J. A. White lives in New Jersey with his wife, three sons, and a hamster named Ophelia that doesn’t like him very much. When he’s not making up stories, he teaches a bunch of kids how to make up stories (along with math and science and other important stuff). He wishes dragons were real because it would be a much cooler way to get to work.
J.A. chatted with me about his new book, The Thickety: The Whispering Trees, and more!
Kristin Centorcelli: Will you tell us a little about The Thickety: The Whispering Trees and what inspired you to write it?
J.A. White: The Thickety is a fantasy novel about a 12-year-old girl named Kara Westfall. She has grown up as a member of this strange religious cult, the Children of the Fold, who live on a sequestered island and believe that magic is the worst of all sins. When Kara is only five, her mother is executed by the Fold for the crime of witchcraft, and as a result Kara grows up in a very hostile environment where all her neighbors treat her poorly because they expect her to become a witch just like her mother. The first book is about what happens when Kara comes into her powers, and the second book explores the mystery of the dark forest that exists on the edge of her village, the Thickety.
When I was first thinking of the story, I started with the situation of a young girl who is told, each and every day, that she is evil. I wanted to find out what would happen. Would she then turn evil as everyone expected? Or would she be able to rise above their opinion of her because of some inherent goodness? It was the whole nature vs. nurture debate that interested me, but then I added magic and a whole bunch of weird monsters because that’s the kind of stuff I like.
KC: Why do you think readers will root for Kara and Taff?
JAW: Kara and Taff are perpetual underdogs, completely and totally out of their league in terms of the obstacles they face. Often they don’t even understand exactly what’s going on, especially when it comes to the rules of magic. I think this is something that young readers have really responded to—these brave kids navigating their way through a strange world with little adult guidance.
KC: How would you say Kara and Taff have grown since the first book?
JAW: Kara and Taff have seen (and in Kara’s case, done) some truly horrific things. The events of A Path Begins have made them far more resilient and fearless than normal children. Kara has also begun to accept her true nature as a witch, which is a huge step considering her upbringing in a cult that hates magic above all things. As for Taff, he has become far more assertive, and often with good cause—he has some incredibly clever ideas!
KC: You’ve wanted to be a writer from a young age. What’s one of the first things you can remember writing?
JAW: As a child I often had trouble falling asleep, and my older sister says she used to pass my door at night and hear me talking to my stuffed animals. I was probably four or five at the time, and I was telling them stories. (My sister found the fact that I talked to myself on a nightly basis fairly unsettling.)
The earliest thing I can actually remember setting to paper was a poem I wrote in the 4th grade. It was called “Black,” and I can still recite it: “Black is the color of painfulness and fear/The feeling you get when something dangerous is near/Black tastes like liver, or something you dislike/Black feels like the sting of a dog’s vicious bite.” So on and so forth. I also remember one line I wrote from another poem that year called “Fear”—“Fear is when your dad is sharpening the knives and it’s not dinnertime.”
I don’t think anyone was surprised that I grew up to write creepy books.
KC: What was one of your favorite books as a child?
JAW: Instead of a single book I’ll give you an entire series: The Chronicles of Prydain, by Lloyd Alexander. I read the first four books over and over again (The Castle of Llyr is my favorite, though it’s a close call between that and The Black Cauldron). I refused to read the fifth and final book of the series, The High King, because I didn’t want the story to end. I still haven’t read it to this day, though I’m planning to read the books to my son and finish the series with him.
KC: What are a few of your current favorites?
JAW: I feel like I never have enough time to read as much as I want to, but recent favorites include Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel, The Thicket by Joe R. Lansdale, The Devil All the Time by Donald Ray Pollock, and The Southern Reach Trilogy by Jeff Vandermeer. My favorite children’s novel last year was probably The Riverman by Aaron Starmer. It was just pitch perfect in terms of the eerie tone he was trying to convey, and I was totally absorbed by the story. I dare anyone to read the prologue and not go on to read the entire fantastic novel.
KC: What do you love most about writing fantasy, and writing for a young audience?
JAW: Oh, man—what don’t I love? Young people are the greatest audience in the world. When adults love a novel, they’ll pass it along to a friend or maybe talk about it online or at a book club, and that’s all good. But when kids love a book, they really love it. They carry it around with them and re-read certain sections and get very offended if you don’t feel the same way that they do. There’s just such an emotional connection there, and nothing can top meeting a young person who feels that way about something I wrote. It’s incredibly flattering and gratifying.
And as for what I love about writing fantasy—I’m not very good at keeping things grounded in the real world. I like making creatures and worlds and systems of magic. That’s playtime for me.
KC: You’re a teacher and have a production company that makes short films! Will you tell us a little more about that?
JAW: I’m a third-grade teacher at a public school in New Jersey. I’ve always felt that teaching is as creative a discipline as writing; in order to engage all students, a teacher must be really imaginative and willing to improvise on the spot. Also, the level of multi-tasking involved in a single day of teaching is absurd—your mind literally needs to be on six things at once at all times! It can sometimes be exhausting, but it’s never boring. And the students make it all worthwhile.
My friend Jack Paccione Jr. and I started Escape Goat Pictures many years ago. We’ve made a ton of book trailers (including the trailers for the two Thickety books) and won a few short film competitions. I’m hoping that we’ll get to make another short film soon. Jack is an incredibly talented director and it’s always a treat to see what he does with my odd little scripts.
KC: What piece of advice would you give to an aspiring author?
JAW: I think in general it’s important to remember that writing is a craft that requires a consistent level of dedication. I don’t believe in muses, or writing when the mood hits, or waiting for inspiration to strike. Writing is work. Not everything you write is going to be good (true of professional and aspiring writers), but there is no such thing as wasted writing. You fail, you learn, you get better. And if you truly love writing, you’ll keep doing it, no matter what. The process itself is its own reward.
KC: What’s next for you?
JAW: The third Thickety book is already finished, and I’m in the early stages of the fourth and final one right now. I know how the entire series is going to end, but I’m really curious how it’s going to get there. I’m also dabbling with a few other projects. One is a long fantasy series, and the other one is a straight-up scary story. I’m not going to start writing anytime soon, but I like to let the ideas percolate in my head so they’re ready to go when I need them!