Monday, March 12, 2012

Process Talk: Greg Leitich Smith on Chronal Engine (Setting, Genre, Audience)

Greg Leitich Smith's previous middle grade novels were pretty firmly located in contemporary school settings, but in his author's note to his new book, Chronal Engine, he says he's always loved survival stories and dinosaurs. That love shows, and so does a sympathy for his young teen characters. They find themselves in a setting where Jurassic Park meets, oh, maybe Jules Verne,  with echoes of Conan Doyle's Lost World and possibly a touch of Robinson Crusoe, all of it pulled together with an adventure story sensibility that is squarely and effectively aimed at the middle grade reader. I had great fun talking to Greg about Chronal Engine. Here's Part 1 of a two-part conversation.

[Uma] How did your interest in sci-fi, Robinsonades, and dinosaurs evolve into the "wholly unfamiliar earth" as setting for this book?

[Greg] My first two novels are set in a fictional Peshtigo School in Chicago and are essentially contemporary comedies.  With Chronal Engine, I wanted to try something more of an action and adventure and had always had an interest in dinosaurs, so I figured that would be a good place to start.

As to the actual setting, well, as soon as you decide to write fiction involving a dinosaur, you’re faced with a couple questions. 

First, do you go to them or do you bring them to you?  That is, is the story set in the Mesozoic or is it a “lost world” type story, where in some remote corner of the world dinosaurs have survived or otherwise still exist (Conan Doyle’s Lost World and Crichton’s Jurassic Park fall into this latter category).  I knew immediately that I wanted to send my characters back to the past.  There’s some evocative about “pristine wilderness” (although the term is clichéd J), but in this case it’s true: no human ever set foot in the Cretaceous, so for any of us, it would almost be like going to Middle Earth or Narnia.  A strange world with creatures and rules both familiar and unfamiliar, that they would have to sort out…

Greg and Ceratopsian at the Dallas Natural History Museum
Second, do you encounter them from a position of strength or weakness?  Now, in some ways, plunking a human down in the age of dinosaurs is automatically a position of weakness.  But there’s the possibility that the characters could go well-equipped, with all kinds of modern technology and guns and armored personnel carriers and whatnot.  But in that case, you have to make the technology somehow fail, anyway…

Now, I’ve always been interested in this idea of what would happen to people without their modern amenities.  Part of this is that I grew up on family stories of my parents and grandparents living without indoor plumbing, electricity, air conditioning.  And my father and a lot of friends of the family were refugees during World War II, so I also heard some rather harrowing stories about scrabbling for survival.

So when I first read Swiss Family Robinson, I absolutely loved it. (My parents always did most of the household, appliance, and automobile repairs and renovations themselves; they also made their own soap and my mom canned a lot of fruits and vegetables and is an expert at wielding a filet knife, so the idea of the father who seems to know everything about engineering and animal husbandry and plumbing didn’t really bother me J).  And my parents also had a small rustic place up in Michigan we’d go to on weekends and we’d go on long walks in the country and see everything from eagles’ nests to the salmon spawning, so it was easy to appreciate the enormity of the wild.  I also knew that most peoples’ parents weren’t like that (neither was I, for that matter), so the idea of “what would I do trapped in the wild” resonated.

Consequently, when I first conceived of Chronal Engine, there was really no doubt in my mind that the protagonists were going to be cut off from civilization and have to survive on their own. It actually evolved into something slightly different than a robinsonade, per se, but the roots are still there and it’s still a survival story.   

[Uma] You write very naturally for the middle grades. Is there something special about that age for you, either in your own life and memory, or in the place that tweens and young teens occupy in our world today, or both?

[Greg] Thank you.  I think part of it is that middle grade/tween fiction is some of the first fiction I really gravitated to as an independent reader and that those middle grade/tween protagonists are among the first I really identified with.

Looking back, too, I think the middle grade/junior high years are among the most awkward, yet are also in some ways the most interesting, which makes it very ripe for story.  You’ve mastered grade school and being a “kid,” etc., and you’re now approaching the teenager thing and the first steps toward being a full-blown adult.  It’s sort of a transitional, neither “fish nor fowl” phase and that’s always interesting.

[Uma] It is--it's a place of instability, and that always implies conflict. Thanks, Greg!

More next week from Greg Leitich Smith on this satisfying page-turner. Chronal Engine will be released by Clarion Books on March 20.