Interview with Tom McNeal, 2013 National Book Award Finalist, Young People's Literature

Tom McNeal

Far Far Away by Tom McNeal Tom McNeal

Far Far Away

Alfred A. Knopf/Random House
Photo credit: Jeff Lucia

Interview by William Alexander

William Alexander:
Far Far Away is narrated by the ghost of Jacob Grimm, brother of Wilhelm and collector of household tales. How did you come to hear Jacob's voice in your own head?

Tom McNeal: I've always liked a good ghost story, probably because I don't find it completely impossible that spirits can linger. My mother told me several stories about telepathic messages from the dead that cannot be rationally explained away, so you can see how this sort of thing can take root. As for his voice, I don’t pretend to be channeling Jacob Grimm. There was just a point where the research and the way I imagined him speaking and thinking seemed to blend, and I just let the current carry me from there.

WA: The back of the book thanks Jack Zipes and Maria Tatar for their scholarship, and you've mentioned that Tatar's annotated collection turned out to be a particularly useful resource. Which works of Jack Zipes did you find most helpful and illuminating?

TM: His Complete Tales of the Brothers Grimm is in fact complete, and includes all of those tales that the Grimms deleted as their intentions, and the market for their work, evolved. You’ll also find a lot of underlining and marginal notes in my copy of The Brothers Grimm: From Enchanted Forests to the Modern World, a collection of his essays. He’s now translating the original edition of the Household Tales, which is not at all the same as the later editions that are typically translated. That should be interesting. One of the really gratifying aspects of the book’s publication was the fact that both Tatar and Zipes read the book and gave their thumbs up. A huge relief, I can tell you.

WA: My next question is inevitable, and you're probably bored of it, but you seem to answer differently each time so I'm still going to ask. Favorite fairy tale?

TM: I do tend to name different tales. If allowable, I’ll narrow it down to two. First, "The Fisherman & His Wife” because it's all about over-reaching. Little in life is harder—or, I would argue, more worthwhile—than figuring out how to take pleasure in what you have. And, second, "Little Sister, Little Brother," because the psychology of it—the brother who's been transformed into a deer that can't resist going out to join in the hunt, of which he is the intended prey—is really interesting to me. Puts me in mind of those frightening early days when one is looking for—and being appraised in terms of—a mate.

WA: Your narrative tricks of suspense and rising dread all worked—even as I recognized your trickery. This isn't a question. I'd just like you to know that I haven't forgiven you yet.

TM: Noted, and very much appreciated.

WA: Has your spouse, fellow author, and frequent collaborator Laura McNeal enjoyed bragging about Far Far Away's National Book Award nomination as much as you've enjoyed bragging about her own for Dark Water?

TM: I think it’s fair to say that we genuinely exult in the other’s good days. I remember how thrilled I was when Laura got the nomination call from Harold Augenbraum. I immediately e-mailed her brother in all caps. That was the first time ever I’ve written anybody in all caps. It was still early morning and we went to the gym. I wanted to tell complete strangers in the midst of strenuous exercise of her great good fortune. And this year, when the news arrived, it came through Laura’s cellphone and before she handed it over, I could tell from her brimming expression that these were good tidings.

WA: What is the very first bedtime story you can remember?

TM: My mother tells me that whenever she would take out a book to read to me at bedtime, I would say that I wanted a story “from her mouth.” Meaning a story that she made up. Evidently I knew even at that early age that she was the real storyteller in the family. And she made it even better by “drawing” illustrations or maps on my back while she told her tale. Her fingers would trace the progress of the story’s hero here and there, and draw the castle or forest or towering mountain that the hero was approaching. She continued this tradition with our sons, who would go to her house and ask for a “back story.” I suppose one of these days they’ll learn that backstory has another important, yet less charming, meaning.

William Alexander won the National Book Award in 2012 for his debut novel, Goblin Secrets, and the Earphones Award for his narration of the audiobook. He studied theater and folklore at Oberlin College, English at the University of Vermont, and creative writing at the Clarion Workshop. He teaches at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design.