We’ve been having a marathon of children’s author James Riley posts here. From our much-anticipated read of the newly released Twice Upon a Time (sequel to Half Upon a Time) to book reviews, we’ve been enjoying this sweet time of reading something fun and freshly published and refreshing.
Happily, we’ve also had an opportunity to ask James Riley several questions about writing and his books, Half Upon a Time and Twice Upon a Time.
What’s your writing background?
James Riley: I like to use a green screen, so I can write in space or prehistoric times. It adds something to the deadline urgency when a dinosaur might show up at any time.
You say on your author’s page that you were voted most likely never to finish a book. Did you really not see yourself an author or… did you just have difficulties finishing one? Or are you being funny and I missed the whole tone there… ?
James Riley: Ha, this was me just trying to be funny, so clearly, it worked! I did write in high school (and junior high, elementary school, and … well, that’s it. Kindergarten, I just wanted to be Han Solo.) but never showed anyone anything, and certainly never thought I’d be a writer. If you asked me before college what I wanted to be when I grew up, I’d say either a) rich or b) president. Check and check.
What does your writing process look like?
James Riley: It changes daily in terms of actual writing, but in general, each book follows a similar format:
1.) Write a first draft, and just let whatever happens, happen. Very little editing happens here … though I do make a LOT of notes.
2.) NOOOOOO! Who WROTE this stuff? It’s so bad! What am I DOING?! Putting this book in the same store as Hemingway and Fitzgerald is a crime against humanity!
3.) Heh, that one line made me laugh. I guess I’ll edit it and see what happens.
5.) *Secretly still believe #2, but fake positivity when sending it to my editor*
What’s your biggest difficulty in writing?
James Riley: Forcing creativity. Sometimes writing is like going to the gym … you have to make yourself do it, but afterwards, you feel GREAT. Or, you pull something.
Do you have any writing rituals, habits, etc.? What are they? (If you have any. If not, obviously, there’s not much to say here.)
James Riley: Nope, I tend not to have the same time free every day, so sometimes it’s just about getting to a computer whenever I can. It’d probably help if I did!
Who (or what) are your greatest influences in writing and why?
James Riley: I’d love to list certain authors here because they were such influences on me, but honestly, they probably affected me as a person more than they affected my writing. If I’m being truthful, television and movies have affected my writing style more than books. And I say that as someone who reads constantly … visual pop culture just can’t help infecting everything, the way our society is now.
Fortunately, there’s plenty of good there too.
In another interview, you mention having a day job. What is it? How do juggle a full-time job and being a celebrated children’s author? (Children do celebrate. Really. And so do some fairy-tale lovin’ adults. Just saying.)
James Riley: I blame the day job for my lack of ritual, and lack of time to write. Writing is what I want to do, but my day job is what enables me to keep feeding myself. So without juggling, I’d lose a lot of weight fast.
Do you have a writing group or support system or what-not to help you stay focused? Who do you turn to for feedback, guidance, reality checks, etc.?
James Riley: I’m actually one of those people who works best on their own, blazing a forest two feet from the path that leads exactly where they’re going without even knowing it’s there. I’ve been writing for myself for so long, it’d probably feel odd to show other people. But I say that knowing it’s not the best choice for most people, much like most people don’t think it’s funny to wear a cape and chase their cat around the apartment.
On His Books
You mentioned in another interview that you went through myriad rejections. How do you sustain a belief in your work in the face of so much rejection?
James Riley: Delusion. Sometimes, you have to just believe in the face of overwhelming evidence because YOU like it. If I’d written something to be expressly commercial, I might have given up faster. But writing something that I’d want to read gave me faith that maybe someone else would, too.
Do you ever go through the whole angst-ridden, self-doubting stage as a writer?
James Riley: Never. Ignore everything I said above.
How did you end up writing Half Upon a Time?
James Riley: I’d finished another novel that was objectively awful, and decided that maybe I should examine the influences in my life that made me really feel something. Disney movies were one. Fantasy stories about kids finding out they were destined for something more were another. Also I just wanted to write about a guy who gets eaten by a giant.
When you set out to write the books, did you already see it as a sequel? Or was it something that the publisher or editor came up with? (I know. That ended with a preposition.)
James Riley: I’m from Iowa, where everyone says “Can I come with?” so I’m used to it. I plotted the books as a series from the beginning, and my agent pitched them that way to my editor. If I hadn’t, the cliffhangers would have been very, very mean.
What surprised you during writing the book? Was it a character changing? A plot going in a different direction?
James Riley: Writing the second book, it surprised me how much I liked writing May’s narration. That probably influenced me as to a series I’m working on that will hopefully follow the HALF series. There are also quite a few deleted scenes now from the series that I thought initially would be integral. Shows what *I* know!
Half Upon a Time (the first book in the series) started in the middle of an intense (and hilarious) scene. Did you know the book would begin like that or did you struggle to find the best opening?
James Riley: I struggled a bit. Initially the book started with Jack and his grandfather rescuing some fairies from the town bully, after failing his test. The beginnings have always been trouble for me … there’s a lot of pressure to get things exactly right. The endings, in contrast, have always been easy. Maybe it’s because I’m just a mean person, and like to leave people hanging?
Your books remind me of Charlie Chaplin’s movies (I’m a classic-film geek) with the humor and melancholy interwoven in a perfect balance. When you write, how do you strike that balance? Do you find yourself trimming back humor or darkness when editing?
James Riley: I guess my natural response to melancholy is humor. But I’m also not a fan of “silly” works, where everything is humorous and there’s nothing to ground that emotionally. Humor works much better for me when you care about what’s happening to a character. So to me, this is sort of the natural balance. To compare it to Charlie Chaplin is a huge compliment, so thank you!
Do you ever write funny scenes that don’t quite work? Or is your sense of humor easy to put into writing?
James Riley: There’s a whole section involving the three bears, the three pigs, and an angry porcupine that got cut out of TWICE UPON A TIME because while funny (at least to me), it didn’t really have enough to do with the ongoing story. In my mind it still happened, though, if just because I enjoyed writing a porridge fight with the bears so much.
Twice Upon a Time feels more action-packed than Half Upon a Time. It’s like “Empire Strikes Back”… so much is going on! And characters inspired (ahem) by Peter Pan and the Little Mermaid contribute greatly to the plot. How did you decide who to bring into this second novel?
James Riley: Thank you for using inspired instead of stolen. The Little Mermaid is one of my all-time favorite stories, so I knew I wanted to make her story a big part of my series. And to juxtapose the mermaid, who gives everything up for love, with Jack, who’s learning that if you have to become someone else so a girl will like you, maybe she’s not the girl for you … it just fit in naturally. Oh, whoops, did I just spoil something?
Also, thank you for the Empire comparison. That’s exactly the same tone I was going for!
Who did you cut out (if any character) or would you have liked to include in the book?
James Riley: Long, long ago, Penelope played a bigger role in TWICE, along with the talking animals I mentioned. Penelope will still get her moments in the last book, ONCE UPON THE END, fortunately, but as of right now, the talking animals just won’t have time to show up, I’m sorry to say. Especially for how they played into the Wolf King’s origin.
In reading the books, I really felt so much for May. She is looking to understand who she is, where she comes from… and she is going through so much emotionally. In Twice Upon a Time, she seems more in touch with her feelings and struggles. How was writing her in Twice a different experience than in Half?
James Riley: May’s been through so much, and is looking for any lifeboat in a storm, or some phrase that’s actually a phrase. These two boys have been the only two people she can trust, after what she sees as a huge betrayal by her grandmother, so the possibility that they would leave her, or worse, betray her, is one of her worst nightmares at this point. It’s much easier to deal with chaos when you have a solid rock to stand on … unfortunately, neither of those rocks will be there forever.
Despite everything, though, May is probably the strongest character in the book, certainly the one who’s had to deal with the most change. And for that reason, I’m pretty hopeful that she’ll make it through OK … uh oh, I forgot about how the third book ends. I take that all back. Let’s just say I’m pretty hopeful that May will make it through the halfway point of ONCE UPON THE END.
Do you realize how cruel it is to give your readers so many cliffhangers?
James Riley: I know, I really am not a nice person.
The ending of Twice Upon a Time was so emotional. Just brilliant. You hardly give your readers time to laugh and rejoice with the characters when you just BAMMO punch them in the gut with a surprise twist. (Excuse the mixed imagery there.) What has reaction been to that ending?
James Riley: Generally exactly what I’d hoped, which is sadness, but a desire to see how things end. You can’t really ask for more. And honestly, this was coming from the moment May fell out of the sky. She’s ALWAYS been (spoiler deleted), and therefore always had (spoiler deleted) as the one she was meant to be with. And Jack had to find it out sooner or later, poor guy. That scene with Merriweather that ends the second book was written before anything else was in TWICE. And right after that, I wrote the end of book three, which is a conversation between two of the three main characters. And a glass slipper. Though the slipper doesn’t say much.
I’ve already asked you a hundred (figuratively) questions… Is there anything else you’d like to add?
James Riley: Just that I really appreciate all the support, THANK YOU for enjoying the books!
You’ve read the books—but want to read more about James Riley? Check out the following.