:: Interview with Douglas Rees

By Dominique McCafferty, Librarian

Douglas Rees is the author of three young adult novels and a picture book. His first novel, Lightning Time, was published by DK Ink in 1997. Lightning Time, an absorbing story about John Brown told from the point of view of a teenage boy, received warm praise from Kirkus Reviews: “Rees lights his story with flashes of lyricism that make plain the moral ambiguities of Brown’s case.” Publishers Weekly described his second novel, Vampire High, as a “witty and original vampire novel.” Of Grandy Thaxter's Helper, his picture book, The New York Times recently wrote: “easily the most winning book about outsmarting death (or almost anything else) in many a season.” His most recent novel, Smoking Mirror: An Encounter with Paul Gauguin, which was chosen as a Junior Library Guild Selection, is a deeply engaging exploration of Paul Gauguin’s life and work.

When he isn’t writing, Rees works as a part-time librarian at San Jose Public Library. Several of Rees’s forthcoming titles include Jeannette Claus's Difficult Christmas Eve, a picture book; Gideon's Remnant, a young adult novel about the Spanish-American War; and The Janus Gate: An Encounter With John Singer Sargent. He lives in Sunnyvale, CA with his wife JoAnn, and has one adopted son, Philip Rostonvich.


DM: What do you recollect about your childhood?

DR: My first clear memories, which date from eighteen months to three years, are of Vallejo, CA. We lived in a neighborhood of flat-roofed temporary housing run up for war workers in the shipyards. I remember a lot of sun, music, and one disaster involving me and a doghouse that rolled down a slope when I was using it. I also remember absence. My father was in Pensacola learning to be a photomapper. I missed him.

My first home in Riverside was on Third Street, in a large white apartment which is still there. My parents had fond memories of it, but I don't recall anything from this period except one or two visits to a dairy farm in Arlington.

The onset of adolescence was accompanied by a radical change in where we lived. After six years in Riverside, we were shipped to Germany for a three-year tour. I might as well have been dumped on the dark side of the moon.

DM: I absolutely loved your book Lightning Time. It reminded me of Russell Banks' Cloudsplitter. Could you talk about the book, as well as your interest in John Brown, whom many people dismiss as a nutcase?

DR: I can't recall how I decided to write a book about John Brown. I do know it had nothing to do with Cloudsplitter, nor with Raising Holy Hell by Bruce Olds, nor Flashman and the Angel of the Lord by George MacDonald Fraser, both of which I have.

As to John Brown being crazy -- like a fox, maybe. He is the only American radical since the American revolution who has made this country conform to his viewpoint. In 1859, slavery was the most powerful force in the United States. In 1865, it didn't exist. Some nutcase. And, as I like to say, "If John Brown was crazy for being willing to give his life to end American slavery, what was Robert E. Lee for being willing to collude in the deaths of 600,000 of his countrymen in order to keep it?"

As to how I came to be interested in him, all I recall is that, having written a novel about a dysfunctional family (Persistence of Vision, unpublished) I wanted to write one about a close family. How that tied in with John Brown I don't remember.

I became fascinated with Brown's psychology for about three months. Was he crazy? Was he a fanatic? What did he think he was trying to accomplish, and why?

I became a burden to my wife; I would be washing the dishes and I'd say something like, "My God do you realize The Battle Hymn of the Republic is about John Brown? Julia Ward Howe was a great friend of his." Or "Brown was consecrated to his death by his father in 1831, like Abraham Jacob. But this time the sacrifice was made. That was what they were doing, and they knew it."

"That's nice, dear," would be the reply.

But for psychological insight, I prefer Bruce Old's Raising Holy Hell. He gets what I missed: Brown wasn't impelled to his death by his father, but by his guilt over having been absent when his mother died. Brown was eight at the time. The only autobiographical document he ever wrote, a few pages for a young man, is a litany of loss.

Anyway, I'm satisfied that I got Brown about right, although, writing from the viewpoint of Theodore Worth, I left many things present but unstated. A fourteen-year-old kid misses a lot.

DM: The New York Times favorably reviewed your book, Grandy Thaxter’s Helper. How was that experience for you?

DR: I was floating for three days. And it certainly spiked Grandy's sales position on Amazon for about a week. But I keep busy, and now I'm involved with doing rewrites on a 3rd grade novel with the intention of turning it into a 4th grade novel. I operate on the well-known fact that it's harder to hit a moving target. This is a good response to all reviews.

DM: Do you have any advice for young writers?

DR: I have almost no advice to give on how to write. I don't know much about it. But I consider myself a fount of wisdom on how to survive being an unpublished writer.

I have in mind a scrap of dialogue from Robert Bolt's A Man For All Seasons. Sir Thomas More advises a young man to become a teacher. "You'd be a good teacher, perhaps a great one."

"Who would know it if I were?" the young man asks.

"Your students, your friends, God. Not a bad public, that," says More.

I have no students, but I do have a belief that God would know I was at least doing the work that was truest to who He'd made me, and I had a few friends in the Bay Area and in Riverside who cared about what I wrote. A good public.

I also realize that, no matter how intellectual the end product may be, writing itself is not. It is a dialogue between the unconscious and the conscious. The work of the writer is to take what he's given and work with it consciously to make it good.

The quality of my rejections has improved, and I’ve discovered that getting rejected is exactly as much a part of a writer's job as getting published. It's not the unfortunate downside, it's an element in the process. There’s this, too: well-written rejections are no more meaningful than 3x5 pre-printed postcards. Unless they want to work with you on your manuscript, it doesn't matter what they think of it.


The complete interview is available in the September/October 2005 issue of Public Libraries.

Readers & Writers