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Barry Wolverton's masterful middle-grade debut, Neversink, is an epic tale of some very un-epic birds, a fast-paced and funny story of survival, friendship, and fish, in the vein of Watership Down and Kathi Appelt's The Underneath.
Along the Arctic Circle lies a small island called Neversink, home to a colony of odd-looking seabirds called auks, including one Lockley J. Puffin. With their oceanfront views and plentiful supply of fish, the auks have few concerns—few, save for Lockley's two best friends, Egbert and Ruby, a know-it-all walrus and a sharp-tongued hummingbird.
But all of this is about to change. Rozbell, the newly crowned king of the Owl Parliament, has long had his scheming eyes on the small colony to the north. Now Neversink's independence hangs in the balance. An insurgence of owls will inevitably destroy life as the auks know it—unless Lockley can do something about it.
Can you talk a little about what the book is about?
It was originally about my desire to celebrate the puffin in all its puffiness (see below re: how I got the idea for the book). But when I started researching puffins and observing their features and behavior, it was clear I had a good candidate for a reluctant hero. Lockley wants to blend in and not make waves, which is awfully hard to do if you look like a puffin, but he also nurses a secret desire to soar, both literally and figuratively. He unexpectedly gets that chance when a mentally unstable pygmy owl seizes control of the Parliament of Owls and threatens the survival of Lockley’s island colony.
Where did you get the idea for the book?
On a trip to the Baltimore aquarium, where they have an auk exhibit. Seeing puffins in person, how expressive they are, watching them “fly” underwater, I just couldn’t believe they weren’t as well-represented as penguins in kid’s lit!
What message do you want readers to get from reading the book?
It’s funny, because there is definitely a layer of political satire in the book, but it wasn’t because I was trying to write a political allegory like Animal Farm. And I have had adult readers come away with completely opposite opinions of my alleged political agenda, which is fine by me. Really, it’s not a message book, but if you want to boil it down I’d probably say: If something is really important to you in life, at some point you are going to have to fight to defend it. Not physically, necessarily, but in some way.
How long did it take to write the book?
Around two years to get the draft which landed my agent, but then it was three years, including more revisions, before we sold it.
Who is your favorite character, or what character was the most fun to write?
That’s easy — Egbert. A lovable know-it-all in the grand tradition of Mrs. Malaprop or Frasier Crane.
Can you talk about how you wrote it? Did you do any outlining? Did it take you in any unexpected directions?
No outlining, at least initially, and oh yes, it took me off in many directions. I had no idea what I was doing as far as plot and structure. I had been a professional non-fiction writer (and a lifelong reader), so I did have a sense of story, but the mechanics of structure, of having everything “move the plot forward,” were a real struggle for me. They still are.
If you could go back and change anything in the novel, what would it be?
Well, if the book were just for me, I would probably go back and make it more digressive. I do understand the need for scenes to move the plot forward and all that, but I think that’s been taken too far in the world of writing advice. If you can’t be digressive in a novel, then when can you be?
How did you come up with the cover?
My editor and the art director at HarperCollins came up with both covers, working with illustrator Sam Nielson, who works for a division of Disney. I love the original cover, but I like the revised paperback cover (also by Sam) because I think it reflects the reading level of the book a bit better.
When did you know you wanted to be a writer?
I’m not convinced I am one yet. Self-doubt is in my DNA.
What are you favorite books and authors?
I am definitely an Anglophile when it comes to books and authors, especially in kid lit. Kipling, Carroll, Edward Lear, Philip Pullman, Jonathan Stroud, Joan Aiken and Susan Cooper are a few of my touchstones.
What are you working on next?
I am working on book one of a planned 3-book series that takes place in an alternate Seafaring Age. The working title of the first book is The Vanishing Island.
What advice do you have for aspiring authors?
Think seriously about whether you are willing to devote the time it takes to write and revise a book. We all have obligations (day jobs, family, sleep) that require our time and attention. The time you need to write a novel comes out of whatever’s left, and there is no guarantee of getting published. The writing itself, the act of creation, has to fill some need or offer a satisfaction of its own.
How do you juggle writing with family time?
I don’t have children, but I do have a full-time job, so I write on my lunch break, schedule several hours on Saturday and Sunday to write, and if I’m really up against a deadline, I write before and after work during the week.
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