Welcome to Barren Island Books, the author interview series that’s in no way related to a popular music-based radio programme. You know the rules by now: my guests are exiled to a remote island with only five books for company, selected from the categories I give them. It’s up to them to make sure they choose wisely, because they’re going to be stuck with those books for a long, long time …
This week I have not one but two interviewees to exile. They are John Peck and Harry Heckel, who between them make up fantasy author Jack Heckel. Jack’s first book, Once Upon a Rhyme (Volume I of the Charming Tales), will be released in two days’ time. You can find out more about him at jackheckel.com or on Facebook. In the meantime, he’s sent John and Harry along to be banished to a desert island on his behalf. At least they’ll be able to keep each other company – assuming they can agree on which island to be banished to …
John, Harry, thanks for joining us. First of all, could you please tell us a little bit about yourselves – just so we know who it is we’re sending into exile. Illogical fears, unusual birthmarks, whether you’d rather wrestle a bear or punch a shark, that kind of thing.
If no one minds, first, we should have a moment of silence for Jack. Actually, for Jack Heckel’s mythical yacht, The Clever Double Entendre, which must have wrecked for him—or, well, us—to be stranded. I’m sure he just meant to be out on a three hour tour … a three hour tour. He never should have left that lighthouse on the geographically impossible oceanfront of Vermont. As for us, we’ll indicate which of us is speaking, or rather writing, with an H or J.
H: Harry has an illogical fear of heights, but no unusual birthmarks. He’s much more likely to wrestle a bear, assuming that it’s a stuffed one that’s not too large. Harry does have this strange tendency to sometimes refer to himself in the third person. Okay, enough of third person …I live in Virginia in the United States. I’ve always wanted to be a writer, and I’ve written a number of roleplaying products, co-authored a couple of Warhammer 40K novels and had some small press novels prior to Once Upon a Rhyme. I masquerade as an IT QA team lead in my secret identity. As for John …
J: You are asked to describe who you are. You know who you are, but you don't know how to make them understand. Do you tell them about the incident? What would they say? What would they think? The memories return to you—the clowns—there were clowns everywhere! You suddenly realize that you’re writing in the second person, and you’re not Faulkner or Italo Calvino so there is no way you can keep this up for the entire interview. You have to stop. You have to stop … Okay, can I just say that writing like that is pure hell! As for answering the question, I am the West coast appendage of Jack, living in California. I don’t know that I would say that I always wanted to be a writer, but I definitely have always loved telling stories. Once Upon a Rhyme is my absolutely first novel of any kind, but it has been such fun I can assure everyone it won’t be the last. To keep the lights on I work as an intellectual property attorney—just like Calvin of Calvin and Hobbes fame’s dad. (Seriously, Calvin’s dad was a patent attorney, which is probably the coolest thing about being a patent attorney.)
The two of you have the distinction of being the first co-authors ever to appear on Barren Island Books. What made you decide to write collaboratively? Can you tell us something about the process? Most importantly, since writers are notoriously very protective of the worlds and characters they create … any epic fallouts between the two of you?
J and/or H: We’re honoured to be the first co-authors. We were roommates at American University in Washington, DC, and notably listened to a lot of Pink Floyd, decorated our room in glowing stars on the walls, floor and ceiling and fought a battle with an air-conditioning unit to the death. Despite the fact that we lost that battle, we’re doing okay. We’ve always gotten along well, and each served as the best man (or wait, is it men?) at each other’s weddings. Anyway, several years ago, we decided that it would be good to reconnect and that the most obvious way, at least in our minds, was to write a book together.
H: As far as how the process works, we outlined the book and divided the chapters. After one of us wrote a chapter, he would send it to the other person for a total rewrite. Once the rewrite was done, it would go back to the original author for edits. Finally, both of us edited the book together once it was complete. This way the book feels like it was written by a single person, and someone who is different from either of us as individuals. We don’t feel like John wrote half the book or Harry wrote half the book. We both wrote the entire book.
J: In fact, our beta readers tried to guess which chapters each of us had written, and they were invariably wrong.
H: As for the world and characters, they actually dictate to us. Charming, it can be said, has quite the ego and Liz Pickett simply won’t let us tell her what to do. We negotiate with them. Joking aside, we haven’t had much conflict. We’ve set up some rules that the original author of each chapter has final say, but we’ve never had to use them. If we disagree, we roleplay the characters a touch and the course becomes clear. The important thing is that we stay honest with each other. Unlike Charming himself, we try to approach conflicts with humility and twenty years of friendship leads to a great deal of mutual respect.
J: This roleplaying point is an important one. Ultimately, we are writing a fairytale, and fairytales come from an oral tradition. So for us the process of writing most resembled storytelling. Harry would tell me a story about how Prince Charming and Will Pickett fought a troll, and I would tell him about who showed up to save the day, and through that process the book slowly unfolded.
And what about the books themselves? What are the inspirations behind them? What would make someone else choose Jack’s books to accompany them into exile?
H and J: The inspiration was to take a fairytale and turn it on its head. What if the dragon was slain, the princess rescued and Prince Charming had nothing to do with it? We thought it would be fun to do an amusing take on twisting a fairytale. A couple of great things happened as we explored the possibilities together. The character of Charming really developed into something far more interesting than we originally thought it would, and the stories of other characters, particularly our rescued princess, Gwendolyn, resonated with us. We hope that the readers want to find out what happens with everyone by the end of Book 2, Happily Never After, and beyond.
Probably the best reason to take the books with you is that they are fun. We still laugh when we read scenes and start discussing them. Without ruining the book, it’s got some hilarious moments, but it’s also got some very serious and deep stories beneath the humour.
As all good comedy does! So now let’s move on to the books you’re going to take to the island with you – and of course, because we’re reasonable people here at Barren Island Books, we’ll let you take five books each. First up, you each need to pick your favourite childhood book – perhaps the one that got you interested in reading in the first place, or the one you read over and over when you were young. Which will you choose, and why?
H: I’d have to take Tolkien’s The Fellowship of the Ring, although I wish I could have the whole trilogy. I was an advanced reader and read it at an early age. His vision expanded my world and introduced me to fantasy. I wanted to write something like that. I wish I could include all three books, but I’d take the first one and imagine all the endings.
J: But Harry, we can. We simply take Tolkien’s Red Book which has the whole trilogy under one cover with maps and appendixes or appendices or whatever they’re called and a cool leather cover with a picture of the white tree on it and everything.
H: What? We can do that?
J: If you are willing to cheat, which I am. Seriously, this book, not the Lord of the Rings generically, but the red covered 1974 edition from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt specifically, is what sowed in me a love for the art of books. From ten on I spent every summer with that volume and I cannot imagine living without it.
Next, the book that made the greatest impact on your life. This could be one that inspired you to become a writer, or one that made you look at the world in a whole new way – maybe even one that resulted in real-life romance or adventure.
J and H: Frank Herbert’s God-Emperor of Dune. We both agreed on this one. It’s cosmic and really changes your perspective on time and reality while you are reading it. Plus, it has great quotes.
“I am a collection of the obsolete, a relic of the damned, of the lost and strayed. I am the waylaid pieces of history which sank out of sight in all of our pasts. Such an accumulation of riffraff has never before been imagined.”
Oh, our advice if you try and tackle the Dune series would be to skip over Children of Dune if you can bring yourself to do it. We think most people run into this book and simply lose momentum. Do not let yourself be dismayed, but press on, dear reader, press on!
For your third book – and you’re probably going to need this one, all alone on a remote island – I’d like you to choose your greatest comfort read. You know, the one you turn to when you’re sad or ill or just need a little pick-me-up.
H: Ahem. Perhaps we have a plan here. I’ll take the first edition DnD Dungeon Master’s Guide. I can get lost in that book. In fact, the organization of the book is so bad it is almost a certainty that you will get lost in it. If I could hide a comic book inside, I might do that too.
J: If Harry is taking the DMG, then I would take the first edition DnD Player’s Handbook, the one with the picture of the thief trying to pry the gem from the statue’s eye. I cannot tell you how long as a kid I stared at that frozen tableau, imagining the next few moments as the curse or trap cast on that gem was unleashed on the unsuspecting adventurers in the picture.
J and H: With these two books in hand, and presuming we were stranded on the same island, we know for a fact that we could quite happily get lost in adventures till the end of our days.
Fourthly, it’s your unexpected treasure: a book you didn’t expect to like but did, maybe one outside your usual genre or that you picked up with low expectations but were pleasantly surprised …
H: I’m going to go with Roger Zelazny’s Nine Princes in Amber. When I picked it up, I thought that the cover was on the wrong book. Without ruining it for anyone who hasn’t read it, it’s a fantastic ride. It made me rethink fantasy. I enjoyed it immensely.
J: In a moment of dissension, I am going with Michael Moorcock’s Elric of Melniboné. Everything about this novel surprised me. I only stumbled upon it because there was a reference to Elric and his mythic sword Stormbringer in the first edition of TSR’s Deities and Demigods supplement, and I was intrigued enough to track the novels down. Then you have this series of books that simply redefined for me what a fantasy series could be. It was dark and moody, and the entire time you are rooting for an antihero bent on destroying the world. Fantastic!
And finally, I’d like each of you to choose your instant classic – the book you think most deserves to be read and reread by future generations. It’s up to you whether this book is already considered a classic or is something more obscure.
H: We’ve both agreed on William Goldman’s The Princess Bride.
H: Wait, I thought we talked about this and agreed.
J: We did. We did. It was just too tempting. The truth is, I couldn’t agree more with this choice. Here is a book that brilliantly uses all the fairytale tropes: an officious narrator, a dashing hero, a beautiful princess, a forced marriage, two different uses of the rule of three (that heroes must overcome three challenges to win the day: initially Inigo Montoya, Fezzik, and Vizzini; and then in the Fire Swamp, the flame spurts, the lightning sands, and the Rodents of Unusual Size), a perfect kiss, and of course a happily ever after. It is everything we want The Charming Tales to be.
H: Also, the movie adaptation is nearly as good as the book.
H: You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.
As you wish. We’ll get those books packaged up ready for your journey. Since we’re not completely heartless here at Barren Island Books, we’ll also let each of you take one song/piece of music, one film and one other item of your choice into exile with you …
H: That’s good news. I was thinking that we’d have no phones.
J: No lights either.
H: No motorcar.
J: Not a single luxury.
H: Like Robinson Crusoe, as primitive as can be.
J and H: As we had not expected you to be so magnanimous, give us a second to huddle together.
[Indistinct murmuring, punctuated by an occasional AHA!]
J: Okay, for a song I’m going to take Wish You Were Here by Pink Floyd, just a beautiful piece of music that would definitely encapsulate my feelings, being as I would be stranded on a barren island wishing all the people I knew were there. For a film I am going to split the difference with Harry between Star Wars: A New Hope or Raiders of the Lost Ark, as long as he sticks with the bargain and picks the other. And for an item, definitely a dice bag filled to the brim with every shape and size of polyhedron I could find. You can play games without dice, but why would you want to?
H: I’ll take Star Wars: A New Hope and let John take Raiders of the Lost Ark, though I really love the first Spider-Man movie, but I saw Star Wars in the theatres with my dad and it’s one of my favourite memories growing up. I’ll take Comfortably Numb by Pink Floyd as a song, although if there could be only a sound that I’d listen for, it would that sound that the TARDIS makes, that wheezing sound which brings hope wherever it goes. Because if I were lost, I know that my daughter would find a way to have the Doctor bring me home. Assuming that I can’t bring an actual TARDIS, I’d take a volleyball to the island. I’m sure John and I could find a way to draw a face on him and he could be dungeon master when we’d lost our sanity and be the final arbiter in any disputes.
And now, before we whisk you away, you have one last decision to make: where you want your remote island to be located. You can choose anywhere you like for your exile, in this world or another. Perhaps more controversially, you can also choose whether to be exiled together or separately …
J and H: Definitely together. As for the place …
J: There are so many beautiful places on this world that I haven’t seen, and so many lovely oceans and seas the island could be located in, but I think I would still choose Krull on the edge of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld, looking over the rim at the four mighty elephants, Berilia, Tubul, Great T'Phon, and Jerakeen, and beneath them Great A’Tuin, the turtle swimming its way through the vastness of space.
H: That’s tough. I think I’d like to be on an island in the Aegean which was once home to an ancient civilization, which John and I could discover in between trying to find food and redrawing dungeons in the sand.
Dissension at the final hurdle! Tell you what: since you’ve only cheated a little bit so far, we’ll let you spend half your exile in each location. And with that, you’re ready to go. Thank you for joining us, and enjoy your trip!
J and H: Thank you for inviting us on this exciting trip. This was an absolute delight. We only wish that Jack had been here. Maybe next time.