Chasing dragons, snickers

Nov 1, 13 • 5enses, FeatureNo Comments
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“Dragon Daily News,” by Gene Twaronite. Cover illustration by Johanna Hoffman.

By Robert Blood

[Editor’s note: What follows are excerpts from a conversation between the reporter and Gene Twaronite about “Dragon Daily News: Stories of Imagination for Children of All Ages.” This collection of children’s stories includes works previously published in print publications and websites from the late 1980s to present.]

BLOOD: So, what’s your elevator pitch for “Dragon Daily News”?

TWARONITE: Basically, the main idea is to have fun with your head. Some of the stories have a moral of sorts, but the point isn’t to teach lessons — it’s to have fun. A lot of the stories start with the premise: those two magic words, “what if?” That’s the way I start a lot of my stories, by turning the world on its head.

BLOOD: Is that how you’ve always gone about writing?

TWARONITE: It started with my first commercially published stories in Highlights for Children. Those stories appear in this collection. “The Glacier That Almost Ate Main Street” was me turning science on its head. I was thinking about how to get across the idea of where a glacier comes from and combined that with something fun … and I ended up with a story about a glacier that begins in a refrigerator. That kind of set the tone for all of the other stories in this collection. Humor is present in all of my stories; I can’t write anything that’s completely serious.

BLOOD: I’m curious about how you deal with scientific facts like, say, with a glacier.

TWARONITE: When I make the premise so wacky, you know I’m joking. But I manage to weave glaciers into the dialogue when the main character talks to a cop, who says there haven’t been glaciers here for 20,000 years. Little facts come in casually. Most readers know glaciers don’t come from refrigerators, but that begs the questions where they do come from. That’s provoking intellectual curiosity. … I weave in facts, but I have fun with those facts. In some sense, I guess I’m making up my own facts. But that’s not it — it’s the arrangement on the page, how it all fits together. I’m counting on my readers to know when I’m kidding. I write for an intelligent audience, whether child or adult, that can tell the difference. You have fun with the truth but only so far.

BLOOD: Why did you start writing for children?

TWARONITE: I think, at the time, I was teaching and running an environmental center. It’s just what appealed to me. I’ve always been a big kid at heart, always the class clown type of jokester, so it’s a natural fit for me. And there’s a silly side to children’s stories, part of us that we never lose. It also happened that my first commercially successful stories were children’s stories so, with that success, I thought, “Alright, I’m going to keep writing them.” I’ve written adult short stories and essays since then, but I’ve never lost that love of children’s stories.

BLOOD: Has the feedback for the book been any different than what you’ve gotten about your writing before?

TWARONITE: Yes. I was reading at a story time at Peregrine Books recently and, while I was reading “How to Stuff a Rhino,” one of the students there drew a picture of a rhino as it’s shown in the story. That was about as powerful of feedback as I’ve ever gotten. Children asked scintillating questions, too, but that beautiful little drawing, that was the highest compliment I’ve ever been paid.

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The author, naturally. Courtesy photo.

BLOOD: I want to pick up on something you said earlier about lessons in stories. Do you intentionally work those in as part of your process or are they happy accidents?

TWARONITE: Story is what drives everything. I never started out to teach lessons. My stories are plot driven or, I should say, idea driven. I just follow that along. A lot of times they come from no more than an idea or an opening line. From there, I let the whole thing unfold. I want to be surprised as I’m writing because, if I’m surprised, maybe the reader will be surprised, too. My deep felt views might creep into a story, later, but I still think the story is the primary driver.

BLOOD: Could you give us an example?

TWARONITE: OK. “How to Stuff a Rhino.” It’s totally absurd to stuff a rhino in a hat box and try to get it back to Africa in that afternoon. That’s the idea, the story, but in between the lines in gets into environmental and wildlife concerns like poachers killing rhinos for superstitious reasons. I expect my readers to read between the lines. There’s a message here, but you’ve got to enjoy the story. That’s the focus. You don’t want to talk down to kids. You have want them — you expect them — to find other meanings in the story. Other times a story is just totally an idea. I have story about tofu (“The Tofu Hunters”) that’s like that. It was a thought experiment about a mythical character. That was the whole premise; I just wanted to write about these creatures. But, again, there are underlying lessons there: that life doesn’t always give us what we want.

BLOOD: All from an absurd story. …

TWARONITE: I think silliness is underrated, as is comedy in general. People think it’s so easy to write or that it’s less important than tragedy, or any sort of serious work. I consider myself as much of a writer as I do a humorist. … One of my heroes, the great essayist E. B. White, wrote children’s stories, too. He once wrote something about the “uninvited snicker” that creeps up on you as you write. That’s what you need to follow, and that’s what happens to me in most of my stories.

*****

You can buy “Dragon Daily News” in Prescott at Peregrine Book Company and Hastings or online at Amazon and Barnes and Noble. Contact the author or order the book at TheTwaroniteZone.Com. Gene Twaronite is also available for free programs that use his stories to teach Arizona Common Core Writing standards at state libraries and schools. A free teacher’s guide PDF for “Dragon Daily News” is available to anyone who purchases the book.

Robert Blood is a Mayer-ish-based freelance writer and ne’er-do-well who’s working on his last book, which, incidentally, will be his first. Contact him at BloodyBobby5@Gmail.Com.

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