Monday, November 7, 2011

MG Author Spotlight & Giveaway: Interview with A.J. Hartley

I'm so pleased to have this month's MG author on my blog. A.J. Hartley is a New York Times bestselling author and a Shakespearean professor. His first middle grade novel came out just last month. It's called Darwen Arkwright and the Peregrine Pact and it's filled with adventure, fantasy and a great, great friendship at its core. It also has a British protagonist (and, you might know, I'm a bit of an anglophile) and is a novel suitable for boys and girls of all ages.

Read on after the interview to see how you can enter to win a copy of A.J.'s book!

Eleven-year-old Darwen Arkwright has spent his whole life in a tiny town in England. So when he is forced to move to Atlanta, Georgia, to live with his aunt, he knows things will be different - but what he finds there is beyond even his wildest imaginings!

Darwen discovers an enchanting world through the old mirror hanging in his closet - a world that holds as many dangers as it does wonders. Scrobblers on motorbikes with nets big enough to fit a human boy. Gnashers with no eyes, but monstrous mouths full of teeth. Flittercrakes with bat-like bodies and the faces of men. Along with his new friends Rich and Alexandra, Darwen becomes entangled in an adventure and a mystery that involves the safety of his entire school. They soon realize that the creatures are after something in our world - something that only human children possess.

To borrow (and modify) a question from James Lipton, what’s your favorite middle-grade appropriate “curse word” or insult?
A.J. Hartley: As a Brit, all my favorite curse words are a bit obscure. My current favorite is "chuff": a nicely flexible Northen English curse which can mean happy or pleased (as in "I'm right chuffed that Chelsea lost on Saturday") but is also a less specific intensifier: "He's a right chuffin' idiot, he is." Or "What the chuff do you think you're playing at?" "Chuffin' 'eck!" is the exclamation form. It's a chuffin' useful word to have in your arsenal.

If you could step into a magic mirror and go anywhere, where would you go?
AJH: I have favorite places in the world. Delphi, in Greece, for instance. Uxmal, in Mexico. Kenilworth castle or the Castlerigg stone circle in England. But I think if I had a truly magical mirror I'd want to be surprised. Take me somewhere completely unknown. Somewhere impossible.

You're already a bestselling author, but Darwen Arkwright is your first children's book. Were there any challenges you didn't expect in writing for a younger audience? Were there any similarities in your process?
AJH: It really is a completely different process in some ways, and not at all in others. I hope that in the end children's, YA and adult books are all finally about story, character and good prose, but the MG market is entirely new for me and in many respects what I've tried to do with DARWEN feels like an entirely different entity from anything I've written before. At first I worried that I might be pitching the language at too sophisticated a level, but I talked to R.L. Stine about this and he assured me that if I considered "dumbing down" the book, I would be making a huge mistake and that my readers would sniff out that they were being condescended to. In the end, I took the path of a great storyteller like Dickens, who knows how to be absolutely clear and straightforward without simplifying his ideas. Shakespeare too, though his language seems more arcane to us now, is often at his most powerful when he is most simple in his word choice.

One of the things I love about writing middle grade books, though, is that I don't have to worry quite so much about genre, since MG is defined by age group rather than literary categories. When I write adult books I'm accutely conscious that I'm often blurring or straying entirely from the genre I'm supposed to be working in, and that this will irritate my editors and readers. I don't feel that in MG. So long as the story makes sense according to its own internal logic, I don't worry if the tone shifts, or that some scenes are closer to horror than to fantasy, humor to sci-fi etc. I'm also delighted that I don't have to DECIDE not to write literary fiction for younger readers, or that sensational story lines might disqualify me from being a 'serious' writer :)

Like Darwen, you're an Englishman who now lives in the South. Do you remember the first American phrase/idiom that really caught you off-guard?
AJH: Tricky. Like most Brits I've been exposed to American language use through film and television from an early age, and British English continues to morph towards an American standard. No one where I grew up would ever use the word "guys" to describe a group including women, and when I first spent time with Americans I found it bizarre to the point of irritation. I now use it all the time regardless of gender. I still refuse to use "momentarily" to mean "in a moment" rather than "for a moment." I just can't get away from the grammatical logic of the thing no matter how many times I am told someone will be with me momentarily. But then I also wince when people (everyone, now, it seems) use "impact" as a verb... I know, I know. I'm a fuddy duddy. Which is ironic, when you think about it. No one says fuddy duddy anymore except fuddy duddies.

What are two MG books you'd recommend and why?
AJH: John Masefield's The Box of the Delights, because it's old and reminds me of childhood Christmases, and is one of those archetypal Travels to Other Worlds stories (like my own) which I always loved as a kid. The resolution of the story feels a little dated now, but I love the villainous card-sharping curates on the train who, when looked at the right way, look like foxes...

Right now I'm just discovering (somewhat behind the curve) the delights of Rick Riordan's Kane Chronicles. Fun stuff. I love the bickering narrators and the sense of ancient magic.

Oh, and can I add Joseph Delaney's Last Apprentice series? Tales of seventeenth century Lancashire witchcraft. I grew up in the bleak hills which are the core of the stories and he manages to master an understated creep factor which really gets under your skin. The first MG books to actually give me nightmares for a very long time!

Thank you A.J. for an awesome interview. My goal for the year is to find a way to use 'chuffed' in daily conversation.

And now, I'm right chuffed to present this giveaway! (Mission...accomplished)

The giveaway is now closed! Congratulation to winner, Aiecha, and thanks to everyone who entered!


  1. Wow. This was a wonderful interview. It also taught me something: I thought "Chuffed" only meant pleased with oneself.

    I also cringe when I hear something like "The state of the European economy has impacted Wall Street," meaning it has caused a reaction in stock prices. Impacted, to me, is an adjective that, when paired with wisdom teeth, indicates a trip to the oral surgeon is needed for removal of same.

  2. Great interview! Darwen Arkwright and the Peregrine Pact sounds terribly fun.

  3. Other world adventures are always my favorites and tend to show up in my own wip(s) as well. Great interview :)

  4. I really look forward to reading Darwen, it looks like a fun story!

  5. I'm so excited for this book. I was a student of Dr. Hartleys and an avid fan of his work, so I'm excited to see how his writing changes for a chidrens novel. I have to add that I've always been a fan of "fuddy duddy", but I'm cheesy like that.

  6. What a great interview!
    A.J. sounds like a really interesting author and his book looks amazing.
    And all hail the power of the fuddy duddy ;)

  7. This book sounds great! And I especially liked what the author said about not dumbing down the language for MG.