Greg Van Eekhout has written middle grade novels like Kid vs Squid, adult SF (The Norse Code) and his well-known OSTEOMANCY trilogy, set in a magical California, where sorcerers absorb the magic of mythical creatures by eating their bones. Against this backdrop, Daniel Blackland struggles to survive, and maintain his created family. The final book in the trilogy, Dragon Coast, is out now. Greg chatted with me about magic, families, tacos and the awesome power of the avocado. One commenter with a USA or Canadian address will win a copy of Dragon Coast.
Marion Deeds: What are you working on now?
Greg van Eekhout: Hopefully by the time people are reading this interview, I’ll have finished the first draft of a new novel. All I can tell you is that it’s a middle-grade novel, and it’s science fiction. After writing three adult books, I was yearning to write something for kids again.
We look forward to seeing it. You’ve said you enjoy writing YA, and your YA works are also successful. What are the differences you’ve found in writing YA versus writing adult fiction?
I actually haven’t written any YA yet, but I do have two middle-grade novels, Kid vs. Squid and The Boy at the End of the World.
Tell me more about middle grade.
Middle-grade is the age category just below YA, say, nine to twelve years old. There are more similarities than differences between writing for young audiences and adults. It’s still the same game: try to put the reader in the heads of your characters, give them interesting things to do, and evoke emotion. I think the differences – vocabulary, content restrictions, length – are sort of superficial.
At an author event last year, you talked about your original idea being a multi-generational story involving Daniel Blackland’s descendants. As it stands, Daniel remains the focus in all three books. As a reader, I’m very satisfied with the trilogy as it is, but since you had something else in mind originally, do you have regrets? Did the change in direction satisfy you?
I don’t really have any regrets. By the time I finished California Bones, I had a cast of characters I liked writing about, and going off into a multi-generational saga would have meant putting the focus on a lot of new characters. At the same time, Sam in Pacific Fire and Dragon Coast gave me the opportunity to shift away from Daniel for periods of time and write about some younger characters without totally leaving Daniel and his crew behind. But if there are any more OSTEOMANCY books, they’ll probably be less about Daniel than about Sam and Em and some other younger characters carrying the story forward. Daniel’s earned a bit of retirement!
While Daniel, Gabriel and even Sam can count on their friends in difficulty, family seems to be another matter in this world. I noticed particularly that both Gabriel and Daniel have powerful, and absent, mothers. One was ripped away from her son; one abandoned hers. The family issue becomes a little more pointed in this book, with Daniel’s relationship to Paul and Cynara. In a world where the phrase “they eat their young” is often literal, what does family mean? How does it fit with your feelings about family?
I have so many friends who’ve had difficult relationships with their families and have found the support and love and comfort they need in their friends. I don’t think there’s anything magical about blood relatives that make them necessarily the people you want or need around you. I had a good relationship with my parents, both of whom passed away this year, but that’s because they were good people, not because we share DNA. In my trilogy, which is so much about people motivated by greed, created families stand as a force that subverts and threatens the official power structure, and I think it’s a reflection of what we’re seeing in the real world right now, adults and children who aren’t necessarily related by blood forming households with in various configurations, heads of households who are unmarried becoming the majority. Stuff like that.
Where are the best tacos in Los Angeles, exactly? And where are the best fish tacos?
Oh, I haven’t lived in LA for so long that my LA taco knowledge is out of date! But in San Diego, where I live, you can’t go wrong with Pacific Beach Fish Shop. And if you want a really great shrimp taco, find a taco truck on some corner that has a shrimp gobernador taco. Use the hood of your car as the table, as is proper.
In your interview with Sarah Prineas back in September you said there will be a comic book version of the OSTEOMANCY series. Can you give us more specifics about that?
I was at San Diego Comic-Con last year, talking with my friend, the writer Alan Gratz, about breaking into comics. And we started thinking about the idea of “breaking in,” like there’s a process one has to go through before you’re allowed to make comics. And that’s nonsense. If you want to make comics, you should make comics. So, pretty much then and there, I decided to make a comic. I’m hiring an artist and paying a professional rate, which means it’s going to be a short comic, and maybe just a one-shot. It’s going to take place in the OSTEOMANCY universe, because I think the OSTEOMANCY universe is a fun setting for a comic. I have a couple of places where I think I could have it posted and seen, but if those fall through, I’ll just put it up on a tumblr.
We will be looking for it!
The magical system in the trilogy is amazing and highly symbolic. What was the inspiration for it? You’ve written in other places about being Indo – of Indonesian-Dutch descent. Did some of the ideas for these magical systems come from Indo folklore?
The inspiration for the magic system sort of emerged organically. I knew I wanted to write a story about the bones in the La Brea Tar Pits having magical properties, and the most direct way to access those magical properties seemed to be simply eating them. You know, you have a dragon bone, and you want to absorb the abilities of a dragon, it makes sense to eat the bone.
I didn’t really take anything from my Indonesian background, but I used a lot of creatures from different legends and mythologies.
Another food question; guacamole or pico de gallo? Defend your answer.
Guacamole, definitely. Pico de gallo is okay, but it’s never much more than the sum of its parts, whereas guacamole is almost frightening in its potential to be delicious. The avocado is a powerful fruit.
You have chosen wisely. Guacamole is the correct answer.
Dragon Coast largely went back to the plot of a caper or a heist, as Daniel and his friend Moth try to steal a piece of the axis mundi to use to save Sam. What was the most fun thing to write about this book? What was the most difficult thing, and why?
Anytime Moth was in a scene, I was having fun. I love his friendship with Daniel, and writing their interactions was enjoyable and easy. The hardest thing was keeping all the separate storylines on track and making sure they converged at the final conflict in a satisfying way. Sometimes it felt like launching a long-range spacecraft and hoping it rendezvoused with its target when both the spacecraft and the target were zipping through space at a zillion miles an hour.
We like to ask our authors to leave us with a signature beverage. It can be alcoholic or non-alcoholic. Let me tweak that question a bit; what is the best thing for us to be drinking as we munch tacos and read Dragon Coast?
Well, nothing goes better with tacos than beer. Beer goes with almost everything, really. I mean, it’s beer. It’s grain and flowers and yeast and water. And from these ingredients a skilled master can make magic. So that’s a fun thing to think about while reading a story about wizards drawing magic from bones. And if it’s not, you’re still drinking beer, so.
Thank you for your time.
Readers – comment below for your chance to win a copy of Dragon Coast! And for more on Greg Van Eekhout, you can read Marion’s report from his Pacific Fire book tour.