Q&A with author John Dahlgren
What inspired you to write your first two young adult fantasy novels, The Tides of Avarice and Sagaria?
I got the inspiration for Sagaria many years ago (pre-Harry Potter) when I was in Sweden. I was out walking in the ancient woods with my dog when I saw an abandoned forest well. Since I was reading a lot of fantasy at the time, I simply couldn’t resist fantasizing about a gate or a portal leading to a parallel world or fantasy realm from that well. On the way back, already the story was shaping up in my head, and when I saw a frog and later on a cute squirrel chewing on an acorn, little Flip and Sir Tombin Quackford were born.
As for The Tides of Avarice, I’ve always been a pirate fan ever since reading Treasure Island. Pirates are fascinating and carry with them the same everlasting popularity like westerns and science fiction. I think it has to do with the freedom of simply lifting the anchor and setting sail toward any place you want with unexpected adventures, dangers and romances waiting.
Reviewers have made note of your “extremely well-developed three dimensional characters.” How did you come up with their stories and personalities? Are they based on real people?
I think subconsciously some characters are based to some degree on actual people, as I think most characters are in fantasy books, although exaggerated to bring forth their respective personalities. Some are of course just made up, but they also have their own unique characteristics.
Why a nearsighted lemming as your main character in The Tides of Avarice?
I was wondering what creature would suit this story best and be the most interesting protagonist or hero. Lemmings have been a bit under used, and I wanted to play about the general opinion that they are sort of a mindless living herd of rodents, jumping into a river or ocean and going on without really thinking first about where they are going or what the consequences will be. This is not necessarily true in real life about lemmings, but I’ve used it as a base for this story. Sylvester Lemmington is an archivist at a library for documents no one ever reads or cares about.
You wrote both animal and human characters in Sagaria – why’d you decide to do a mix in the second book?
I chose to write an entirely anthropomorphic tale in Tides of Avarice for the sake of being more unique and creating an additional dimension. Being set on a pirate ship, the story was told in a sort of contained area. But readers in the second book get a larger view of the world of Sagaria and its inhabitants.
In Sagaria, I wanted to show from our point of view how it would likely feel to enter a parallel universe or fantasy world in a more realistic way. That’s why we see most of the adventure in this book through Sagandran’s eyes, as we can relate to his feelings during the experiences and surprises he encounters along the way. That there are other humans in Sagaria like the wizard Samzing and the Queen, is just to show that this world is populated by creatures of every kind. I like the mixture because it shows how the characters respect each other no matter what race or creature they might be.
Which character do you view most like yourself?
I think there’s a little bit of every character in me (though not the villains). It was my dream as a young boy to actually find a place like Sagaria, and I think it’s almost every young adult’s wish to find such a magical world, where everything is possible. So I let Sagandran do it for me. It was the closest I could get.
Your books also showcase many strong female characters, like the tomboy princess Perima in Sagaria, who is very self-reliant but also quite delicate. Who have been the strong women in your life, and what impact did they have on you?
My mother, my wife and wait for it… my mother-in-law (Actually she inspired me to come up with Mrs. Pickleberry. Don’t tell her that though, especially if she has a rolling pin nearby). They have all shown the strength and willpower to overcome great difficulties in life without succumbing to them. Many readers see them as the true heroes in these books.
No pirate’s tale is ever complete without a villainous captain – tell us about the complex character of Cap’n Rustbane, and why so many readers love him?
The villain was quite a challenge to create. Captain Terrigan Rustbane was actually inspired from The Sea Wolf by Jack London and Long John Silver from Treasure Island. He’s a very complex character and one might even detect schizophrenic and paranoid tendencies in his behavior. However, he’s highly intelligent but also very brutal. As a psychologist, I simply couldn’t resist to probe into his mind (you might call it an occupational hazard). I also wanted to avoid any cliché-like villain.
I think readers enjoy parts of the book with him in it because of his constant shift of mood, and that you believe there’s some good deep inside of him. I was actually surprised to read the reviews where he’s being praised.
Did Johnny Depp and the famous Pirates of the Caribbean play a role in your writing The Tides of Avarice?
I started on The Tides of Avarice a year or so before I saw the first movie. And while I didn’t see anything that would make me change any details in my book, I did really enjoy the music score. Quite suitable for a pirate film!
Your Sagaria protagonist, Sagandran, lives a tough but realistic life as opposed to certain characters in other fantasy stories. Have you had some similar experience?
Not personally, but I’ve witnessed bullying up close and I know how hurtful and humiliating it is for the victim. I tried to make Sagandran living in a realistic family situation many can identify with.
How do you make up the names of characters and places in your books?
They really just come to me as I’m brainstorming ideas. However, I always try to come up with a name that rhymes with the characters.
Did Tides and Sagaria involve special research?
Yes, most definitely. For The Tides of Avarice, I went quite a lot to the natural history museum and compared stuffed animals like foxes and lemmings, badgers, mice, ocelots, etc. to see their correct size. But as it is a fantasy story, I’ve not been one hundred percent accurate to the sizing of everything. I also went to Stockholm to study a very well preserved ship from the 17th century. I think I annoyed the guide with too many questions, but it was worth it since I’ve always felt that the reader should be able to learn something at the same time they’re reading a fantasy adventure story. Of course you can scoop out many things about nautical matters from the internet (which I also did) but some things you have to see and touch for yourself.
While writing Sagaria, I went to several places in Switzerland (as J.R.R. Tolkien did) and studied the caves, hills, mountains, small villages and castles to really get a genuine feeling of it all. Sagaria has quite a heavy influence of the mysterious Nordic sagas and forests and landscapes. There was less detailed research than The Tides of Avarice (which takes place about three hundred years before Sagaria), but it involved lots of research nevertheless.
Even when writing fiction and fantasy, things have to make at least some real sense. Otherwise, the story collapses and the reader’s interest lost. As Mark Twain once said: The difference between fiction and reality is that fiction has to make sense.
You changed the type of story telling used in Tides for Sagaria. Did your background as a psychologist play a role in that?
I concentrated strongly on the characters’ interactions with each other and trying to make them as three dimensional as possible. There’s very little “outside” narration, as I wanted to have the characters telling – or rather showing – the story and what they are thinking.
For a boy to enter into a made up world is by no means extraordinary when writing a fantasy novel. But I focused on the characters and actually also joke around a little with the fantasy genre as a whole.
Each character is unique and I’ve tried to get into their heads – definitely a work related hazard, being a psychologist – to see how each and every one of them would react when facing an unexpected situation.
Of course the plot is very important, a lot of adventure, magic and romance, with a dash of humor. But again, it’s very much focused on the characters and their relationship with each other as they aim for the final goal. They also learn a lot about themselves during their adventures together. I’ve tried re-introducing the Victorian writing style mixed with modern writing and a touch of cozy fairytale surroundings.
The characters certainly do a lot of emotional growing throughout the book. What’s the messaging behind Sagaria?
Well, I think Sagaria brings up several issues many can relate to. There’s bullying, family and school troubles, and many other challenges teens and grown-ups might have experienced. But it’s also about self-discovery and finding hidden strength, resourcefulness, loyalty, friendships and courage.
Who are some of your favorite authors to read?
Just to name a few, these would come on the top of my list: J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S Lewis, Jack London, Jules Verne, Victor Hugo, Mark Twain, Lewis Carrol, Roald Dahl and Terry Pratchett.
With a full time job outside of writing, and being a father, how do you find the time to write such an extensive fantasy adventure?
If there is something that you really love to do, you’ll always find the time. I usually write in the wee small hours when everybody is fast asleep. After work, I spend all my time with my family.
What’s next? Any other adventures planned for novels set in the Sagaria fantasy world?
I will post a bit more information about the books and the author separately, since this post is so long!