I recently met Matthew Jobin during a MG reading at Kepler’s Books in Menlo Park, CA. Matt is an anthropologist and professor whose MG book, The Nethergrim, (Philomel/Penguin) came out recently. The Nethergrim is about a young boy, Edmund, facing off with an ancient evil that’s come to roost far too close to home. It’s a great read–a story with the depth of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and the action and excitement of The Ranger’s Apprentice.
Matt was kind enough to agree to an interview about his book, his childhood and his thoughts on being a writer.
Thanks for taking the time, Matt. First question: How did you come up with the idea for The Nethergrim and how long did it take from inception to deal?
The earliest elements of the Nethergrim came from exploring in the woods as a kid, reading adventure stories, and playing games of imagination. The grown-up additions to the ideas behind the series have come from my experiences in graduate school; learning about the nature of humanity and its panoply of cultures and ideas.
It took me four years to find my agent, the very talented and insightful Eleanor Jackson at Dunow, Carlson and Lerner, and then only six months after that to find my publisher, Philomel Books. I can laugh at those years of searching now, but at the time they felt eternal!
Can you tell me a little bit about where you grew up? Did your surroundings as a kid influence the setting of The Nethergrim?
Very much so! I grew up in suburban Ontario, Canada, and right near my house there was a little forested creek where I used to run off and play, sometimes with other kids but often on my own. I made a little map of the place, long since lost, and imagined peoples and places out beyond its borders. At the same time, I enjoyed making up stories, and would often use stuffed toy animals or action figures to act them out. I was fascinated with different ages and eras in history, the Medieval era prominently among them. Somewhere back there, a little village started taking shape in my mind, one that later formed the basis for Moorvale.
What were your favorite books as a Middle Grader?
I loved the loneliness of books like Robinson Crusoe and the Keeper of the Isis Light. I adored the spiritual, fairy-tale feeling of A Wrinkle in Time and the Narnia series. I think I read The Lord of the Rings when I was eleven, and what I remember best about it was its air of stately melancholy, its exploration of heroism as a desperate act done for the right moral reasons but without the hope of reward. Watership Down and the legends of Robin Hood told me about the group having the potential of being greater than its members, and how everyone can contribute a special talent in pursuit of a common goal—something that will be very much in evidence in the lives of Edmund, Katherine and Tom.
I found the parent/child relationships in The Nethergrim to be particularly fascinating. In so many MG fantasies, parents are pretty absent. What made you decide to keep them around, and in the case of one parent, have him play a major role?
While it is surely horrible to contemplate the idea of being an orphan, it is in many ways more complicated to have living parents. The dead are safe and unchanging. Living people, including parents, change as they grow older. Some grow in wisdom in spirit, blossoming into their best selves in old age. Others grow hard and bitter, and decline. It is a moment of real awakening for a kid to see that his parents are human and fallible—and in danger, physically and morally. What that tells them is that their own journey does not stop when they reach their full height, or when they leave school, or when they one day have children of their own. Life is an adventure all the way through.
Without giving anything away, can you tell me how you came up with the main villain of your book?
The Nethergrim found me when I was nineteen. Early drafts of the books did not use that voice in its full form—largely because, deep down, I was afraid of it. To realize the potential of the story, though, I found that I had to let that voice out and give it free rein over the world. Once I did, a long shadow fell over my little village of Moorvale, and I have certainly never since wondered whether my villain was evil enough!
C.S. Lewis once said that writing the voice of the devil Screwtape was easy, but not at all enjoyable. I must admit that I concur with that sentiment. The Voice of Nethergrim finds its way out through my fingers with the greatest of ease, and there are times when I wish it was not quite so easy.
Is there anything you care to share with fledgling writers that you wish you’d known before getting published?
For starters, don’t become a writer because you think it might be fun to “be” a writer. From my experience so far, writing is much harder than a normal job! In fact, more than any other thing I have ever tried to do, writing is something where I am acutely aware when I am making less than my full effort. A person can slow down a little in school or at the office, and try to get by on half-measures, but in writing, at least for me, there is a sharp difference between thinking deeply and thinking shallowly, and the latter can never substitiute for the former.
That said, the fruits of your efforts can be sweet indeed. The first thing I notice when I am working hard on a book is that I can look back at my own life, and the world around me, and see it all in a new light, both more rationally and at the same time with a greater tenderness. The best way to describe it is that I grow in wisdom. Some people get into writing to become famous, some because they want to exercise their talents, some because there is a story inside them trying to kick its way out. Those goals are all subordinate to the one great goal—to write is to think, and the more you think, deeply and bravely, the more that you become your truest self.
Thanks so much Matt. I look forward to reading the next installment of your series and can’t wait to see where you take the story next.