John Connolly, the Dublin-born author of Every Dead Thing and The Killing Kind, is in Houston today to promote The Gates, his new young adult title. While many of his adult novels are dark thrillers featuring ex-cop Charlie Parker, The Gates is a horror story with touches of comedy that features a small boy named Samuel Johnson. While making his trick-or-treat rounds, Samuel and his dog are unfortunate enough to see their neighbors accidentally open the gates to hell (let's just say it involves both a spell and a Hadron particle collider).
Gates has been getting rave reviews for its spirited, smart eleven-year-old hero Samuel who handles quantum physics and demons, snooty teachers and blustering babysitters, each with the same amount of dread and fascination.
Connolly spoke to Hair Balls about The Gates and his American tour.
Hair Balls: How's the reception to the book been so far?
John Connolly: It's been lovely. I haven't had a chance to talk to as many kids as I've wanted -- that's not in the creepy way. But when I was in the UK, there were a lot of kids coming to signings and here there seems to be a crossover with my adult audience.
In Houston, I'm talking at a kids' bookstore and then I'm doing some schools, which I'm really quite looking forward to -- although they're much harder than bookstores. If you go to a bookstore, the adults there are kinda pre-sold; they're there because they want to be there. In schools, kids are there because you're better than homework.
This is your twelfth book, but your first young adult title. What made you want to write for kids?
I'd had an idea about a small boy who discovers that his neighbors are trying to open the gates of hell. But it was just an idea; I kept thinking that at some point it would be nice to write. The idea knocked around the back of my head for about eight years. Then I heard about a larger collider they were building in Switzerland, and that became my way into the book. It became a novel about science, and how interesting the world is, the real world. But I wanted to do it in a lighthearted way.
The science you discuss in the books is relatively advanced, these are big ideas that you're trying to get across. How much homework did you have to do before you got a handle on it all? And how did you turn around and simplify it for young readers?
If you think you understand quantum physics, you haven't looked closely enough. It's actually very, very difficult. And yet, it's the big ideas that kids find absolutely fascinating. When you start explaining the nature of the universe, about atoms, time travel, and black holes, their eyes immediately pop open.
What I did, I read a lot about it, then I distilled it all down. Then I sat in front of a physicist from Trinity College in Dublin, who kept going, "Wrong. Wrong. Wrong." He corrected all the little details and was very good about steering me in the right direction. It was fun to try to put those big ideas into a book.
You use footnotes in The Gates. Sometimes they explain the science, sometimes they give practical advice on how to live, and other times they just go off on a tangent. What made you use footnotes?
Readers of a certain age associate footnotes with boring stuff you don't really want to know. I have a 12-year-old stepson and he associated the footnotes with getting little bits of extra information that he could read if he wanted. If he read the notes, he would get a little bit of something extra that he didn't have before. It became a way of maintaining that tone, that little aside where someone is nudging you and saying, "Hey, come here, this is really interesting." But it was also a way of taking those kind of odd bits of information, advice, or science and putting them in a form where they didn't disturb the flow of the narrative. It was a bit tricky finding the place to do that, but it was fun, too.
You found a delicate balance between horror and comedy. The situations Samuel faces in The Gates are scary enough, but not terrifying. Kids reading the book are concerned, but not terrorized.
If you're twelve or thirteen years old, you're not going to find very much in The Gates terribly frightening. If you go back to fairy tales and stories, sort of pre-Grimm Brothers, you'll see that there were real threats and real violence in them. That's because they're trying to impart a kind of lesson about the world, which is, "Look the world can be a bit frightening, the world can be a bit terrifying, but if you behave cleverly, if you behave with honor, you can overcome these obstacles. They're not insurmountable, but you should realize that the world will try to trip you up occasionally." And that's a good lesson.
Kids quite like being frightened a little bit, because they recognize that the world can be a frightening place. Your only duty as a writer is to not turn it into Saw and shock and appall them. These are not books that show the world as it is, because the world is actually quite appalling. These are books about how the world could be, or should be. That way you can balance things.
You mentioned earlier that you are seeing a good number of adults at your readings and appearances. Is that something you were hoping for, did you want to attract adults to what is basically a children's story?
We Believe Local Journalism is Critical to the Life of a City
Engaging with our readers is essential to the mission of the Houston Press. Make a financial contribution or sign up for a newsletter, and help us keep telling Houston’s stories with no paywalls.
Support Our Journalism
It is the publishing dream, of course, for the Harry Potter books and the Twilight books, which are essentially being written for kids to be picked up by adults. Gates was not written as a crossover book. Gates was not written for adults. Gates was very much written with my twelve-year-old stepson in mind. It wasn't written sort of winking over the shoulder of the kids at the adults. I'm very skeptical about that. Either you're writing for kids or you're writing for adults. I think that any author that uses the word crossover should be taken out and beaten to death in a bookstore car park.
Will there be a continuation of The Gates? Will we see Samuel again?
I hope so. I like Samuel, and I like his dog. I had such a good time doing [The Gates], it was lovely to kick back and let my imagination run riot. I think next time I'd like to send him to hell. The next book will be the flip side of The Gates, where a great deal of it will take place in hell.
Connolly will read from The Gates and sign copies of both Gates and his new adult thriller, The Lovers, today at 6 p.m. (Please notice the time change.) Murder by the Book, 2342 Bissonnet. For information, call 713-524-8597 or visit www.murderbooks.com. Free.