that I read when I finished undergrad and finally got to read for pleasure again was Fifth Business, which is still one of my very favourite books. What I’m reading right now is the unabridged Hunchback of Notre Dame by Victor Hugo. Which is way more preoccupied with architecture than I had been led to believe by Disney cartoons. I think it’s going back to that question of finding the thing where your enthusiasm lies. Just as Melville really was excited to talk about whales, Hugo was really excited to talk about the construction of the cathedral. And hey! His goal was to save the cathedral from being destroyed and he did. So, good job.