Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Author Interview with John Dahlgren

Today Feathered Quill reviewer Cory Bickel is talking with John Dahlgren, author of The Tides of Avarice: A Sagaria Legend

FQ: Your biography says that you were inspired to write by the Nordic sagas and mythologies you heard as a child. Are there any other authors in particular who have influenced your writing or ideals?
DAHLGREN: Well, J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S Lewis, Lewis Carroll, Robert Louis Stevenson, Jack London and P.G. Wodehouse were among my favorite authors when I was younger and they still are today. So, I guess they may have influenced me in one way or another. My favorite book as a child was The Wind in the Willows.
FQ: Did you find the transition from psychology and the pharmaceutical industry to writing fiction to be a difficult one? Do you have any advice for people interested in making a similar transition in their lives?
DAHLGREN: Don’t give up the day job! No, but seriously, if a person really wants to be a writer then they should not let anything or anybody stop them. I wouldn’t let the “not having the time” issue discourage you either. The regular jobs we do, we need it to pay the mortgage, food etc. First make sure that you can make a living on your writing before switching over to it completely. For me the transition was more of an issue of finding the time to be able to write and my regular work and I discovered something: If you really love to do something, you’ll always find the time. Psychologists deal quite often with the subconscious and dreams of the normal functioning brain. I’m in the marketing division of a pharmaceutical company, so there’s a lot of fantasizing (or inventing) going on there as well. Perhaps not including pirates and talking rodents but...
FQ: I really want to ask if Mrs. Pickleberry was based on your own mother-in-law, but I’m not sure you want to answer that, lest you be hit with a rolling pin. So I’ll just ask, are there any characters in the book that are based on people that you know? 

DAHLGREN: Well, my single mother and my wife both resemble the character, Viola Pickleberry and also, wait for it…my mother in-law (don’t tell her that and she really does have a rolling pin). They all have displayed the strong side, perseverance and courage of women who during difficult times conquered the problems without succumbing to them. They are the real heroes of this book.
FQ: I loved how you used the different types of animals for characters. Were the animals meant to represent different races, different stereotypes in general, or were they just for fun?
DAHLGREN: Writing an anthropomorphic story like this is very rewarding. There’s a limitless or boundless feeling to it and one also gets to see our world from a different viewpoint. Of course, there are certain rules even for fantasy books which I learned during my years at Oxford i.e. it has to make sense. The use of different animals was necessary in order to show their distinctive mentalities, habits and also to have a necessary diversity.
FQ: The lemmings were a great choice of animal for the type of people you depict the citizens of Foxglove to be - bound by religious doctrine, totally unwilling to question it or to think for themselves. Have you lived among people with this kind of mindset in your own life?
DAHLGREN: Thank you for your kind words. I was wondering what creature would suit this story best and be the protagonist or hero. Lemmings have been a bit underused and I wanted to play about the general opinion that they are sort of a mindless living herd of rodents, jumping into a river or ocean and just keep on going without really thinking first and see where they are going or what the consequences will be. This is not necessarily true in real life about lemmings but I’ve used it as a base for this story. I also went quite a lot to the natural history museum and compared stuffed animals like foxes and lemmings, badgers, mice, ocelots etc. in order to see their correct size. But as this is a fantasy story, I’ve not been one hundred percent accurate to the sizing of everything. But I don’t think this book would’ve worked so well if the villain was a wolf for example. I also had to dwell into marine topics and went to Stockholm to study a very well preserved ship from the 17th century. I wrote down what I saw and annoyed the guide with too many questions. So there was a fair amount of research. Of course you can scoop many things out from the internet, which I also did, but some things you have to see, smell and touch for yourself. I’ve also tried to re-introduce the Victorian fairy tale writing style slightly. I think it was suitable to do so. Victorian novels tend to be idealized portraits of difficult lives in which hard work, perseverance, love and courage win out in the end, virtue would be rewarded and evil-doers are suitably punished. When you live in a world where criminals and corrupted politicians get away with anything and even get rewarded and the people of good will, compassion and decency receives no recognition or sometimes gets punished when they speak out, I wanted to show that it doesn’t have to be that way. At least not in Sagaria. And if it can happen there, maybe it can happen here as well. I think in this particular case, I was influenced by reading and hearing about how greed rules the earth. The greed for power and money. I’m not talking about what we need to have for a comfortable lifestyle but something beyond that: when everything is never enough. I think that was the main spark to write this novel. And also the question: are we living in a lemming society (metaphorically speaking)? Where we blindly follow what our leaders are telling us or what the media says? Or do we sometimes stop and think for ourselves?
FQ: As a scientist, have you had the same difficulties as Sylvester, such as being discouraged from thinking for yourself or expressing individuality?
DAHLGREN: No, not really. My father who was a biochemist strongly encouraged fiction or fantasy reading. He once met Albert Einstein at a seminar. Einstein told the famous phrase “If you want your child to be intelligent, read them fairy tales. If you want them to be more intelligent read them more fairy tales.” And he was as we know, relatively intelligent. But I have encountered parents that strongly disapprove of fantasy books thinking they’re having some destroying impact on real life and that one should not escape from reality. It’s very sad to see that in this age. Fantasy doesn’t distort reality but rather enriches our experience of it. Jules Verne, the French Author, wrote a fantasy book about traveling to the moon in 1865 and we all know what happened in 1969. So we have conquered outer space but not until those visionaries or “daydreamers” had conquered inner pace and that’s where the true blue prints of future existences are born : in our minds and through fantasy.
FQ: Captain Rustbane is one of the best villains I’ve come across in a long time. I loved his transition from a heartless murderer to the victim of an indifferent society, and was surprised by how much I liked and sympathized with him by the end of the story. Did your background in psychology help you in writing him?
DAHLGREN: Again, thank you for your kind words. I have to confess that he’s one of my favorites too and one of the most challenging characters I’ve ever written. Yes, my training did help me to some extent. The shifts of mood and the complexity of his character might be considered as signs of schizophrenia and paranoia. But that’s not entirely true. He is an example of what a neglected and abused child can grow up to be. Hence, the little fox cub at the end with the same background as Rustbane but instead of abuse he receives love instead. I’ve left the ending open for the reader to decide who that fox really is. I’ve tried to emphasize the more interesting grey area instead of the black and white which is so common in the fantasy stories of old.
FQ: Your book is dedicated in part to your son. Were there lessons and ideas in the book that you particularly wanted to express to him or to children and young adults in general?
DAHLGREN: Yes, it’s dedicated to my son William and also to my godson. It will take a couple of years before they are ready to read it. I hope by then, that they’ll learn a little about courage, integrity, decency and of course putting the video games aside for a moment and pick up a fantasy book and read happily ever after...