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Rod Philbrick Meets the Tinycawlers

Tom Cawler of the Tinycawlers

Seacoast author Rodman Philbrick’s latest storyl is about tiny people – really tiny people. The "Tinycawlers" live on an island in Maine. The new book was commissioned by the Boston Globe. In this exclusive interview, the author of "Freak the Mighty" and nearly 40 other books brings us up to date with his latest work.



Seacoast-native and author Rodman Philbrick will unleash a new adventure tale for children this week. The Tinycawlers, an original work ommissioned by The Boston Globe, will appear in eight Tuesday installments from March 28 to May 30. Twelve-year old protagonist Tommy Cawler is small for his age and often humiliated by his classmates. The adventure begins when Tommy spends the summer with his mysterious grandfather on a small island a few miles off the coast of Maine.

Rod PhilbrickPhilbrick¹s best known novel Freak The Mighty was adapted into the Miramax film The Mighty, starring Sharon Stone, Kieran Culkin, James Gandolfini, Gillian Anderson, Harry Dean Stanton, Gena Rowlands, and Meatloaf, and featured an original theme song by rocker Sting. Other popular works include The Fire Pony and The Last Book in the Universe, REM World, The Journal Of Douglas Allen Deed, and The Young Man And The Sea. His recent work for adults include Coffins and Dark Matter. caught up with its own movie critic who was in town to attend the Dover Reads program. As part of this special program, students, teachers, parents and residents of Dover were all invited to read the same book at the same time. This year the town selected Philbrick¹s recent novel The Young Man and the Sea. With his wife, author and editor Lynn Harnett, he divides his time between the Florida Keys and Kittery, Maine. J. Dennis Robinson submitted this interview with Mr. Philbrick.

OUTISDE LINK: Rod Philbrick official site

Author of "They Tinycawlers" and "Freak the Mighty"

SEACOASTNH: Your books often wink at classic literature. Freak the Mighty plays on the King Arthur legend. The Young Man and the Sea takes off from a Hemingway title. Was The Tinycawlers inspired by Gulliver¹s Travels and Peter Pan?

PHILBRICK: I did love Gulliver's Travels, but the inspiring factor was most likely my fondness for the Borrower stories by Mary Norton‹a family of little folk who live under the floorboards and scavenge the house at night. The idea of being very small is appealing to kids confronting a very large and mysterious world. Think Toy Story and, for that matter, Honey I Shrunk The Kids. So I guess maybe my sources aren't always quite so classic!

SEACOASTNH: And don¹t forget Land of the Giants and Darby O¹Gill and the Little People. But Tinycawlers adds a unique spin. The giants and the miniature people are connected in a unique way. You probably don¹t want to give anything away, right?

PHILBRICK: Right. I hate those reviews or interviews where we find out ahead of time that the butler did it after all. The only exception that works for me is the steam whistle option. That¹s when crowds gathered at the docks in Boston, awaiting word from London on the fate of Little Nell in Dickens’ latest installment, and the ship captain agreed to give the whistle one blast if Nell lived and two if she died. It was two, and ten thousand people instantly wept for a fictional character they had come to love. But somehow I don¹t see a steam whistle option available for The Tinycawlers. Read it and weep‹or not.

SEACOASTNH: Boston Globe readers see the story in eight weekly episodes, each with an illustration. Did this interesting format change the way you wrote the story?

PHILBRICK: Yes, it did. I'm keenly aware that a week will pass between each installment, and therefore the story segments have to be written in a way that leaves readers impatient for the next part, but not so impatient they turn their attention elsewhere.

SEACOASTNH: So you now have more empathy for Charles Dickens writing novels as newspaper and magazine installments?

PHILBRICK: I always did have empathy for Mr. Dickens. Not so much for the way he wrote‹his style is a bit too prolix for me‹but for his ability to evoke vivid characters who continue to live in the mind long after you¹ve finished the story. And there¹s also his own life to consider. As a boy he worked in a blacking factory while his father was in debtors¹ prison, and he went from there to being a author whose stories reached the entire world.Talk about overcoming adversity‹‹he¹s the model for his own hard luck characters.

SEACOASTNH: Tinycawlers is another "rite of passage" story for young adolescent boys. What brings you back to this theme again and again?

PHILBRICK: It's what I know, or anyhow what I know how to write convincingly. Although one of these days I may surprise everybody and write about a twelve year old girl instead of a twelve year old boy.

SEACOASTNH: The Tinycawlers steps out of reality into the realm of the fantastic. Was this a difficult leap to make, to work with characters 10 inches tall?

PHILBRICK: Not really. I've always been able to suspend disbelief when it comes to fantastic things occurring in fiction, providing it all makes sense somehow. I don't do witches and sorcery, but a clan of very small people who inhabit a remote island doesn't seem all that far-fetched to me. Maybe I need to have my medication adjusted.

Continue with PHILBRICK interview

Update from "Freak the Mighty" Author

SEACOASTNH: Especially in light of new archeological reports about miniature humans. Do you think there are more adventures possible for Tom Cawler? And where did you get that name?

PHILBRICK: One of my writing quirks‹and I have many, including a tin hat and a quill pen‹is that I can¹t really get going on a narrative until the characters have names that seem to work for me. The idea for Tinycawlers was banging around for four or five years until the name took form. Cawler just seemed an evocative name. Maybe a lonely voice in the wilderness, or hiding on a small island. And therefore Tinycawlers seemed to work as a title. It gives the reader something but leaves a mystery that needs to be solved.

SEACOASTNH: The Tidycawlers speak like tiny New England Quakers‹saying "thee" and "thy"? This clever device makes them seem like an ancient culture. Did you draw any of this from studying mythology, or make it up entirely?

PHILBRICK: I¹d like to think I made it up entirely, but no doubt it seeped into my brain from elsewhere. Oh yeah, one of the characters in the book I¹m working on now is a Quaker Abolitionist. Let¹s blame him.

SEACOASTNH: How many books have you published so far? Can you still keep track?

PHILBRICK: Not quite forty, I guess, although quite a few of my earlier novels are out of print.

SEACOASTNH: How many for children and how many adventure books for adults?

PHILBRICK: My first fifteen books were adult mysteries and suspense novels. Since then I¹ve probably written two young adult novels for every adult novel, including ten scary kids¹ stories that were a collaboration with my wife and partner, Lynn Harnett. The plan was for that by writing more for kids than adults, the author gets younger and younger, but that doesn¹t seem to be working.

Rod Philbrick and JD Robinson fish the rapid waters of the Piscataqua River / NH Gazette Photo

SEACOASTNH: Freak the Mighty has sold over a million copies for Scholastic Press and is still required reading in schools across the nation, and in other countries as well. Has feedback from young readers and teachers helped you understand why it still resonates with so many readers?

PHILBRICK: The why of it remains something of a mystery to me, and maybe to the readers, too. I certainly never expected it to be part of the curriculum in so many schools.

SEACOASTNH: And now a Freak the Mighty stage play? How is that going?

PHILBRICK: I was never able to find a publisher for the play, which was first produced by my friend Scott Weintraub at Crossroads Academy in Santa Monica. Therefore I decided to offer it free upon request on my website. Most of the teachers who request it use it in the classroom, more or less as a teaching tool for the book, but there have been a number of full-scale school productions, and no complaints so far.

SEACOASTNH: Although the film The Mighty was not a blockbuster, it has been very warmly received and is a solid DVD family rental. How do you feel about the film in retrospect?

PHILBRICK: I think they did a pretty good job, and consider myself lucky that it got made. I¹ve had a number of other novels option and/or developed into screenplays, but so far that¹s the only one that stuck. All movies are a crapshoot, and any author is lucky to be at the table, watching a bunch of other folks throw the dice and spend the money.

SEACOASTNH: Do you write differently since you¹ve had a book turned into a Hollywood film? Are you always thinking cinematically, and if so, does that help or hurt the writing process?

PHILBRICK: I've always been blessed or maybe cursed with a very visual imagination. I have to see a scene before I can write it, and that comes through in the imagery. But no, having Freak The Mighty adapted into a movie didn't change the way I write. I'm an old dog who is still trying to perfect his old tricks.

SEACOASTNH: A number of your books were recently released by publisher Peter Usborne in England and you toured there for 10 days. What was that like?

PHILBRICK: It was very cool, mate. Or rather, very warm. Having visited London a few times, mostly having to do with my adult crime fiction, I was expecting a very reserved reception‹that British literary type you see on PBS of BBC. But the kids, teachers, publishers, bookstore folks, and reporters were without exception enthusiastic and very kind to my wife Lynn and me. They take children's literature very seriously in the UK and Ireland, unlike many of the mainstream reviewers in the US, who assume that childrens¹ books are what you do if you can't write for grownups.

Continue with PHILBRICK interview

Update from "Freak the Mighty" Author

SEACOASTNH: We hear you had a run-in with a puppet on an Irish morning talk show?

PHILBRICK: Yup. There¹s a popular Irish show called "The Den." Sort of Sesame Street with a strong dose of irreverence for pop celebrities and politicians. As a guest you sit behind a desk and when the red light comes on, two totally wild rag puppets fly out of nowhere and start attacking and humiliating you on camera. I just laughed and agreed with all of their insults and within a couple of minutes they were telling me how much they loved my book‹this would be The Young Man And The Sea‹and recommending it to the kids who watched the show. It¹s the only time I¹ve ever been recognized on the street or by taxi drivers, after holding my own on ³The Den,² and talking with a turkey made of feather dusters.

SEACOASTNH: You¹re still traveling around the U.S. to speak to teachers and students? You were in Alaska last year and may travel to Chile? Does this give you a chance to get feedback from fans?

PHILBRICK: It mostly gives me a chance to whine about how much I hate air travel. But it¹s great fun meeting kids who¹ve read my books.

SEACOASTNH: What kinds of letters do you get from the kids themselves?

PHILBRICK: The majority of the mail is homework, both for the kids and for me. But a small and precious percentage of the letters originate outside of classroom assignments, from kids who have been turned on to books, or who want to be writers, or who simply want me to share their enthusiasm for story-telling. And that¹s a great honor for an author, to be told your book made a difference in someone¹s life.

SEACOASTNH: What¹s happening with your latest published books and what are you working on now?

PHILBRICK: My latest book for young adults is The Young Man And The Sea, published as Lobster Boy in England. It's been optioned for a film by London producers Viva Films, who persuaded me to write a screenplay. Too soon to say if it will ever be filmed. Director John Goldschmidt is now looking to put together a consortium of investors, and hopes to shoot the thing in Nova Scotia. No idea when or if that will happen. The tentative budget is eight million‹you know anybody with extra pocket change?

SEACOASTNH: And you continue to work on screenplays?

PHILBRICK: It¹s an addiction. I have a few in circulation, including Stop Time, the tale of a young photographer who comes into possession of a device that stops time. Nine Levels Down is based on my adult thriller of the same title, and Star Pattern, in which the NBA meets DNA. My stories and screenplays are represented in Los Angeles by Paul Kohner, Inc., but I¹m beginning to think that some of my young readers will have to grow up and become the next generation of filmmakers before any more of my books are made into movies.

SEACOASTNH: But you haven¹t given up on writing for adults?

PHILBRICK: Nope. An adult thriller, Taken, comes out this summer, under the pseudonym Chris Jordan.

SEACOASTNH: That is part of a three-novel contract with Mira, a division of Harlequin. Can you tell us about this book and how it reached the current publisher? Is this an adventure exclusively for female readers?

PHILBRICK: I wrote Taken on spec‹that is, without a contract‹and it was eventually picked up by Margaret Marbury, the editor-in-chief at Mira.Fortunately she couldn¹t put it down, and offered to publish it if I would agree to write two more thrillers under the same pseudonym. No, the stories are not intended to be exclusively for female readers, although the protagonists are female, written in the first-person, and unfortunately that turns off some of the more knuckle-headed male readers.

SEACOASTNH: And in the pipeline?

PHILBRICK: I'm working on another young adult novel, set at the time of the Civil War. I have no idea how long it will take to complete The True Adventures of Homer Figg, but hopefully not as long as the Civil War itself! I also have another adult thriller due.

SEACOASTNH: Has dividing your year between Kittery, Maine and the Florida Keys changed the way you write? Is one location more productive?

PHILBRICK: No, both locations are equally non-productive, because both locations have good fishing.

SEACOASTNH: Yet your vita sounds amazingly productive. Have you evolved a solid writing discipline in your mature years? We hear that you still prop a keyboard up on the kitchen table?

PHILBRICK: Actually it's the dining room table. Works just fine, by the way, although I remain envious of those writers who have rooms of their own. You¹re right about the self-imposed discipline. Back in the bad old days I had to write at least three novels a year to make a bare living. That meant five pages a day, minimum. Nowadays I¹m down to three pages on a good day, with a lot more goofing off.

SEACOASTNH: How many hours a week are you at the keyboard? And are you actually writing in your head while fishing? If so, you could deduct the boat as an office tax expense.

PHILBRICK: My guess is, I average twenty hours a week in front of the machine. Four hours a day with weekends off. That doesn¹t count answering mail. Yes, I do a lot of writing in my head while drifting down the Piscataqua, but no, they won¹t let me take that particular deduction.

SEACOASTNH: What have you learned about writing that you didn¹t know five or ten years ago?

PHILBRICK: It's the same old dilemma I've been struggling with since I was twelve years old. The best writing tells the story without getting in the way of the reader. Which, of course, makes it much more difficult for the writer who wants to show off his stuff, and must instead learn to simplify,simplify.

SEACOASTNH: As should we all. Thanks for the update.


Copyright (c) 2006 J. Dennis Robinson and All rights reserved.

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