J.B. Cheaney, who writes frequently in the pages of WORLD, also writes books for children. In her most recent novel, The Middle of Somewhere, a precocious 12-year-old girl and her hyperactive little brother set out on a road trip through Kansas in a brand new RV with their reluctant, wind-prospecting grandfather. Veronica (Ronnie) hopes the trip will usher in a new, more exciting chapter in her life, but she finds that keeping her rambunctious brother from driving their grumpy granddad nuts takes all her energy and creativity. The result: unexpected lessons.
N.D. Wilson, son of pastor Doug Wilson, also writes novels for young readers. In his new novel, Leepike Ridge, 11-year-old Tom floats down a river on a piece of foam from a refrigerator box. When a part of the river flows underground, it carries Tom with it. Above ground, his widowed mother won't give up hope that he's still alive, even in the face of creepy suitors and treasure hunters who try to convince her otherwise. Meanwhile, Tom needs courage, optimism, and ingenuity to survive in a spooky underworld.
WORLD: You two seem to have a lot of things in common. For instance, you both use initials instead of first names. Why?
CHEANEY: If your name were Janie Cheaney, wouldn't you think that J.B. sounds more . . . professional?
WILSON: From elementary school on, my favorite authors all wrote under initials-C.S. Lewis, P.G. Wodehouse, J.R.R. Tolkien, G.K. Chesterton. Very early on, I decided that when I was published, I wanted to use initials as a sort of hat-tip, an acknowledgment of my sources (and my debt to them).
WORLD: You're also both Christians who write fiction. How do those two parts of your identity fit together?
WILSON: They can't be separated. Christianity is a story, the arc of reality. Good stories aren't made up, they're found, discovered from elements already in the world (fall, redemption, triumph through death and sacrifice, etc.) and rewoven back into a convincing sub-reality. Leepike Ridge is entirely built around those themes.
CHEANEY: The author emerges from the Christian: We all have our calling. Once I'm well into a work of fiction, the Christian emerges from the author. I don't know the theme of the story when I start writing it, but theme will eventually reveal itself, and reflect some part of Christian truth. For instance, one of the characters in The Middle of Somewhere is a wind prospector. As I wrote, wind became a recurring image of the book, culminating in an actual reference to John 3:8.
WORLD: You both write about characters whose dads have died. Why?
CHEANEY: In real life, good parents help kids solve their problems, which is as it should be. But in literature, the kids have to solve their own problems as much as possible. Adults can help, but to have mom or dad step in and fix it is the equivalent of a deus ex machina. Unless their intervention is part of the problem. In all my novels so far, the father is either dead or absent. The significance being . . . search me.
WILSON: Fatherlessness or father-hunger (through any number of causes) is a very real and very relatable thing for any number of kids today. A lot of them struggle with variations of that lack themselves. In Leepike Ridge, the absence of my character's father drives him to do more than just survive, or defeat the villains. He struggles to fill that father-shaped void in his own life, and come into his own.
WORLD: What kind of child are you writing for?
CHEANEY: I think every children's author writes for the child in himself.
WILSON: Those who are eager to see magic in the world around them. Or those who aren't. I hope I'm writing for every kind of kid, even those Peter Pans out there who might have kids or grandkids of their own, but have managed to keep their imaginations young.
WORLD: What kinds of books did you like to read as kids? If you were still a kid, why would you want to read your book?
WILSON: I read anything that could grip, that presented me with believable, motivated characters and surprised me with tension that made me itch. As to reading my own book, well, I wrote it because it gripped me, because I had a character in my head dragged down into caves, grappling with death. I needed to get him out, so I kept filling pages. A younger me would keep turning pages for the same reason.
CHEANEY: I loved biography, historical and realistic fiction, fairy tales. Since my books are all realistic and historical (except the last one, which isn't historical-whether it's realistic or not is up to the reader), I would have gobbled them up as a kid.
WORLD: Describe your writing process?
CHEANEY: I start with a setting (time and place), a handful of characters, and a very vague idea of where I want to end up. The first draft is excruciating; it's like bulldozing a field of rocks uphill. Once the story is in place, I can look back and see a loamy plowed slope, ready to revise. Oh, joy! It's all downhill from there.
WILSON: I have an idea. I chew on it a lot (picture a cow with its cud), mentally changing action or characters, flavor or setting. Then I mess around with a first chapter, trying to match what's in my head. Once that feels right, writing becomes a sprint. I start pounding, usually at night, until I have scratched my own itchy story-grip and a first draft is born. Then the grind begins-editing, slashing, burning, reworking.
WORLD: Kids always ask me how I get my ideas. So what inspired your stories?
CHEANEY: I like to say that I don't get ideas; ideas get me. Which is a cute turn of phrase, but also mostly true.
WILSON: They start with anything-a phrase, a character, a texture. The opening line for Leepike came while I was brushing my teeth. I wrote it down and it brought a paragraph along to keep it company. And then a page. And then a chapter. The content is often shaped by reading I did as a kid. I really enjoy borrowing (stealing) from the classics. The Odyssey and Tom Sawyer both contributed heavily to Leepike.
WORLD: What's the most frustrating thing about being a writer?
WILSON: Not being able to turn the page to find out what happens next. That and the long wait between finishing the book and having it hit shelves.
CHEANEY: Once that idea gets me, I have to decide what to do with it. This world just teems with plot elements, characters, and themes; I'm terrified I'll pick the wrong ones, or head off in the wrong direction. My five unpublished manuscripts testify that this is no idle fear.
WORLD: What about writing brings you the most satisfaction?
CHEANEY: The final page.
WILSON: I think the best part is watching readers fall in love with characters and then take them away from me, making them part of their own imaginations. Once the book is out there, I have no ownership. The characters are wandering around in the minds of readers and I get left behind. I love that.
WORLD: If you had to give one piece of advice to an aspiring writer, what would it be?
CHEANEY: Writers tend to be passive observers, so take advantage of that rather unappealing trait. Look around you. Take notes. Incorporate real people, real details, real stuff into your stories. I tell conference attendees that they can't improve on God. His teeming creation, that frustrates and delights me so much, far exceeds anything I could make up.
WILSON: How about one package of advice? Love words. Love people and life. Read. Write (you'd think that would be obvious, but it's not). Copy what you see. And remember that it's not about you. You're trying to make something for other people to taste and own and enjoy. It's like cooking for a crowd.