Q: When did you develop an interest in writing? Did your teachers recognize your talent and encourage you?
A: My grade three teacher told my parents that I would grow up to be a writer. In later years, in junior high and high school, creative writing class was my favorite part of school. I remember being praised but not encouraged. I was a very shy child, so it was intensely embarrassing if my stories were chosen to be read aloud, and excruciating if I had to read them myself.
In grade eleven or twelve, I volunteered to be a school correspondent for the neighborhood newspaper. But my first published story was so changed from the version I submitted that I never wrote another one. When I graduated from high school, though, I hoped to be a writer.
Q: Tell us about your process. Some writers say that their best writing comes out of revising and editing, while others prefer the spontaneity of their first version. How do you work?
A: I love writing but don’t care much for rewriting. Once I’ve told a story I tend to lose interest in it and want only to go on to the next one.
I used to start a novel knowing nothing of what would happen. I just began at the first page, wrote through to the last, and called the whole thing finished as soon as I reached the end. After many rejections, I realized I was doing something wrong. It’s my theory now (and I wonder sometimes if I didn’t just pick it up from someone else) that you can outline and write, or write and rewrite. But, really, it amounts to the same thing. A story that is started without an outline will become the outline, going through changes and revisions until it seems right.
Now I like to plan the story carefully and fully, going through it chapter by chapter until I know, for each of them, the beginning and the end, and most of what will happen in between. I like to know the characters, what they are like, and how they talk. The writing always strays from the outline in places. But, like a new highway built beside an old one, they eventually rejoin.
I find that some stories, though, are very hard to plot. Lord of the Nutcracker Men was impossible. For some reason, I couldn’t figure out the connections between Johnny’s games and his father’s battles. Instead, I had to let them develop and play out on the pages. I made some corrections and was happy with the story. But my agent asked for changes, and the editor asked for more, and with each revision the story got better and stronger.
Q: Talk about other works of literature that influenced the writing of Lord of the Nutcracker Men. Certainly All Quiet on the Western Front must have had a profound effect on you.
A: It was the movie version of All Quiet on the Western Front, and its German point of view, that introduced me to World War I and formed my earliest ideas of the conflict. Its closing scene of ghostly soldiers marching off to oblivion made a huge impression on me. I read the book and watched the movie again when I started thinking about Lord of the Nutcracker Men.
From the British side, it was the poets that influenced me. John Masefield wrote a fabulous book about his experiences in the Great War, and his descriptions of the battlefield inspired some of the passages in the letters of Johnny’s dad. I was very moved, not only by the poetry, but by the lives of Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon. Both were treated for shell shock, and both went back to the war, creating powerful images of its drama and its horror. Sassoon went on to become a devout pacifist, but Owen was killed in the war’s last days. As his parents received the telegram announcing his death, the armistice bells were ringing in their village. That Murdoch Sims wrote poetry is a small reflection of Owen and Sassoon.
Johnny’s intensity and seriousness with his war games was inspired by D. H. Lawrence’s short story “The Rocking Horse Winner,” where a boy believes that riding a toy horse can open doors to the future. I read the story when I was very young and never forgot the boy’s obsession, or the story’s closing line. I may not have remembered it word for word, but Lord of the Nutcracker Men was shaped by that sentence: “He’s better off gone from a world where he has to ride a rocking horse to find a winner.” The boy and his horse were so much in my mind, and so real to me, that I worried that I was plagiarizing the story for Lord of the Nutcracker Men. I had to read it again to see that Lawrence’s story was nothing like mine.
Q: Did you base any of the characters on real people, or are they all imagined?
A: None of the characters are based on real people. Johnny’s parents are much like mine, but the characters are probably reflections of myself more than of people that I know. Every one of them includes some little bit of me.
Q: Letter writing is an important part of the book. The letters not only bring information, but they keep the emotional ties between Johnny, his father, and his mother. Are you a big letter writer?
A: I am a terrible letter writer. There’s a pile of letters on my desk waiting for an answer, and the ones at the bottom are more than two years old.
Johnny’s father writes letters so that I can describe the war and the battleground without moving the story out of Kent. In 1914, only the wealthiest people had telephones. There was no radio and no television. All the war news reached England by telegram, letter, and carrier pigeon.
Q: Johnny would have been a grown man at the start of World War II. Did he go to war as his father did to “do his part”?
A: I still think about that now and then. I can’t imagine a grown-up Johnny running off to the recruiting center at the start of World War II, but I’m sure he would have done something for the war effort. He would have seen that war as necessary and noble. If he had had a little boat, I’m sure he would have gone to Dunkirk to bring the stranded soldiers home. I think he might have joined the Home Guard, or an ambulance or fire crew.
Before the war ended in 1945, Johnny might well have had a son of his own who would be old enough to fight. I often wonder if he would have let his own boy go off to war.
Q: Johnny believed that the war he fought in his aunt’s garden affected the war his father fought in France. As a child, did you believe that specific things you did could influence events elsewhere?
A: I think every child believes that he or she has some control over impossible things. I remember telling myself that something I was waiting for would finally happen when I counted to ten. When it didn’t, I counted backward, saying, “It will happen in ten, nine eight . . . It will happen now. Now. It will happen . . . now!” Of course it never did, but I don’t remember being disappointed. Or too surprised.
Q: It is ironic that Johnny’s father escaped the war but his mother didn’t– dying just a few years later. What message do you want your readers to glean from this?
A: War is not limited to the battlefield. It’s true that women died of sulfur poisoning after working in the arsenals of World War I. Others were blown up, others crushed to death. I was quite deeply affected by pictures of women war workers standing at rows of tables in factories full of smoke and steam. People often pity the soldiers at the front but forget the ones at home.
Q: Mr. Tuttle believed that “without principle a man has nothing, he is nothing” and was willing to forsake his job for a principle. What principles do you hold so dear that they are worth making sacrifices for?
A: Maybe I don't believe that so strongly as Mr. Tuttle. He tries to live by unrealistic ideals and was acting as much from pride as anything else. Did he want to leave Cliffe because the boys had failed him, or because he had failed them? As a newspaper reporter, I often had to either stand by my principles or let them fall, and I did both from time to time.
Q: Most contemporary teens do not connect on a personal level to the events of World War I. Was it your hope that they would recognize the same folly of war in the present-day conflicts in the former Yugoslavia, in Afghanistan, and in the Middle East?
A: Lord of the Nutcracker Men was not meant to be a lesson about war, but I would be pleased if it made people think about the consequences of war. World War I was the closest thing to a “good war” that a war can be. But it was still a horrible, hopeless thing.
It was called the war to end all wars. I wonder what the millions of soldiers who died in its fighting would think of the world today.
Q: You draw direct parallels between the Greek gods and the royalty of Europe. While times have changed, do you still see those connections with the current batch of world leaders?
A: Today’s leaders certainly have the powers of gods, but they seem to lack the wisdom and compassion. They seem smaller to me than the rulers of a hundred years ago, and more human. But they seem as ready as ever to lead their countries into war.