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Tuesday, June 3, 2014

What You Didn't Know About Peter Pan: Author Interview with Christopher Mechling

We’re all familiar with the Peter Pan story thanks to mostly movies and TV. What inspired you to delve into the story a little deeper?Well, I've always liked Peter Pan. For some people Peter Pan is just a fairy tale. For me, Peter was always more than that. Since publishing my book, I’ve found many people share that feeling. JM Barrie captured something true, something essential to childhood and to the human spirit, in his work. I find Peter to be a very relatable character.

What was your initial experience with the Peter Pan story?
When I was little, my father read the original book by James Barrie to me. Onscreen, I saw the Disney animated movie, the Mary Martin stage version, and Hook. Later, I read the book more than once on my own, and watched the 2003 film version of Peter Pan, which I particularly liked. I also enjoyed Finding Neverland with Johnny Depp and Kate Winslet.

I’ve also visited London a number of times over the years, and I love the many parks they have there, particularly Kensington Gardens, Hyde Park, and St. James’ Park. When you are inside these places, you forget the city around you. In Tokyo, there is a park I’ve visited more than once which has the same immersive feeling, although it covers a much smaller geographical area- the name is Koishikawa Korakuen Gardens, and it is one of the older and more beautiful parks in Tokyo.

Whenever I’ve gone to London, I’ve stopped by Kensington Gardens and paid a visit to the statue of Peter. It’s a nice place. If you get a chance to stop by, go for it. You will experience the gardens that both James Barrie and Peter the Wild Boy roamed, more than a century apart. If you have never been to Kensington Gardens I should describe it for you briefly. It is set right in the heart of London, and yet once you have passed through its gates the city disappears behind you. There is expansive beauty and greenery all around, and a channel of water called the Serpentine runs through it. It’s a perfect place to have a picnic and spend the day outdoors.

What did you find in your initial search on the Peter Pan origins?
That all being said, I wasn't actively seeking Peter Pan's historical origin when I first came upon some articles about Peter the Wild Boy. But as soon as I started reading about Peter the Wild Boy's life, I made a mental connection with Peter Pan, and the more I researched, the more it made sense that Peter the Wild Boy was the inspiration for JM Barrie’s work. 

I believe I was the first to make this link. However I wasn't satisfied with only linking the historical Peter and the fictional Peter. To tell the tale properly, I also sought potential historical origins for Wendy and the lost boys, Hook and the pirates, Tinkerbell and the fairies, the Indians, the mermaids, etc.

I did not try to force the structure of the fairy tale on top of the facts. I based the story on actual characters and events as much as possible. My aim was to tell the tale of Peter the Wild Boy as vividly as I could, so that people would reach the same conclusion I had- that this was in fact, the true story of the Boy Who Never Grew Up and the origin of the legend of Peter Pan.

There are a lot of historical details I found that support my theory, and I tried to fit as many of these as I could into my novel without making it feel like a history lesson. Over three years later, and after having publishing the book, I am still finding more evidence that supports the theory.

The characters you list in your story are the well-known authors Daniel Defoe who wrote Robinson Crusoe and Jonathan Swift of Gulliver’s Travels. Both are brilliant authors who are probably more overlooked these days. How do they fit into the story?One of the primary ways we know about Peter is through contemporary sources, people who either observed him directly, or were well-acquainted with his story. For a time, Peter was one of the most-talked about people in London. Both Jonathan Swift and Daniel Defoe wrote about the Wild Boy.

Swift in particular had access to learn about Peter through his connection with Dr. John Arbuthnot, Peter’s tutor and caretaker while he was in London. Swift wrote a number of satirical pieces either directly referencing Peter, or inspired by Peter, and also co-authored one with Arbuthnot.

Defoe wrote a particularly lengthy satirical essay about Peter, titled Mere Nature Delineated. The narrator of the essay suggested that there must be something wrong with Peter, or else there is something wrong with all of us.

Defoe and Swift both saw in Peter a great opportunity to poke fun at court society. Once you catch on to the sense of humor behind their writings, you can see that their satires were not aimed at Peter at all, but at those around him.

Your bio states that you intend to publish a number of your completed works over the next few years. Have other novels been started and stopped along the way?
Yes. Peter: The Untold True Story is my most recent work, and it is the first book I've chosen to publish, because I felt it would be a good way to introduce myself as an author, but there is much more I am looking forward to sharing with my readers.

How long did it take you to write the Peter Pan book? How many rewrites did you do on it? It took about two years to write Peter: The Untold True Story, including time spent in research, and time spent on other parts of life. How many rewrites were involved? When I think of the word rewrite, I think of starting a passage, a section, or an entire story again from scratch, or near-scratch. Thankfully, rewrites did not play a big part in the process of writing Peter.

I did spend a month or two reviewing the manuscript after it was assembled, and that was definitely a worthwhile process. There were a few new scenes that emerged in the review and really added to the story, and there were some points of detail that needed filling in. It’s like applying the final strokes to a painting. Family and friends gave some great feedback in that process. Review can be painstaking at times, but ultimately, it made me much more confident of the product in my hands.

Did you try the normal route and try to find a traditional publisher to handle your book?  To borrow a line from Ray Bradbury- I jumped, and built my wings on the way down. Being an unknown author, new to publishing, I knew it could take a while to find the right agent and the right publisher to market my book.

With a different manuscript, I might have decided to go through that process. But this was the true story behind Peter Pan! I had spent more than two years researching and writing- all the while worrying that someone else might get the same idea I had, and therefore keeping the subject of this book secret from all but a handful of people. I wanted to be the first person to tell this tale to the world. If not, then I would not have been able to call it the untold true story! So I investigated self-publishing, and built direct relationships with Ingram, Apple, Barnes & Noble, and Amazon, enabling me to launch my book at a time of my own choosing.

Are you happy that you decided to self-publish?
In hindsight, I am glad I did. Of course I would love to see the story reach the widest audience possible; I believe it will eventually. I have learned a great deal from this process so far, and I still retain all of my rights.

How do you write? Did you do an outline first? Did you do individual character development before doing the full plot?I just write what the voices tell me… :)

Actually, I usually do have a fairly clear picture in my mind before I begin writing. Occasionally I will do a bit of outlining, but mostly the composition is all done in my head. When I was in school, I would write my final draft first, then reverse-engineer my second draft, first draft, rough draft, outline and note cards, adding in spelling errors and grammatical mistakes as I went along, to reassure my teachers that I had faithfully followed their instructions. Later, I found I was glad I had practiced these structures, because plotting thousands of pages sometimes requires outlining and multiple drafts.

As to the question of which comes first, the plot or the character, I guess I would say it varies- the two are certainly interrelated. There are some singular characters or relationships between characters that are so vivid, stories will naturally emerge. Then there are some great stories that appear like trees with their branches weighed down with ripe characters. For me, it’s usually a bit of both. In the case of Peter, I suppose it began with the idea of the character, and the details of the plot filled themselves in.

What type of publicity do you do to promote your book?
My first concern is writing the best book I can. I write stories out of love. Once the writing is finished, if I have been able to commit what’s in my heart to the page, I have faith the book will eventually find its audience and grow more popular overtime. Nowadays, there is a great deal of pressure for artists to be instant successes, and of course we all want success, but we don’t want to lose sight of the original reasons why we write.

Overall, I think the number one driver for my book so far is word-of-mouth, because people who have discovered my book are really positive about it, and they want to tell their friends. It’s hard to give you a formula for that, but start by writing a story you would want to read, then get your story out there into the hands of people who share your interests. If you take a book about knitting to a biker club, you may be disappointed by the response, but if you find the right audience, your book may do very well.

 What has worked best for you in generating sales?
I’ve done press releases that helped promote my book, bringing traffic to my website, boosting my search ranking and my sales. One thing you want to make sure of is that you have good analytics in place so you can measure the effect you get from each press release. Marketing should produce measurable results. If you have no way to track the effect of what you’re doing, then it’s very hard to refine your messaging. By watching the results of each press release carefully, I became more conscious of the keywords I needed to use and the approaches I needed to take.

In the past six months, I’ve also gotten more active on Goodreads. Goodreads offers an amazing platform for authors to connect with their readers and build engagement, and if you’re new to social media, as I was when I launched my book, it’s a great place to get started, because everyone in the Goodreads network is looking for a good book to read.

Tell me about your Goodreads experience.
Goodreads Giveaways have been a surprisingly effective tool for promotion- one that I would recommend experimenting with. It seemed counter-intuitive to me at first. Why offer to give away something I am trying to sell?

But in my first giveaway, which was launched last October mostly in the spirit of “Why not?”, I offered up five signed hardcovers. In thirty days, this giveaway attracted 1,704 people to register. My second giveaway offered ten books. It ran for just over two weeks and drew 2,150 people. My third giveaway was three books for three months. It drew 6,430 people and held the position of #1 most popular book in the First Reads program for several weeks before it was over. My fourth giveaway was just one book for just four days- it drew 1933 people to register. My fifth giveaway was done right in the middle of tax-filing season, and in six days drew 1,105 people. Currently, I have a three-month giveaway running for just one book. I launched it a little over two weeks ago, and it is already within the top 30 most popular giveaways on the charts right now.

What suggestions do you have for others using social media?
Whatever you do, don’t rest on your laurels. Give yourself goals to achieve- to grow your network, to find new ways of reaching your audience, to build a better platform for promotion. Give value to those who choose to follow you, whether by posting engaging blog content, inviting them to special events and promotions, participating in groups, sharing cool quotes, recommendations, etc.

Get to know your readers. The more you learn about their interests, the more you will understand why they came to be drawn to your book.

Lately I have started doing Twitter giveaways for my book, promoting it to my friends and followers at Goodreads. Now my base of Twitter followers is starting to grow. Everything is cumulative. What you do this season, if you do it well, can make you more prepared next season.

What do you know now about writing/publishing now that you wished you had known sooner? I feel I’ve been very lucky. As I said, I leapt first, and figured out the mechanics of flying afterward. I still have more to learn, I’m sure. But, I would say to any aspiring author that you need to be prepared for an ongoing campaign to win, keep and grow your audience. Learn as much as you can bear to learn before you launch your campaign, and then allow yourself a ramp-up of at least six months of marketing before your book is actually released, to build excitement and demand for the book.

I gave myself a short window of pre-release marketing because I felt time was of the essence with the release of this title, and because I was and I still am very confident that the book has strong, lasting appeal. But in most cases I see no reason not to give yourself more lead time. Then, after the release, be prepared to continue your marketing efforts. If my experience has proven anything to me, it’s that persistence pays off.

What is the best advice you’ve been given about writing or that you’ve learned that you would like to pass along? Outside of my immediate family, the person who gave me the best advice about writing was Ray Bradbury. I wrote something about my experiences with him in my preface to Peter: The Untold True Story. Ray was a great inspiration for me.

On the day I first met Ray, I remember he said to the group, “Now, I know that you’ve all come to hear me talk about the Art of Writing, but I am going to talk to you about Love…”

That's it for the interview today. I hope you've found something to encourage your writing. If you would like to learn more about Chris and his writing, here's some links to do that...

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