In Which the Proprietor of This Blog Allows One Christian McKay Heidicker to Speak His Piece
Age does not humble. I thought that it might. In fact, I was sort of counting on it to wear down the sharper edges of my tendency to burst forth with any number of proclamations about my great deeds, insightful insights, and ability to coral Shrinky Dinks into Newbery/Caldecott Banquet jewelry. Sadly, all age has done has honed my desire to crow to a sharper point. Take, as today’s example, one Mr. Christian McKay Heidicker. A good man. A good author. And one that you may have heard of since his truly remarkable Scary Stories for Young Foxes just won itself a Newbery Honor. And who was it, you might ask, that was enamored of that book from the start? Who was it that hyped it far and wide? That sang its praises to the heavens above, prepared to rail against same said heavens in the event that it didn’t receive the love and attention it deserved?
Now, to my infinite satisfaction, the world knows how great that book is, and I am appeased. But wait! There’s more! Not a Fox-related sequel or anything, but an entirely new Heidicker creation in an entirely different vein. A book that involves hauntings, silver roses, and the creepiest l’il ole porcelain doll that you ever did see. Called Thieves of Weirdwood this is straight up high fantasy with all the trimmings. But don’t take my word for it. Allow Mr. Heidicker to tell you about it himself.
Sir? The floor is yours . . . .
Thank you so much for having me on your blog, Ms. Bird!
I hope you don’t mind if I use this opportunity to get something off my chest. I’ve been carrying it for years now, unable to share it for fear that the walls of my apartment will literally crumble around me. But this feels like a safe space. Ghosts don’t read blogs, do they? And I don’t think computers contain organic materials . . .
Professor William Shivering, the real author of Thieves of Weirdwood, is dead and has been for over eighty years.
See, I never planned to write this book. I was happily working on Scary Stories for Young Foxes wherein I put baby fox kits in harrowing positions before desperately trying to help them escape. I was building a career on adorable animal distress, and I was as satisfied as a soul can be with that position. Writing a fantasy trilogy was the last thing on my mind.
But you’d be amazed how convincing a haunting can be.
It began when I found the first draft of the Foxes sequel shredded to bits. Like foxes had broken into my apartment and revolted against my treatment of their species. My fiancée and cat and soon-to-be stepdaughters all passed my bulletproof lie-detector test of lying on the ground, staring at the ceiling, and trying not to cry.
No one fessed up.
I started a new draft of Foxes 2. It was mulch before sunrise.
Once I finally gave up that project as lost, books started flopping off of my shelf—The Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, The Book of Devils and Demons, The Joy of Cooking—opening to pages that showed otherworldly horrors and wonders.
Forgive me if I fast-forward through my screaming/sage-laden/botched exorcism phase and jump straight to the epiphany: I was being haunted by a ghost with a story to tell. But this ghost was unlike any I’d heard of in film, fiction, or the ever-disappointing ghost hunter reality shows. It seemed he was only able to possess dead organic materials—wooden beams, paper pages, or cotton underwear to deliver wedgies when I was doing anything other than reading the research he had so helpfully/unsettlingly scattered across my floor.
What kind of children’s author would I be if I didn’t acquiesce?
So, I sat down with a paper and pen and really started to listen to the creaks and groans that spread like arthritis through my apartment’s walls. Slowly but surely, I started to make out single words. Then sentences. And eventually whole chapters of a bizarre story about two young thieves who try to rob a Manor that just happens to be the waypoint between their early twentieth century city and its silvery, imaginary counterpart.
From that day forward, the creaks kept me on a consistent regiment of concentrated writing. (I still think smashing my Nintendo Switch to pieces with my armchair’s wooden leg was a step over the line.)
Of course, there are hiccups when it comes to translating a ghost. In the early days, I often mistook a groan for a creak and had to frantically rescue papers and pens from my irate, bucking desk until I corrected it. And as much as I enjoyed the story, the language of a man long deceased can feel a little, forgive me, stiff. (“No, Professor Shivering,” I once told the trembling paper, “kids do not need three whole chapters about the fish trading economy in port cities of the early twentieth century.”) I also tried to punch up the language and replace clichés that in the professor’s time were still wild, uncaged things.
Outside of that, the ideas weren’t too shabby for someone whose headstone was crumbling by the time the first television glowed to life. I mean, I never would have come up with the twist where an author is murdered by her own . . .
Forgive me. The floor just creaked. And while I think it might have been a coincidence, I’d rather not risk a week of sleepless nights by giving away any of the professor’s spoilers.
Anyway,I’ve grown much better at understanding the lonely old ghost. He even lets me call him William after he’s migrated from the desk to the ceiling for the night. It was only last week that I realized something that should have been glaringly obvious from the start. And I still can’t decide if it’s tragic or what.
The professor doesn’t realize he’s dead. He thinks I’m an assistant, who was sent by some turn of the century agency and has a “jellyfish” work ethic and “goblin scratch” handwriting. He doesn’t understand the internet and often castigates me for staring at a shiny black brick before whip cracking me out of bed to polish the description of a bat-winged mental hospital. (I’m currently in the market for wholly synthetic sheets.)
Of course, there are perks to being haunted by a dusty old ghost. Professor Shivering believes payment for a “ripping adventure yarn” should be about thirty dollars. I’ve held onto the remainder— a modest salary for a rather surly man’s assistant—to make up for sleepless nights and desecrated drafts and electronics. (Please don’t tell him.)
There. I feel much better having typed that out. When I started this blog entry, I thought I was looking for someone to commiserate. But it seems my fear has slowly thawed into sympathy. I don’t feel right about taking credit for a story that was creaked to me in the soft hours of the night. A story that William seems to have some personal connection to—though I still haven’t sussed out what.
One last thing. The professor’s chilling appearance and moaning movements were too interesting not to capture. So I’ve incorporated them into the book’s ten-year-old ghost, Breeth. She’s also able to possess organic materials—eyes swirling in wood grain, hair twirled in strands of rope, giggling uncontrollably when someone writes on a page she’s possessing, etc. When William reads these details, he says something to the tune of, “It will suffice for the time being, Heidicker. But in the next draft, do try to be less whimsical.”
Strangely enough, when the next draft rolls around, he always lets those parts stay. As if somewhere deep down he’s slowly starting to understand. I suppose we’ll see what epiphanies the next two volumes of this series will bring. And which of my drafts and electronics will endure.
Thank you, Christian. And thanks to the nice folks at Macmillan for giving me the chance to host you at last.
Filed under: Guest Posts
About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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