Welcome to one of the stops on the Dundurn Press blog tour for Canadian author Philippa Dowding’s Everton Miles is Stranger Than Me!
I am delighted to present a detailed interview I had the wonderful chance to do with Philippa, as well as a review of Everton Miles is Stranger Than Me, Philippa’s latest middle grade read!
Welcome to Fab Book Reviews, Philippa! I am so delighted to have you here! Let’s dig right into the questions I have for you…
Q: When you first started creating Gwendolyn’s world and the concept of the Night Flyers for The Strange Gift of Gwendolyn Golden, were you already thinking ahead to the possibility of a follow-up story involving Everton Miles?
A: The truth is, I really thought that The Strange Gift of Gwendolyn Golden would be a perfect stand-alone book. At the end of the story, I left Gwendolyn sitting on a swing pondering her future, and it was a wonderful ambiguity that I liked. To fly or not to fly? Who knows what we will become when we are fourteen? But once the book was nominated for an OLA Red Maple award in 2015 (thank you!), I met with a lot of readers who really wanted to know what happened next. I started to think about that, and on re-reading the first book, the boy Everton Miles from the Midsummer Party jumped out at me. He was my way into the sequel.
Q. I was absolutely fascinated by the characters of Abilith, the Rogue Flyer and Celestine, the Spirit Flyer. How do you go about creating such unearthly, intangible characters? What kind of research goes into building a character such as a fallen angel or a spirit?
A: Thank you! I’m glad you liked them!
The forces for good are immortal Spirit Flyers, Celestine and her older brothers and sisters, who watch over Gwendolyn and the other human Night Flyers. They’re benevolent overlords, a bit haughty, smart, useful in their way and well-meaning enough, but endearingly clueless most of the time. They were quite fun to write! I’m a lifelong Star Trek fan, so think early Vulcans from Enterprise, with a touch of Karellen from Childhood’s End (without the menace).
The antagonist, the tragic, fallen anti-hero, Abilith the Rogue, has much darker influences. To breathe life into him and his netherworld, I re-read Milton’s Paradise Lost, Dante’s Inferno, and Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book for his Silas character, and Bod’s trip to the underworld. I went back to Mary Shelley, and H. P. Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness for his bleak, alien landscape. I revisited the final chapters of Captain Ahab’s tale, as he tried too late to reconnect with his mutinous crew.
What made these characters and stories so beguiling? Personally, I think a great antagonist needs a touch of humanity, a quirk or flaw that we can recognize in ourselves. Although Abilith’s actions over time are monstrous and eventually he becomes a bitter, cruel, sociopathic outcast, his descent began with a single mistake: he fell in love with the wrong creature. Tragic!
Q. Everton Miles is Stranger Than Me is quite a bit darker than the first book of Night Flyers: even more fantastical, heartbreaking, with terrifying elements in the last quarter of the novel. I find most of the best children’s literature has those darker, deeper, elements! What works or characters or worlds were you inspired by while working on Everton Miles? Were these inspirations any different from your work on The Strange Gift of Gwendolyn Golden?
A: The short answer is, while I didn’t have a direct road map of inspiration for the series, I think everything an author reads influences them, and I’ve always loved fantasy.
As a child, I had terrific neighbours, a family of creative geniuses, next door. I highly recommend it! They gave me classic children’s books to read for my birthday. I’ll never forget finishing the first book in the Narnia series when I was about nine, The Magician’s Nephew, and thinking, what IS this? But I couldn’t put the series down. Then they handed me The Hobbit (which is still one of my favourite books of all time), then The Lord of the Rings trilogy, then books by Carlos Castaneda, Philip K. Dick and on and on. After that early love of books, I went on to study English at university, and read everything I could.
I learned early in life that I loved fantasy. So if I had to say what books have inspired me, and what you might find hints of in Everton Miles is Stranger than Me, they’d be an eclectic mix of Milton’s Paradise Lost, E.B. White, C.S. Lewis, Neil Gaiman, Tolkien, a little J.K. Rowling, Philip Pullman, Ian McEwan, plus an unconscious literary stew of other writers.
Q: Given the ages of Gwendolyn and Everton, did you ever consider aiming this series for a teen audience? How might that have- if at all- changed your approach to the story or characters?
A: Oh, that’s an interesting question. I hadn’t really thought of that, but I did deliberately try to avoid writing really romantic stuff, which seems to be a largish proponent of teen writing. I didn’t want Everton and Gwendolyn’s to necessarily be a love story because there was so much else to cover, although there is a deep friendship and connection there that could one day develop into a romance, which is hinted at.
Also, although Gwendolyn is indeed a little older and wiser than she is in the first book, I couldn’t age her too much. I can tell you, though, that in the first draft of this book, Everton came to life a bit darker than his final self. He smoked, he carried a hip flask, he swore a little. All that had to go in the second draft considering the audience, which was a bit of a shame. I liked that bad boy!
Q: Let’s talk about the genre of magic realism. It is a genre that I often hear about, or read books being described as such but seems a hard genre to define. How would you best describe it in just a few sentences? Beyond Gabriel Garcia Marquez- whose work is widely considered the epitome of magic realism- which authors or works do you think have best captured the magic realism genre in children’s or teen lit?
A: It’s maybe a bit of a literary chameleon. Based purely on my own reading (okay, and a graduate paper on it forever ago), here’s my definition of magic realism: a sub-genre of fantasy, in which one magical element exists in an otherwise completely realistic world, and which does not require further explanation. The magical element simply exists, unquestioned by the characters, and readers must engage in a “willing suspension of disbelief” to read the story.
So to me, magic realism isn’t high fantasy set in a different time and place like Lord of the Rings/Game of Thrones etc, and it’s not an entire fantasy universe like Harry Potter. Magic realism has a realistic, here-and-now setting, with a single magical element that goes unexplained and accepted by the characters and the reader. It’s also the single most important element that moves the story forward.
Folk tales are great at this. Think Jack and the Beanstalk. How on earth did three beans turn into an enormous beanstalk with a giant at the top of it? And why didn’t Jack think twice about that?
If you look at classical literature, I’d say Sir Gawain and the Green Knight has all the elements of magic realism. Big green guy bursts into Camelot on Christmas Eve, gets his head chopped off, then picks it up, and calmly sends Gawain on a quest to find him. Since when did severed heads send knights out on quests? And why didn’t anyone think to ask that?
Moving into more recent children’s literature, I’d say one of the most perfect examples of magic realism might be E.B. White’s Stuart Little. Sure he was adopted, but no one questions the fact that he’s a mouse. Or even Natalie Babbitt’s, Tuck Everlasting, where the fountain of youth exists in a ho-hum little every day town.
I recently read Rocks Fall, Everyone Dies by Lindsay Ribar. I’d say that’s a teen magic realism title: boy discovers his family has a magical connection to a dangerous, overhanging cliff and no one questions it.
That’s a start, but there are probably a lot more excellent examples.
Now for some slightly shorter questions…
Q: What were some of your most beloved stories or characters growing up?
A: I loved the Narnia series, The Hobbit, all of Lord of the Rings. But my first book love was Charlotte’s Web. When I first read the book at age eight, I finished it, put it in my lap and looked down at the illustration of Wilbur and Fern. I was so transported and moved, that I knew then and there that I wanted to write stories, too.
Q: What have been some of your favourite reads of the year- anything from adult fiction, to YA, to children’s!
A: My reading is always a year or two (or 10) behind everyone else! Here are the five books that made the biggest impression on me this year:
A Tale for the Time Being, Ruth Ozeki
The Rest of Us Just Live Here, Patrick Ness
The Blackthorn Key, Kevin Sands
The Chrysalids, John Wyndham
The Gargoyle, Andrew Davidson
Q: And I have to ask, will we ever get to visit with Gwendolyn or Everton again?
A: I’ve been toying with a few ideas! My publisher, Dundurn Press, would be happy to have another book in the series, and I’d be happy to write one. So nothing on the screen yet, but stay tuned!
Thanks Michelle, great questions and this was a lot of fun!
Thank you so much for your time, Philippa! This was fantastic and enlightening. I loved hearing all of your answers!
…Read on for my thoughts on the book…