Monday, 12 March 2012

My Vacation in Hell: Interview with Gene Twaronite

You deserve a much-needed vacation from the jellyfish and sundogs of my mind, dear reader. Please welcome Gene Twaronite, author of two YA novels, The Family That Wasnt  and My Vacation in Hell.

KR: Gene, what’s your favorite writing quote, and why?

GT: My favorite quote is from Albert Camus: “The absurd is the essential concept and the first truth.” A framed copy hangs over my writing desk. When I first read this quote, there was a eureka moment when all became clear to me. It defined my basic view of existence since earliest childhood when I first looked at a giraffe and wondered: How and why could just a creature exist in a sane and ordered world? And as I look back on both my writing and reading choices, woven throughout is a love of the absurd. The absurd is where I live.

KR: Ah, that ones a gem, and perfect for a fantasy writer as well as a humorist - and youre both . . . Your bio indicates that you’re a dedicated children’s writer. Writing YA in particular is both rewarding and challenging, as it’s a flourishing yet highly competitive genre. Did you make a conscious choice to write YA books, or did your imagination simply lead you in that direction? 

GT: I think it started with my first short story sale in 1987 to Highlights for Children, which was then and still is one of the top paying markets for short fiction. A former junior high school science teacher, I was experimenting with trying to write a funny story that would appeal to young readers but would also whet their appetites for science. The result was “The Glacier That Almost Ate Main Street,” which despite its absurd premise—a glacier that starts in a refrigerator—actually introduces a little real science about the last Ice Age.

So immediately, I started imitating this early success with other absurd stories, some of which were eventually published by Highlights, Read and other juvenile markets. So I guess you could say that the die was cast. When I first started writing a novel in 1990, I did not have to think at all about who my audience would be. Having already achieved some measure of success in this genre, I decided to write in the manner I knew. I have always loved children’s books, and still read them to this day. Many of my favorite authors of adult works, such as E.B. White and James Thurber, also wrote charming and funny children’s books—more aptly described as books for children of all ages. This brings me to my final point—that I’m just a Peter Pan kind of guy who refuses to grow up.

KR: Hear hear! My Vacation in Hell is both a unique spin-off of Dante’s Inferno and an unusual take on the theme of sexual abuse. You reveal a bit about the research for the book on your Amazon sales page. Did you plan to put John Boggle in the predicament of being sexually abused in your debut novel, or did that theme evolve naturally? Is there any reason that you don’t completely resolve the issue in the first novel?

GT: I never planned to write about sexual abuse—it just happened. Our best writing is always a process of discovering, and as the nature of my character John unfolded in my first novel The Family That Wasn’t, I began asking myself: Why does John hate his “Uncle” Vinnie so much? Sure, Vinnie was an ugly character in many ways, but there was something else. What is John’s dark secret that he tries to suppress, as so many sexual abuse victims do? So yes, the theme evolved naturally from there. But since this first novel was a middle grade reader aimed at ages 8-12, I didn’t feel it appropriate to more than hint at this theme. And I neatly got rid of Vinnie (spoiler alert!) by having John using his imagination to edit him out of his life.

But life is never that neat, of course. While many sexual abuse victims do try to “edit” their memories in a similar manner, I felt that I just couldn’t leave my character hanging there with this unresolved issue. So I began thinking about how John, two years later, is dealing with this. I also did a little research about how victims learn to deal with their sexual abuse and the different stages they go through in the healing process. Listening ad nauseam to the ever-increasing litany of media reports on sexual abuse, I also found myself thinking about how, if there really were a hell, then a special place must be reserved for these destroyers of innocence.

From there it was a short leap to Dante. And yes, I actually did read the Inferno, in fifth grade. I especially remember how as a young boy, flipping ahead to all the gory parts, I was fascinated by Dante’s vivid descriptions of souls in various states of torment. This gave me the idea for a satire: How would a 15-year-old young man, especially one who was sexually abused, create his own hierarchy of evil? Who would he put down there? And just as there may be future readers who might quibble about why this or that kind of evildoer wasn’t consigned to some deeper part of hell, I must remind them that this is all seen through the eyes of a young man who is still finding his own answers in the world. One of the hardest things I found in writing the novel was to keep my adult moral views out of it, though I must confess that at least a couple of things found their way in. I would also point out that not everyone agrees with Dante’s hierarchy. Defining levels of evil is a very personal thing, you know.

KR: Very. . . So as this surprise molestation theme in your first novel emerged, and you felt compelled to solve John Boggle's dilemma with a second novel, was it also your intended goal to assist kids who have been sexually abused, or did that goal emerge along with the story?

GT: This emerged from the story. I tried to imagine as best I could part of the horror experienced by a sexual abuse victim and how he or she might deal with it. While some consider this a vain presumption on my part, having never been sexually abused (at least as far as I know), I think the task of a fiction writer is to imagine the unimaginable.Fantasy can be a powerful tool, not only in writing but in the way it helps us shape our lives. Writing about John, I could feel his pain as he attempted to deal with his memories. At times I cringed at the awful scenes I found myself creating, but I knew he would get somehow get through it. For he had two important survival skills, a sense of humor and a robust imagination, which would help him forge a future life for himself in the dawn of a new world. Though my primary goal was to write an entertaining humorous fantasy, I hope that at least one sexually abused reader finds here a measure of hope and inspiration.

KR: Ah, I do feel that if a book transforms at least one person's life, then its worth the effort . . . You had at least a partial plan in mind when you wrote The Vacation in Hell. Do you sometimes write to “discover” your stories? How did your first novel, The Family That Wasn’t, evolve?

GT: I often start with What if?—two of the most magical words in the English language. And since my mind naturally gravitates toward the absurd, this usually ends up being something wacky or bizarre. What if a glacier actually started in a refrigerator? A major influence at the time were the writings of James Thurber, especially his book My Life and Hard Times, in which he uses a memoir style to describe his life growing up in Ohio and his truly weird family members. His sketches were so funny and the characters so absurd that I wondered how much of it was real and how much was made up. Since I was doing a lot of juvenile fiction at the time, I started thinking about a certain teenage boy. What if his family was so impossibly crazy that … what? From there I started sketching out characters and, when I felt that I knew them sufficiently, began letting them loose to see where they might go. The first draft took me about six months, but it took twenty years of revisions, editing and polishing before the final work was published.

KR: *Laughs* I know the struggle and the time frame! Your MVIH website mentions that you have a project in progress – tell us about that.

GT: My next book will be a collection of my juvenile short stories. The working title is The Dragon Daily News: Stories of Wonder for Children of All Ages. The title comes from a story about two cub dragon reporters for a great metropolitan dragon newspaper. An artist friend of mine designed a beautiful color drawing showing the two young dragons sitting at their desk as they attempt to come up with a story; I plan on using this for the cover. I also plan on hiring an artist to draw six or eight additional illustrations to be used throughout the text. Some of the stories, like this one, were never published; others were published by Read, Heinemann, and various online literary magazines. The stories range in age group from 6-8 up through middle grade and young adult, and will also appeal to adults who have not lost their love for fables and fairy tales. I plan to have it out by early next year.

I am also planning a collection of my essays entitled The Absurd Naturalist. This will be a collection of my humorous nature and gardening essays. My first forays into writing were essays, and I have been writing them ever since. Many have been published in weekly and monthly newspaper columns I wrote as well as in various magazines and literary journals. I am thinking of illustrating this with some humorous black and white line drawings.

KR: Wowee, these sound fascinating! Now that John Boggle has appeared in two novels, will we hear from him again?

GT: You’re not the first person to ask me this, Kate. This is what happens when an author writes more than one novel featuring the same main character. Now you have to do a series, or at the very least finish the third novel so you can have a trilogy. At this point, I haven’t decided. After taking John through the middle grades into young adulthood, however, I am tempted to follow him into his twenties to see how he turns out. I mean this guy’s got one hyper-imagination, and I wonder how he will deal with it in the future. Will he trip out on his imaginary journeys to such an extent that he can no longer separate reality from fantasy? Does the fantasy finally become so real that he can no longer find his way back? And back to what? What is real? And what becomes of him now? OK, you can see my mind is already spinning. So yes, there is the possibility of at least one more book. I think I owe it to John.

KR: I think your readers will be thrilled! One last question - two in one, really (many thanks to CAB!) . . . My Vacation in Hell handles John Boggle’s dilemma through the lens of Christian mythology – a framework for the story, yet you subvert this to make the framework palatable for modern kids. How or why did you choose this path? And is it possible to frame a plot based on Dantes “Divine Comedy,” which has sections on “Inferno,Purgatorio, and Paradiso – hell, purgatory, and heaven?

GT: Interesting question. Here goes: Having grown up Catholic and having been thoroughly indoctrinated with Christian mythology, it seemed natural to use this as part of the framework for the story. I had also read Dantes Inferno with grim fascination. Like John at fifteen, I was still questioning and probing my beliefs; unlike John, I did not have the advantage of being exposed to other religions at the time. For me this came later in college when I studied not only the Bible as literature but also comparative religion and philosophy. I came to better understand the human need to explain reality and the power of our myths. Though today I consider myself a scientific rationalist, I also consider myself a spiritual person and often explore this dimension in my writing. In my novel, I tried not to allow my adult beliefs to intrude into the narrative. Rather I tried to show a young man, armed with a strong sense of humor and imagination, searching for his own answers. And no, I do not intend to follow this up with trips to purgatory or heaven. Hell is much more fascinating.

KR: Indeed. And in case anyone
s interested in my take on reading My Vacation in Hell, heres my review, which is also posted at Amazon:and Barnes & Noble:

Gene Twaronites YA fantasy novels - The Family that Wasnt and My Vacation in Hell - follow John Bazukas-OReilly-Geronimo-Giovanni-Li Choy-Echeverria (aka John Boggle) through his angst-ridden but reflective teenage trials and tribulations.

Twaronite aptly describes his protagonist in his excellent MVIH book description:
A troubled nerdy misfit and a frequent flyer of his imagination, John is inspired by a book report reading of Dante AlighierisInferno. In the eternity of the five minutes before summer vacation, he embarks on a pilgrimage based upon his own free-wheeling interpretation of the work.

s narrative is an inventive, fast-paced adventure delivered in a strong, appealing voice that should captivate both adult and young adult readers:

My first vision of hell, I must confess, was better than it had to be. I wondered for a moment if there had been some mistake. Had I gone to heaven instead? There parked right in front of us was a bright red 1965 Harley-Davidson FL Electra Glide motorcycle with a sidecar.

Just what I ordered, said Virgil. Hop in the sidecar. Ill drive.

Hold everything! I said. How come you get to drive? You dont even have a license. At least Ive got my learners permit.

At the outset of the story, I wondered why a fifteen-year-old who just had to wade through a fourteenth-century classic and who grapples with innumerable insecurities would want to take a personal journey through hell. Kids usually want to push the pleasure bar and avoid serious mental work, especially on the cusp of summer vacation. I found that understandably, John relishes a little guilty enjoyment while he witnesses some hellish retribution for bullies who have wronged him. He also happens to have a personal demon - the shame and confusion caused by his Uncle Vinnie
s abuse.

Fortunately, John, unlike many victims of sexual abuse, is not alone. His friend Virgil helps him negotiate the various levels of hell, and has a handle on the demons and obstacles they encounter in their shared imagination. It turns out that Virgil, coincidentally, has problems of his own, and John can
t leave hell until he fully confronts his deepest despair. Just in the nick of time, Johns metaphorical true love appears at the darkest hour to help recover his inner child and illuminate the healing that can manifest from a difficult journey.

As a freelance editor and proofreader, I was tempted to correct and rewrite a few minor bits of this self-published novel. John Boggle seems almost too composed and articulate for his age at times. But most readers will be far less picky than this crotchety old editor, and overall, Twaronite has produced a high-quality book. Although I haven
t yet read his debut novel, perusing the sequel convinced me to place The Family That Wasnt on my to-read list.

 Available in paperback and e-book at Amazon and Barnes & Noble.
John Boggle tweets at Twitter.
Gene can be reached at gtwaronite at gmail .com.


  1. I liked this interview of Gene Twaronite. Got me thinking:

    ". . . when I felt that I new them sufficiently began letting them loose (characters) to see where they might go."

    [We face so-called real life – even if indoctrinated by strong beliefs – with a certain degree of caught off guard-spontaneity. It's just natural, even when we pull ourselves back to our personal dogma boxes. We've been exposed to unedited life superseding our conceptual lenses. Why wouldn't our stories' characters do the same.]

    ". . . today I consider myself a scientific rationalist, I also consider myself a spiritual person and often explore this dimension in my writing."

    [Science and spirituality inevitably court each other, no matter how high each fences the other out. Closing one eye to what the other eye sees is near-sightedness, not discernment.]

    Twaronite's "Vacation in Hell" sounds like an interesting dance of the improbable with the probable. Perhaps, just the world to visit, when the humdrum of monotony makes us hungry for something unexpected.

    Carl Hitchens

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