Saturday, September 29, 2012

Johnny and the Seven Teddy Bears of Sin by James Venn: Interview & Excerpt


This is a verse fantasy fairy tale for adults.

Johnny Meryevan has been left in his elderly grandfather's household in Victorian London. To terrify the little boy into quiet behavior, his grandfather warns Johnny about the Seven Teddy Bears of Sin. His plan backfires. Johnny sets out to defeat these terrifying monsters, and the teddy bears are only too pleased to take up the challenge.

The results? A comic romp through the serious business of childhood: governesses, cakes, cabs, toast, tea, goldfish, nutcrackers, attics, bordellos, bears and temptations abounding.

The definitive update of medieval morality verse.
Johnny’s Grandpa, gnarled and stern, sat hunched upon the stair.
Johnny sat upon his knee and clutched his teddy bear,
And quietly searched for mousetraps in his Grandpa’s greying hair,
Which, moss-like, curled around them both and down the banister.

His Grandpa peered at Johnny in his mild and solemn way,
As though he asked, “Who is this beetle, is he here to stay?
To make my mornings noisier and leave all the cushions piled?”
He harrumphed to clear his throat, and spoke softly to the child.

“Johnny, listen carefully. Dark and toothsome truths I’ll share:
Of why the attic door is locked, and what is dwelling there,
Of things that make our mothers cry, and sometimes make them frown,
Of willful boys who went upstairs, and didn’t come back down.

“Instead, they met in the loathly dark the horrid things that dwell,
Every one of which sits waiting with a secret it would tell.”
Thuswise spoke the old man into Johnny’s tender ear,
(His gaze trained on the cellar door, where something strained to hear.)

“They are treacherous and pleasing, my boy, don’t let them in.
Don’t talk to them, resist them all, the Teddy Bears of Sin!”
“The Teddy Bears of Sin?” gasped the innocent, young child.
“Yes, yes!” thundered Grandpa. “Oh, those toy chests long defiled!

“These are their names, now heed me, this is the litany.
Greed and Sloth, Envy, Lust, Wrath, and ogreish Gluttony,
And finally, the softest bear, the slyest bear, is Pride
They all are waiting, if you call, to steal you to their side.

In velvet arms, through button eyes, your soul would slip away,
Your very comfort in the night would turn with claws to flay!
Johnny, avoid the cupboards of the playthings of the damned.
Stand by your own bear, hold him tight, remember my command!”

The old man rose, knees creaking, and stood the child upon the stair,
Where ancient carpet mouldered amid tangles of gray hair.
One bony finger tapped the nose of Johnny’s cross-eyed bear.
“You must fight these bears, young Johnny. You must, you must, beware!”

Johnny nodded solemnly, and clutched his teddy tight.
Feverish fancies swarmed him of being chewed on in the night.
How could he hope to keep away these dreadful Bears of Sin?
Though he took his bath each day, they’d get their paws on him.

No, resolved young Johnny, he would make these demons flee!
He swore so by his wrinkled thumb, he embraced his Grandpa’s knee.
The girded warrior let his Grandpa pat his head,
And musing on his mission he crept bravely back to bed.


Welcome James! Thanks for stopping by.  It's fun to have this opportunity to find out a little more about you.  So let's begin. Tell us a bit about yourself.

        I’m a Canadian, in my mid thirties.  I’m tall, bearded and spectacled.  From a distance I look a little yeti-like, I suspect.   I’m currently employed as a teacher librarian, which is just the best possible job for a book addict.   And, oh yes, I’m a book addict.     


How do other people describe you?

        You know how some teachers can walk into a class and just exude calm?   I’m the opposite, I tend to make everything around me busy.  I tend not to sit down.   The kindergarten students seem to like that, their teachers not so much.


How did you start your writing career?

        I’m still working on that.  I grew up reading science fiction.  I always assumed that I would become a full time SF writer at some point, it wasn’t even a question.  Of course, the traditional route to full-time SF writing is to submit short stories to magazines like On Spec or Asimov’s.  That route is becoming progressively more difficult now.  I’m still submitting stories, as many as I can.  At the same time I’ve begun self publishing, beginning with “Seven Teddy’s.”  I’m also trying to capitalize on my day job.  I’m a teacher.  At some point in the last few years I realized that that was writing experience too.  So I’ve begun writing articles about pedagogy, a couple of which have been published, and I’ve begun writing teacher’s guides for a smaller Canadian press.


What is your writing process like?

        I’m a morning person.  I write best first thing in the day, or it doesn’t happen.  So I use my morning bus commute as writing time.   I’ve very good at tuning out environmental noise, at this point.  I wrote through a fender bender once, without noticing.  It’s probably a good thing my stop is the last one on the route.  


What was your first sale as an author?

        Just last month.  I went onto my kindle direct publishing account, checked the report, and there it was.  So cool.  


Tell us about your current release.

        “Johnny and the Seven Teddy Bears of Sin” is a verse fairy tale for adults.  Johnny is this little boy living in Victorian London with his grandfather.  His grandfather has no idea how to deal with kids, he just wants Johnny to be quiet.  Grandpa’s also a bit of a troll.  He enjoys lying for fun and profit.  He tells Johnny that he has to behave or the Seven Teddy Bears of Sin are going to get him.  Johnny believes him absolutely, but thinks he’s being sent to fight these monsters.  Worse yet, the monsters want to fight him.  So Grandpa’s idea ends up causing various kinds of mayhem.

Why have you made the seven deadly sins teddy bears?

        First, because it’s a creepy, creepy idea.  But also because there are all sorts of parallels between the seven deadly sins and the way people interact with teddy bears.  The seven deadly sins are these anthropomorphic projections.  They externalize parts of the human character we don’t like very much, and are a little scared of.  So we push the idea of them outside of ourselves.  Over centuries, the idea of each of the sins has accumulated a lot of associated material.  Rankings, colours, personalities, even theories of action.  Everything we give them, however, comes from ourselves.  

        Individuals do the same thing with their teddy bears.  We give them personalities, and then relate to them and interact with them as though they were separate from ourselves.  But really teddy bears, like sins, are a way to talk to ourselves.  

        So having Johnny interact with a series of teddy bears was a very good way to update the concept of the seven deadly sins.


Why have you written a verse fairy tale for adults?

        Why?  This actually began as an attempt to update Medieval morality tales.  Stories like “Everyman,” which were the literature people consumed before Shakespeare.   I wanted to tell the Everyman story in a way that was true to the original idea and would be interesting for modern audiences, Christian or secular.  I also thought that the seven deadly sins, these malevolent demons trying to worm their way into your life surreptitiously and corrupt you, that’s a scary enough idea to be worth updating.    

        Verse because verse is an oral format.   Medieval literature was written in an era when most people didn’t read, so stories were read aloud or performed for audiences, and they were usually verse.  Meter and rhyme helped listening audiences absorb the stories of the day.  We still use verse today in our oral art forms; songs, spoken word poetry.  

        “Johnny and the Seven Teddy Bears of Sin” is an update of that earlier form.  It’s meant to be interesting to read aloud, and share.   So I kept the verse.

What was the hardest part of writing your book?

        Well, finding authentic ways for a small boy to relate to each of the sins was challenging.  Some, like gluttony, it’s kind of obvious where to go with that one.   It took time to develop a scenario for others.   Lust was especially difficult.   How do you put a small boy up against the sin of lust in a way that’s interesting and authentic, but doesn’t make people burn their kindle when they read it?  I got there eventually.  


Are the names of the characters in your novels important?  How and why?

        Yes.   Most of the names in the book are meaningful.   Some are anagrams.   Every now and again sharp readers are going to spot a pun.  


Tell us about the absolute BEST fan letter you have received.
        I haven’t got one yet, and that makes me sad.  


Plotter or Pantser? Why?

        Neither, both.   You have to have some structure to move forward with.   But your conception of what a story needs to look like may not, ultimately be interesting, or workable.  The other way can cause problems too.  My next project began without any structure, just this great setting.   The setting kept me going for 70 pages and then I stalled.   It took another year to build a narrative structure that made really good use of the original idea.


What is the next project?

        Hmm.  I really don’t want to give too much away yet, it’s going to be a little while before its ready.   Here’s one, little hint.  If you were trapped in a library for years, what would you eat?


New York or LA? Why?

        Toronto.   Pure contrariness.

I am a Canadian living in Toronto.   My day job is as a teacher librarian.  Johnny is my first published work, and I'm currently finishing a fantasy novel project, and the usual slew of short stories.  

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katsrus said...

Great interview. Enjoyed the excerpt. Sounds very intriquing. Grandpa and Johnny both sounds like interesting characters.
Sue B

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