Bren Owen, a twelve-year-old boy in an alternate-history Earth in the year 1599, has an unusual gift: he can create exact reproductions of maps from memory. Bren’s creator, Memphis-based author Barry Wolverton, has a similar gift for creating worlds, though he didn’t come to recognize his own talent for writing until he had reached his thirties.
In The Dragon’s Gate, Wolverton’s newest installment in his Chronicles of the Black Tulip series, Bren continues his global adventures, with his friend Mouse, moving on to Indonesia and China. They are searching for the Dragon’s Gate, but with different goals. Bren wants to go home to his widower father, and the orphaned Mouse needs to find out about her mysterious origins.
Wolverton recently spoke with Chapter 16 in the studios of WYPL in Memphis. What follows is a text excerpt from that interview. Download the podcast or stream it online here.
Chapter 16: Your protagonist, Brendan Owen, is not much like his father, who wants Bren to follow him into the map-making business. At twelve, Bren is already a head taller. Were you a head taller than your dad?
Barry Wolverton: There’s definitely a lot of my father, me, and our relationship in this book, which is probably why I really struggled to get the draft right in the sense of that relationship. My editor was pushing me to let the reader know what Bren thought of his father, what kind of relationship they had, and what kind of conversations they had. I really fought that advice because maybe I didn’t want to explore that too deeply. My father worked his whole life as a dentist, and he kind of had this stoop to him. I describe Bren’s father as looking like he’s carrying this invisible burden with him all the time, which also exacerbates the visual height distance between them. So, yeah, that comes a little bit from my dad.
Chapter 16: Bren’s mother passed away a couple of years prior to your first book, The Vanishing Island, and this loss has haunted him through the series.
Wolverton: Absolutely. She’s probably the most important character in the book other than Bren, and she’s never on the page, physically. It would be tough for anyone that age to lose a parent, but he was closer to his mom. I drop hints that she’s the one who gave him the sense of imagination and adventure that his father doesn’t have at all. Bren can’t stop thinking about how much better his life would have been if his mother had lived and been there to support him.
Chapter 16: The Dragon’s Gate opens with a quote from Marcel Proust, “To kindness and wisdom we make promises only. Pain we obey.” Getting kids ages eight to twelve started on Proust is a bit early, don’t you think?
Wolverton: When I read that, I thought it would be the perfect epigraph for this book because Bren has this wound that just won’t heal. When he starts seeing magic in the world, he thinks maybe he can get his mother back, so it drives everything he does and causes him to make some bad, selfish decisions. Maybe the epigraph is more meaningful to me than to kids, but I hope that they’ll still like the story.
Chapter 16: You do present a different world to us. There is magic. History is a bit different. How do you decide which elements to change up?
Wolverton: Part of it’s just personal whim. Which I’m entitled to, right? I am the author of the book. The magic and the unreal in the book are very understated. I’m interested in the borderlands between real and unreal. Also, this time period is when people were learning more about the world and scientific knowledge. It conflicts with existing religious beliefs and more supernatural explanations of why things are. I also enjoy tweaking minor details. It makes me happy if someone reads the book, and when they finish, they have no idea what was real and what wasn’t.
Chapter 16: Bren’s father and Bren’s mentor, Archibald Black, are worried about Bren. How do they end up in India looking for him?
Wolverton: David Owen’s employer, Rand McNally, has been appointed Royal Surveyor of Britannia. McNally pitches the idea of a survey of India to Queen Adeline of Britannia, who has an alliance with Akhbar, the Moghul emperor of India. With the survey, they can codify the lands Akhbar already rules and identify areas he could expand to. So David Owen gets on the survey team and takes Black with him.
Chapter 16: And they are the comic relief, albeit in terrifying situations.
Wolverton: Yeah, maybe a little Bing Crosby and Bob Hope, or Abbott and Costello. Black really doesn’t have the spirit of an adventurer. He’s a fish out of water, and so is David Owen, to be honest. I did want it to be comedic relief, but I also wanted the reader to get to know David Owen a little bit more. We’ve only seen him through Bren’s frustration with him. I wanted to make him a little more human, too.
Stephen Usery is the producer of Book Talk, an author-interview program that airs daily on WYPL FM 89.3, a service of the Memphis Public Library and Information Center. He lives in Memphis.