You may recall that I recently read the first two books in the School of the Ages series by Matt Posner (reviews for book 1 here and book 2 here). I had some questions - OK, a LOT of questions - and decided to turn it into a chance to do another Q&A post with the author of these awesome stories - Matt Posner - so without further ado, here we go!
Start with the basics – how long have you been writing and what inspired you to start? What inspires you now? Maybe a short biography?
Hi Katy, and thanks for the interview. I wrote for fun when I was very little, but my commitment to become a novelist began when I was in seventh grade, age twelve, and needed a project for my gifted class at Nautilus Junior High in Miami Beach. I spent the rest of the school year working on what turned out to be an eighty-page "first novel" with a strong Star Wars feel. I don't know what inspired me to start except that I had always been inclined to make up characters and stories, which I did actively with my toys even when I was very little. My play even when I was six or seven was already based around using the toys to make cartoons and monster movies. Born storyteller, I guess.
One of the things I noticed the School of the Ages, and which I mentioned in my review, was that fact that it seems like only Judaism is acknowledged at the school – leaving the Shabbat open, for instance. Can you tell us why you chose to go that route?
I was working at an orthodox mesivta -- a Jewish high school – at the time I conceived of this book, and I wanted to use the intriguing subculture I was learning about as a component of a novel. That's why I changed from my original concept, a novel about a wizard and a few apprentices, to a larger school setting. I chose to use Chasidim to up the stakes in the culture wars at such a school, and also to reflect my admiration for Chaim Potok’s The Chosen, which inspired some elements of the story.
Judaism is the only religion acknowledged at the school for mainly practical reasons: I can’t take on too much content in one book! I have a Hindu episode in The Ghost in the Crystal and there is a lot more Hindu material coming in book IV and a lot of Islamic material intended for book V. Besides this, I feel there is a strong antipathy within Christianity for magic, and showing Christian magicians in the school would be a very complicated element that doesn’t appeal to me at present. I have a long writing career ahead of me and will have other chances to write on that subject.
What sort of research did you do for your ancient Jewish characters, Yeishu and Rabbi Yehoshua? Are they historical figures, based upon historical figures, or just created whole-sale based upon a type?
Both Yeishu ben Pandeira and Rabbi Yehoshua ben Perachyah are characters from Jewish scripture, exactly as described in the book. They are in the Baraitas, a kind of an assortment of miscellaneous supplementary texts in the ancient Jewish tradition, and I took my information about them primarily from an article that was going around in the early 2000s called “Refuting Missionaries” which was being used by a rabbi in the school where I was teaching. The article, which gives supposed evidence that Jesus never lived, is not persuasive, but, reading it as mythology, I thought Yeishu would make a great villain. To use him as an enemy in 2001, I’d have to make him a ghost! Thus the antagonist appears, and the result is on the pages. Here is the article.
For the record, I do believe that Jesus lived and I have studied the Bible.
Switching gears slightly, do we ever learn any more about the enigmatic boy Corby Crow, Rocco’s study partner? He interests me – how did he end up with 6 grandmothers, and no one else to help him with them? Will we ever learn?
Corby Crow’s importance increases as the books move forward. He has a lot of scenes in book III and gets his own major subplot in book IV. You will get explanations for everything by the middle of book IV and you will meet all the grandmothers, too! As a hint, in what magical situation would you expect to find six old ladies living and working together?
Here’s trivia. I originally wanted to name this character after two black birds, the raven and the crow, so his original name was “Ravencrow.” But then I realized that it sounded like Rowling’s “Ravenclaw” so I changed it, giving him the name “Corby” which is short for the Latin Corvinus (meaning, of course, “crow”). Also, originally, Corby was meant to be a Chechen instead of a Russian, but during the drafting process I changed to fit my vision of the boy.
It sounds like you’re planning a really long series – what sort of issues are you hoping to address in an overall way? Any idea how many books, and when we can expect to see them?
I’m planning five books. Book three is moving into final revision in June. Book four is about two-thirds written. Book five has a few drafted moments, but I can’t reasonably work on it till I make some tough decisions related to book IV, which contains two love triangles.
Overall the series follows the young man’s journey to maturation through struggle and loss. It’s an archetypical hero’s journey, but it has no world-shaking epic elements; it’s about the emotional growth of individuals. So in that sense I would equate it more with Huckleberry Finn or The Chosen. The villains aren’t trying to destroy or take over the world; they have private motivations, and the conflicts are very personal. My villains are meant to be like Shakespeare's villains, clever, complex, and with reasons for what they do. Level Three's Dream has no villain, but the other books are loaded with them.
I see the five books as moving along a rough emotional arc like this
Book I (November 2010): The Ghost in the Crystal: Loss of Innocence
Book II (September 2011): Level Three’s Dream: Disillusionment
Book III (Summer 2012): The War Against Love: Youthful passion and destruction
Book IV (2013 TBA): Simon Geeta: Bitterness and reconciliation
Book V (2014 TBA): The Wonderful Carol: Maturity
Each book has two or three clear story arcs for my protagonist Simon, four or five for the supporting characters, a major conflict and resolution, and threads to tie in the future books. Everything will be resolved at the end of Book V. I am also writing short stories now to flesh out the characters and add details to their years of schooling.
In the second book, you had the gang spend time in a world based upon Lewis Carroll’s Alice world – why did you decide on that particular set of stories? What sort of research did you do to get all the details just so? Any why did you have the group act like such jerks to all the characters? It seemed to sort of go against what they had hoped to accomplish.
I have wanted to put modern-day people into the Alice world for a very long time. I am a lifelong fan of Carroll. The majority of my research consisted of reading over and over Martin Gardner’s The Annotated Alice, which covers the major points. Also, I taught Alice in Wonderland for the first time last year.
The characters in the original Wonderland and Looking-Glass Land are almost universally jerks themselves. A quick sampling of either Alice book will show you that they tease, demean, and mess with Alice at every point, that they are pompous and arrogant and dismissive. My kids knew that was coming, and they were just defending themselves. For example, when Mermelstein beats up the cook, it’s a reflection of the fact that the cook is in the habit of throwing dishes out of the kitchen which hit whoever is in the room. One hit Lorena in the face as they were entering the house.
Those Wonderland characters who are nice (i.e. The White Knight) are treated fairly nicely, I hope.
I hate to bring it up, because I didn’t see much of a similarity, but a lot of people are comparing you to the dreaded HP. I see in other interviews, you’ve said you almost regret starting a series you would have to protect from that sort of thing, but I’m glad you decided to go forward with it. What is the background on this series; where did you come up with the idea, and what sorts of research have you done in a general way to set up for it? For instance, you have obviously done some research into both Judaism and Hinduism, as well as the principles of magic. What can you tell us, in a general sense, about the sorts of life-lessons you have learned during your research?
To restate what I said earlier, I was working in a mesivta, or Jewish high school, and learning the intriguing subculture that it possessed, and I thought it would be interesting to bring this culture into collision with a more standard group of kids and see what happened. This is why I conceived of a school setting, instead of following up on my original idea, which was one wizard and maybe three teen apprentices. When I started writing this book, Harry Potter wasn’t finished yet. I liked those books, but I felt then, as I do now, that Rowling makes a lot of missteps and that I can write novels with fewer structural problems and greater thematic meaning.
I have done most of my research online. There is plenty online about culture, history, language, naming, geography, and all the other stuff I need. However, prior to this, beginning in late 1991 I started a detailed study of Hermeticism (European magic) and the paranormal, and these topics are effectively background knowledge for me. As an example, I used to read tarot, and my style of cartomancy is reflected in Goldberry’s work with the cards.
Obviously, being a teacher, I have good background in schools and students and also in learning disability, which was a major theme in Level Three’s Dream with the antagonist’s Asperger’s Syndrome. So life experience is a good source of knowledge and information, for me as it is with all writers.
A final component of my research is travel. My wife Julie and I go to a lot of foreign countries, and wherever I am, I get ideas for story elements and scenes. This is why you will find a lot of material in The War Against Love which is drawn from places in Europe. There are Czech, French, and German characters and scenes in their native countries. I love to go to these places, and I hope my readers worldwide will be intrigued and get more interested in travel.
What life-lessons have I learned?
* It does no good to feel paralyzed. Take action and then take more action. (quote: me)
* Although it’s very difficult, you have to try not to care much for the consequences, but instead just keep busy and try to do right. (paraphrase: Bhagavad Gita.)
* “I must not fear. Fear is the mind killer.” (quote: Frank Herbert.)
I mentioned in my review that is was refreshing to see something that treated magic in a more realistic manner. I have a bit of a background in magic myself, so I “get” it – have you had to defend your work from some of the people who are offended by the idea of magic?
No, I haven’t, and I rather thought I might have to. Perhaps this would become a factor if the book became more mainstream. I suppose at this stage I am somewhat protected by the Cassandra Curse (as per The Ghost in the Crystal) which states that people don’t want to believe in magic, so when you tell them about it, they just think you’re crazy. Only readers who know magic, like you, realize that I have chosen to incorporate some authentic elements of it into my books, and furthermore, to propose that a philosophy of magic is good for young people. I have made certain choices, though. I don’t believe in Satan or demons and I will not be using them in my writing. I won’t call magic “magick” to distinguish it from stage magic. A friend told me about Chaos Magick but it left me cold. Although I do respect Wicca a lot, with its policy of acceptance and tolerance, “do what thou wilt,” plus its avowed philosophy of “do no harm,” it is not the basis for the magical traditions I am interested to write about at present, and in fact there are no Wiccans in my stories until book IV.
Finally, I will always maintain that magic comes from God and is very close to indistinguishable from prayer. One reviewer complained that he didn’t want to read about God all the time. I thank him for his reaction, but a distinction should be made between God and religion. I think it is religion that has gotten him down. God is your connection to the universe. If you don’t have one, you must needs be miserable.
Finally, I hear that you have a new book out, separate from the series?
Yes. I have teamed with Jess C. Scott to write Teen Guide to Sex and Relationships, an advice book for teenagers to help them take care of their physical and emotional health. We write in a Q&A format, both answering each question to cover two points of view (sometimes distinctly male and female) on every issue. We have it for Kindle here and in many other formats at Smashwords here.
Awesome!! Thanks to Matt Posner for all that interesting stuff. I'm sure in the near future, when my brain clears a bit from the crazy last few weeks, I'll have some additional questions to ask him, so stay turned!