ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.
GUY RAZ, HOST:
And I'm Guy Raz. In the world according to fantasy writer, N.D. Wilson, kids become caretakers of the world's secrets. A snake named Patricia is actually a necklace designed to protect you from harm, and death is not always a definite end. N.D. Wilson's new novel for young adults is "The Dragon's Tooth" and it's the first in a series of stories he calls the "Ashtown Burials."
N.D. Wilson is with us here in the studio. Welcome to the program.
N.D. WILSON: Thanks a bunch.
RAZ: Tell us the premise of this story.
WILSON: Well, the premise is that there are two very American kids who live in a roadside motel in Wisconsin who get caught up sort of "Treasure Island" style in the intrigues around an old coot named Billy Bones. He just shows up to the motel, gives them a key ring and then dies in a massive conflagration and fight.
And they get swept up in an order of explorers and the real premise there was that Brendon, the navigator, the Irish monk from way back when, sailed in a little leather boat across the ocean to North America and up the Hudson and eventually into the Great Lakes and founded the outer outpost of his order of explorers, the order of Brendon.
RAZ: A place called Ashtown?
WILSON: A place called Ashtown.
RAZ: Tell me about Ashtown.
WILSON: Ashtown is this large campus estate that was originally a penal colony. You know, this is the ends of the earth and it's in Wisconsin. But at the time, you know, back in the 500s, 600s, this was as far as you could go. But now, as millennia have trickled past, you have, you know, the stronghold of this order of explorers stuck in Wisconsin, which is where these kids get drawn in.
RAZ: And, indeed, it turns out that the secrets of the world are held in Wisconsin.
WILSON: Yeah, absolutely. And didn't we all know that already?
RAZ: Yeah. The two main protagonists, the kids, are Cyrus - he's 12 - and his sister Antigone. She's 13.
RAZ: Initially, we don't know what happened to their parents, but we know that they're not around. They eventually find out that their dad is not quite who they thought he was.
WILSON: Yeah. Their father was a member of this order of explorers and became angry with it because they prohibited him from marrying their mother, so he was expelled from the order. So they have, historically, a very tenuous relationship with the order of explorers they're coming into. Their dad was a great explorer. They never knew that. They just knew him as the peaceful, normal pops that they always had.
RAZ: And at that age, they are introduced to this world that, beforehand, had no idea existed.
WILSON: Yeah, absolutely. So they get swept up in it and, at first, it's just run for your life. And then they have to collect themselves and really figure out why the people are chasing them for this key ring that Billy Bones gave them with the dragon's tooth on it and, you know, start putting together their own plan.
RAZ: We shouldn't give away too much of the story, of course. It's an amazing tale, but throughout the book, we bounce back and forth between reality and fantasy. And this is very deliberate. I mean, your book is really rooted in reality, in the real world.
WILSON: Absolutely. And I think that's probably one of the two biggest things I want to do. I want to write fantasy that really connects to American kids where American kids are. Growing up, I loved the "Narnia Chronicles." Now, I can look at "Harry Potter" and, you know, I can see my kids loving "Harry Potter." But the assumption that I had, growing up, was you had to be in England if you wanted to have a magical adventure.
RAZ: Yeah. Right, right, right.
WILSON: And I want to connect global fantasy, global mythology to Americana, roadside diners, truck stops, waffle irons, you know, Wisconsin.
WILSON: So that's what I'm doing. That's one part. The other part is that this world is so taken for granted by kids, and by adults even more so, but it's really easy to read "Narnia," to read "Lord of the Rings" and then, at the end, to have this bad aftertaste.
WILSON: And I remember that taste as a kid, being sort of in love with this story and then it stops and I can never go there.
WILSON: I can never see Narnia and I can never be magical. In this story, I really want to connect kids to the fantasy of here. This place is fantastic. This place is amazing. And you can actually connect to it when you're done. So, no matter how hard you try after you read "Harry Potter," you can get a wand, you can try to cast spells. It's not going to happen.
In this order of explorers, if you become a super fan and you really want to be like these kids, you actually can. You can go learn Latin. You can go study what they study and you can physically train and you can explore this world because this is the crazy place.
You know, I tell school kids, we are on a ball of rock flying at mach 86 around a ball of fire in the sky. You know, we're just whipping around this thing.
WILSON: And if I told Frodo how I got here on an airplane and described it for him, he would not think this was an unmagical world. He had to fly on an eagle.
WILSON: And I've got this steel machine that hurdles through the sky. So kids can really awaken to the wonder of here and the wonder of now and I think that's really important.
RAZ: And all you really need to do is go to Wisconsin.
WILSON: Yeah, exactly.
RAZ: Reading this book, obviously, it's hard not to notice there is a lot of violence.
RAZ: A lot of guns, a lot of dying.
RAZ: That is real. That is not fantasy violence.
WILSON: Yeah. This goes back to the whole real world versus escapism question. If I read "Harry Potter," am I really ever scared that Voldemort is going to take over? Not really.
With this one, I really actually base the evils on real evils, too. So my main villain is the son of an actual eugenicist who actually pioneered mandatory sterilization laws. This is the kind of thing that has actually happened and these are things I want kids inspired to explore and resist and overcome.
RAZ: Are there certain tropes, fantasy tropes, that you wanted to stay away from in "Dragon's Tooth?"
WILSON: I wanted my kids to never discover that they were magical, to never become magical. To the entire series, always be kids who work hard to overcome obstacles, kids who train, kids who are educated, and more and more so as the series progresses.
RAZ: Right. Obviously, they go to Ashtown and that's where they learn how to do these things.
WILSON: Yeah. But even there, it's not a school. The impetus is entirely on them.
WILSON: You show up, and what are you going to do to advance? What are you going to do? Nobody's going to make you learn Latin. You know, what are you going to do to stick around here? And I wanted to closely connect this one to real kids, you know, kids who read this and can understand Cyrus Smith throws his homework in the creek behind the motel. He's this very normal American boy and he is the kind of guy who can actually become a hero in this fantasy world.
RAZ: And, of course, we will find out what happens to Cyrus and Antigone and Dan. This is the first in a series. Presumably, you've got one, two, three, four more mapped out in your mind.
What is it like writing the beginning of something that, you know, you may be working on for many, many books to come, many years to come?
WILSON: Well, I think that I was scared in advance because I had sold this to Random House. I had pitched them this project and the thing that worried me the most was that I would have to hang out in this place with these characters for a minimum of five years.
WILSON: So I was really invested up front in making sure I liked these people. These were real humans I wanted to spend a lot of time with. This was a world I really wanted to explore and I'm real excited with how it came out because it's this world and I do want to explore this place.
RAZ: So you know what happens?
WILSON: I do. Yeah.
RAZ: You know what happens all the way until the end?
RAZ: I hope you have protection because people may try to kidnap you and get that information.
WILSON: Yeah. We'll see. I could pull a J.K. Rowling and hold characters hostage.
RAZ: Well, N.D. Wilson, thank you so much for coming in.
WILSON: Thank you for having me.
RAZ: That's writer N.D. Wilson. His new fantasy novel for young adults is called "The Dragon's Tooth."