Magic Tree House
Junie B. Jones
“I love reading unexpected books, strange books, old books. Can I have a (waterproof) sea chest wash up, with a random selection of strange, old titles, fiction and nonfiction? . . . For this, I would trade my favorites.”–Ann Halam
In addition to writing children's books, Ann Halam writes adult science fiction and fantasy books under the name Gwyneth Jones.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
A CONVERSATION WITH ANN HALAM ON DR. FRANKLIN'S ISLAND
Q. Here’s an old question that is particularly appropriate and a good way to get to know you. If you were stranded on a desert island, whom would you want to be stranded with?
A. My husband, and our cat. I’d say my son, too, but I think that would be tough on him. He’s fifteen . . . suppose we were there for years? I think he’d better have stayed at home, with his cat, and they can seek their fortunes together.
Q. Which books would you want to have?
A. Remembrance of Things Past, Marcel Proust; The Tale of Genji, Murasaki Shikibu (Edward G. Seidensticker translation); Gravity’s Rainbow, Thomas Pynchon. These are my three bedside books. They’re all pretty long, especially Proust. I read them in turn and then start the cycle again. I’ve been doing this for many years. There’s so much in each of these great novels, I’ll never tire of them. Oh, and all the Moomin books [by Tove Jansson], which I love. Another idea . . . I love reading unexpected books, strange books, old books. Can I have a (waterproof) sea chest wash up, with a random selection of strange, old titles, fiction and nonfiction? In English or French. Or maybe some other language, only with a dictionary and a grammar for each language included in the collection, please. . . . For this, I would trade my favorites.
Q. What kinds of food would you crave?
A. Parmesan cheese. Ice cream (not mixed together). And bread. Maybe I’d miss bread most keenly, because it is my staple food. Bread and cheese is my favorite everyday meal–with salad maybe, but I expect there’ll be some kind of edible greens. I don’t know how big this island is. If it’s big enough, and we’re there for long enough, we could figure out by trial and error which roots to dry or grass seeds to harvest, and beat them into flour. I bet we could manage something of that kind, but I wonder what we’d do for yeast. Maybe we could make a sourdough, with slightly turned coconut milk? Or goats’ milk. Are there goats?
Q. We’ll see what we can do about getting you some goats. In the meantime, tell us about your writing process. How do you begin?
A. I start with an idea rather than an outline: a situation, a proposal, what they call in science fiction the “What if?” In the case of Dr. Franklin, I think the idea came because I’d seen teenage children’s fiction about magical transformations into animal forms, usually involving some kind of superpowers, and I’d been reading about the wilder possibilities of genetic engineering for other reasons. I thought, “What if you were to treat that theme realistically? What if you were to describe the process?” From there I went on to wonder why someone would be doing this, and because I’m interested in the future of space exploration, it dawned on me that this would be a reason. And maybe someone, sometime, is going to have to be the first to take that incredibly dangerous big step.
Q. When you write a book, do you know what’s going to happen, or do you develop the story as you go along?
A. Before I start writing, I sit down with my idea and knock it into a story-arc shape: a series of events, happening to people, that will transform my situation into . . . another situation. I often feel I’m making huge changes when I actually write the book, but strangely (at least, it seems strange to me), I usually find that the sequence of events stays the same as in that first rough arc. The same things happen, but for more complicated reasons than I first imagined, if that makes sense. It’s the characters who make the difference. Miranda’s vulnerability and Semirah’s secret toughness developed like this, and enriched the plot–but these qualities are implicit in them from the start. You have to be tough to be shy (don’t ask me how I know this, I just know). I do a lot of revising and editing, right until the last minute. I find it very hard to let a book go, and I’m always convinced I can perfect every sentence even further, with a little more tinkering. But on the other hand, I instinctively value the passages that come “right first time” very highly: it’s a paradox.
Q. You tell us that Dr. Franklin’s Island was partly inspired by H. G. Wells’s The Island of Dr. Moreau. What did you draw from Wells’s story?
A. Dr. Franklin’s Island is sort of an argument with The Island of Dr. Moreau. When I started thinking about my transformation story, The Island of Dr. Moreau immediately came to mind and set the scene on the “desert island”–the isolated place where the mad scientist could do his will, undisturbed by public opinion. When I reread the story, I found I didn’t like the ideas in it at all. This is different from not liking the story. I think it’s a great story, but I didn’t like H. G. Wells’s ideas about animal nature versus human nature. Part of what happens in Dr. Franklin (though this isn’t Dr. Franklin’s intention!) is the wonder and joy of being reunited with the animal kingdom, rediscovering the delight of being an animal, at home in the living world–but still this special kind of self-aware, conscious animal that is a human being. H. G. Wells comes to a very different conclusion about his “beast men.” I won’t try to explain it; read the story and make your own judgment. In short, I like H. G. Wells’s terrific stories, but I’m not much of an admirer of his opinions.
Q. A detail not provided in the novel is the reason why the plane crashed. Could you tell us now?
A. It’s a lot harder than you’d think to be a good eyewitness, especially when you’re trying to remember what happened in an emergency. When Semirah and Miranda and Arnie are trying to decide what happened, on the beach, they can’t agree on a story, and that’s the way I’d like to leave it. When they realize that they can’t reach any rational explanation, it brings home their helplessness, and the way they’ve been dumped out of the world. One of the things I wanted to say in Dr. Franklin is that terrible things do happen, and the people who suffer often never find out the “real story.” “Why me?” is a question that doesn’t get answered. Maybe Semirah was wrong and there was no hijack, just a tragic accident. Or maybe it was all a setup, organized by Dr. Franklin. I don’t know everything that goes on in my books. If you want my opinion, I think there was a hijack attempt that failed, and it didn’t have anything to do with Dr. Franklin.
Q. Semi and Miranda develop a truly special friendship. Can you describe their relationship? What level of trust do they achieve? In the coda, does Semi reveal a sexual component to the relationship?
A. I wondered about that myself. I think the possibility of a sexual relationship is there, but I don’t know if it would happen or not, and in ways I’ve a feeling it wouldn’t, because their intimacy has already been so deep without any sexual component. I think you’d have to follow them further, and it would depend a lot on the circumstances. I do believe, however, that for some people the most important, central relationship in their life is a friendship, maybe with someone of the same sex, but not a sexual relationship, and maybe that’s the way it will be with Miranda and Semirah. They’ll have romantic relationships, heterosexual or same-sex partners, families–but this lifelong friendship will always be stronger.
Q. Semi narrates the novel. We see everything through her eyes, and yet, up until her transformation, her vision is limited and often blurred. How much are we to trust her perceptions?
A. Semi’s shortsighted because I am, and I remember coping without my contact lenses or eyeglasses in similar (though not so drastic) situations. I didn’t mean to make Semirah an untrustworthy narrator. I think she’s very trustworthy, precisely because she knows she’s not seeing the world clearly. She’s a scientist.
Q. You’ve created a character, Miranda, with remarkable instincts for survival in the wild. Most authors write from experience. Is it so with you? Are you as resourceful as she is? Have your survival skills ever been tested?
A. I grew up on Swallows and Amazons [by Arthur Ransome] and other outdoor-adventure books, and we had a young uncle who took us camping and cooking in such corners of wild country as can be found in the urban northwest of England. I like living outdoors, and making do, and getting off the beaten path (but less of that now–wild country doesn’t need any more human explorers, not anywhere!). My skills are not great. I’m at the level where I’ve never really had to light a fire without matches, but I know how to build a fire that will light and burn easily; and I know to keep the matches wrapped in something totally waterproof. I’ve been in situations that could have got difficult, climbing mountains in Java, for instance, but I’ve never ended up in trouble. I’ve learned that in most places the wilderness is not out to get you (there are exceptions), and you’ll come to no serious harm if you just take care. I’ve been lucky, but keeping the rules is a good way to stay lucky–and I had the rules drilled into me at an early age.
Q. You have provided an antidote that allows Semi, Miranda, and Arnie to return to their human forms and be “normal” again. Did you consider any other endings?
A. No, I didn’t. The “antidote” makes sense of the experiment, and I never intended Dr. Franklin to be a mad scientist in the gibbering-lunatic-monster category. I think the scary thing about him is that he is perfectly rational, on his own terms: he has a project, he’s not just flailing around. But the idea that they would be normal again at the end goes deeper than that. When I sit down to sort out my work plan for a book, I usually already have a final scene in mind (and it hardly ever changes). I was heading for that hotel room in Quito from a very early stage, and for the coda that comes after it. The book was going to end with Miranda and Semirah about to walk through the door that would take them back into the “normal” world: looking at each other, feeling that weird, paradoxical nostalgia for the terror and the ordeal. It’s equally important to me that they are left balanced, in between; passing for normal outside, no longer normal inside. “‘What are we?’ I ask Miranda. ‘Are we monsters? Or are we more than human?’” (p. 245). That’s the question I wanted to end with, and it’s a question about the future of being human, supposing the science of genetic engineering, gene therapy, really takes us where it seems it might take us. If they don’t “change back,” then there’s no implication for the future– they’re just fantasy creatures.
Q. You raise questions for your readers to consider about the ethical and moral boundaries of medical research. Where do you stand on this issue?
A. I think in any field of human enterprise, what can be done, will be done, if there is profit or status to be gained. Arguments about morals and ethics have little effect on the cutting edge. Obviously, in real life, no sane person would perform such drastic life-threatening experiments on living human beings, willing volunteers or not. But who knows, maybe that’s only because in real life the kind of experiments that I’ve suggested aren’t possible . . . yet. The boundaries are always shifting, and the trouble is there’s no magic line that can’t be crossed. In the end, morality means stopping yourself from doing something you know is wrong (like torture, or marketing a killer addictive drug), no matter what you think you’ll gain from it. It’s called free will, and I revere it: but the you have to do it yourself, no one makes you part seems to be hard for a lot of people to grasp. They think, “Well, God didn’t strike me with a thunderbolt, so what’s the problem?”
Q. The names of two of your characters seem to have special meaning. Did you expect readers to make a connection between Dr. Franklin and Dr. Frankenstein? A. Dr. Franklin isn’t meant to be Dr. Frankenstein. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein was wracked by doubt, and horribly remorseful (though he failed to do anything useful about his remorse). Dr. Franklin could never feel like that. Semirah is called after a newscaster on the TV in England. I just happened to notice her, and that she had a lovely smile. And I admired her because she was very young, obviously good at her job, and on the way up. That’s often how my characters get their names: quite by chance. Miranda is the one whose name has a special meaning, a double meaning. She’s someone who is admired (that’s what first defines her), and then she’s again the Miranda of The Tempest, in her role as the “daughter” who wants to believe that her “father’s” magic is noble and good.
Q. Semirah wonders in the end if Dr. Skinner will decide to carry on Dr. Franklin’s “great work.” But she doesn’t think he’d dare. Is this teenage naïveté?
A. Maybe naïveté is too harsh. I think it’s a case of compartmentalizing: Semirah has just had enough, for the moment anyway. She’s putting the problem aside, and hoping for the best, until she’s strong enough to deal with it again. I’ve seen my son do this, and it’s a life skill I admire. I’m a pointless worrier myself. I don’t think Skinner will carry on Dr. Franklin’s work himself–he’s not the type, but he’ll probably try to find another “great man” to serve, and hand over all the experimental data. Like I said, I don’t know everything that goes on in my books, and I don’t tend to tie up all the loose ends. You walk into the characters’ lives, and then you walk out again, only knowing part of the story. . . . I can’t remember who said that, but it’s supposed to be a definition of what makes a good movie, and I like it.
DR. FRANKLIN'S ISLAND
“Halam delivers a nightmarish thriller of white-knuckle intensity.”–Publishers Weekly, Starred
“Halam creates a gripping, exciting, surprising, and disturbing novel.”—VOYA, Starred
“This exciting and well-developed book will appeal to fans of horror and adventure.”—School Library Journal
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