(1968) born in Vancouver, British Columbia, is the Canadian author of Gray Hawk of Terrapin published on January the 12th, 2018. His work depicts a return to transcendent self-esteem in contrast with worldviews that shape perceived reality. He received the President’s Award at Douglas College and the M. Sheila O’Connel Undergraduate Prize in Children’s Literature at Simon Fraser University. A survivor of PTSD, he hopes to be a voice for continued access to mental health. Moss Whelan
Writing Young Adult
Choosing the age of the hero is one of the toughest decisions before starting a story. I know I experimented with one character’s age in a story, and everything around the story changed when the girl went from 12 to 17. When you chose to make your main character in Gray Hawk of Terrapin thirteen, you placed her right at the beginning of the YA age range. Why 13, and not 11, or 19?
I’m addressing my own messed up experience. Teens are asked to put aside the wonder of MG and transform into YA teenagers. But there has got to be a balance between play and work; we’re not robots. There has to be facilitation, a rite of passage, which connects an MG persona to a YA persona in a healthy way. All to often, it’s presented as abandoning who you are in order to become something you are not. You lose the best part of yourself in the process.
Do you consider this to be the most challenging part of writing YA, or is there something else that is tough to tackle with this particular age group?
Tackling the reproduction narrative. I’m like a blithe idiot in my first draft, but during rewriting I start to see the motives behind characters’ behavior. I see hyper cliché love triangles of
eros (outer love) without agape (inner love). It’s a recipe for disaster. Eros has a beautiful packaging, but as soon as you unwrap it you see an adoration for codependence. And yes, reproduction of the species is important. But can we do it without destroying people? Can we rise above the star-crossed: “I am nothing without someone. You complete me. I still don’t feel complete. I am nothing…”
There’s also a good deal of YA that likes to get the glam on, with all sorts of fame and fortune. You have such a moment in Gray Hawk, too, with a a kind of masked ball near the end. Why do you take readers there?
That’s the flipside of freedom and democracy. YA are bombarded by products promising to fill the void rather than encouraging them to turn, face it, and fulfill it themselves. Rather than addressing the cause of addiction we glamorize the symptoms.
Heroin chic—for example—glamorizes mental illness. Can you imagine music, literature, and movies—fashion—that glamorizes mental health? We’d be super-human, interstellar, and transcendent!
So how do you battle this YA bombardment? What message do you give readers in stories like Gray Hawk?
Ultimately—and this is my experience—I’m saying everyone has a center. We don’t talk about it. We dress it up with translations that are confusing. But each of us has a psychological center. I’m saying, “Let’s get in our story car and drive to that place. Let’s find that common center and see what’s there. Let’s explore.”
Grey Hawk’s You’ve called protagonist Melanie (aka Mool) center-eccentric. I love that description for a heroine! You must enjoy storytelling with her a lot.
Yes, Mool is a center-eccentric surrounded by a bizarre family and friends who care about her—and they’re fun. I live in a tragedy and Mool saves the day. She’s a super heroine. She can save the people I can’t. She can fight my dragons and live the life I can’t. She can go to the underworld of the psyche and bring her father back from the dead. I can’t. She can end a world war and travel in outer space. She’s a super rock star.
A Male Author Writing Awesome Heroines
Now when I was writing years back, I always wrote with male leads and rarely with females. It took me a long time to work out how to write strong female characters. Why did you choose a female protagonist for Grey Hawk of Terrapin? Society’s got some pretty heavy expectations for female leads right now.
It took a long time to find Mool. It was a process. I was asked to draft three characters in a Creative Writing class. None of my classmates liked the male characters and preferred my female character. A further writing group suggested her as a thirteen-year-old girl. And they were right; it brought me back to examine the loss of wonder that Tolkien talks about in his essay “On Fairy Stories”. As far as expectations, what I’ve learned first and foremost is that a female protagonist is a person. Whatever baggage after that, women are people. From that vantage, I can share attributes and common ground; this is a human being, with hopes and dreams, like me.
How do you take care to write characters that don’t depend on stereotypes related to gender?
One of the best pieces of advice I got on writing a 3D character was to flip their sex. I’ll write my female characters as males and vice versa. I’ll flip their sex or gender roles if I’m getting stereotype vibes from them. I’m interested in stay-at-home fathers and bring-home-the-bacon mothers. That said, some people
are stereotypes. With them it’s a matter of digging deep and finding out what makes them that way. By extension, what makes a person racist, homophobic, or sexist? What event or events made them that way?
World-Building & the Psyche
The world of Gray Hawk of Terrapin is very much connected to the mind. You establish this fantasy world as existing “…somewhere between dream and imagination”. Later, you describe a flower of light as, “A soul… if you believe in that sort of thing…A psyche if you don’t.”
Spirit and psyche share an etymological root. I have absolutely no problem with seating the spiritual in the Imagination. That may raise the hackles of the religious, but I’d like to point out that everything exists in the mind. Political spin, product advertisement, and literature—everything in our lives is shaped by how we imagine it.
Gray Hawk of Terrapin is a reflection of my mind. I’m exploring a psychological realm. It’s my act of sublimation: taking tragedy and spinning it into gold. As a person with PTSD, the world war in Terrapin is my own pyschomachia or war with myself. I’m the creator of a fantasy world; I’m created by my culture; I have created a by-product that mirrors my creation.
One of the characters Mool meets is the creator of Terrapin. How does a creator-character play into a story about the psyche?
That’s about the construction of an Axis Mundi / a psychological center / or omphalos (world navel). It’s like Black Elk’s sacred mountain (via Joseph Campbell) that is everywhere. Originally, my archetype of the One—Azimyodi—didn’t have a clearly defined place other than a rose garden and a tree. From the beginning, it was important that Azimyodi’s paradoxical age and gender complicate interpretation. As I explored the setting and character, I imagined a city of golden stone that surrounded Azimyodi situated on an Atlantean island in the middle of the sea (inspired by Tolkien’s Valinor and C.S. Lewis’ Aslan’s country). For the eternal city, I was inspired by Moorcock’s Tanelorn and Blake’s Golgonoonza.
Holy cow, you’re inspired by quite a few different classics!
A confluence of influence! Tolkien’s “On Fairy Stories” was a huge influence as far as the purpose of the story. Azimyodi’s bright brow is my nod to Tolkien’s interpretation of Faerie and the notion of Return. Another connected influence is the opening of
The Faerie Queene, by Edmund Spencer, that lays out the intention of the work as shaping the mind of the reader. “Wow!” I thought. “Can you do that?” I want to shape a mind! Carl Jung’s own interpretation (via Campbell) to the Celtic underworld played a great part in defining what I was doing.
I love using Wisconsin to inspire my stories’ settings–both its beauties, and its nightmares. In Gray Hawk Mool begins in rainy Vancouver and travels to rainy Perlox. Would you say you’re giving a little commentary about Vancouver in your book?
Very much so. The city of Perlox is definitely Vancouver where it rains often. Both are beside rivers by the sea. I dug into the colonial history of Vancouver and used bits and pieces. The cultural genocide that is still going on here while we’re waving the flag of multiculturism. People are dying in the streets because no one is talking about the cause of addiction. My community tries to cover up and not address the cause of child abuse at the CRCA Co-op. I keep striving toward the center.
Thank you so much for sharing your inner creative workings, Moss! May your adventures toward the center guide readers to find their own center of the mind and spirit. I hope Terrapin finds new ways to grow with your experience here in this reality!
I hope so. It’s like building an Artificial Intelligence with lines of code and subroutines. Sometimes, I’m there. Sometimes I can rewire my mind and transcend time, space, and identity. Huzzah!