On Octavian Nothing and Terry Pratchett
[Speech in acceptance of a 2009 Boston Globe/Horn Book Award Honor for Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation, Volume II: The Kingdom on the Waves.]
I would like to thank the Boston Globe / Horn Book Award judges for their generosity. I would also like to thank those instrumental in the creation and success of this book: my girlfriend Nicole, my friends and colleagues at the Vermont College of the Fine Arts, and, of course, the staff at Candlewick Press: my editor Liz Bicknell, the designer, Sherry Fatla, the long-suffering copy editor, Hannah Mahoney, and Jennifer Roberts and her publicity and marketing team.
On a summer’s day in 2002, sitting on some rocks that jutted out over an obscure lake in Canada, I opened a book of Revolutionary War history and began to read. I had a strong sense that my next project was going to take place during the Siege of Boston. Six years later, on a cold winter day, I turned in my final changes on the final draft of the second book of Octavian Nothing’s story. My editor and I celebrated with hard cider. She needed it.
For those six years, I lived with this boy, Octavian Nothing, as a presence in my head. I knew who he was almost immediately. After that, everything I read – all the battlefield histories and the epistolary novels and the Greek myths – I tried to read through his eyes. I tried to feel what he would have felt as he read the history of his own time.
I am not one of those writers who says that their characters talk to them. I am almost always aware that my characters are constructions, and that it is my job to throw bricks at them. In this case, however, after six years of thinking and feeling like Octavian for hours of each day, he became a spectral presence in my thought.
And so I’ve discovered, since I finished working on these books, that I miss him. It’s corny, but true. I’ve tricked myself. I feel like he really was a historical personage. I feel like I should be able to find copies of his violin sonatas, if I just rummage through enough junk shops.
One night last winter, my girlfriend and I were making chicken pot pie. As we cooked, we were listening to some Baroque trio sonata. And suddenly I realized: Octavian would love this. I really want to invite Octavian over for some chicken pot pie. I mean, the poor guy could really use a break. I’ll give him a plate of supper and a soda pop.
I’ll miss this project. Who knows if I’ll ever try anything like it again?
I’d like to close with a quick word about the Boston Globe / Horn Book winner, Terry Pratchett. I read The Colour of Magic when I was ten or eleven. I got it as a selection from the Fantasy and Science Fiction Book Club, and I loved it. I still recall the sorrow of reaching the last paragraph – a tracking shot that pulls back and leaves the characters behind as we view the whole flat world. I didn’t want to leave those characters behind. When I was done, I sat there for some time on the grass behind the junior high, staring into the trees, thinking of what I’d just read.
That, I believe, is my greatest aspiration as a writer for children: to someday write something that captures a kid’s imagination as fully as books like Mr. Pratchett’s caught mine – compelled me so powerfully that now, almost thirty years later, thinking back on that moment of contact, I can dimly see, through adulthood’s gray days and empty nights, a faint shimmer: the color of magic.