Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Adam Shaughnessy's Unbelievable Fib Series

Adam Shaughnessy, author of The Entirely True Story of the Unbelievable Fib, is my guest today. According to his author bio, Adam likes to tell people that he is a superhero, a space explorer, and a pirate. None of those things are true, but he likes to say them anyway.

Adam really has been an elementary school teacher and a director of after-school programs. He owns and operates Red Dragon Adventures, which provides innovative enrichment programs for schools. The Entirely True Story of the Unbelievable Fib: The Trickster’s Tale is Adam’s first novel.

In this middle grade fantasy, the main character, Prudence Potts, receives a cryptic message. It leads her and her schoolmate ABE to another world beneath their quiet town, a world peopled with Viking gods, annoying squirrels, and an ever-expanding hen house. According to Publishers Weekly, “Debut author Shaughnessy skillfully weaves Norse myth, the story of Baba Yaga, and Pru’s pain over her father’s death into an action-packed story full of heart . . . It’s a moving exploration of the ways people can close themselves off to magic in the world, as well as face grief scarier than any frost giant.”
Welcome, Adam!
Thanks, Linda! And thanks so much for inviting me to visit!

I read that this story was an outgrowth of story-generating activities you’ve done with students. Tell us more!

That’s an excellent question to start with. Yes! My book did begin as an enrichment activity I shared with kids. Before I ever thought of becoming an author, I was (and am!) an educator. I spent twenty years as a classroom teacher, camp director, and district coordinator for out-of-school time programs.

Over the course of those twenty years I developed a kind of children’s programming called Adventure Play. Basically, I describe it as the child of Adventure Programming, which is an educational model that supports teambuilding through physical challenges. Adventure Play takes that concept and scales it down to the elementary grades. It places cooperative games and puzzles into the context of sophisticated and interactive stories, called Adventures. I love it because the programming engages kids with books and stories and also encourages them to play and have fun together.

One of my earliest Adventures was called the Eye of Odin. It was based on Norse mythology and had a group of kids travelling the three worlds of the Norse mythical cosmos to gather pieces of a shattered rune stone that, when reassembled, would direct them to a lost treasure. I loved the story, and the kids seemed to enjoy it, too! Years later, when I decided to try my hand at writing a children’s novel, I returned to the Eye of Odin. The story changed a lot (about fifteen years had passed!) but the key elements are all still there.

I test drove the first two chapters with an audience of overtired and hungry four to nine year olds. (Okay, they were my grandchildren.) The Entirely True Story was a marvelous cure for the crankies. A cryptic message, a feisty heroine, a mysterious man who no one else could see…my grandkids were riveted. How did you manage to build such a suspenseful opening for your story?

I’m so glad your grandchildren enjoyed the beginning! That’s great to hear! I think that any success I had in writing an exciting beginning also probably stems from story’s genesis as an enrichment program. When you’re engaging directly with a group of kids there’s an immediacy to the relationship that you don’t always have as an author. When you have twenty or so kids in front of you, you learn pretty fast if an idea works or doesn’t. You see what the group likes and what they don’t—what grabs their attention. I think that experience informed my writing.

ABE is the perfect foil for Pru. She is a rule-breaker who often acts impetuously. ABE is methodical, he’s literal and honest. Both tend to be loners. How did you come up with these characters?

I started with Pru, really. I knew from the start that I wanted the hero to be a girl, and I knew that I wanted her to be clever and assertive. It’s interesting you mention that ABE is the perfect foil for Pru, because that’s how he started. He’s also clever, but less assertive and less confident (in many ways). That was my starting place for the characters in draft one.

From there, Pru and ABE developed over the course of writing many (many!) drafts. At one point, thinking about the two friends during the drafting process, I remember jotting down a note to myself, “ABE sees the truth of things—he sees things how they are. Pru sees how things could be.” Once I had that notion, the two characters really came to life. In fact, I liked the note so much Mister Fox essentially says the same thing to Pru near the end of the book.

If a reader were to go back through the book, she or he would see that I stuck pretty closely to the spirit of that note. ABE does see the truth of things. Though it’s not always immediately apparent, all of ABE’s observations turn out to be accurate. But it’s Pru who makes things happen in the book. She makes the connections and drives the story.

Pru is dealing with her father’s death by not thinking or talking about it. Was it a struggle to weave the theme of Pru’s grief into a story that was often humorous? How did you balance the lights and the darks in your tale?

With difficulty! I think it was especially hard to find that balance as a first-time writer. I think there’s the temptation when you’re starting—even if you’re aware of the danger and specifically trying to avoid it—to be a little emotion heavy. You want to basically wave your book at people and say, “Look! It’s an adventure, yeah, but there’s feelings, too. Look at all the feelings! This is depth, people!” The problem, of course, can be that you can try so hard for depth that you really end up with melodrama. Or is that just me?

I tried to be aware of that potential pitfall. I hope I was successful. It certainly helped to have readers provide feedback. They were able to see things I couldn’t.

Another thing that might have helped me balance the emotion around Pru’s father’s death is the fact that I was writing from experience, to a large degree. I lost my mother to cancer in 2003. Even though I was an adult when she passed, the loss of a parent, or any loved one, is terrible at any age. All the book’s themes that relate to Pru’s grief—especially coming to terms with uncertainty, which is really the major theme of the story—were personal to me. In some ways, I think that made them easier to write. I knew the feelings that informed those themes. I wasn’t trying to imagine them.

Mr. Fox is always startling, always turning things on their head. And he spouts such wonderful lines, like “answers aren’t just valuable, sometimes they’re expensive,” “questions are like invitations, you never know where one will lead you,” and “only people who are unsure of what they believe are able to experience magic.”  What went into the creation of Mr. Fox? 

Mister Fox is the one character from the original Adventure that made it into the book. So, in many ways, he’s been with me the longest. He’s changed a lot in fifteen years (haven’t we all?). In my original enrichment program, he was a bit bumbling and buffoonish—not at all the enigmatic and waggish figure he is in the book. There, he took on new life.

I mentioned earlier that the major theme of the story is coming to terms with uncertainty. Mister Fox is the embodiment of that theme. He is the personification of uncertainty. You’re not always sure what he knows or what he’s thinking. Pru isn’t always sure she can trust him. And his go-to phrases, “Don’t be so sure,” and “The truth is out there—don’t believe it,” exemplify his personality but also his role in the story. He’s there to raise questions and to cast doubt on certainty.

There’s one thing about uncertainty, though, that doesn’t change even when you learn to embrace it. Uncertainty is scary. That was the biggest challenge writing Mister Fox. I wanted him to be likable. But I needed him to be a little scary, too.

The fantasy side of your story is set in the world of Viking myth, with borrowed bits of legends from other cultures. What drew you to these myths? Did you do a lot of research during your writing process? How did you adapt the original myths to your story?

I loved myths as a kid. That’s what initially drew me to the worlds of mythology. When I became an adult and an educator, I wanted to share that love and those stories with young people.

Many of my early Adventures were based on myths. Twenty years ago, though, things were a little different. Back then, kids were generally exposed to just Greek and Roman myths. I knew from my own experience that those stories, though wonderful, were just the tip of the ice burg. So I was very conscious of basing my Adventures on different myths from around the world.

Norse mythology has long been one of my favorites. That said, I did do a lot of research in writing the book. I read and reread the Norse cycle of myths, and I explored the scholarship around the stories. I tried to keep my portrayals of the canonical characters and events as true to the source material as I could. And on those occasions when I changed the story or a character’s role, I tried very hard to keep my inventions true to the spirit of the myths themselves.

Oddly, one of the biggest challenges in that respect was Ratatosk. Ratatosk only gets a quick mention in the myths. He’s described as a squirrel who carries insults back and forth between a dragon and an eagle. As soon as I read that, I knew Ratatosk had to be in my book. He’s a talking insult squirrel! How great is that? I basically had to create Ratatosk’s personality from scratch, though. And one of the real challenges was writing his insults. Actual Viking insults can be a little…lets say, “earthy.” So I tried to write his dialogue in a way that suggested Norse origins but that was also appropriate for a middle grade novel.

I also feel compelled to mention that I take one of the major Norse gods in a different direction in the book’s sequel, Over the Underworld. I’m actually really excited about what happens with him. It grows very organically from how the character is presented in the myths, but is also a new take that I think people haven’t seen before. That’s all I can say!

You invite your readers to become FIBBERS, members of the Fantasy Investigation Bureau. In fact, on your website, Mr. Fox has left a message for FIBBERS asking them to help him unravel the mystery of why there is no mention of the Shadowmage in the ancient scrolls of Egypt. How have kids responded to that? What has your feedback been from young readers?

You have an excellent eye! Though, to avoid any confusion on the part of your readers who might visit my website, I should point out that I redesigned my site recently and removed the images that referenced Shadowmage.

Your larger point is dead-on accurate, though. One of my biggest hopes for my books is that they become playgrounds for my readers’ imaginations. I want them to think that these adventures could happen to them—even if only in their play. That thinking is really built in to the very design of the book and the presentation of the story.

Pru and ABE do, indeed, become members of the Fantasy Investigation Bureau. As Fibbers, they help investigate a mystery that involves magic and Norse mythology. But—and this is a point that I make in my author visits—The Unbelievable FIB investigates other mysteries, too. There’s always a need for more Fibbers. And one never knows where Mister Fox and the Henhouse might land next. It might be your town…

As for Shadowmage, he is a character from another story called Shadowmage and the Obsidian Obelisk. This is, indeed, another case for The Fantasy Investigation Bureau. This time, Mister Fox is investigating a mystery that involves Egyptian mythology. Shadowmage and the Obsidian Obelisk isn’t a book, though. It’s an Adventure Play program. This is a program that kids could sign up for and in which they would become Fibbers and actively work together to solve the mystery by solving codes, playing games, and assembling clues.

I removed all reference to Shadowmage in my website redesign because I’m currently preparing my Adventure Play work to take the next step in its evolution. I hope to have more news about that later in 2016 or in early 2017. Until then (at least for now) I’m taking a break from my Adventure Play activities while I work on things behind the scenes.

Will readers meet the Shadowmage in Book Two, Over the Underworld? Can you tell us a little about this
sequel? When will it be coming out? Can you share the new cover art?

Sadly, Shadowmage will not make an appearance in Over the Underworld. The good news, though, is that Pru and ABE will make their return!

Over the Underworld picks up about a year after the first book ends. The Norse gods return to Middleton, but they do so for an unhappy reason. Loki's misdeeds have grown from mischief to murder. He has killed Baldur, favorite of the gods. By doing so, he has set in motion events that will lead to Ragnarok, a war between the gods and giants that will destroy their world and ours. Now Odin wants ABE and Pru to help find Loki and imprison him before the giants can rally to his side. But the gods aren't the only ones back in town. Mister Fox has also returned and he's brought new questions about Baldur's death.

To answer those questions, ABE and Pru will travel to Niflheim, the Norse underworld. There, they’ll confront the Queen of the Dead herself. Unfortunately, they quickly find that getting into the world of the dead is easy. It’s getting out again—alive—that proves difficult.

One of the fun things about Over the Underworld is that it’s told from ABE’s point of view. Pru is still very much central to the story and the action. This time, though, we see events unfold through ABE’s eyes.

I hadn’t planned this approach. The point of view in the first draft alternated between the two friends. But as I worked on the book, I quickly realized that this was, in many ways, ABE’s story. Book 1 really dealt with Pru coming to terms with uncertainty about the world. Book 2, I discovered, is largely about ABE coming to terms with uncertainty about himself.

Well, that and stopping the end of the world.  

Is there anything else you’d like to tell our readers?

I should mention that with the release of Over the Underworld, we’re trying to set The Unbelievable FIB books up as a series. To that end, The Entirely True Story of the Unbelievable FIB is getting a new title and new cover (by amazing illustrator Matt Rockefeller) with its paperback release.

On August 16th, The Entirely True Story of the Unbelievable FIB will be released in paperback as The Unbelievable FIB 1: The Trickster’s Tale. On September 6th, The Unbelievable FIB 2: Over the Underworld will be released!

Thank you so much for dropping in, Adam!

Thank you, Linda. I loved your questions and thanks so much for inviting me to stop by!

You can find out more about Adam and his books on his website  and follow him on facebook and twitter @ adamshaughnessy


Cheryl said...

As always, Linda, you have introduced me to an author that sounds fascinating. Can't wait to read the Fib series. I'm particularly interested in Adam's "technique" of testing beginnings on children with his Adventure activities. They sound like great fun! Makes me wish I were a kid a again.

Linda Crotta Brennan said...

Thank you, Cheryl!

Sally Riley said...

Thank you, Linda and Adam, for this insightful interview. I found it helpful both as a writer and reader. Great questions and wonderful answers! Sally

Unknown said...

Such an enjoyable interview on every level! Thanks to you both, Linda and Adam!

Linda Crotta Brennan said...

Thank you for stopping by, Kathy and Sally!

Adam Shaughnessy said...

Thank you for the kind words, Kathy and Sally and Cheryl. I'm glad you enjoyed the interview! I'm sorry it's taken me so long to comment—I'm playing the "I have a newborn coming in about a month and the nursery still isn't finished" card! Linda, thank you for the excellent questions! I really enjoyed having the opportunity to respond!

Linda Crotta Brennan said...

Thank you, Adam, for being my guest! A new baby on the way...how thrilling! Good luck to you in your role as the father of a new reader!