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On a small farm just outside of a tiny town lives Jacob, the last in a long line of Caretakers of Magic. His mission in life as the world’s only magician (in fact the only person who knows magic is possible) is to preserve magical skill in preparation for the day when magic is needed in the world. Other than what is required to train an apprentice, Caretakers aren’t to be practitioners, a tenet Jacob adheres to religiously.
Jacob has been teaching an apprentice, Palmer, for eight years. As a student, Palmer is a dismal failure, but this does not stop him from experimenting. Feeling that the pace of his instruction is unnecessarily slow, Palmer takes the little magic he knows, twists it, and uses it to trap Jacob and a young neighbor Lucy inside an old book of fairy tales (The Tall, Thick Book of Tales). Palmer refuses to release them unless Jacob imparts all magical knowledge to him in an instantaneous way.
From the moment of Jacob’s entrapment, Birdsong creates three interwoven storylines: Palmer’s dealings with the townspeople, who are searching for Lucy and quickly suspect Palmer for her disappearance; Jacob’s journey to escape, which takes him through scenes written into the book by Palmer, designed to harass Jacob and to speed his compliance along; and Lucy’s interaction with the book’s original characters, all magical themselves, trapped within the margins by Palmer’s spell, and are united in their desire to expel the intruders. Added to this mix are an enchanted bookworm and the fairy tales’ narrator, who have objectives of their own.
Readers will enjoy Inside the Tall, Thick Book of Tales. Birdsong skillfully mixes the real and the imaginary worlds with a lean and fast-paced style. A well-crafted and fun novel with colorful characters and great dialogue written for any fan of adult fiction, and suitable for young adults and older adolescents as well.
Interview with Author A.C. Birdsong
Can you talk a little about what the book is about?
There’s a wizard named Jacob in a world where people don’t know about magic. He’s been training an apprentice for 8 years. These wizards are magical caretakers – keepers of the knowledge. They aren’t supposed to be practicioners. Jacob has held to this tenet his whole life, but his apprentice, Palmer, has other ideas. Palmer figures out how to enchant a book of fairy tales – The Tall, Thick Book of Tales – and with it he imprisons Jacob, refusing to release him unless Jacob transfers all magical knowledge to Palmer in an instantaneous way. The story isn’t wholly between these two, however – the local townspeople and sheriff are involved, as well as the weather, which all help to frustrate Palmer’s efforts.
Where did you get the idea for the book?
I was at the Cafe do Brazil in Athens (which used to be right near the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier). I’m not sure what sequence of images, foreign language words, and music were happening at that moment, but I do remember being at the cafe and wondering, what would make someone trap another person in a magic book? What would it be like inside? How would the original story be affected? I had spent the better part of the previous ten years wishing for a great block of time to write, and I started using it right then. I went right across the street, bought a thick orange notebook, and spent the rest of my expatriation (three months) touring Greece, and looking for warm places to write. It was a cold year there, and I think all these things combined to shape the story.
What message do you want readers to get from reading the book?
There’s no Great Message here. It’s a fun book. It was very fun to write, and I want it to be fun to read.
How long did it take to write the book?
If you total up all the time I spent between starting the first draft, and applying the final edits before preparing it for press, probably about five months. Those five months were spread way the hell out over a number of years, though.
Who is your favorite character, or what character was the most fun to write?
There is an enchanted, wizardly bookworm in the story who was very cool. The poor worm was minding its own business chewing through the book when Palmer laid his enchantments on it. The blasts of magic transformed the dumb worm into a wizard that remembers all the books its ever snacked on.
Can you talk about how you wrote it? Did you do any outlining? Did it take you in any unexpected directions?
As I note above, I started writing immediately after the core of one idea sparked my imagination. I did no planning at all, just started writing, and the draft wrote itself. There was a bit of meandering. I think the solution to escaping the book (which I had no idea about when I started) presenting itself was a happy surprise. Also, the interaction between Palmer and the townspeople was also completely unexpected. Now, before I start in on Chapter 1, I make sure I have the events of the entire book set before I write. I aslo make sure that I have a full write up of each character, no matter how minor. I feel like I have to go back and forth a lot less that way.
If you could go back and change anything in the novel, what would it be?
Jacob finds that Palmer has also trapped an eight-year-old neighbor named Lucy in the book. Jacob feels old, defeated, and now saddled with this frightened child. In desperation he magically changes both of their ages – he from his 76, Lucy from her 8. After the enchantment, he discovers he’s pulled the real Lucy from her future – yanked her out of her virtual vacation program. I did this to make her doubt his abilities with magic, but in retrospect, I probably could have done that another way. There’s not a lot of technology in the story, and 25 or so years in the future now seems a little short to allow for the development for that kind of technology. It’s a nit, but it’s something I think about. I’m sure all authors make these kinds of compromises, and then wonder about them afterwards.
How did you come up with the cover?
I worked with Stephen Youll, who did all he art and layout for it. He’s awesome. We worked on a few ideas, and then settled into the final artwork. No way I could have done it without him. I encourage all authors to scrape up whatever they can for top notch cover art.
When did you know you wanted to be a writer?
It took awhile. I knew that I could write many years ago, at least that I had enough imagination to be a writer. I wrote technical docs for many years, so I also learned the process of writing and production. But I think that I first decided I wanted to write fiction seriously in my late 20’s. It just took a long while to make room in my life to get started.
What are your favorite books and authors?
In the last several years I’ve been switch hitting between fantasy and hard boiled mystery. I love great stories, great writing, and I especially love puzzling plots. There’s so many good writers out there now, it’s impossible to pick any as favorites. But I’m always ready to read Piers Anthony, or Dashiell Hammet.
What are you working on next?
I’ve got two things going on. One is the online book tour that this interview is part of. I had little idea of the amount of writing I’d have to do for it. That’s going to take quite a bit of my attention for the immediate future. I feel like a cub reporter, banging out copy for the seasoned hard-drinking old timers in the newsroom.
The other thing is my second book, a near-future mystery (code named Derek One – I’ll have a final title in a few months. The book centers on a disgraced rookie cop who’s been ostracized from the work he loves, and is handed a boon – with strings. The book is well beyond the complete draft stage so I’m spending a lot of time polishing and rounding things out. I expect it’ll be ready in the fall.
It’s not a fantasy, but I’m not allowing Jacob and company to languish. I have two sequels queued in the idea bin to start on when Derek One is out of the blocks.
What advice do you have for aspiring authors?
As I note above, know your story. Spend a lot of time working out what happens in outlines before you begin writing. Know your characters – write one page synopses of each of them. Internalize them. When you finally begin writing your story, it’ll be as if you are simply talking about something that happened to some people you know. Piece of cake.
How do you juggle writing with family time?
I get all my best writing done between 4 AM and 6:30 AM, before anybody else is out of bed. I can’t concentrate otherwise. I do have a day job, so there’s really no other time available, unless I go on a weekend retreat, which I do if I’m working on something new.
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