After reading Michael DeCarolis’ debut young adult novel, Coywolf, during a cross-country flight, I had a number of questions that I wanted to ask the author. Luckily, he was kind enough to discuss the novel with me, and over the course of about an hour and a half, we covered names, epiphanies, the creative process, dangers of the publishing world, and why magic works in some books, but not others.
Note to all: because of the content of the questions, and Michael’s love of his work, there is content in this interview that could be considered SPOILERS. Consider yourself warned.
He is also available through Twitter: @mddecarolis.
Coywolf is available through Amazon.com.
RQ (Rob Queen): I want to delve into the names. Deglan Duffy, Jackson Blackburn Porter, Mrs. Harris, and Diana Shepherd. What went into the names of these characters?
MD (Michael DeCarolis): Yeah, that’s a great question. I’ll tell you that for some of the characters, their names have sort of a little bit of symbolism to them. Like Diana Shepherd. Diana is the goddess of the hunt. But Shepherd is not a hunter; it’s somebody who’s a caretaker of the flock and I like that sort of dichotomy. When I was thinking of her name, I really wanted something that was connected to the idea of nature, the idea of the natural world and I wanted to give her a little bit of a duality. When she first shows up we’re not sure how to take her right away. Just like we are following Jackson’s growth over the course of the book, our perception of her evolves a bit over the course of the book as well. I wanted her to start off without being fully good or bad – she’s just a little bit mysterious.
Whereas there are other characters whose name just sort of clicked and so. It sort of evokes images of a certain type of personality. Jimmy Ringo very much fit that mold of somebody [where when] you hear that name, and I don’t know why, but it sounds very dynamic and very strong.
RQ: There is the rock star association.
MD: And then you’ve got somebody like Jackson Porter, who I wanted him to have sort of common-ish name. His first name is tied to a place and so you connect those dots. But the idea that his mom’s last name, Blackburn, he sort of rejects. There’s a conversation amongst a couple of the characters about Jackson Porter sounding good and strong whereas, you know, think of what black burn evokes: it sounds the opposite of Diana Shepard, which evokes animals in nature. Blackburn sounds like death.
As Jackson goes through this his own of crisis of identity, that obviously was on my mind. As I was going through the first draft, I was thinking about names a lot because it’s important, not just in that sort of fictional realm of where the characters are in the novel, but also in our lives. Our names are tied to our identity and things like that, right? Actually speaking the names there’s one name that I keep forgetting. And that’s the name of the magic itself: Ken.
RQ: Ken. Yes. Scottish for “know” right?
MD: Yes, exactly. And that’s a that was the idea. I wanted a name that, first of all, [didn’t] sound too weird. We don’t we don’t walk around [using] the word [in] canon English, except in a few phrases like if something is beyond your ken – [it] may be beyond your understanding. And so I thought, “Oh, well, maybe on some subconscious level, people will make that connection and if anybody does dig into it, they’ll see that.”
I think [Ken is] similar to the names; I hope it’s not hit you over the head obvious but I also hope it’s not so buried that you don’t get any significance from it. I wanted this idea that [Jackson’s] gaining this self-knowledge through this experience. I wanted it to sound a little bit different and maybe ancient. That was a long process… in fact I’ll tell you when I started writing the first draft, the word ken, [was just a] placeholder. I wasn’t sure what to call it yet, [but] when the characters started talking about it, it was just kind of an epiphany [to use ken].
Maybe for non-writers, that sounds like “oh no that doesn’t actually happen” but I’m sure that’s the way my brain works. I had come across a breadcrumb that led me to that, and the moment when it clicked, it felt [right]. To be honest, I found that lots of the things that come to me, are, are basically the results of epiphany. It’s like if I’m trying too hard, what I come up with is horrible. Sometimes, if I ask people for advice, I’m like, “Oh, that’s a great idea!” Then I think about it, and then I realize that their idea is horrible and it doesn’t really fit the story.
RQ: So each chapter ends with a ken. How long did it take to come up with this creative strategy?
MD: I knew that I wanted this to be a part of the structure of the novel, but it seemed to be disruptive to place it in the middle of a chapter. [By having it] at the end of the chapter – it’s exciting to start the next chapter and see reactions to it, or see what was taken away from it.
I also was thinking about [how] this is in the young adult genre. I’m a high school teacher and I work with a lot of kids who do not like reading that much. I thought maybe structure is a good thing, so that they know even if the chapters are long, that the chapter is going to end with this part with the animal. Then they’ve got that to look forward to. Once I decided to put it at the end of the chapter I, I stuck with it because I really loved the effect of that. Not only does it propel the readers into the next chapter, so that we can see what happens afterwards, but also it’s a fantastic capsule. It’s a great place to stop if you’re like, “Okay, I need to go and do something else. I’ll just stop right here, I’ve seen the animal.”
RQ: Coywolf is far more an exploration of individuals – conceptual – as opposed to a more cartoon-action story. Why are the interpersonal connections so important to you and within the story itself?
MD: I think that most of our everyday lives are not action packed, you know. And while I am a big fan of action and I like to write action – the short stories that I have out there both [are] action stories. I felt like – and this is going to sound silly to say – I wanted the book to be a little bit more true-to-life than an action story would be. I think that so much of what I see of my students – in this age group that Jackson and Deglan are in – is that a lot of their lives are their inner lives. I [teach] kids who will go through their whole day and not say more than three words to anybody, [but] it doesn’t mean that they’re a nonentity, you know, it means that they’re in their heads.
We see as [Jackson] grows as a person, he starts to perceive more and more and more around him, and he [moves away] from that very self-centered place – not [because he is filled with] selfishness – but just through his circumstances. His world is focused just on what’s immediate, what’s right out the window, and what’s in his belly.
But then he starts to look at other people, and he starts to see what’s going on with them. He starts to get Diana a bit more; as he gets himself, he gets other people, too. I think that in the real world, that’s a sign of maturity. A sign of growing up is that you go from just only focusing on yourself to understanding others.
RQ: One of the reasons why the animal magic actually works so well is because it’s literally an exploration of the senses – something taken directly from the body and senses of the animal, and it’s very intense. Were you able to use all the animals you wanted to in Coywolf?
MD: I’ve loved animals my whole life and I always watch documentaries and nature shows, and it was just a great use of my time to [do this and] say I’m researching.
I was going to put in a chameleon. [But] because of the where Jackson was, it almost felt redundant to do [it] after having done [one specific animal] already. The chameleon [would show] where he’s starting to enter into this new atmosphere and he’s got to learn how to blend in and fit. That’s why I cut out the chameleon; I might use that in the next one. I’ve got a long list of animals that are super amazing.
If I do go into writing the next part of [this story], I have a very good idea of where it’s going and there are animals who sense heat, who have echolocation… there are animals who have all of these amazing things that I didn’t explore that I would like to. And I think “Oh, I wish I had snuck that in” but [didn’t] because I didn’t want Coywolf to be over-stuffed. Yeah, I definitely have ideas of more [animals] that I would like to use.
RQ: Let’s get into the magic a little bit more. The ken works very well because there are rules, and we do see the consequences of when those rules are actually broken. So you firmly grounded this, and going back to what you were saying before about it being more real, more realistic, realism really comes from the rules of the universe that you’re creating. So how hard was it to come up with the appropriate rules of this magic?
MD: I think it would be an easy trap to fall into: get too powerful and make everything easy, and I wanted to keep it very limited. I wanted to keep it focused on this magic. The idea [is] that these two kids in this book are the only ones who even know that this magic exists. They don’t even really understand all of the rules, even Diana, who’s got the list of rules. She admits that “I did the best I could.” We don’t see things through her eyes but [it’s clearly] a bit of a mystery to her.
I very much wanted my characters to make mistakes, because that’s life. This is going to sound awful, but it was fun to put Jackson through the ringer, and every time things start to get a little copacetic, like it looks like, oh, here’s a positive change in Jackson’s life, I think “Let’s tighten the screws on him. And let’s subvert the expectation or subvert the hopes there, that there’s going to be a happy ending.”
RQ: Would you be considering making the next project about Diana’s story?
MD: That would be fun. In my mind and in my notes, I know her backstory. I also have thoughts of what her life [might be] like now. I know already, where she is – just like when I finished writing Coywolf I already know what’s going to happen next… If the character isn’t dead at the end. Life continues beyond today, you know – for my characters there’s a tomorrow. Even if I never write that.
There is room, at least in my mind, to explore Diana’s life, at different points in her life, either before or after Coywolf. You know, if this became the next Harry Potter, I could continuously move from one pair of alpha and beta [to the next].
RQ: How long did it actually take to write the first draft and then subsequent drafts after that?
MD: So after I had already done all of my mapping, I spent a long time just sort of processing internally. Then I spent maybe a couple weeks making notes, character descriptions and plotting it out and then I started writing. Since I’m a teacher, I have the summers off and I wrote this before my son was born – he’ll be a year old in two weeks [as of the interview]. I treated this like my full-time day job over that summer until I had a hard minimum – I said I cannot stop until I write 1000 words, each day. Sometimes I would get to that 1000 words in a couple hours, and sometimes it would take me until 3 pm and I would have 100 words. So it varies from day to day but I’m a morning person, or wake up early, I’d have a cup of coffee and breakfast and then I would sit down and start writing and so sometimes I’d be done by noon and sometimes I’d be writing until my wife got [home] at five. Sometimes, I would write, not just 1000 which is my minimum, but 2000 or even in the 3000s. So I did that consistently, even on Saturdays. I cannot do that normally, like when I’m teaching or since my son has been born.
I was in a lucky situation that I could do that. And in that case, it took me less than two months to write the whole thing. And maybe a month and a half off, and I started editing and I don’t know, I can’t tell you how many drafts I went through. In the beginning I numbered them. And I said this is draft one. And then this is draft, two or three, and then I said, “Okay, well, this is draft six,” so I guess I’m gonna stop numbering them because I would start the editing process. While I’m editing on like page, you know, 150, [I would] go back and pick something from page, whatever, and so it became [that] there were no longer discrete lines. I don’t know how many actual drafts I went through because I didn’t make many big story changes, but there were things that I felt would be missing in an earlier chapter that I wanted to put in there to help develop some theme that [would] pay off later on. So I had a few drafts like that. And when I say a few I mean, like, a dozen.
One of my really early beta readers gave me exceptional feedback. I was very heavy with dialect. In the beginning Deglan and Jackson were using all sorts of slang spellings and it was like reading Mark Twain. [This one] reader, said “I totally get what you’re going for. But didn’t you tell me this is for teenagers? So maybe pull back on that a little bit in simplified, because people are going to know like they sound like. They’re from the south. We get it.” That was a big thing that I fixed.
So by the fall, I had written it, I had done a few drafts, and I’d gotten some feedback from some readers. Then I started soliciting agents and publishers [which] is a long and arduous process and so I did that for about a year. So it was August, I got an offer from a publisher, and the offer was terrible. Oh they wanted all sorts of things that I was not keen on. I don’t know if it was just because I’m an unknown commodity, but there were lots of great [aspects] like if I had gone with them I probably would have sold more copies already than I sold on my own – they haven’t more of a platform, [and] would have set up some book signings and some press releases and all this sort of stuff, and gotten in more places – but one of the things they asked for was rights to the characters. That was huge; it did not fly with me. I want to give everybody that I ever interact with the benefit of the doubt and so I’m trying to think “Well maybe it’s because they don’t know if they’re going to lose money on me,” but I said no. If I want to write a sequel, I’ve got to go through [them], but worse yet, If [they]wanted a sequel, and don’t want to pay me, [they] can just hire somebody else to write about what happens next.
So… no. And then I went backpacking.
That’s when I started looking into self publishing. And I said, “I know that my profits will probably be less, my reach will probably be less because I don’t have much of a platform yet, but I’m going to be able to keep my artistic integrity, and I’m going to be able to keep my control over my project,” and it was a great decision. So once [I made that decision], I felt like I could do this, [and I knew] people who have done this and have been successful doing this and. I reached out to you (Rob Queen) and a few other people and I started really looking into self publishing.
So, by that time, it was August that [the rejected publisher] made me that offer and I took some time to think about it, but it was fall when I turned it down. I spent just a couple months basically researching self-publishing and then around the turn of the new year, I started putting things into practice so that’s when I hired an editor and cover artists. And so, totally, it was about almost two years from when I started writing Coywolf to now having it in my hands.
Not bad. I think that the timeline for the next one will probably be a bit faster because a lot of this was learning and exploration.
RQ: Sounds pretty awesome. I gotta admit that I devoured it – it was my inflight book and it just kept me going from beginning to end and by the time I was done reading, I knew that I had to pick your brains a little bit.
MD: Well, thank you very much. This has been a lot of fun.
He is also available through Twitter: @mddecarolis.
Coywolf is available through Amazon.com.
The Queen has spoken.