Every now and again there comes a book which defies all description. The Wonderling, debut novel from award winning memoir writer Mira Bartók is one of those books.
Where did the idea for the story of The Wonderling begin?
Like most projects I do, The Wonderling came out of a confluence of ideas, experiences, dreams, and memories. But first and foremost, the character came from a sketch I made back in 2014 of a one-eared rabbit. Eventually he morphed into a fox because he looked too much like Matt Groening’s rabbit in his Life in Hell comic strip. But I was thinking of a one-eared character even before that, a creature who, despite his deficit, has an incredible ability to hear things from far away. In 2014 I was also rereading Dickens and was reading different versions of the Arthurian legends. The other thing that came into play here was I had just finished writing a very long, and not very interesting, nonfiction adult book on the history of wonder. After I stuck that book in a drawer, I decided that I didn’t want to write about wonder, but rather explore a character born in extreme deprivation who experiences wonder on a rather profound level.
The Wonderling seems heavily influenced by steampunk and fantasy. What was it like combining those elements in this kind of mash-up for young readers?
I always wanted the book to look and sound very Victorian with a touch of steampunk to it. But steampunk lite. I didn’t want a ton of dirigibles and all the other typical steampunk inventions, but inventions that felt more personal, like the Songcatcher. The same goes for fantasy. I wanted this book to feel as realistic as a Dickens novel would, only there happen to be characters who are part animal, part human, and there’s a touch of magic here and there. In book two, the magic will play a greater, more mythic role. But in the first book, I tried to introduce the magic slowly. The most important thing to me, no matter what the genre is, is that the book has a lot of heart.
As an accomplished artist and musician, can you discuss the importance of the arts and the influence of music on your own writing, even as they are under imminent threat in our culture right now, as in your book?
The arts have always been my lifeblood. I don’t think I would have survived my difficult childhood without the arts. I grew up in a time when, despite the fact that I lived in a working-class neighborhood, we were fortunate to have great art, music, and theater programs in our schools. And my mother, despite her struggle with mental illness (schizophrenia), was a musical prodigy and taught me how to play piano at a very young age. Music and art were my first loves, not writing. So of course they are going to inform what I do. I’m a very visual thinker, and most of my ideas spring from images. And when I write, the musicality of language generally comes before clarity. Sentences need to sing, or I get bored with them.
What do you think about having the opportunity, so early in the life of this book, to be developing the story for a feature film as well?
I am still baffled by what happened early on with this book. It still seems unreal! I’m very excited about the prospect of its being turned into a film. I actually have imagined this book from the beginning as a movie. Not that I ever thought it would happen, but I saw it unfold like a film as I was writing it. But the book has always come first. My dream would be that it becomes a book that children, or adults, keep next to their beds at night.
One of the central themes of The Wonderling is that no matter one’s size, stature, or humble beginnings, they can make positive change in the world. How do you think this story will resonate with readers today who may feel powerless, threatened, or oppressed?
I always go back to that quote from The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring film: “Even the smallest person can change the course of the future.” I thought about the line a lot when I wrote this story. I don’t know how my book will resonate with those who feel powerless, but I would hope that, at the very least, they won’t feel so alone. And that they will be able to find solace and courage within the pages.
What do you hope readers (of all ages) will take away from The Wonderling?
I’d be content if they took away a little wonder, a dash of hope, and a bit of empathy. I think we need those three things more than anything right now.