(My 11 year old was the one who first found James Riley’s Story Thieves and read the first book almost all in one sitting. She loved it so much she insisted I read it. I was delighted by the fast-paced story, the smart characters, the references to other beloved books, and especially the self-reflective/meta aspect of the book. I knew immediately that I wanted to interview Mr. Riley before the second book came out. When The Stolen Chapters arrived on our doorstep my daughter quite literally dropped what she had been carrying, grabbed the book out of my hands, and spent the rest of the day reading. Talking to James Riley for this interview was just as much fun as reading his books. I hope you enjoy our conversation as much as I did!
You can read a full review of James Riley’s The Stolen Chapters on the Reading Rainbow Community Goodreads Page.)
Let’s start off with a little philosophy. This series is deliciously “meta,” so I have to ask, do you think we all might be characters in a book?
Part of why I like Story Thieves as a concept is that it can be read as a straight story, or as some kind of philosophical or religious allegory. I like asking questions like Are we in control? Are we part of a master plan we aren’t aware of? And what happens if we fight that plan, or society, or whatever higher power is out there? And those questions come up when fictional characters in the series find out that they are fictional.
That might sound like large questions for a kid’s book, but I think the best kid’s books do pose the larger questions about life… though I’m certainly not including my books among the best! Those larger questions maybe don’t register to us as kids, but when we go back and read as adults, we see them.
I don’t want to take one side or the other in terms of the larger philosophical or theological question because I never want to question anyone’s personal belief system. I feel that just raising the question itself is the contribution I can make, maybe.
These books are also my take on how there has to be balance in all things. This idea might go back to Star Wars, and the idea of balance with the force, since Star Wars was a huge influence on me as a kid. I’ve always been attracted to the idea of balance because of that. In Story Thieves, you have Bethany, a half fictional girl, wondering if she should be playing it safe, not making waves in the books, or if she should embrace being fictional. She ends up going to each extreme at some point, which doesn’t work out so well, so she has to figure out how to find the right balance.
Writers can really be the worst, to their characters. We put our characters through all kinds of crazy and terrible stuff! I feel like it’s only fair that if I’m putting my characters through all this, then they get to eventually confront their author. So that will happen eventually. And I know that’s incredibly arrogant, to put myself in the story, and feel horribly guilty about it. But it just sounds like so much fun for me, not just as the writer, but as someone who’s reading it. I’m giving myself a lot of grief over putting myself in a book. I apologize!
As I read through the Story Thieves series, I can’t help mentally comparing it to Six Characters in Search of an Author, Waiting for Godot, or Jasper Fforde’s Thursday Next books, but for kids. What were your influences when this story was taking shape in your head? Did any of these (or other books, movies, or TV shows) play a part?
I actually found Jasper Fforde’s Thursday Next books when I first started writing this particular series. I read the first and loved it, and thought, I can’t read anymore because it’s going to influence this story too much. Each author has their own thoughts about influences, but when I wrote the Half Upon A Time series I stayed away from fairy tales because I didn’t want to unconsciously steal any ideas. When I was done with that series I had a bunch of fairy tale style books to catch up on. With this series I want to be careful of the Thursday Next books, so I currently have 3 or 4 Fforde books on my shelf that I’m looking longingly at, and I can’t wait to go and read them when this is done.
This series actually started much more meta, with a villain who could rewrite people’s life stories and wreak all sorts of havoc that way. The original idea dealt with jumping through plot holes, and playing with book elements such as ending chapters to advance the story when the characters want to jump forward in time a bit. It was much more of a Phantom Tollbooth kind of idea. Owen was originally an apprentice bibliomancer who could change people’s stories, and he found this girl who was half fictional, jumping in and out of books. But my editor and I weren’t sure if middle grade readers would like such a meta idea, so we made it a bit more of a traditional middle-grade story with more adventure.
You studied English in college, but did (or do) you have an interest in philosophy as well? I would think that writing self-reflective stories like this requires the ability to stand outside ourselves and question the fundamentals of reality, which is what philosophy does. Basically, what I’m asking is what is it that inspires your desire to delve into these nested stories and alternate universes?
I have a huge interest in philosophy. I imagine I do what 99% of writers do, which is find an interest and delve into it so much that I want to explore it in all facets of my life. I’ve gotten into all kinds of Eastern philosophies, as well as various religions, exploring ideas behind them and their histories. I find that fascinating. Philosophy in college was a bit different. I remember I wrote a paper for a college philosophy class on the nature of the self, and didn’t get a good grade because I didn’t cite sources. But who is a better expert on the nature of self than ourselves? At least of our own selves. This is why I didn’t do well with research papers.
It’s always been fascinating, that question of the self; who we are and where that comes from. I love the idea that there’s a destiny for everyone, that we’re predestined to follow certain paths. It certainly makes you feel good, thinking that things are “meant to be.” But then you have to consider the question of what if fate leads you in a wrong direction? What happens if you stray from what’s “meant to be,” or your destined path?
I like asking these questions, and though Story Thieves will take a solid stance about writers and the fictional world, it won’t in any way try to answer the philosophical nature of these questions in life, not that I even could. As I said before, I don’t want to question anyone else’s beliefs, I just want to raise the questions.
Is Story Thieves going to be a trilogy, or more?
The series is going to be five books with a potential for more. I planned for the series to be complete in five books, but lately I’ve been getting a lot of ideas for afterward, so I’m considering what could happen if I kept it going, had some spin-offs. I don’t usually like the idea of stories that go on forever. I like to have an end point, both as a writer and reader. I don’t like to start a story if I don’t know how it ends. But if I get an idea for a new story that’s just in the same world, I don’t mind building off that.
The two Story Thieves books thus far almost seem like they’re from two different genres: #1 being an adventure and #2 being a kind of mystery. Was this on purpose? Will the next books delve into other genres?
Yeah, each book is a different genre. I didn’t intend this from the beginning, but it opened up such joy for me when it happened! You’re right that the second is a mystery, but it’s my take on a mystery. I could never do something like a traditional Agatha Christie mystery very well, so this is my way of taking on that genre.
The third book will be called Story Thieves: Secret Origins and be in the superhero-comic book genre. One of the characters will even get to see the story happening in panels and get to interact with it that way. This book will answer a lot of the questions readers might be wondering about: Who is Bethany’s father? Where does Nobody come from? Things like that. I grew up loving comic books and devouring them, and now I want to play with all those comic books/superhero concepts. Nothing is more fun than dealing with superhero tropes and cliches and kind of subverting those. Also in the third book, Owen will explore what it’s like to be a writer, knowing there are actually other people or characters on the other side, and what it means to be your own person.
The fourth book will be in the Choose Your Own Adventure style, with readers getting to choose what Owen should do next, while he fights against those choices. As far as the fifth book, I don’t plan for that one to be in a particular different genre. Number five will mostly just wrap up the series.
I’ve seen that according to your author profile “James Riley” is just a made-up character, but if James Riley were real, what do you think he might have been like as a kid?
I think James would have been a lot like Owen, given that Owen is a lot like me as a kid. I grew up reading a lot of the same books I put into Story Thieves. One of my favorite series as a kid was the Chronicles of Prydain by Lloyd Alexander. Taran Wanderer was one of my favorites! I love books where kids feel like they’re boring and normal, but then they find out they’re special in some way. I felt like that as a kid, like there had to be something more, and I want to give that to Owen. I’m still waiting for my letter to Hogwarts to arrive, or for my mutant power to develop. I was always looking for that other world, looking for the magic, for something that explained everything. I get to live out a little bit of that through Owen now, though I do wish he had an easier time of it.
So yes, I think James Riley as a kid would have been like Owen. James was quiet, shy, and had a very intense inner life because he thought that there was more out there than what you could see on the surface, just as Owen thinks. Although I’d like to think that James wouldn’t have been so dishonest as Owen is in the first book, but who knows. It’s an awfully tempting idea to be able to jump into books. Anything that I thought would lead me to the idea that there’s a greater truth would have made me ecstatic!
Every writer has a different process. Stephen King has said that he starts with “What if?” and the story shapes itself from there. J.K. Rowling on the other hand has said that she knew what the last sentence of the last book would be as she was writing the entire Harry Potter series. Where do you fall along that spectrum? What is your writing process?
I do both. I do like to know the entire series, how each book is going to go. As a reader I like seeing early hints that will show up later, and Rowling does that SO well! I’m not that talented, but I do try to plan out things so I can make references early on and come back to them… Although that can sometimes come back and bite you in the rump. I like to let readers know that they’re in safe hands though. I don’t want people to wonder if I know where it’s going, I want them to feel confident that I have a plan.
Once that’s set though, I agree with a whoever it was (A Pixar artist, I think) who said, “You have to finish something before you know what it’s about.” That’s what I’m like from book to book. I know the plot, but the characters will often surprise me. The characters do what makes sense to them and it isn’t always what I had planned. So I like to give myself a little bit of room as I’m going for those unexpected developments. I do have a general map for the series, but from book to book things can change.
What is your favorite part about writing?
My favorite part is one of two things: Being done with it and thinking “Wow this went really well!”
When an idea that comes out of nowhere and surprises me. This can especially happen in the editing process, when I can be reading through a draft and come upon something I had forgotten and make myself laugh. If I can do that, then I figure other people might enjoy it too. Any little bit of surprise makes me happy.
What is the hardest part about being a writer?
Writing to me is sometimes like going to the gym. It’s good for you, and you know you’ll feel better if you do it, but it can be hard to get yourself there. I sometimes have to force myself to sit and write, and not go on Twitter. Especially when I don’t know what‘s coming next.
When I don’t write I feel full to bursting. You definitely have to just make it a habit. Day-in and day-out, making sure something gets down on paper is the hardest part.
Last question, and this one is the hardest one to answer… If you could give away unlimited amounts of any one book to strangers for free, which book would you want everyone to have the chance to read?
Hmm…. It would depend on where I was. If I’m at a Los Angeles coffee shop it would be something like Ready Player One [by Ernest Cline]. I would use the opportunity to pull in people who aren’t big readers, to find something that would attract them, something that would be a good gateway book.
If I were going to go to a school, however, it might be one of The Great Brain books [by John D. Fitzgerald], or the whole series of the Chronicles of Prydain, if a whole series would be allowed, but it would really depend on the audience.
I might hand out anything by Neil Gaiman or Brandon Mull. They are such great world builders, and that’s something I feel I can’t do.
This question is worse than the “what’s your favorite book?” question! I suppose what I would really want would be to find the book that would get a person to become a reader.
James Riley is the author of the Half Upon a Time and Story Thieves series, as well as many books too unwritten to count. He’s met thousands of imaginary people, most of whom are more polite than you’d think, but less interesting than you’d hope. He doesn’t believe fairy tales actually happened, mostly because he’s never had tiny elves do his work for him at night, despite them promising several times. James currently lives outside Washington, DC, but it’s not like he’s special that way…so do a lot of other people.
As the Reading Rainbow Mom, Jenni Buchanan enjoys encouraging readers of ALL ages to believe that they can “go anywhere, be anything.” See more of Jenni’s blogs and tips for parents about children’s reading by subscribing to the Reading Rainbow Blog, or follow her on Twitter.