Our Interview with James A. Owen, Author of Here, There be Dragons

by Oct 25, 2006Books

As you may have read in our previous article or in the TORC Blog, Here, There Be Dragons is the first book in the Chronicles of the Imaginarium Geographica. It is the story of three friends–John, Jack, and Charles–that flee London aboard the mythical dragonship, Indigo Dragon, and cross the frontier to the Archipelago of Dreams in order to defeat the dark forces that threaten that world, and ours.

As you may surmise, the first names of the three friends are no coincidence. John (Ronald Reuel Tolkien), Jack (CS Lewis), and Charles (Williams) were good friends in real life and made up the core of the informal writing group known as The Inklings. Here, Mr. Owen has taken some liberties and has placed them in historical settings that never happened (it is a fiction book), but refrains from identifying them by their last name until the very end of the book.

Yes, it takes quite a confident author to tackle all three of these authors in one book, and even more courage to take it in a fictional direction many may frown at. If you’re one of those people (like I was), take some time a read this article. You’ll get a sense of Mr. Owen’s clear sensibilities and care of his chosen subject. I think you’ll feel much better about the effort he put into the Imaginarium Geographica.

Here, then, is our 1 on 1 interview with the author of Here, There Be Dragons, James Owen!

TORC: How did your interest in literature and writing begin?

My mother painted, and also taught first grade. Her brothers and sister were a painter, printer, and graphic designer, respectively. And their father was an english teacher (among many other things). So I have it in the blood to love art, and books. I first wanted to be an astronomer, then a physicist – but I loved to tell stories too much. And so instead of a hard day at the lab, followed by a relaxing evening drawing or writing, I put in long days at the studio, then later at home to relax, I fool around with quantum mechanics and theories about the universe.

TORC: Who or what has influenced your writing?

History and Mythology and all of the stories that ever were, or could be – which is precisely the kind of answer you’d get from the fellow who came up with the Imaginarium Geographica(!). Really, I am soaking in information wherever I can get it, and I am passionately devoted to print. Magazines, comic books, novels, essays – I love it all.

I am very old-fashioned in my tastes and tendencies: I believe that essays are more vital than articles; and I believe in writing for a purpose. I love to entertain, and be entertained – everyone loves popcorn! But I also think that entertainment created without concern for the underlying values that should be in every good story is what doesn’t last.

Stories are how we communicate. My Navajo friends come from a culture where their history was passed down through stories. Entertainment was secondary. In another of my projects, the graphic novel series STARCHILD, I make the point that our stories are what define us as families, and communities, and cultures. And it is in sharing those stories that we come to understand other families, and communities, and cultures. And how can we do that, truly, if the stories we share do not contain at some level, the values that we hold and hope to preserve?

TORC: What inspires you to write?

Everyone has those moments of wonder or inspiration – those fleeting instants where you realize you’ve witnessed something, or learned something subconsciously, or been graced with an experience you wish you could share. I have those moments often – in part, I think, because I’m open to seeing them – and it’s unbearable to me to think I can’t share them. So I do, through my work. Sometimes those moments are best expressed in pictures, others in prose, and sometimes through both.

TORC: What authors (other than the Inklings, of course) have you taken an interest in?

Ray Bradbury is high on the list. And Terry Brooks was hugely influential in my early development. I fell in love with the idea of family lines threading throughout many novels because of Terry’s SHANNARA books. I like Paul Auster’s work very much, and the books of Jonathan Carroll. Garth Nix is currently my favorite writer. My friend Neil Gaiman is also very good.

But it would be difficult to find an author whom I haven’t read, who hasn’t influenced me in some way. I have an immense library which is still growing, and there’s usually something of value in every book I come across. The most influential writer to my life as a whole wasn’t a writer, and his book, MARKINGS, was published after his death. But that man, Dag Hammarkjold, knew a great deal about how to be a good man in difficult times.

TORC: What books are you reading now?

IT’S SUPERMAN, by Tom DeHaven; VICTORY by Susan Cooper; a novella by Michael Chabon; and a lot of reference books on Pirates.

TORC: Is there anything you find particularly challenging in your writing?

Challenging? It depends on the day. There are certain passages that are harder than others; certain characters that don’t come as easily. But writers write. If I do that enough, the difficulties eventually sort themselves out.

TORC: What was the hardest part about writing Here, There Be Dragons?

Finding the right editor and publisher, with whom I could work comfortably. Writing itself has seldom been a problem for me – but navigating through the publishing world takes faith and perseverance. Luckily, I have a good manager who found in David Gale an ideal editor, and in Simon & Schuster, a very supportive publisher.

TORC: You mentioned that you think Charles Williams has become the “forgotten” Inkling. Why do you think he never met with the kind of public success Tolkien or Lewis encountered?

Yes! NO ONE seems to know him (among the general public). That’s something I very much hope to change with my books. (And remember, there are several more coming – so my portrayal and treatment of any of them should not be seen as complete based on any single volume, especially the first!)

I think he peaked earlier, in part because he WAS older than the others. I truly believe it was serendipity that he chose a different path. His early work was closer to what the others became known for – but even their work had winding paths to success (or Success, as they may have seen it).

I certainly don’t intend (nor do I desire) for ‘my’ Charles to be seen as the strict or authoritative ‘take’ on this great man. But I do hope that his inclusion in my books will inspire readers to seek out and enjoy his writings.

TORC: What was the inspiration for Here, There be Dragons?

The core inspiration for all of my work is the question “What If?”

I like to find those gaps in history, where what-ifs could have occurred. That’s where great stories can be found. And my what-if here had to do with lost books – specifically lost atlases. What if early on in cartography, someone mapped an undiscovered land, then lost the atlas, then never went back? And what if someone FOUND that atlas, which detailed a map to a place that no other evidence on earth could prove to exist?

Thus was born the Imaginarium Geographica.

Then the question was, who would have seen such a book? And what if it DID exist, but was a great secret…?

And from there, mixed with my love of literature and fantasy, came the names of all the Caretakers. And a story using modern-day caretakers was not interesting to me, until I had another ‘what if’ moment.

What if three of the greatest, most beloved fantasists of the last century, who truly WERE friends, had actually chanced to meet earlier than the world knows they did?

And that’s where it began.

The best cultural examples of the inspiration and approach are cinematic. Story-behind-the-story stories: SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE and YOUNG SHERLOCK HOLMES (the former for concept, the latter for BRILLIANT execution).

TORC: How many books do you expect the “Imaginarium Geographica” to be?

At present, seven primary novels, with a few spinoff picture books and novellas. But bear in mind – the series is about the Imaginarium Geographica. So the protagonists I’ve begun with may not be in any or all of the books to come… (But they are all three in the next book, which takes place nine years after DRAGONS.)

TORC: In the story, which character did you enjoy exploring most?

Jack has the best character arc, and there is MUCH more in him that is subtly influenced by his real life than the others. Every event with him seems to connect on some level (for me) of his real life much more strongly than I’d expected.

John has good moments. The discussion with his mentor in the Keep of Time is in large part a statement of the book’s values – which were influenced by his real writings.

Charles is fun. A few people have criticized my portrayal of him – but remember: a lot of readers’ are remembering their impressions of these men at much later points in their lives. I’m showing a development of their character as I imagined it might have been within my created world. But Charles will be loosening up to his Head-in-the-clouds

TORC: Did you originally intend the audience for the “Imaginarium Geographica” to be children? What is the intended audience?

As a publishing choice, I’d intended to write it for the adult market – but my managers had better relationships with the children’s divisions, and it was one of those editors who showed the greatest interest.

In hindsight, it was a blessing. My writing style didn’t differ because of the market or publisher – it is what it is. I would not have written the book any differently. But we’ve realized a book for young readers can be marketed UP to older ones, but the reverse isn’t likely. And I’m gaining my biggest support from the librarians and children’s booksellers.

TORC: Between Tolkien, Lewis, and Williams, whose writing do you enjoy more?

I’d say that Williams is closest to my preferred kind of story; but Lewis is more enjoyable to read. Tolkien is great for an immersion into words – but not as relaxing as Lewis. So I suppose it’s Lewis!

TORC: Tolkien’s identification of eucatastrophe in history and myth was foundational in his tales. Do you identify with that, and should we expect to find eucatastrophe in the Imaginarium Geographica?

Absolutely. And I’ve already portrayed it to a small degree in HERE, THERE BE DRAGONS. Not to give away too much of the story’s ending – but Jack went through a terrible ordeal in the book. And he had to deal with the knowledge that his choices, and his failure resulted in the death of a friend. But then it was his realization of that which made him uniquely qualified to help a great many more people. It was in helping them that he came to terms with the events he’s endured – and he emerged a stronger person because of it.

One of Dag Hammarskjold’s sentiments, which I absolutely believe, says that even at the threshold of the abyss, when you realize you have made the wrong choices, that you have chosen the wrong path – the realization itself is another choice, another opportunity for redemption. A chance to choose to do the right thing. What else defines eucatastrophe better than the idea that even when all seems lost, it’s still possible to triumph through a resolution of one’s personal character?

TORC: The movie rights for your book have already been negotiated, and a producer named. Did the immediate Hollywood interest in your book surprise you?

No, because it wasn’t immediate! I acknowledged at the beginning of the book that it would not exist if it were not for Marc Rosen and David Heyman. (HARRY POTTER). I was focused on other books and other projects when Marc and I met, and he found I had an unfinished ten page outline for a story called HERE, THERE BE DRAGONS. So Marc was very supportive as I wrote the book – but it came together last winter when he gave the completed manuscript to David Goyer. After that, it was just negotiating our way through the process -–and it was just exquisite, lucky timing that we got the deal done and made the announcement the week before the book was released.

TORC: Will the film(s) follow the book closely?

I’ll be writing the screenplay under Goyer’s supervision, so we hope to follow it very closely. We’ve added a few other elements from upcoming books, but are otherwise going to be faithful to the work.

TORC: How involved with the film will you be?

Very. My Studio, Coppervale, will be doing a great deal of conceptual and design work (I did the cover art and the illustrations in the book – which serve as the base). We’ll be sculpting figures, doing storyboards, and just acting as an overall guide for the visual development, as well as working closely with the producers.

TORC: Is there a general timetable for the film(s)?

It depends on when the screenplay is greenlit – and I’m not going into it any more than that! But you can read the producer’s remarks: Heyman wants it in development as soon as possible, and 2 to 2 1/2 years isn’t a bad guesstimate.

TORC: If you could have any director direct Here, There be Dragons, who would you choose?

Well, you should read a LOT into the fact that David Goyer is producing AND supervising the screenplay… 😉

TORC: Similarly, if you could have any composer write the score for your films, who would you choose?

Hm. James Horner is good – but I love John Williams. I also loved everything Danny Elfman has done with Tim Burton’s movies.

TORC: Thanks for your time! Do keep us informed of what’s happening with Here, There be Dragons… we’d love to hear all the latest!

I certainly shall! Thank you for the opportunity to share some things with your readers!


There you have it. If you’re interested in Here There be Dragons, just click the image below to order your copy!


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