CHILDREN LOVE BRIAN JACQUES'S tales of swashbuckling mice who take on evil weasels and stoats to protect their beloved Redwall. They know that good will triumph over evil and that the difference between the two will be clear.
Mr. Jacques continues that tradition in his second series of books for young people. Castaways of the Flying Dutchman features a boy and his black lab traveling through time and fighting injustice as they come upon it. This spring, Mr. Jacques released The Angel's Command, the second book in that series. In it Ben and his dog fight pirates and rescue a boy being held by robbers in the Pyrenees.
Mr. Jacques's biography reads like one of his adventure tales. Raised near the Liverpool docks, Mr. Jacques went on to work as a merchant seaman, train fireman, policeman, truck driver, folk singer, longshoreman, boxer, bus driver, and stand-up comic before becoming a best-selling novelist. As a truck driver delivering milk to a school for the blind, Mr. Jacques began volunteering to read to the students. Soon he was weaving his own stories, relying on vivid descriptions and dialects to charm his listeners.
Mr. Jacques's themes are drawn from lessons about courage and decency he learned as a child during World War II. They are lessons important for today's children to learn as well. WORLD interviewed him by e-mail in March.
Q How have Redwall fans responded to your new series, Castaways of the Flying Dutchman?
A I'm very pleased to say that they've received it very well indeed! It was on The New York Times Best Seller List, USA Today Best Seller List, and The Wall Street Journal Best Seller List, to name a few. It's sold equally well in my home country of England, and I know that foreign rights have been sold to a number of countries. But best of all, my fans, not only the kids but their parents as well, e-mail me through my website (www.redwall.org) and tell me how much they like it! At book signings moms and dads frequently tell me that their entire family reads the books together, which gives me enormous pleasure!
Q It has distinctly spiritual overtones. Why this departure?
A I would differ with you. I think your question implies that my previous novels don't have spiritual overtones. If you read them very closely I believe you'll find that indeed they do have spiritual overtones. In all of my books there is a struggle between the Dark and the Light. Of course, the Light always wins. I try to emphasize the importance of family, of community, of the goals that can be achieved when everyone works together, and at the base of it all is love. "Love thy neighbor" is not just a dry sentiment to me, it's quite real. Such simple words, "Love thy neighbors," and yet so hard for a great many people to practice.
Q Because your books always feature a strong clash between good and evil, do you worry your themes are too heavy for your audience?
A If the struggles between good and evil in my books were too heavy, too lugubrious, my books wouldn't sell as well as they do.
Children understand at a very young age that some things are bad and some things are good. It's a bad thing to hit your brother or sister over the head; it's a good thing to share, to help your mom and dad. It used to be we learned right from wrong at home and church. But that no longer seems to be the case as much as it was when I was growing up. So I try to paint very clear moral signposts at an age when children need to hear very unambiguous messages. "This is good. That is bad. Period. End of discussion." It's not something that jumps out of the text and hits you over the head. I try to tell a good tale, to entertain. If I was any more overt about it, I don't think people would read my books ... they would become heavy tomes about morality, and overly preachy. I think that's a good way to turn children off. It's entirely possible to entertain and instruct at the same time.
Q How do you balance the comedy and drama?
A That, dear Interviewer, is called "craft!" When I'm writing a dramatic scene, I often get so caught up in it that I can't wait to see how it ends! But sometimes the scene becomes so intense that I'll go on to another chapter in which the characters and the situations are comical, or just plain peaceful. It's a way of breaking up the intensity of a scene. Leaving a good dramatic scene at the end of a chapter is also called a "cliffhanger"-like the movie serials I saw as a boy. It makes the reader very anxious to know what happens next!
Q What's the funniest criticism levied against your books?
A I can't think of a funny criticism, but I can tell you a funny anecdote. I was at a book signing a few years ago and this beautiful young boy, who looked like an angel out of a Renaissance painting, came up to me. He had been waiting in line for about two hours and when he got to the signing table, he said, "Mr. Jacques, I've read all of your books." Now at the time, I had about 14 major Redwall novels in print, I believe. I congratulated the boy and thanked him for being such a devoted fan. But he quickly added, "Mr. Jacques, I've read all of your books. Five times." "All of them?" I asked him. "Yes sir," he said. I replied, "Son, I think you need to get out of the house a little more!"
Q Trends in children's literature seem to come and go. Do your editors ever say, "Enough with the talking animals. Give us some witches and warlocks, or a suicide or two?"
A Good heavens no! Not a bit of it! My publishers know a good thing when they see it and my books earn them a lot of money. They keep asking me if I have more Redwall novels in me! I always tell them that I have more ideas for books than I'll ever be able to get down on paper. When I began writing Redwall, no one in this modern age had written such lengthy novels for children whose characters were all animals, but I wasn't aware of that. From my vantage point now, I realize that Aesop did it of course, with his fables. And the 18th-century French writer Rabelais did too.
I was not writing for publication at the time, mind you, I was writing to entertain blind children at The Royal School for the Blind in Liverpool, where I live. And the reason I began to write Redwall was because I had volunteered to read to them. The books they gave me to read to the children were dreadful! They were about dysfunctional families, teen-age pregnancies, drug addiction, alcoholism, and deep psychological problems. I hated those books and so did the children. I kept thinking, "Why can't I read to them books that I enjoyed as a kid, full of action, adventure, and derring-do!" And I went home and began to write Redwall for them. On the other hand, I didn't want my epitaph to read, "He wrote books about mice." I wanted to branch out a bit and my editor and publisher encouraged me to do that with Castaways of the Flying Dutchman, and now this sequel to that book, The Angel's Command.
Q How much do real events influence your literary worlds?
A Not really all that much. The struggle between good and evil in the Redwall novels might hark back to my childhood in Liverpool. Liverpool was one of the great shipping ports of the world in the '30s and '40s, and Herr Hitler bombed us nightly. It was savage and brutal. I was very much aware that a war was going on and that the evildoer wanted to conquer my country. Had he been successful, I suppose today we would all be walking around with swastikas on our foreheads, but thank heaven he lost. It was an epic struggle, a worldwide struggle, and it probably has stayed with me since then. But I believe that good always wins. Always!
Q In many of the Redwall books, food is prominently featured. Are you a cook? Do you try the recipes you describe?
A I love to cook! One night a week I still cook my "Italian" dinner for my two sons who also live in Liverpool. They're both grown men in their 30s now but we still have dinner once a week when I'm not traveling or touring. It's a way of keeping us all in touch with one another, keeping the family together. As for the recipes in the Redwall novels, yes, we do try all of them. And I'll tell your readers something that has not yet been announced-and that is, in the next year or two, The Redwall Cookbook will be published.
I've always associated food with good times, I suppose. I'm of Irish descent, and my family sitting around the table, eating, laughing, and telling stories was a wonderful event, filled with warmth and kindness. Those were special occasions, those dinners, and I can remember fondly the excitement of preparing them, let alone eating them. And goodness, what good storytellers those old folk were! I listened spellbound for hours! But then came the war and with it, food supplies were extremely short. There were times when we didn't have food for two or three days at a time.
One of my aunts had a cookbook that I used to pore over for hours on end. I can still see the pictures of cakes and pies, puddings and breads, and roasts in that book. In some ways I think it eased my hunger a bit. It used to drive me crazy when I was a lad, and I would read in a story, "And the king gave a great feast!" I thought, "Hang on now! How many people were at the feast? What kind of food did they have? Was there enough food for everyone?" I vowed that if I ever wrote a book I would tell the reader exactly what kind of food was served! Now of course those feasts have become part of the signature of the Redwall books, I suppose, and that makes me very happy indeed!
Q Have your books ever been banned?
A If they have been, I'm not aware of it. But I suppose it would be unusual for someone to write me and say, "I hate your books and I'm going to make sure they're banned from our library or school ... so there!"
Q You must get interesting fan mail. What's the most memorable letter you ever received?
A Over the years I've received literally thousands of letters from readers all over the world. There are a few that stick out. One was from a little girl who wrote to me explaining in great and precise detail why she should be a character in one of my books. It was astonishing really. She had very carefully thought this out. So I made her a character which gave me great delight!
The sad ones always get to me. Every so often the Make-A-Wish Foundation will contact me because there is a child who is dying of a terminal illness and wishes to meet me. Believe me, that's a very humbling experience. Here is a child whose eyes are shining bright, smiling from ear to ear and of all the things they could have wished for, they wished to meet this old author from Liverpool. It amazes me that my books could have that kind of an impact on someone's life. It is a real blessing to be in a position to help these children. God is good.
Q Do you owe a debt to any author?
A I probably, without knowing it, owe a debt to every author who's ever lived! If they hadn't written, I wouldn't have read, and if I hadn't read, I wouldn't have written. One of the first great reading pleasures of my young life was reading the The Iliad and The Odyssey by Homer. It took me weeks to save the small change to buy it and I read it again and again and again. Homer's poetry and the beauty of the words remain with me even now. And I still have that book. So to every author I read as a child, who entertained me, who instructed me, who took me away to distant lands, who introduced me to fascinating characters, I now publicly say, "Thank You!"
I very rarely read children's literature though. I'm always afraid that, subconsciously, I might pick up something from another author and inadvertently use it in my own book. Obviously I would never do this on purpose, but the mind works in mysterious ways, so I avoid reading other children's authors.
Q With the overwhelming success of Harry Potter, are you tempted to write a series that makes the vermin the good guys?
A No. Not ever! NEVER!! I often tell my readers that in my books, my baddies are bad and my goodies are good. I won't have sympathetic baddies and schizophrenic goodies in my books. More to the point, the Redwall books have changed my life in ways I could never have imagined when I was, say, 30 years old and I would feel like I was betraying my readers. It's very odd to me now to think that a second generation of Redwall readers are coming up, and that none of my books have ever been out of print in either hardcover or paperback. So that tells me something. And that "something" is-leave well enough alone! Be true to what took me to Redwall in the first place.
If I made an evildoer a hero, my readers would turn on me and rip me limb from limb. The closest I've ever come to having a "baddie" as a hero was in Taggerung. It was the tale of a kidnapped otter who was raised by an evil tribe of stoats, and raised to be evil himself. But he dimly remembered his days as a babe at Redwall, and eventually found his way back there and fought the evil family who had raised him. But a true evil hero in one of my books? Not while I draw breath!