Q. What was the hardest part about writing this novel? What was the best part?
A. The hardest part was trying to imagine the world through Harold’s eyes. I spent a fair bit of time squinting at things, but never fully understood how things would actually appear to him. But apart from his vision, there was also the question of how he would imagine the world to be. Harold had lived all his life within a couple of miles of his house. He had never seen a television or a forest or a three-story building. But when he set off on his journey he had particular ideas of what all of those things would be like. And that was the question always in my mind: What would Harold make of this?
The best part, by far, was any scene involving Thunder Wakes Him. I developed a real fondness for the old Indian and his wandering existence.
Q. You are from Canada, yet you chose to set the story on the plains of America. What was the reason for this?
A. The story had to take place just after World War II, when the small-time traveling circus was fading into history, when sensitivities were bringing an end to the public display of “freaks” and “human oddities.” At that time, and still today, the towns of the Canadian West were smaller and farther apart than those south of the border. But more important to Ghost Boy is Harold’s journey to the West.
It’s an exploration for him, a small counterpart to the travels of Lewis and Clark and the settlers on the Oregon Trail. Like them, he goes west hoping to find a better life.
Q. Harold appears in and is the center of all that happens in the story. Why didn’t you have him tell the story in the first person?
A. I normally write at least one scene of a story in both third person and first, and then decide which I like better. With Ghost Boy, though, there was never a question. I didn’t feel capable of describing the world through Harold’s eyes and mind. An elephant, to him, would be a big, brown blur; a face might be unrecognizable. I imagine now that a story told in that way could be extremely powerful, every visual image mysterious, every sound sharp and clear. In retrospect, I probably should have tried to tell Ghost Boy that way, but I would probably still be struggling with the first few pages. As it is, I think the story already sometimes steps a bit too far from Harold’s point of view.
Q. You know more about the characters than you have told us. Can you give us more background?
A. I never develop detailed character sketches before starting a book. I’m more likely to write something brief, in the first person, that will give an idea of how the character sounds, and more interested in knowing his ambition than his past. So I really only have vague ideas myself about the background of the characters.
Thunder Wakes Him is just a middle-aged white man. He lived an ordinary life in an ordinary household, until he started performing his trick-riding act in the costume of a Plains Indian. His eccentric and romantic shift into a full-time portrayal of an Indian took place over time, until he now nearly panics when rain splotches his makeup. But it is recent enough that the circus people still know him as Bob. If Harold’s eyesight was better, and if he was a little less naïve, he would have seen through the makeup right away.
Samuel and Tina met at Hunter and Green’s and have been traveling together ever since. They intend to get married as soon as they have saved enough money to buy their little house. Tina is perfectly happy with her lot in life; she has never wished to be anything else than she is. Samuel, though, is often bitter and angry at the world in general. Abandoned by his parents, sold into a type of circus slavery, he carries on for Tina’s sake alone, and will likely quit the circus before another summer’s over. Mr. Green has been looking for ways to make money ever since he was a child. He formed Hunter and Green’s only a few years before the story began. He sees it only as a business and lacks the ambition and the imagination to turn it into anything better.
Flip grew up in circuses. Her parents were stars in a much larger European circus before coming to America to escape the looming war in Europe.
Q. Did you consider a different climax to the novel–another event other than Tina’s death that would allow Harold to take what he’s learned and return home?
A. The story was only roughly plotted, but I knew from the first word that Tina would die. I nearly changed my mind when I reached that point in the story. She had become so real then that I could hear her voice in my mind and see how she walked and stood and gestured. I actually cried as I wrote the scene, and in the days that followed felt terribly guilty. But Harold brings everything on himself: He largely ignores the warnings of the Gypsy Magda; he doesn’t listen to Flip when she tells him he’s spoiling the elephants. The discovery that the elephants make him powerful, and his love of that power, lead inexorably to Tina’s death. The elephant is only protecting him from an imagined threat.
In the original plot outline, Harold found his brother. He saw him in the bleachers as he rode the elephants round the circus ring. Apart from the unlikelihood of that–the faces would all be blurs to Harold–it didn’t seem to help the story. Harold would naturally go home with his brother, ending his journey right then. It wasn’t much of a resolution.
Q. Many of the themes you explore in the book appear throughout literature. What books influenced you in the writing of Ghost Boy?
A. It was the idea of elephants playing baseball that started Ghost Boy. I was well into the story when I started thinking about Toby Tyler: or, Ten Weeks with a Circus, a book I loved as a child, and the basis for a Disney movie I remembered enjoying very much. It was a bit of a shock when I saw it again, as I discovered that I was basically rewriting this half-forgotten story. I threw out all that I’d done and started over, shaping the story around Harold instead of the elephants. I looked for novels about people with albinism, but found very few. The only one I was familiar with was Erskine Caldwell’s God’s Little Acre, though just from the movie version. In Ghost Boy, Wicks, the circus cook, imagines that all albinos can sniff out gold and dowse for it with forked sticks. I hoped the reader would conclude that Wicks had formed this opinion by reading Caldwell’s book. A friend in Prince Rupert [British Columbia] read my developing story and pointed out that Harold was quite close to the classical hero, that in searching for the Cannibal King he was off on an almost heroic quest. My friend steered me toward Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces, but while I delved into this study of myths and heroes, it’s hard to say how much influence
it really had.
Unfortunately, I don’t keep good records of my research material. I read many books about circuses, looking specifically for first-person accounts from days long
enough past to include memories of freak shows.
Q. How much of the story did you mean for readers to take literally and how much for them to take on another level–metaphor, fantasy?
A. Ghost Boy is a fairly simple story meant to be taken pretty much as the truth, though parts of it definitely stretch the bounds of credulity. The reader, though, is meant to wonder for a while if the old Indian really does exist when he offers to take Harold off on his journey. It’s not until the very ending, when the children of Liberty acknowledge that Harold has been gone for some time, that there’s really no doubt that the entire story isn’t taking place within Harold’s mind as he sits in the empty field near Liberty.
Q. In the late 1940s, the circus was often the only place where people with gross physical deformities could find work. Such sideshow performers were exhibits and commonly called freaks. In today’s more sensitive times such language and treatment have been expunged from popular culture. Why did you choose to use such blatant language? What did you anticipate your teen readers’ reactions would be to such language in print? What about the reactions of adult readers?
A. To be true to the period, Samuel and Tina and even the Cannibal King had to be referred to as freaks. I understood that the word, without even quotation marks around it, would appear insensitive or jarring to some people, but I never doubted that it was the right thing to do.
Nearly every character in Ghost Boy turns out to be a bit of a paradox. The monstrous ones are really nice people inside, while the nice people act in monstrous ways. Though that was a deliberate choice, I didn’t intend the book to be a lesson in how to judge, or not judge, people. That was something for Harold to learn. I suppose, though, that it is a reflection of how I see the world, as I believe that no one can ever truly know anyone else. Quite possibly, you can never really know yourself.
There are other sensitivities. Harold is referred to as “that poor albino boy,” not as “that poor boy with albinism.” Thunder Wakes Him is “the old Indian” instead of “the old Native American.” But to force the politically correct terms into the characters’ mouths would have sounded absurd. Ghost Boy was supposed to create a believable world for a boy in the 1940s, and I’ll be very disappointed if it’s criticized for its use of cruel-sounding terms.
Q. On second and even third readings of Ghost Boy, the richness of the language, the themes, and the characters reveal new levels of meaning to the reader. Does this happen to you as the writer as well? Can you give specific examples?
A. The original version of Ghost Boy contained many more references to race and skin color. Thunder Wakes Him, especially, went on at great length about the meaning of being white. Ghost Boy’s editor, Françoise Bui, encouraged me to take most of it out, and I’m very glad that she did. What is left comes naturally from the characters as they discuss their particular worries and hopes.
I think this is the time when most of those changes were made–the ones that were at once the smallest and the biggest. Françoise would mark a sentence as being unclear or a passage as being heavy-handed, and the rewriting would bring out the intended meaning.
As an aside, you might be interested to know that I’m just old enough to remember what was probably the very last of the traveling freak shows. When I was ten or eleven, I went to the Calgary Stampede with my brother and two cousins. We had just enough money to last the whole day if we were careful where every penny went.
I remember standing outside a booth of painted canvas, listening to the talker describe the creature inside and debating whether it was worth spending the dime to get inside. We sent a cousin as a scout, and she paid her dime and climbed up to a little platform where she had to peer down behind a screen. I can’t remember what we hoped to see, but I can still see her standing there, shouting at us in a voice loud enough to carry halfway down the midway, “This is a gyp! He’s just sitting there doing nothing.” To this day, I’m glad every time I think of it that I didn’t pay my dime and see that poor soul inside.