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Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Interview with Baer Charlton, Author of The Very Littlest Dragon

On Monday, I reviewed the unique book The Very Littlest Dragon. Today, not coincidentally, its author, Baer Charlton, is here to chat.

JK: Where did you grow up?

BC: I was born and raised in the mountains/forests of California. My father was a forest ranger.

JK: That makes us practically twins. My father worked for the paper mill instead of in the forest. What you have done besides writing?

BC: Although in the early years, helping my mother with setting type and printing, one would have thought I would become a printer, the woodworking won out and I became at a very early age, a picture framer. I have done it off and one for over forty years and have become an internationally recognized award winning framer, teacher, consultant and photo journalist for the international picture framing industry.

Over the years, the demands of the job, economy or just boredom, drove me to try many other jobs, and to travel. Having a camera in my hands by age 8, started an interest that would be best described as “ancillary” to my journalistic writing.

Having a strong background of dealing with people, combined with my degree in Social Anthropology, it is no wonder that I would turn to telling stories. For decades, I have helped people tell their stories through picture framing, as well as telling stories about how to do things, places of interest, history or even straight out telling fiction that resonates with people in their own lives.

Having done many different jobs that ran a gambit from picture framing people’s lives, to driving trucks, tending bar in blue collar towns in Colorado and Louisiana to hard helmet welding, 80-120’ deep, 200 miles off-shore from New Orleans; you get to meet a lot of different people. When that work is performed in the “less than pretty” side of life, the people become a lot more “interesting” and diverse. I guess that is really why I wrote The Very Littlest Dragon: it is the book for all of us that will never appear in People magazine, or be interviewed on Good Morning America. But the truth is, we are all different, and it is that difference that makes us all the same.

JK: The book looks like it’s for children or young adults, but you say it isn’t. How would describe your target audience?

BC: I think Laura Reynolds, the Illustrator said it best; it’s for ages 8 to death. I’ve have gotten great feedback from kids, youth parents and even a few great grandparents. Everyone likes the book, but they all are reading a different story.

The little kids, really get it about the dragon who is different, and is even getting picked on or bullied. But they really light-up about the adventures, the 28 illustrations in the book, and many more images on the web site are also a fun source for them. And parents should know, that Laura and I started this project with three rules: First, no scary animals. (We have Congress for that.) Second, no magic -- things need to be worked out. Kids need to know that if you get yourself in a bind, you can’t just whip out a stick and say “disperso” and solve the problem; life doesn’t work that way. Third and most important, is that the book has to be fun for anyone to read -- even a parent who is reading it for the fifth time.

The young adults like the story because they have been around the block a few times already, and have had a few years of feeling different and maybe even picked on because of that difference. They are reading the story, looking for a “pay-off”. They want to know that there is at least hope that there might be a light at the end of that tunnel of feeling different, being bullied and just growing up. (I can’t guarantee it, but things to look a bit better.)

Adults of all ages enjoy the many levels of the story, and the interesting different characters that came to the party. They also read it from the long view of having suffered all of the angst, and now they can look back on it and enjoy the journey.

JK: How does your real life affect your fiction?

BC: I have met and worked alongside many interesting and different people. Some of the places I have traveled to or through lent themselves to the descriptions of locations. You can look at a photo or even hundreds of photos of high mountains, but until you have climbed above the true tree-line and breathed in air so cold that hurt from your nose to the bottom of your lungs, brushed away ice at the corner of your eyes where your tears froze from your blinking, you can’t describe it.

It is easy making up a blue or red dragon, because whatever you say about them is what they are. But when you go to make them work/fly, that was Laura’s wheel-house. She is the animal expert. And yes, even how a dragon must be, to fly, walk or even breathe. So I had to clear some of the characters through her; like Boomer, Tink’s brother. I needed him to fly extremely fast because I didn’t want him just magically popping around the world. So for him to fly at Mach 3, I had to figure out a few physical things to clear it past the flight master. Luckily, I’m a creative guy, and we have Boomer as a High Speed Messenger.

But when you start to give your characters, dragon, dog or even human, their personalities, it helps to draw from real people. Yes, I know there is that disclaimer “I made them up,” but we don’t just pull personalities out of thin air, we draw them or parts of them, from people that we have met or known.

The more diverse your life experience, the more diverse your locations and characters become.

JK: What has been the book that most influenced your writing? What other things influence your work? 

BC: In the third or fourth grade, I read The Hunchback of Notre Dame. At the time, I was the largest kid in the class, and the shyest. My stuttering was becoming a problem and so the combination made me identify strongly with Quasimodo. I also ran through the rest of the books on my parents’ bookshelf, Dr Jeckyll and Mr Hyde, and Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein. These were all the foundations for my understanding the nature of the person inside the monster or just someone we don’t know.

As I got older, the summer I was reading The Hobbit and grinding my way through the adventure of the Rings, the movie Lawrence of Arabia came out. For adventure, I think I draw a fine path weaving through those two stories.

In my next book, “Death On A Dime,” a murder mystery set in San Jose, CA, I still draw character treatments from those stories and people I have known.

JK: What is your inspiration, and what specifically was your inspiration for The Very Littlest Dragon?

BC: When I was growing up as the stuttering fat kid in the class, there was a great book called The Ugly Duckling. It gave me, and millions of other kids hope that one day, we too, would become our swan. By the time we grow up, and understand that we won’t become a swan, nor were we an ugly duckling, it doesn’t matter. But we had that hope, that story to hold on to.

Today, that story and hope is taken away. The politically correct police would only approve it to be in schools and libraries if it was “The Aesthetically Challenged Adolescent Water Fowl.” Seriously.

I could tell you about the little girl two doors away, who will never stand taller than her sitting in her electric wheel chair, but there are thousands of other Shine Children like her. I could tell you what it feels like to be the only white boy to ever stand in a black church in Mississippi, and sing loud next to a woman and her family that I will never forget, but then there are people who do that every day, and live their whole lives as the only person “of color” where they are, work, shop or live. I can tell you about meeting people in such different cultures and countries, but then I would have to also tell you that the only time I was truly struck by culture shock, was upon returning home to Los Angeles.

My inspiration is my life, and the amazing people I have experienced, and that unless I introduce those characters to people, then those people may never open their eyes and see the diversity in front of them, and the amazing world that opens up to them.

JK: How much time a day do you devote to fiction writing?

BC: It doesn’t matter whether it is fiction or non-fiction, stories or articles, my average day is about 4-6 hours of writing a day. That can look like a lot of emails, and a 500 word side bar that then needs polish, or could be as high as 20,000 words that spewed from my gut and fingers… it’s all writing.

JK: What is your work area like? Do you have any methods that might seem unusual or inspiring to other writers? 

BC: Some or most of the better writing, such as the bulk of The Very Littlest Dragon, and almost all of Death on a Dime were written between the hours of midnight and seven am. To some, and sometimes me, insomnia can be a harsh disorder. When it’s at its best, it gets together with its harsh sister, Muse, and they work me over until I quietly get up, walk down two flights of stairs into my dungeon of an office, wake up the computer and let the gut and fingers do what they obviously want to do. I have even woken up in the basement, with my fingers typing, and I’m staring at stuff that I can’t make heads or tails of… Until I get some coffee and start the writing forensics. Like, what story was I working on? And that could be anywhere from a few to a dozen. Right now I have three books I pick at, as well as four to eight articles.

One thing that I do find that works for me, is that I print out large sections of my manuscripts, double spaced, single-sided; throw them into a three-ring binder and head for a restaurant. (Luckily or unluckily, I have to travel a lot with my day job as a territory manufacturer’s representative.) As I eat, I edit and re-write my manuscripts. Sometimes this can turn into a very fortunate event.

About a year ago, I was working on Death on a Dime in a small coffee shop that is very local color. A man asked if I had a screen play. “No,” I said, “it’s a murder mystery that takes place in San Jose.” He sits up real big and says, “I’m from San Jose”. Turned out, he was the owner of a small deli that has been around for 100 years that I want to use for their great Sicilian sausage. “Of course you can use us. And when you bring out the book, we host your first signing at Chiaramonte’s.”

It really doesn’t get much better than that. And I look forward to that sausage and angel hair pasta.

JK: I never heard a better reason to write in public. When and why did you get started writing?

BC: When I was young, there were many long nights helping my mother print. We had a small press, and a larger one. So while she printed not cards on the larger, I did thousands of business cards on the smaller. As we went through the mindless routine, we talked. The talk usually got around to one of the stories we were “working on”. These stories were outlined on yellow 3x5 cards wrapped in two printers rubber-bands; a red and a blue. That was as far as my mother was comfortable putting actual words to paper.

My mother was a perfect speller (something I didn’t inherit). She also could type well over 100 word per minute (something else I didn’t inherit).

So there we were, two very similar peas in a back room, working over two presses, and talking about writing stories.

Many years later, after she had passed away, my father handed me a packet of 3x5 cards, bound in a red and a blue printers rubbers. He said that he thought my mother had wanted me to have them. He was right, and I took the little bundle, and carefully pitched it to the back of my desk drawer.

A few years later, when I had gotten my first computer, and a single floppy program called Word, I sat cleaning out my desk. There in the back of the drawer was that bundle. Slowly, I stripped the bandage off the wound of my heart that 30 years later, still misses her.

As I split the bundle in half, to the two cards that were facing each other, like hundreds of times before, a small piece of yellow paper fell from between the halves. If Sticky notes had been around, she might have used one. But, there, lying on the floor, was a tiny piece of yellow paper … with one word written on it.

It was my entire true inheritance from her. It was her reaching back, and guiding me forward. It was also the one thing that had scared her, her whole life. I reached down and picked it up. There in her thin beautiful cursive script was the single most powerful word between the two of us.


Two weeks later, I had sold my first article to Rider Magazine.

JK: What kind of feedback do you get? Do you have a definable fan base?

BC: The feedback I have gotten has been all over the board, but mostly that they enjoyed the book. Which was one of the goals we had set out at the start: a fun read. I understand what you are asking here, but it’s not so easy. The Very Littlest Dragon is getting read by 8 year olds, and 80 year olds, and they don’t read the same story as the other, so only time and a lot more feedback will tell.

JK: Are your family and friends supportive?

BC: My first line of editing is my wife. So, yes, she is very supportive of my writing. But there is a line as to how much reading she is willing to do, and also what she is willing to read about. So, dragons and articles about picture framing and travel she’s good with. But with Death on a Dime, that got shipped out to my main editor Mar Griswold. She’s also a picture framer, so a little bit of blood doesn’t bother her at all.

I suppose I might have a good friend or two that doesn’t read my work, but for the most part, they are all up for looking at the raw works, I guess I may have something to do with my being open to changes, suggestions and any other cockamamie things they want to tell me. And if they rub me too much the wrong way, they know I might eventually stick them in a novel just to kill them off.

Then there is the good friends that are great characters. I think it’s called “writer’s choice.”

JK: Thank you so much for sharing your book and experience with us today.

For more on the world of The Very Littlest Dragon, visit its website. It is available for purchase from Tiny Lightbulbs and Amazon as well as select custom picture framers and bookstores.