The Great Mystery of Writing: An Interview with Tim Wynne-Jones

by Steve Bramucci

Tim Wynne-Jones is not easily encapsulated. In fact he’s the perfect proof for Walt Whitman’s famous line, “Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes.” He has written adult thrillers and songs for the Jim Henson TV show Fraggle Rock; he has also fronted a band in which his instrument was an electric baseball bat. The only easily definable thread running through his incredibly diverse body of work (radio-plays, an opera libretto, etc.) is that the man loves to tell stories. And that he’s quite good at it. He was recently awarded the Boston Globe-Horn Book Award for his latest young adult novel, Blink & Caution (Candlewick Press, $16.99), and received the same honor in 1995 for his story collection Some of the Kinder Planets (Puffin, 1996). He’s won The Governor General’s Award for children’s literature twice and he’s Canada’s nominee for the 2012 Hans Christian Andersen Award.

I met with Wynne-Jones a few weeks after the Horn Book announcement to talk about his process, his eclectic taste, and Blink & Caution. The book follows two teens, in separate narratives that eventually intersect, as they get drawn into a kidnapping conspiracy. The story catapults off the page—it is, in the strictest sense, a thriller—but just below the surface, the reader is never able to ignore the humanity that Wynne-Jones pours into his title characters. One of the two narratives uses a second-person point-of-view to unfold the story of Blink, a street kid surviving off room-service scraps. However, the device never feels staged or contrived. Like so much of the author’s writing, it feels natural—as if the man himself, his eyes filled with excitement, sat down next to you and began, “Let me tell you a story . . .”

SB: Let’s start with the book. In your title characters, Blink and Caution, you’ve created two people who have a lot of hard edges, yet you handle them with a tremendous amount of care and delicacy. How did you get to know these two teenagers?

TW-J: First of all, with Blink, I’ve always been interested in street people. My father-in-law ended up homeless—he came from a rich family, he was Stanford educated but he got hooked on drugs and eventually became a street person. When I first met him, I thought to myself “How does that happen?” Then it occurred to me what everyone should know anyway, which is: every street person comes fromsomewhere. They all have a story. That was something I’d thought about for a long time. Then a few years ago I was in Washington D.C., put up at a very nice hotel, and I was coming out of the doors and I saw this street kid staring up at the building. I wanted to go up to him and say, “There’s so much food in there.” But I knew that he could never get past the door. Of course there are always grubby kids in nice hotels—but they’re grubby kids whose parents are staying at the hotel and nobody looks twice at them because they know they belong. That was the seed of the idea: I wanted to rescue that kid outside the hotel but I knew that the only way he could get rescued was to fall into a pit first.

With Caution, a friend of mine was killed by his younger brother in a freak shooting accident. I’ve always thought about the younger brother and wondered how you can ever move on from that. So the book became about these two people living through their personal hells and, at some point, finding each other.

SB: It was fascinating to see the way that you handled them, because we sense all along that whoever is telling the story hopes they might be saved. Are you hesitant to let your audience give up on these so-called “lost youth”?

TW-J: I’m not religious, but I believe that we all get chances to turn things around and that nobody is irredeemably lost. Of course, you have to go through shit to get to that place where you can begin to put things into perspective. That’s why I write. More specifically, I write because I love mysteries. Every book I write is a mystery in some sense because I love the adventure of solving the riddles it creates. But I want the adventure to lead somewhere and I want the solution to be some form of redemption. I’m interested in how any of us makes sense of this thing we do called living.

SB: One of the two voices in this novel is written in second person, and you’ve asserted that this was not just an experiment. Where did that second-person voice come from?

TW-J: The thing with me is I can’t start a novel until I have the first scene, and even then I still can’t start until I have the opening sentence in my head. In fact, I don’t really sit down to get going until I have three or four sentences in a row. So one night I’m lying in bed, around four in the morning, and I’m not only lining up sentences in my head, I’m putting in the punctuation. It’s no use trying to sleep any longer because clearly I should just get up and start writing. I start typing away, and I’ve typed three pages and by now the coffee is kicking in and I’m finally awake enough to notice that it’s in second person and then to ask, “Hmm . . . what is that about?” That might sound coy, but it’s absolutely true. I honestly didn’t think about it. Finally, I get to about six pages and suddenly realize that I know who’s talking to Blink. Now I’m in control, because this second-person narrator is not just the author talking, it’s a specific person. It’s not important to know who this is—there is a giveaway in the last chapter but to hammer the fact home would add an element that I didn’t really want to add. It’s not important, but it’s as if this person is in Blink’s head and knowing who that person was made the second person very clear for me.

SB: The way that you experiment in the book—dancing between second person and third, alternating viewpoints in an organic way rather than chapter by chapter—shows a certain confidence that a lot of young authors don’t have. Is this a book that you couldn’t have written until now?

TW-J: I’m a musician so sometimes I find it easier to find examples in music. I can remember a band I was playing in and we had this drummer, who wasn’t flashy but he was very secure. If you’re a singer, which I am, a secure drummer is the one you depend on. I remember watching him play something I’d heard a million times, and I remember it looked like he was going to hit the cymbal and then suddenly he didn’t. He did something else. I remember talking to him at the break and I said to him, “That was so cool. I watched you go for the cymbal and then in a split second you went in another direction instead.” And he just said, “Yeah . . . That’s taken a whole career to get to.”

When you get to know your instrument well enough you don’t have to follow the obvious paths anymore. I used to try to write stylistically and there’s nothing quite so boring as writing that is trying hard for a certain effect. It has to come naturally. To go back to music, playing stylishly can produce something beautiful—but you want the raw energy too. You want both. I want to be Johnny Rotten on the page.

SB: The great thing about this piece is that for all the technique, it’s never overly precious or forcibly stylized. It has an incredible sense of urgency.

TW-J: Good, I’m glad you feel that, because I want it to be constantly surprising. Jane Yolen once said, “Fiction is reality surprised.” I need that. For my own sake, I need to surprise myself. A lot of the surprises come from action—I don’t mean like Batman and Robin, I mean that the way you learn and discover things as a kid is through action. Every teenager to some degree is a kinetic learner. I tend to think that no scene can resolve itself without action. So you put these people out there and let them collide. A scene without some sort of collision can be incredibly dull.

SB: You’re the epitome of versatile—you’ve written songs, radio plays, picture books and novels for kids, teens and adults. Is it simply a matter of sitting down to write and seeing what comes out?

TW-J: Yes, absolutely. The funniest example of that is that I started writing a picture book in the mid ’80s and it was incredibly morose. I don’t know what made me think it was a picture book but I stuck to it, got it in the size of a picture book, then never sent it to anybody. But eventually it became my third novel for adults, Fastyngange. I think an idea comes to you and you alight on whatever method can help you get it out in the open. Sometimes you make terrible mistakes, like the example I just gave, but eventually you find the right path for each story. An idea comes to you and you have to figure out where it sits.

SB: What does your process look like? How is your writing day structured?

TW-J: When I’m not working I’m much freer. I’m wandering around, keeping my eyes open. I’m a detective looking for clues. I’ll have several ideas in my head at any time, but I don’t know which one will catch. As I get nearer to starting, there’s always a moment where I get out of bed (because that’s when I’m at my best) and say: “Do I have to do this? Because what I’m going to do now is going to take at least a year. And it’s going to be hard work . . . Or should I just get some sleep?” If I do get up and write that first scene or chapter, I know I can finish it. Once I’m into it, I get through the first draft as fast as I can, sometimes as little as five weeks. Once that’s done I get to go back and see what I can make out of it. That’s when I really get to write. When I sit down to write the second draft, to really finally carve out this block of marble, I’m very structured and regimented. I get up early, go through and rewrite a chapter. Suddenly you know where you want to go and you get to be involved in the process of problem solving.

SB: You’re a beloved teacher [at Vermont College of Fine Arts] and you also write criticism and essays on craft. Has the teaching and the critical work that you do started to have a noticeable affect on your work?

TW-J: It certainly does. The biggest change in my life came when I came to VCFA. M. T. Anderson invited me to teach and I thanked him then turned him down. Coincidentally it was also a period where I was writing like shit. I wrote two entire books that were never published and aren’t even worth looking at. So I started to think, “Maybe I’ve had my at bat . . . and it’s been great, but it looks like this is the end of my run. And if that’s the case, maybe I ought to teach, because I do have some knowledge that is useful.” So I phoned Tobin [M. T. Anderson] back and said, “You know what, do you still have that job?” I started teaching because I thought I could help some rookies sweeten their swings, but immediately I was thrown back into examining my own work. I have definitely had the experience of sending back work to a student and getting work back from my own editor the same day with advice echoing the notes I’ve just given. That’s why on my website I have my eleven tips for writers. Those come out of pitfalls that we as writers are constantly and repeatedly falling into. It never comes easy. At this point in my career maybe I can just deal with things better or faster when they go bad.

As for the magazine work, like my work in The Horn Book, I can write a draft of a novel faster than I can write an eight-page essay. It’s a damn struggle. But I learn so much from doing it.

SB: You’re a very humble guy, but you’ve also won this year’s Boston Globe-Horn Book Award, and you’ve been similarly lauded throughout your career—it must feel pretty satisfying, right?

TW-J: Oh, it feels fantastic. When I wrote Some of the Kinder Planets, which I also won the Horn Book Award for, the best part was that it was the book where I really feel I found my voice. As for humility, it’s easy to stay humble when one has those books out there, those two books that I mentioned before, that no one wants to publish. You just have to show up and write the best you can write.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Fall 2011 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2011