The Bookshelf from NHPR is New Hampshire Public Radio's series on authors and books with ties to the Granite State. All Things Considered host Peter Biello features authors, covers literary events and publishing trends, and gets recommendations from each guest on what books listeners might want to add to their own bookshelves. If you have an author or book you think we should profile on The Bookshelf, send us an email. The address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
This week, The Bookshelf features author Paul Durham. Durham specializes in "telling lies to children." That’s how he frequently describes his job as writer of fictional tales of the adventures of Rye O’Chanter, a young girl from the town of Drowning who happens to be the daughter of a man known as Harmless, the High Chieftan of the Luck Uglies. Who are the Luck Uglies? Paul Durham joins me now to talk about them. His third book in the Luck Uglies series, Rise of the Ragged Clover, was published earlier this year. Scroll down to read Paul Durham's top five reading recommendations and read the transcript of his conversation with Peter Biello.
Paul's Top Five Reading Recommendations:
1. The Chronicles of Prydain series by Lloyd Alexander. "I'm cheating here because this is actually a five-book series but they are worth mentioning as a collective work. This is classic fantasy for children that sometimes gets overshadowed by the Lord of the Rings and Narnia, but as a child, I found them to be more intimate, accessible, and immersive."
2. The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman. "I enjoy Gaiman's work for young readers even more than his adult stuff, and The Graveyard Book is one of those rare books that inspires me to put it down and get back to work to become a better writer."
3. The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate. "What makes this book so wonderful is Ivan the gorilla's unique voice. Through simple prose, Applegate takes us inside the mind of a one-of-a-kind protagonist."
4. The Forest for the Trees by Betsy Lerner. "This was the first book on writing that made me feel like I wasn't the only one with such a strange and detached way of observing the world."
5. On Writing by Stephen King. "It's almost a cliche to cite this book these days, as I've hardly met a writer who hasn't read it. But it is chock full of valuable little gems, especially King's thoughts on appeasing that cigar-smoking muse in the basement."
Who are the Luck Uglies?
Isn’t that a great question? Well, it depends on who you ask. Some people would call them villains. Some people, I suppose, might call them heroes. Some people would say they are ghosts and they don’t exist at all anymore.
But really, the Luck Uglies are a secret society of outlaws who inhabit the village Drowning. When the series opens, nobody has seen or heard from these outlaws for ten years. They’ve been exiled by the local Earl who is the landowner, the baron of the community. People only whisper about them. They’re sort of like ghosts or boogeymen who scare kids at night.
What inspired your writing this kind of story?
I started out trying to write for adults. I tried to be an adult author for many, many years. I had a literary agent. I’d like to say I got rejected by every major publisher in Manhattan, which is true, I did get rejected by every major publisher. I kindo f got so discouraged that for a while I gave up writing altogether.
Going back five or six years ago, we were coming up on the holidays, and I asked my oldest daughter what she might like as a gift. She said, “Dad, could you write me a story? One that we could read together?” And I had to take a step back and scratch my head. Because I’d always written crime fiction, full of a little bit of violence that wouldn’t be appropriate for the eight-year-old. So I started thinking about what she liked to read and what I liked to read when I was a kid. For me, that was fantasy. I always enjoyed books that took me somewhere I couldn’t go on my own. SO I started writing what was supposed to be a short story.
Christmas Eve rolled around. I sat around with my two daughters and my wife and read what was then a very short story to them. And when I was done, they said, “Dad, that’s great, but what happens next?” And I said, “Gee, I don’t know, I ran out of time.” And they said, “You better figure it out, because you can’t just start something like that and leave us hanging.”
So that’s what I did. I just started writing a story for their benefit, with no inclination of ever getting it published.
It took me three months. I wrote one chapter every week, didn’t worry about making it perfect. Just—I had this hungry audience wondering what was happening next. So that’s what I did. And after three months went by, I had this novel called The Luck Uglies. Long story short, that was ultimately the book that was my breakthrough. A little publisher called Harper Collins bought that book as well as two more I hadn’t even written yet. That allowed me to jump into what I’ve always wanted to do.
And now you have this three book series, The Luck Uglies series. Tell me if I’m reading too much into this, but it seems that these books are in some ways very political. I don’t mean Democrat-Republican political, but in some of these storylines, the villain is the government, or the villain is law enforcement, which is either incompetent or unaware of what’s going on. And in a way you’re making your readers aware of how government can fail. It’s nothing new for kids. Disney has done it. But what makes government a good villain?
I think authority makes a good villain, so I think maybe that’s part of it. For me, I think you’re right. A lot of the authority figures in this book turn out to be not so nice, right? Some of the biggest villains aren’t the monsters or the so-called outlaws or the people labeled outlaws. It’s actually the ones doing the labeling. And I think it’s really interesting.
It’s important for kids to question authority. Sometimes kids who ask questions or question authority are stifled and people say, “That’s rude, don’t do that.” I happen to think that it’s important to question authority. You can do it politely, you can do it respectfully, but those are important lessons to learn. I think authority figures make great villains. I think respect is something adults should earn. And I think it’s important to realize that.
But I don’t think you were reading too much into it. There was a little bit of political commentary in there.
Though the parents, I should say, are authority figures who seem the most benevolent here.
Yeah, I think that’s right. In fact, I think the parents are very much…I don’t think calling them “counter-culture” would be the right way, but they do encourage a healthy dose of rebellion in their own kids. Again, I think that’s important.
One of the things that was interesting to me in writing this book was that kids’ fantasy literature, for a lot of good reasons, orphans tend to play a very big role. There are a lot of books that feature orphans, and there are literary reasons why that’s convenient and useful.
But in fantasy, there aren’t a lot of families, and I really wanted to explore the dynamic of families. In real life, I don’t encounter too many orphans. I don’t encounter too many people who don’t have any parents. But I do encounter kids who come from single parent homes, or they’re products of divorce. Even though The Luck Uglies is a fantasy setting, I wanted to write a book where there was an absentee father. In effect, there’s a single mother with two young daughters, trying to make their way in village Drowning, which isn’t always such a nice place, and isn’t always nice for women and girls. So even though it’s fantasy, it’s hopefully something kids today can relate to.
Who were you reading as a kid?
When I was a kid, I had a lot of favorites, and I still read books for kids, by the way, so that hasn’t exactly changed.
Is it for pleasure or market research or both?
It’s a combination of both, but ultimately I think some of the best books out there are middle-grade books, stuff that stands the test of time.
When I was a kid, The Chronicles of Prydain was one of my favorites by Lloyd Alexander. You don’t hear about him as often as you hear about Lord of the Rings and Narnia and those types of books, but it’s wonderful stuff that stuck with me. I’m always looking for terrific writers that speak to me and inspire me to work harder and be a better writer.
Let’s talk about that work—the work of being a writer. You do a significant amount of marketing for your work. It comes with the territory for writers these days. Break it down for me by percentage. What percentage of your job as a writer is actual writing and which percentage is marketing?
It’s a great question, and although it varies from time to time, it’s at least fifty-fifty. Fifty percent of the time writing, fifty percent marketing in some way. Sometimes, depending on the season, it’s even more on the marketing side.
For example, after a book is published, say, in the spring, between school visits, between podcasting, which I do, reaching out and coordinating visits, it’s sometimes more than half my time spent marketing to get myself out there.
Is that necessary, do you think, or do you just like going above and beyond?
I don’t know that I go above and beyond. I bet if you talk to a lot of authors, they’re working just as hard if not harder than I am. But the answer is: I enjoy it. I like doing it. But I think it is necessary, particularly in the children’s market. There are so many authors out there, so many great authors that never get discovered, that you really have—between social media, between getting the gate-keepers to notice you…because, when you figure, for eight to 12 years old, more often than not they’re not picking the books for themselves. Somebody has to expose them to those books. And those are the children’s librarians, teachers, parents—those are the ones who introduce their kids to good books. So they’re just as important to market to than the kids themselves.
But I love it. There’s nothing better than going to a school and hanging out with 200, 300, or 50 fifth graders. It’s awesome. It’s one of my favorite things to do.
And I have to ask: tell us about your writing studio.
My writing studio! I often joke. I have in my bio that I write “in an abandoned chicken coop.” It sounds ridiculous, but it’s true.
This is a glamorous chicken coop. It must have been the Ritz Carlton of chicken coops. It was hand-built by the people who lived there before me. There were chickens that inhabited this coop before we moved in. At the time, I had a daughter in diapers, and I thought, you know, nothing against chickens, but the last thing I wanted to do was clean up after chickens. So it was just vacant for a while.
I had always wanted a serene writing space tucked back in the woods. And I had the guy who does work around my house…I tricked it out. I turned it into my writing studio. It’s this rustic, just wonderful, everything I’d ever dreamed of. It’s warm and nice in the wintertime.
And how did you “trick it out”?
Okay—it’s not your fancy mancave. I don’t have flat-screen TVs. It’s all white pine paneling inside so it has a cedary wood smell to it. I put those wide paneled white pine flooring down so it looks almost like a New England tavern. I have an old piece of huge, thick barn wood, salvaged barn wood that is my desk. It sort of blends in with the woods around it. So it’s not particularly high-tech—I do get spotty wireless from the house sometimes—but yeah, that’s my spot. I put art around, things that inspire me to write.