Today I get to introduce and present to you an interview with the hilarious and illustrious Christopher Healy! He is the author of the Hero’s Guide trilogy: The Hero’s Guide to Saving Your Kingdom, The Hero’s Guide to Storming the Castle, and coming in spring 2014, The Hero’s Guide to Being an Outlaw. This series is drop dead hilarious. It will make you giggle, chortle, and even snort. But what is truly wonderful is the thought and intention that went in to creating these stories, something which is evident in all interviews with Christopher, including our own. The stories follow the exploits of Prince Charming – or rather, the Princes Charming, as they struggle to overcome their not-quite-accurate fairy-tale fame. Published by Walden Pond Press, an imprint of HarperCollins these books are wonderful for all ages AND a film version is currently in development at Fox Animation/Blue Sky Studios – so keep your eyes peeled!
I could write about Christopher and tell you his story (school = career, wife = kids = writing), which is quaint and nice and lovely but he has already done so, and with far more skill, on his blog. Check it out!
Christopher Healy’s Interview
1. Tolkien, in his essay on Fairy Stories, laments the fact that fairy tales have been relegated to the nursery. But as we know, today, there are fairy tales for all ages. As an author and someone who works in the online media sphere, what do you attribute to the success of fairy tales not just amongst children, but among adults in contemporary society as well?
Let me say this in the cheesiest possible way: Everybody needs a little magic now and again. There’s this pervading idea that anything unrealistic—anything with wizards, monsters, super powers, robots, etc.—is for kids. But that is often soooo not the case (hence repeated warnings to my daughter that it’ll be a good decade or more before she’s allowed near Game of Thrones). A good story is a good story, whether it obeys the laws of physics or not. And whether you’re talking about adults or kids, I think readers like to be pulled out of their day-to-day existence every once in a while. Even the most literary-minded of readers. So I’m pleased to see more fantasy (and sci fi) getting treated seriously. I’m not sure where the real turning point was, but part of me wants to thank J.K. Rowling, because Harry Potter is the first magic-laden franchise that I can remember adults showing such unabashed, public love for.
2. Why did you decide to write for children and not adults?
I have kids, so my books are a kind of gift to them. Also, my previous job was reviewing children’s literature and kids’ entertainment, so I was steeped in the stuff for years. That background gave me a good feel for the market—what was out there and what wasn’t, what (in my opinion) worked and what didn’t. It also helped me develop a real fondness for middle-grade literature.
3. One thing that I really enjoyed about your book is all of the ‘untold’ backstories that you must have had so much fun coming up with, and the character traits! I love how each character is just so utterly weird. In a way being weird is more normal, so I really liked the flaws and humour imbued throughout. Where do you get all your inspiration from?
I devour pop culture of all kinds, so my influences and inspirations are all over the place—books, movies, comics, TV shows, video games, Broadway musicals, and so on. I’ve given nods to some of my favorites with Easter-Eggy references hidden throughout the Hero’s Guide books. If you look for them, you’ll find subtle nods to Star Wars, Airplane!, Winnie-the-Pooh, Lord of the Rings, the Simpsons, and more. But in terms of the specific personalities and character traits of my princes and princesses—my main inspirations were the original fairy tales, themselves. There was so much in those old stories that didn’t make sense to me (Why didn’t Rapunzel’s prince ever get a ladder?, for instance), so I used my imagination to fill in the blanks and come up with explanations for these characters’ otherwise inexplicable behaviors.
4. What drew you to Princesses and Princes Charming? How did you piece together all of these tales into a cohesive story arch? Was there a lot of planning? Did you have to chop any particular tale or character?
The fairy tale princes just seem ripe for the plucking. Much to my dismay, my daughter went through a heavy princess phase when she was about five or six. Rather than fight it, I tried to find her lots of alternative princess tales—retellings with strong, smart, confident female leads. And there are so many great ones out there. What I didn’t find, though, were any stories that revamped or remodeled the princes. That seemed like a big hole in the kid-lit landscape. Because if you rely solely on the original tales, those guys are pretty lame. They’re blank slates who, aside from nice cheekbones and the occasional heroic deed, didn’t give the princesses any real reason to fall for them. I said early on in the writing of Hero’s Guide that if any of my princesses genuinely fell in love with any of my princes, I wanted them to do it with eyes wide open, fully aware of these guys’ faults and idiosyncrasies.
And yes, I decided to take on four different sets of princes and princeses. And add in a circus’s worth of side characters as well. Tying the through-lines of all these people into one cohesive arc was not easy. And in the beginning, I did it terribly. Because I didn’t know where I was taking these characters. I had never written a novel before (let alone a trilogy), and I decided to take the “figure it out as you go along approach.” Not the best move. I wrote myself into more corners than I could count, finding myself at one narrative dead-end after another. It took forever. So when it came time for Books 2 and 3, I outlined the plots beforehand and it all went very smoothly. I’m a huge proponent of outlining now.
5. According to a number of critical theorists, such as Bruno Bettelheim, fairy tales teach children to assimilate culture. As such, children learn to perform gender and differentiate between each other through these stories. How (if you do so, and I think you do!) do you subvert traditional expressions of gender in your stories? Why?
As you might guess from my answer to the previous question, this is a very important issue for me. I do my best to consciously work against gender stereotypes in my writing, for the sake of both girls and boys who read my books. And honestly, the main way I do this is to craft multi-layered characters. I want all my female characters to be strong—but not just generic “strong”—I want them to show their strengths in different ways (whether that means dueling a formidable foe, puzzling out a mystery, remaining calm under dire circumstances, or simply doing what needs to be done even when its something you really, really don’t want to do). And I don’t want them to be just strong. They need to have flaws as well—which is why my heroines can, at times, overconfidently rush into dangerous situations, goofily misinterpret something, or simply flip out. Any character who can be defined by a single trait—positive or negative—is being done a disservice. All of this is, by the way, exactly how I approach male characters as well.
I think presenting fully developed characters and avoiding gender stereotypes is important, because Bettelheim is right. I don’t want young girls to think they have no power and have to wait for a boy to come to their aid, just as I don’t want young boys to think they aren’t allowed to be afraid or weak in any way. But at the same time, I don’t want to simply flip those expectations—I want to throw them into a literary salad spinner and mix ‘em all up. I want boys and girls alike to come away from the stories they read and think, “I can help myself if I need to, but it’s also okay to be afraid sometimes.” I don’t want kids to think they have to be any particular way.
6. What should we most look forward to in the third installment to the Hero’s Guide series? Besides a hopelessly hilarious mixed up fairy tale. Will we see the return of any of our beloved protagonists? How many times will our lovely narrator have to backtrack?
Pretty much all the protagonists will be back for The Hero’s Guide to Being an Outlaw (along with some new faces). And as the title implies, you can expect a change of circumstance for our League of Princes. These guys (and ladies) have spent so much time trying to cement their reputations as true heroes; I wanted to see how they’d handle it if their world was suddenly flipped around and they unexpectedly became the bad guys. They’re falsely accused, of course, but that will be part of the overarching mystery.
The story in Being an Outlaw is bigger in scope than either of the previous books. It takes place over the course of nearly a full year and will take our protagonists to corners of the globe (well, their globe) that we haven’t seen yet. And yes, the narrator will backtrack multiple times. I don’t want to give too much away, but I will say this… Pirates!
A huge thanks to Christopher Healy!