I s’pose since The Charlatan’s Boy will be thereabouts in right ’round a week, we best get to talkin’… Okay, I’m being ridiculous. What is not ridiculous, however, is the fantastic yarn spun by Jonathan Rogers in his latest book (out on October 5).
Immersed in the culture of the feechiefolk, Rogers’ work is a hilarious and heartwarming adventure that is pitch-perfect for all ages. I talked to Jonathan recently to find out a bit more about the birth of a new world and how he submits to the story and allows his characters to roam free. Don’t worry, we leave the dialect to the book itself.
The Rabbit Room: I have to start with the feechiefolk and their culture. What’s the genesis there?
Jonathan Rogers: I could answer this a couple of ways. On the one hand, feechies are an embodiment of a wildness, an earthy vitality that is in all of us and that I think is there for a reason. Which is to say, it’s not there simply to be tamed out of us. Feechies live wide-open. They laugh too loud, cry too much… they’re pretty demonstrative in a child-like way. I would say they’re sort of a noble savage, except I don’t know how noble they are.
The Charlatan’s Boy isn’t just about feechies; it’s about fake feechies. Floyd and Grady’s schtick has been all about portraying Grady as a young feechie and charging people to look at him. When people quit believing in feechies, Floyd and Grady have a much harder job.
But I digress. You were asking where the feechies came from. I gave you a philosophical answer. The more practical answer is that feechies are based on some of the old boys I knew growing up in Georgia.
The Rabbit Room: The “old boys?”
Jonathan: Not literally old. Old boys as in “good old boys.” The ones who were always wanting to fight one another but were actually pretty good-natured about the whole thing. They were always fighting, but they were never scheming. Know what I mean?
The Rabbit Room: Yes. The idea to embody this wildness of sorts inside a character like Grady… where does this come from? Did you observe this wildness you described and then think, “That would make a great character?”
Jonathan: Yes. Definitely. I knew a guy in Georgia — I wrote about him in my blog — who spent most nights in the swamp catching wild boar. That was his hobby. I don’t mean he shot them. I mean he caught them…or rather his bulldog(s) caught them, and he tied them up with a rope. This guy was just wild in every sense of the word. He came to work crying one morning because an alligator had eaten his dog while it was trying to swim across the Ocmulgee River. That guy inspired the feechiefolk.
The Rabbit Room: What lessons did you learn from the Wilderking Trilogy that became essential for even prepping to write The Charlatan’s Boy?
Jonathan: I think the biggest thing I learned from writing The Wilderking was simply to trust the story — trust that its meaning will find its way out without too much help from me. It’s always tempting to tell a story and then tell the moral of the story. I mostly resisted that temptation in the Wilderking, but every now and then I succumbed, and those tend to be my least favorite parts of those books. In writing The Charlatan’s Boy, I recommitted to the story, and I think its meanings come through plenty strong.
The other thing I learned: to speak in my native tongue. So much language in the “fantasy” genre is stilted and artificial. And in some ways that’s a crutch. If I have a knight speaking like a knight rather than like somebody I know, it’s harder for a reader to hold me accountable if I get it wrong. My favorite language of the Wilderking books are where people sound like Americans, and I decided to make sure everybody talked like Americans in The Charlatan’s Boy.
The Rabbit Room: Grady and Floyd seem like they’d be fun characters to flesh out. I’ve spoken with authors before who say their own characters surprise them, but it seems like these would be even more so. Is that true here?
Jonathan: Grady definitely surprised me. I knew he was going to be fun. What I didn’t know was just how much sadness and hurt would be underneath the fun. I had never written about sadness and loneliness and hurt before. One thing I realized about Grady was that if he was going to have the kind of vitality I wanted him to have, he was going to have to feel the hurt and loneliness of his situation pretty deeply. He’s a beautiful soul — a fellow who responds to beauty and longs for the truth — and yet he lives in this world of ugliness and falsehood. One of my favorite lines from the book goes something like this: “Wasn’t we a pair? Floyd made his living by telling lies, and I made mine by being ugly.” That’s the poor boy’s plight in a nutshell.
Grady wants to have a meaningful life, but the only life he’s had has been geared toward tricking people out of their money. That’s a hard situation for a sensitive soul.
Floyd hasn’t surprised me yet. But I think he’s going to surprise me in the sequel.
The Rabbit Room: Sequel? What are the official plans there?
Jonathan: I have a two-book contract with Waterbrook Press. Book two is slated to release in the fall of 2011.
The Rabbit Room: The book holds such a fantastic sense of adventure in several places. Do you naturally live there as a writer or even a person? Did those sections come easy?
Jonathan: As a writer, I live for those action-oriented scenes. I love those scenes that have to be blocked out the way a director blocks out a scene in a play. I love having to to get up out of the chair and say, ‘If this guy’s standing here, then the other guy would be facing this way, or he wouldn’t be able to see him…’ Actually, it drives me crazy to read a story in which the writer obviously didn’t get up out of the chair to block it out.
Great stories are about ideas, of course, but they’re about how ideas express themselves in the physical world. That’s what sets me on fire about fiction. I love essays too, but they work in a very different way. The movement in an essay is from one idea to another. In a story, it’s about moving from one physical place (or one physical state, even) to another. The ideas work themselves out either way, just in a different way.
The Rabbit Room: How about writing from a child’s perspective? That has to be a challenge not to make the kid too “adult”, right?
Jonathan: Definitely. I was very nervous about writing in the first person. I wrote a first chapter I was very proud of, got a book contract on the strength of that chapter, and then said, “What have I done? I can’t do that for a whole book!” Part of the problem was, as you said, that the narrator is a boy.
I had one advantage there, though: Grady is worldly wise in some ways, having spent his whole life as a charlatan’s boy. At the same time, he’s extra naive in many ways because he’s never had anybody take enough interest in him to help him grow up. So that gave me some latitude, I think, to do what I wanted with the character. Another problem was just his language. It’s a little dialect-y, and if you get that wrong, it can be a disaster.
The Rabbit Room: [Laughs] I wondered about that too. Did you pore over a few of the phrases wondering what to put?
Jonathan: Oh yes. And some of them didn’t make the cut after the editor saw them.
The Rabbit Room: The author is more responsible than ever, it seems, for the marketing of his/her own product. What are you having to do for The Charlatan’s Boy?
Jonathan: I’m doing more than I have done for any previous book. How well I’m doing it remains to be seen. But I’ve started a blog — www.jonathan-rogers.com — that gives readers a way to connect a little more with me. It was supposed to be a place where I opine about “how stories do their work on us,” but mostly I just tell funny stories about my relatives. And then there’s the Feechie Film Festival on Facebook, in which friends and readers make short movies about feechiefolks.
Self-promotion doesn’t come naturally for me. Self-absorption, on the other hand–that comes very naturally.
Matt Conner is a former pastor and church planter turned writer and editor. He’s the founder of Analogue Media and lives in Indianapolis.