Next up is author B.A. Williamson with an exciting middle grade book that is on my to-be-read list. He’ll be talking about how #DoctorWho and #MattSmith inspired his book — The Marvelous Adventures of Gwendolyn Gray!
Question 1) What part of the world do you come from?
I hail from a quaint little neighborhood on the east side of Indianapolis.
Question 2) When did you become a fan of Doctor Who?
I became a fan in college, when I went home on spring break and my Dad was watching this strange show. Some fat green Vogon-like aliens had just destroyed Big Ben, and they farted a lot, and came from a planet with a funny name. When he told me what it was, I remembered seeing a whole shelf of classic Doctor Who tapes at the local library while I was growing up, but I never touched them, a decision I now painfully regret. Tom Baker would have vastly improved my childhood. As it was, I watched a little with my Dad while I was home, but I didn’t become a fan in my own right until I saw David Tennant’s first episode with the Sycorax.
Question 3) What do you think makes a good story?
Desire+Obstacle. Your character has to want something, and want it badly, no matter how small it is. There needs to be things standing in the way, obstacles that match the character’s level of desire. If your character doesn’t have a clear driving goal, we lose interest. I also think a story should have something to say, beyond just beating the bad guys. Doctor Who has infinite storytelling possibility, but it touches on some of the deepest topics that any form of literature can approach, which is something science-fiction has always been particularly suited to.
Question 4) Congratulations on the publication of The Marvelous Adventures of Gwendolyn Gray! Tell me a little bit about your book.
Gwendolyn Gray faces an overwhelming battle every day: keeping her imagination under control. It’s a struggle for a dreamer like Gwendolyn, in a city of identical gray skyscrapers, clouds that never clear, and grown-ups who never understand. She’s a plucky little redheaded outcast that would be perfectly at home in the TARDIS.
But when her daydreams come alive and run amok in The City, the struggle to control them becomes as real as the furry creatures infesting her bedroom. Worse yet, she’s drawn the attention of the Faceless Gentlemen, who want to preserve order in The City by erasing Gwendolyn and her troublesome creations.
With the help of two explorers from another world, Gwendolyn escapes and finds herself in a land of clockwork inventions and colorful creations. Now Gwendolyn must harness her powers and, with a gang of airship pirates, stop the Faceless Gentlemen from destroying the new world she loves and the home that never wanted her—before every world becomes gray and dull.
If that sounds like the plot of a Doctor Who episode, well, you wouldn’t be far off the mark.
Question 5) What was one of the most surprising things you learned in creating this book?
Seeing how your own characters can take on a life of your own, and do things that surprise you. When you’re writing, and you get really in the zone, stuff comes out that feels completely independent, and I have no idea where it comes from. Which then became a theme of the book in and of itself, and I spend a lot of time exploring the nature of imagination and creation, and how it can be a type of magic on its own.
Question 6) I understand that Doctor Who has played a significant role in your writing. Can you elaborate on that?
It tremendously influences the type of story I want to tell. Those are the stories I love, and I wanted to emulate those somehow, I wanted to tell a world-hopping portal fantasy. When I was looking at how to craft a tale of an imaginative kid bouncing between worlds and solving her problems with wits, not weapons, I went and studied some of the best Who episodes. I looked at their structure, how the Doctor eventually prevailed in spite of overwhelming obstacles. I looked at how the best episodes deliver a strong message, not in a preachy way, but one that was at the center of a fantastic adventure story and compelling characters. And of course, every adventure involves a lot of running.
Question 7) Turns out, our books both have something in common — Matt Smith! Any specific characteristics of him can be found in your characters?
His short attention span and tendency to babble. His childishness comes through in Gwendolyn, because Gwendolyn is herself a child. But there’s also a weight of sadness there: these actions have consequences, and the characters have to feel those deeply, but always choose to go on.
Question 8) Who is your Doctor?
David Tennant, always and forever. Particularly, The Christmas Invasion, Blink, The Shakespeare Code, Gridlock, The Beast, Tooth and Claw, the Cybermen invasion, and the Master’s Return. I don’t think the show has ever been better than his first two seasons.
Question 9) What is the most difficult part of your artistic process?
The beginning. Figuring out what the story is and where it’s going. And every time you start, you never completely know what’s going to happen or how it’s going to turn out. Starting a new story is like taking a leap off a cliff, and it’s just as terrifying. I always have an ending in mind, but parts of the journey are still huge blanks. You just have to trust yourself, your skills, your voice, and let it go where it will. But it’s never an easy step for me.
Question 10) What would you say is your interesting quirk?
I like to dress in costume for my book events. The narrator in the book is a bit of a character in and of itself, and I like to become something like that character. It comes from my theatre background, I suppose.
Question 11) Do you have an excerpt from the book you’d like to share?
Sure! Here’s one that’s particularly Who-vian. Gwendolyn lives in the City, a dystopian place where creativity and ideas simply don’t exist. It’s not “the way things are done.” Picture a mid-century modern future straight out of Mad Men with the social structure and values of Mr. Banks from Mary Poppins. Gwendolyn’s imagination just made one of her classmates grow actual rabbit ears, and while running from the consequences of that, she has just discovered a major secret and some strange artifacts on the Edge of the City, a place no one knew existed. Now she has her first run-in with the villains of our story. It’s a very Who sort of scene- creepy baddies, sudden rescues by mysterious new friends from other worlds, and plenty of running.
Gwendolyn sprawled on the sidewalk, nose to toe with four polished black shoes. Above the shoes were crisp grey pants, and above that were twice-buttoned jackets with black ties pinned smartly to white shirts. The men both wore black bowler hats, and they had no faces.
Let me be clear: they had noses, yes, and mouths as well. Likewise eyes and ears, all in the right place and amount.
But Gwendolyn could not have told you what they looked like.
Looking at them was like trying to picture the face of a friend you haven’t seen in years. The men stood plain as day in front of her, but the faces underneath those bowler hats slipped from her mind like eels, as though her eyes saw something terrible, and refused to tell her brain what they had seen. Most people have never seen a man with no face, but let me assure you that it is a sight so unsettling that it puts goosebumps on your eyeballs.
A white-gloved hand reached down. Gwendolyn thought it meant to help her up, but it picked up the book instead. The man’s eyes examined the gleaming title, and the gloved hands flipped through the colorful illustrations.
Gwendolyn snatched up the gem and snuck it in her pocket.
The man turned to his comrade. “This is a very interesting book, Mister Five.” he said. His voice was a high-pitched whining monotone, crisp and proper. The voice she’d heard in the Headmaster’s office.
“Very interesting indeed, Mister Six,” replied the other, his voice identical to the first. He leaned in slightly, ever so slightly, to examine the book.
Gwendolyn got to her feet and put on her precious-little-girl voice, all sweetness and light, the kind you use when you want a second helping of dessert. “I’m terribly sorry, sirs. I wasn’t watching my way.”
Slowly, ever so slowly, the two men’s eyes turned from the book toward Gwendolyn. Their heads cocked to the side and stared at her, faces instantly dissolving in her memory.
Gwendolyn shuddered. “If you will accept my polite apologies, I will take my book and be on my way. Mother will be quite cross if I am late.”
The men ignored her. Carefully, ever so carefully, their hands flipped through the book as though the pages were covered in muck, and they didn’t wish to dirty their white gloves.
“Where did you get this book, my dear?” said Mister Five.
“Uhh…” Gwendolyn stammered, “it’s mine, and I would like it back now, please.”
“This is a very unique book, little girl. And my partner and I… collect… things such as this,” said one of the men.
Gwendolyn again felt the gut-wrenching sensation of being caught, as she felt earlier with the Centrals, but these gentlemen made Cecilia and her gang seem positively fluffy. “I’m sorry sir, but it is mine, and it is not for sale. I must insist that you give it back. Please?”
“What do you think, Mister Five?” one of the men whined eerily.
“She has seen the book, Mister Six, and would appear to have been reading it quite intently,” said the other, examining the edges of the pages. “And unless I’m very much mistaken, and I seldom am, Mister Six—”
“-No, indeed, Mister Five—”
“-this girl is not where she should be.”
“Most assuredly not, Mister Five. The Edge is not permissible to the citizenry; particularly children. Most particularly not to children so particularly… strange.” Gently, ever so gently, his gloved hand reached out and caressed a lock of Gwendolyn’s fiery hair.
Gwendolyn flinched. The man’s brief touch made her skin want to crawl off her bones, into bed, and under the blankets. She slapped his hand away, but Mister Six didn’t react.
“You are correct, Mister Six,” said Mister Five. “She has seen The Wall, and this book, and who knows what else. She is also certainly the one causing these unacceptable… changes. No, no, no, I’m afraid we really have no choice,” droned Mister Five.
Mister Six’s hand reached up slowly, ever so slowly, to his black bowler hat. “I agree completely, Mister Five. These changes simply must be dealt with.” His tone turned sweet, dripping more venom than honey: “Girl. Might I draw your attention here, to my lovely hat?”
He took off the hat and turned it toward her, like a magician showing that his hat is indeed empty. But instead of a rabbit, a pinpoint of light came out of the hat’s black interior. Gwendolyn’s gaze was locked in place.
Cold light poured out of the hat. It was just like a Lambent; but one more potent than any she had ever encountered. Her eyes burned but she could not look away. With an awful shock, she found she could no longer move. Any thoughts of running or escaping faded. She could feel her mind slipping away, drawn toward the light, drowning in it.
“Perfectly done, little girl. It doesn’t hurt.”
He was wrong. It did hurt. Her head felt like it would split in two. The searing pain brought her back to her senses. “No!” she shouted, and reached forward to knock the hat away.
Mister Six stepped easily out of reach. “The girl resists, Mister Five.”
“Indeed she does, Mister Six. She is stronger than anticipated. Increase the power.” The light doubled in brightness. She held up her hand to block it, but it didn’t help.
Her hand… she could see right through it. It was vanishing before her eyes, disappearing like a puddle on a hot day. She felt disconnected from her body, her arms and legs as far away as yesterday’s dream. She felt like a glass of water being poured into a swirling drain. Her thoughts, normally so fast she couldn’t control them, began to slow. She felt… less.
Mister Six’s mouth curved upward slightly, ever so slightly. “Yes, this will only take a mo—”
Someone collided with the faceless man, and hard. Mister Six was knocked to the street, his hat rolling away, and the book skidded down the sidewalk. Senseless Gwendolyn was grabbed by a pair of rough hands and pulled down the street like a rag doll.
“Move your feet, or I’m leaving you!” came another voice, a girl’s. Gwendolyn shook her head as the volume on her senses was turned back up.
And for the third time that day, Gwendolyn Gray was running away.
She noticed several things all at once. She noticed a very peculiar looking boy, about her own age, running beside her. She noticed a bright red jacket and a long yellow scarf that fluttered behind him. He grinned recklessly, holding his flat and checkered newsboy cap. He held up a red book. “Here! You dropped this. Clumsy.”
Gwendolyn took it, noticing that her hand was solid and whole again. She noticed the girl pulling her other hand wore a complicated-looking set of goggles on her head, all dials and lenses. Her shimmering blouse was not quite green, not quite blue, but was somehow both at once underneath a coppery-orange vest. She looked back at Gwendolyn and gave her arm a fierce tug. “Quit staring at me and run!”
She did, pushing her feet as fast as they would go. They sprinted through the deserted streets. The Mister Men followed effortlessly, seeming almost to float over the ground.
Suddenly, Gwendolyn noticed some scattered pedestrians in shabby clothes. Gwendolyn must have run all the way to the beginning of the Outskirts. People gaped at the wild children who would dare run through The City’s streets, but the Mister Men passed by without so much as a glance from the Cityzens, and the sparse crowds moved mindlessly aside to let them through.
Gwendolyn turned to look behind, but the Mister Men never grew any closer or farther away. “I can’t… keep running… like this!” she gasped, her satchel banging against her side with every step.
“Quick! This way!” The boy shouted.
“Sparrow, wait!” the girl said, but the boy ducked into an alleyway. The girl groaned and pulled Gwendolyn in after him.
It was a dead end.
The boy spun around. “Oh. Never mind. What now, Starling?”
“What? Not again! This was your idea!” She groaned. “Fine. Take her! I’ll catch up.” She pointed at something down the alley, then pushed Gwendolyn at the boy and started patting the pockets of her pants. The girl was nothing but pockets from the waist down. Her black trousers were covered in them, and she wore crisscrossing belts full of dangling tools and gadgets. Gwendolyn wondered if she needed all those belts to hold up such heavily laden pants.
The older girl pulled a copper sphere from a pocket on her thigh and twisted the two halves, winding it up. She leaned out of the alleyway and tossed it into the air just as the Mister Men came around the corner. The sphere whirred, clicked, and then exploded with a loud SNAP!
The alley entrance was instantly filled with orange smoke. One of the men stumbled out of the cloud, but the girl shoved him back in. She pulled her goggles down over her eyes and flipped a lens into place. “Go! I’ll lead them away and circle back!” Then she plunged into the fog.
“Come on!” the boy said. He pulled Gwendolyn down the alleyway and studied the wall at the end. “Now, what was Starling pointing at?”
Gwendolyn noticed a fire escape above them, old iron ladders and walkways bolted to the side of the building. “Do you think she meant that?”
“Oh, yeah. Good call.” The boy shot her a toothy grin, one that was altogether too cocky for their present situation. He jumped up and pulled the ladder down. “Ladies first.”
Gwendolyn hesitated. “Uh… I’m not climbing over you in this skirt. I’ll thank the gentleman to go first.” It was a good excuse, but truthfully she just wanted to see if it would hold his weight.
The boy’s jaw dropped, taken aback. “I didn’t… That’s not… I would never…”
A loud crash came from the smoke behind them.
“Just climb!” Gwendolyn shouted, though she was glad to wipe that smug smile from his face. She had the presence of mind to stick the book in her bag.
He scrambled up the ladder, but was already grinning again, and gave her a wink. “Be careful, girlie. Wouldn’t want to tear that precious skirt of yours.”
“Just worry about yourself, little boy, and when you fall, try and avoid my head.” Teasing him was an easy way to hide how terrified she was.
The fire escape held, and they reached the roof. They crossed to the other side and looked down. The sheer drop to the street below made her eyes swirl. A twelve-story fall is not the sort of story you’ll ever get to tell.
“What now? There’s nowhere to go!” Gwendolyn said.
“Nowhere to go? Please. I have a plan. Well, we have a plan. Um . . . Starling will have a plan. Any trouble down there?” he asked the goggled girl, who was clambering over the edge of the roof.
“Yes. And all of it is your fault. But I bought us a few moments. Now take one of these.” The girl produced a collection of objects from another one of her pockets and tossed something to each of them.
Gwendolyn caught it. It was a miniature umbrella, bright pink with purple spirals on it, not much larger than her hand. It was the same sort of umbrella your parents might put into a tropical drink on the beach when they’ve left you and your sister at home with relatives. Gwendolyn frowned at it, but she opened it with a crinkly pop.
“When I say so, jump,” said the older girl, approaching the edge of the roof.
This was too much, even for Gwendolyn. “Jump? We’ll be smushed!” She glanced at the pitifully small umbrella in her hand.
The boy rolled his eyes. “You wanted a plan. Maybe you should ask them about it,” he cocked a thumb at the Faceless Gentlemen, who had just appeared on the roof.
“This is a most inappropriate way for young children to act, Mister Five.” said the man on the left, his face slipping from Gwendolyn’s mind like water through her fingers.
“Most inappropriate indeed, Mister Six. They will have to be dealt with immediately. These sorts of… intrusions… cannot be tolerated,” the other replied. They strode across the roof toward the children, each step in perfect unison.
Gwendolyn looked down at the punishingly solid sidewalk. She glanced at the boy, and got another infuriating wink. For someone saving her life, he was certainly not impressing her. “Isn’t there another way?”
“Of course there is another way…” droned Mister Five. His hand reached toward her in a gesture that absolutely failed to be comforting. “Come with us.” His voice took on the sickly sweetness of cough syrup. “Your parents must be worried sick about you. No little girl should be out this far. Just what would your mother think?”
“What indeed, Mister Five. We will take care of you, girl, and see you home safe. We will explain everything to your parents, make all your problems… disappear. We might even allow you to keep that little book. The Status Quo will be preserved. All will be well. After all, you cannot trust such dreadful children as these.” His white gloved hand waved toward her brightly colored companions.
You and I might be able to spot the lie these men told, but we are not the one’s teetering over the edge of a fatal fall. Gwendolyn hesitated. What would Mother think? She would certainly not approve of any of this dashing about, nor of her two rescuers. But her parents had also never seen anything like these men, and she wasn’t certain they’d approve of them, either.
The boy put a hand on her shoulder. “It’s us or them. Now or never.”
She took a deep breath and looked over the side. She had to do it. She couldn’t turn back now. She would imagine she was brave, even if she felt like throwing up.
“Then I guess it’s now,” she whispered. She squeezed her eyes shut, gripped the umbrella, bent her knees-
“Sorry, girlie, time’s up!” The boy gave her a shove, and Gwendolyn fell with a shriek. The older girl followed, leaping from the roof.
“So long, chaps!” The boy tipped his cap to the Mister Men, showed them a very impolite finger, and jumped.
Question 12) What can we expect from you in the future?
More Gwendolyn! I’m currently working on The Fantastical Exploits of Gwendolyn Gray, and where the first one features a trip to a Steampunk world, this time she’ll find herself trapped in the land of the Fae.
Question 13) How can others find out more about you and your work?
The book itself is on Amazon and Goodreads. The website is gwendolyngray.com, but I’m probably most active on the Facebook page, facebook.com/gwendolyngraybook. Twitter is my social of choice, but you can find me pretty much anywhere @bawrites. I’m always happy to chat, particularly about the book!