J.T. Holden – Author Interview

Your most recent book is Alice in Verse: The Lost Rhymes of Wonderland. What’s it about?

Actually, it’s my first book. It wasn’t intended to be—I was working rewrites on another book of rhyming poetry [entitled] Bedtime Tales for Naughty Children, when The Lost Rhymes came calling, and… Well, it wasn’t a rejection of Bedtime Tales, not by any means, but rather a case of the neediest child getting the attention.

The squeaky wheel gets the oil?

[Laughs] Yeah, something like that. Only with poetry, especially rhyming poetry, the wheel won’t go on squeaking forever. It’ll stop—sometimes nearly as abruptly as it started—and so there you are in the shower and a line hits you and you start repeating it aloud, over and over, while scrambling to get the shampoo rinsed out of your hair, and then you’re dashing to the computer, dripping, with a towel wrapped round your waist, and typing it out as quickly as you can before it’s gone. It can be quite an adventure.

This has happened to you often, ideas coming when you’re in the shower?

Almost every day while I was working on The Lost Rhymes. [Laughs] Half of the best lines in the book were conceived and written while I was soaking wet. I’ve always loved the water—swimming, boating, anything to do with the water—so maybe that has something to do with it. Some people sing in the shower, I write poetry.

So would it be safe to assume your favorite superhero would be Aquaman?

[Laughs] Absolutely.

So what’s this book about? Is it an adaptation?

Not exactly. It’s more of a reimagining of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, written entirely in rhyming verse. I think I heard one reviewer refer to it as “part homage, part sequel,” which is fairly accurate. Alice does return to Wonderland in it, and she encounters most of the same characters she did before, but there are a few new twists and turns in there.

Such as?

Well, the most significant departure from the original—on the surface, at least— would be The Walrus & the Carpenter Head Back. Definitely falls under the “part sequel” category. After having dined on the little Oysters they’d lured to that “conveniently low” spot on the rock in Carroll’s original, the Walrus and Carpenter head back down the beach with full bellies, only to find that hundreds of Oysters are waiting for them. It’s a rather wicked little tale of revenge—but, of course, a revenge that is richly deserved. It was the first poem I wrote for the book. It was actually intended to be included in Bedtime Tales, but once it was completed, the gate was open, and the rest of the rhymes came tumbling out in record time.

What’s record time?

Twenty—eight days.

You wrote the entire book in twenty–eight days? All nineteen poems?

All, save for The Walrus & the Carpenter Head Back, yes. It would have been less time, but The Queen’s Sentence put up some resistance. It was the last poem to be completed and took six days to hammer out. I knew it would be a crucial one, because this is where we become fully aware of just who stole the tarts—something that’s first alluded to by the Dormouse in The Tea Party Resumes and brought to further light by the March Hare’s overzealous rebuttal in The Hare’s Rebuttal & the Hatter’s Rebuke. But The Queen’s Sentence is where it becomes crystal clear just who really was behind the theft of the tarts. And that made it one of the trickiest to pull off. The Queen is nobody’s fool. She knows exactly what’s what and who’s who and just who did what to whom. But she’s restricted by the “evidence” presented by the Hatter and Hare as council for the defense and prosecutor, respectively—even though it’s glaringly obvious to anyone with half an eye that the two barristers are in collusion. The challenge here wasn’t how to have the Queen uphold the law and still get her own way—that was actually the easy part. The final stanza of the poem was written before most of what came before it, so I already knew how the Queen would “split the baby,” so to speak. The challenge was in the build up to the Queen’s final solution. She runs the odd gamut of emotions here, from anguished tears to cool composure—everything, shy of an angry outburst…which she’s saving for The Royal Flush—and so it became a delicate balancing act to guide her through each emotional phase leading up to her final verse on the Knave’s fate.

The Queen Sentence is the one where you do a play on They Told Me You Had Been to Her from Carroll’s original book.

Yeah. It’s from the letter the White Rabbit reads into evidence at the Knave’s trial in Chapter Twelve of Alice’sAdventures in Wonderland. It’s always been one of my favorite poems, perhaps the purest of the nonsense verses, so naturally I couldn’t resist trying to make sense out of it. The Queen’s speech is split into three four–stanza sections. An homage to They Told Me You Had Been to Her seemed the perfect fit for her opening statement and provided a solid foundation. The Queen’s sly attempt to tie Alice to the plot to steal the tarts is a bit of a red herring, of course, but she is the Queen of Hearts, after all. She’s suspicious of everybody, and she’s fishing here to see if she might rattle someone’s resolve. In the second part of her speech, she removes the red herring from the equation and admits that the crime may have been committed by only three culprits, but still the evidence suggests the physical act of the theft was carried out by only one of them: The Knave. Here she toys with the idea of letting the Knave off the hook, but knowing he’s every bit the young scoundrel the Hatter painted him out to be in his opening statement, she fears he may not keep his promise of devotion to her, so she’s still torn. In the third and final part of her speech, she offers a direct response to the Knave’s poetic plea in the previous chapter and comes up with a rather gruesome solution to have her cake and eat it too. (Laughs) It was a very… eventful six days for the Queen of Hearts.

In the introduction to Alice in Verse—or is it more proper to say The Lost Rhymes of Wonderland?

It’s always been The Lost Rhymes of Wonderland to me. The publisher came up with the idea of adding Alice in Verse to it, supposedly to assure readers that the book was in fact based upon Alice’sAdventures in Wonderland.

As opposed to Barry’s Adventures in Wonderland?

[Laughs] Precisely.

In the book’s introduction, you credit your grandfather as your inspiration for seeking out The Lost Rhymes.

Yeah. He was a big fan of Carroll’s poetry. He could recite Wonderland and Looking– Glass—excuse the pun—chapter and verse, without even opening the books. He’d have them there as a prop, but he’d recite chapter after chapter without ever looking [at the book]. He’d make a real production of turning the pages, nice and slow, and always at the moment you simply had to hear what was going to happen next. [Laughs] Sometimes he’d squint at the page and mutter, [mimicking his grandfather’s Irish accent] “Now, where did we leave it, where did we leave it?” But that was all part and parcel of the show. My grandfather was the master of the pregnant pause and quite adept at the absentminded distraction, anything to draw out the suspense. “What was that? Dijye hear it? Must’ve been the wind.” [Laughs] He loved the visceral response [to] things that go bump in the night, that sort of thing. [For him] bedtime tales weren’t something you told the children to settle them down before sleep. They were stimulants for active dreams.

Interesting. How so?

Dreams spark the imagination like nothing else. We have perhaps our most creative thoughts in dreams. Just compare your last dream to anything you’ve imagined in your waking hours.

I’d rather not.

[Laughs] Most people would probably agree with you on that. But for a writer of fiction, or an artist, or any other creative person, the dreamscape is a deep well, rich with ideas. It’s the one place where absolutely nothing is impossible. It’s the real Wonderland, or Neverland, or Oz. My grandfather believed that active dreams were essential for every person’s well—being but especially so for kids, and so it was absolutely crucial to stimulate the imagination of the little ones before sending them off to sleep. I can scarcely remember the last time I went to sleep without first reading at least a chapter or two of a good book…or a bad one. [Laughs] I’m never without a book. Soon as I finish one, I pick up another.

What are you reading now?

As God Commands by Niccolò Ammaniti. It’s about a kid named Cristiano who lives with his hard—drinking, out—of—work dad, Rino, in an economically depressed Italian village. When the dad and his mates come up with a plan to reverse their fortunes, Cristiano’s life changes forever.

Is that straight from the book jacket?

[Laughs] Pretty much verbatim. Actually, it’s an incredible read so far. I’m just over a third of the way through it, so I haven’t reached the fateful night yet, but Ammaniti’s delivery is very smooth, and his characters are genuinely compelling. And I’ve had to force myself to take it slower, because I don’t want it to end—always a good sign.

What types of books do you like to read?

I don’t have any specific type, but I do have a short list of authors who are guaranteed at least one sale on their next book: Ken Follett, Jim Lynch, Nick Hornby, and Diana Wynne Jones.

You only mentioned one children’s author. Do you mostly read adult fiction?

I don’t look for any specific genre—my taste is far too eclectic for that. But all of the authors I mentioned have written books that, if not expressly written for, would definitely appeal to younger readers, like Follett’s Hornet Flight, a fast—paced book, with a clever teenage hero, that readers 13 and up would devour. Or Hornby’s Slam, the smartest and coolest book ever written about a boy and a girl and an unexpected delivery from the stork. Or Lynch’s wonderful debut The Highest Tide, a truly great summer read—and of particular significance in light of the recent oil spill in the gulf. All great books are for kids and adults alike. I’m not really keen on the labeling of books. Slapping a category onto a book and marketing it to a select group seems odd to me. Walk into a bookshop and you’ll find Alice’sAdventures in Wonderland in both the children’s and adult sections. Same for Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island and Kidnapped, E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web, Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. How can a great book only be for kids? I remember early on, with The Lost Rhymes, being asked “Who’s the target audience?” Who’s the target audience? Everyon e! Anyone who loves the original poetry of Lewis Carroll. Anyone who loves rhyming poetry. There’s no age limit. Was I supposed to stop loving J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan the day I turned 21? If so, I must have missed the memo. And with the high volume of adults queuing up to purchase the likes of Harry Potter and Percy Jackson for themselves, one can only assume that they didn’t receive the memo either. Great books belong in the hands of readers of all ages.

So what were your favorite books when you were growing up?

I’m still growing up. But when I was younger, I read a lot of Stephen King—The Shining, The Stand, IT, The Eyes of the Dragon.

So you preferred the darker tales.

Absolutely. I love a good goose—bump rush. Nothing can compare to it. When Pennywise the Clown [in King’s novel IT] is floating across the icy lake toward little Ben Hanscom, who stands frozen on the bridge, I’m right there with him, frozen, even though I’m screaming inside my head, “Run! Run!” [Laughs] It doesn’t get any better than that. My grandfather would have loved that book. It’s the quintessential faerie tale, complete with a hungry troll under the bridge and the brave kids who dare to challenge it.

What do you believe is the hardest part of writing?

Not to be flip, but writing is definitely the hardest part of writing. The ideas come fairly easily—I’ve never met a soul who didn’t have an great idea for a book—but the actual act of hammering all those wonderful ideas into a coherent story…that’s the hard part. It requires a commitment, a dedication beyond anything you could have possibly imagined when first that wonderful idea popped into your head. When I was younger I would come up with plots or situations, some of them simple, some very grand, and build from there. Often the plot would grow, or more accurately snowball into something that was beyond the capacity of the page. This is a common malaise for many writers: the show inside the mind becomes reduced when they attempt to put it on the page. They over—think it, or they tell it to too many friends before committing a single word to the page. They see a movie inside their heads, one with special effects so spectacular James Cameron would be left breathless. The possibilities are limitless through the lens of the mind’s eye, and yet when it comes time to transfer the grand masterpiece to the page, the writer is posed over the keyboard or notebook like Rodin’s Thinker, or a novice trying to unlock a complex calculus equation. Blocked. That’s the greatest frustration any writer will ever experience. How do I reduce these grand images in my head to mere words without draining all the power and substance? For me the answer came from an unexpected yet thoroughly logical source: a film critic, the late Gene Siskel. I was on line, surfing for an old movie review, when I came across this one in which Siskel stated the characters in the movie were so interesting that he would watch them in any situation. As I thought about this, it made perfect sense. All of the books and films I’ve ever loved featured characters I would have found interesting no matter the plot. By approaching the story through the character first and allowing the plot to flow organically from there, my writing improved immeasurably. I still fall prey to the grand plot syndrome—that’s part and parcel of the trade, and always will be. Sometimes you have to dream big. But when it comes time to writing, I follow the characters and let there actions dictate the course of the story. There have to be surprises along the way, and the more real a character becomes to the writer, the easier it is for the writer to be true to the character and trust that the character will lead the writer on an incredible journey. [Pauses; grins] All that said, of course, writing is still the hardest part of writing.

Did you approach The Lost Rhymes in the same manner, character before plot?

Yeah. Perhaps more than anything I’ve ever written, each of the poems in The Lost Rhymes, save for two of the three straight narrative ones—A Slight Detour [Through the Looking–Glass] and [In the] Garden of Hearts—came directly through the featured characters. The plot was already dictated to a degree by Carroll’s original, but there are differences. The Knave of Hearts in the original is not a very developed character, more of a bit player. In The Lost Rhymes I knew he was going to factor more prominently into the story, sort of like Jacob graduating from secondary character in the first book to leading man status in New Moon.

I’m sorry, but did you just make a Twilight reference?

[Grins sheepishly] I believe I might have.

Have you read the Twilight books?

I’ve…seen the movies. Does that count?

I don’t know. If somebody saw the movie adaptation of your book, would it count?

I…uh… and a silence falls over the crowd as he squirms uncomfortably. [Laughs] We can edit this part out, right?

Oh, sure.

Sorry, Stephenie.

Oh, she’ll forgive you. Just don’t count on any of her fans racing out to buy your book.

[Laughs] Forgive me Stephenie’s fans.

Too late. OK. Continue.

Where were we? [Laughs] I honestly can’t remember.

The Knave of Hearts graduates to leading man status in The Lost Rhymes.

Yes. He’s alluded to fairly early on by both the Dormouse and the Hare in The Tea Party Resumes, but he doesn’t become a main point of focus until the trial sequence in the second half of the book. His plea to the Queen is the culmination of The Knave [of Hearts] Repents, but the entire chapter, or poem, takes on a different tone from any of the previous verses: a solemn, respectful air more befitting the Knave’s manner and grave situation. Even the King’s response at the very end of this verse keeps the same tone. Each of the poems has its own tempo and tone dictated primarily by the featured characters: The Caterpillar’s Lesson on Rhetoric & Rhyme, with its drawn out 11—12, 12—12 tempo, reflects the languid yet clipped manner of the Caterpillar himself—only at the end does he throw a snappy 8—7 stanza at Alice to jolt her into recital. But when the metamorphosis takes place, after Alice’s recital, the meter changes to an 8—6 tempo to accommodate the Caterpillar’s new and improved self. So, I definitely approached each poem from the character first and allowed the story to evolve from there.

How do you do research for your books?

Well, with most of the poetry I write, much of the research was done when I was a kid, and it’s simply a matter of pulling material from the archives in my brain, or the part of my brain that stores all those wonderful spooky/thrilling/enchanting memories. With The Lost Rhymes, I did reread both Wonderland and Looking–Glass, just as a refresher, and I kept both books at my side for quick reference. And there was a period when I seriously searched libraries and databases to see if there was anything on the missing pages of Carroll’s diaries that might reveal something of the lost rhymes, but I came up empty—handed. There is one poem I’m working on for Bedtime Tales, entitled The Three Jacks—an epic poem, that will be 22 to 24 stanzas long when completed. It combines characters from numerous nursery rhymes and has required more research than any other poem I’ve ever written, but it’s been well worth the effort. It’s actually given birth to a four book series that I’m now in the process of outlining. The first book will cover the events of the poem, and will be entitled, appropriately, The Three Jacks.

A series of four books based on a single poem?

Yes, but an epic poem.

Can you tell us anything about it?

Not at present. But when Bedtime Tales is released, you’ll get a good idea of what lies in store for the three Jacks.

Did you learn anything from writing this book?

The Lost Rhymes, you mean?


Hmmm… yes. Three things: The Knave of Hearts isn’t as guilty as I’d once thought, the Eldest Oyster is notto be crossed, and the Queen of Hearts is one high— maintenance lady. [Laughs]

Are you working on your next book? What can you tell us about it?

My next book is scheduled for release in the spring of 2011. It’s entitled O the Dark Things You’ll See! It’s a parody/homage to Dr. Seuss’s Oh the Places You’ll Go! in which a kid embarks on a journey across a much spookier landscape than Seuss imagined. Andrew [Johnson, illustrator of Alice in Verse: The Lost Rhymes of Wonderland] is working on the illustrations now. At present I’ve got two novels close to completion, both narrated by teenage protagonists, but from very different worlds—one grounded in reality, the other in fantasy, both for readers 15 and up. I’m also working on the last few poems for Bedtime Tales, and I’ve recently completed another book of rhyming poetry entitled Gothic Tales for the Wicked Soul, which includes original tales along with ones based on legends and folklore.

You’ve been busy.

It’s a never—ending quest. But very gratifying. I couldn’t imagine doing anything else.

What is the best advice you could give other writers about writing?

Be true to yourself—I know it’s clichéd, but like most clichés, it’s true. Don’t write something that you don’t feel in your heart. Find your voice—which can take quite a while—and hone it until it becomes second nature. Write characters that you find interesting, and breathe real life into them. Be receptive to all constructive criticism. Some great books to read before you start to write are Eats, Shoots & Leaves by Lynne Truss, Woe is I by Patricia T. O’Conner, and The Elements of Style by William Strunk and E.B. White—the latter should be within arm’s reach whenever and wherever you are writing.

What are you doing to promote your book?

I tend to be a little bit shy in public, but I’ve learned that a writer must promote his or her book. I’m doing book signings and interviews, and I’m hoping to get up the nerve to do a few readings. For an illustrator, Andrew is much better at public speaking than I. He’s very outgoing and loves to read aloud to any audience of any size…and where signings are concerned, his penmanship is much better than mine.

[Laughs] I could do with a lesson or two from him.

Where can readers learn more about you and your book?

I don’t have a website yet—I’m not very tech savvy—but I do plan to get one up and running in the near future. In the meantime, readers can visit Alice in Verse: The Lost Rhymes of Wonderland or The Completely Mad Followers of the Hatter & Hare on Facebook. And if they’d like to see more of Andrew’s illustrations, they can visit his pages at deviantart.com, keyword: Mad—Propz.

There’s also an impressive fan video at The Children’s Book Review website.
The Children’s Book Review