In Royce Buckingham's fantasy novel "Demonkeeper," a boy named Nathaniel inherits an old Queen Anne house, and with it the responsibility of caring for its hundreds of demon inhabitants. The scariest of them all is the Beast.
On June 12, Buckingham dropped by McClure Middle School to talk about his boy-friendly novel. He spoke with about 40 students, mostly sixth-graders in Tina Anima's class. The presentation was arranged by school librarian Kristan Gale and Tegan Tigani of Queen Anne Books.
A Bellingham resident, Buckingham earned a bachelor's degree in English in 1989 and a law degree in 1992. He practiced law for more than a decade in the juvenile justice system, writing on the side. "I sold my first short story when I was just out of law school," he told the kids, "but it was boring. I sounded old and stuffy - lawyers write very carefully. It took me a lot of years to write fun again."
Describing his writing process now, he said, "I start by asking myself, 'What if?' Like, what if there was no gravity? What if kids could fly? Then I create a character - usually like you - and I explore the idea by putting that character into a situation and seeing what they do."
Buckingham read from a chapter of "Demonkeeper" entitled "Skate Park," in which one kid gets swallowed by the concrete beneath him (guess what's underneath?) and another gets grabbed by arms that morph out of a concrete wall (guess what's behind it?). A third kid does not get eaten by concrete, "because he is not lost inside," Buckingham later explained to an adult.
The young audience was rapt, and applauded after Buckingham finished reading the excerpt.
"Do the kids that get eaten come back?" asked a student.
"Not in the book," replied Buckingham, "but Hollywood wants them to, because it might be too scary for little kids." Hollywood has optioned the screenplay of "Demonkeeper" for possible film production.
"How much money did Hollywood pay you?" asks another student. The amount Buckingham cites sounds like a lot, but not if you divide it by 13, the number of years it took him to write "Demonkeeper." "Now I write about two pages a day," he says. "Rewriting and editing takes at least twice as long." That was something that his audience probably didn't want to hear.
"Is the Queen Anne house for real?"
"No," said Buckingham, "but I've photographed lots of houses in this neighborhood for possible movie locations."
"Who do you think will play Nathaniel, or who do you want to play him?" Buckingham had no idea or opinion about that.
"Why is Nathaniel blank on the cover of the book?" Buckingham answers that he had some input into the artwork, and he didn't like how Nathaniel was portrayed. The artist chose to leave Nathaniel blank after that, a striking a contrast to the three lively demons on the cover. Also, Buckingham explained later, it has become symbolic of Nathaniel's hidden profession and the fact that he's a "nobody," struggling to find his identity.
"Will you write a sequel?" Buckingham has three ideas, one of them a prequel.
Besides wondering about marketing "Demonkeeper" in Tinseltown, the students asked several questions about demons.
"Can you kill demons?"
"No," said Buckingham, "you can never kill demons because you can never kill chaos, only control it." Demons are manifestations of chaos. "Nathaniel sees demons because he has a chaotic life." He learns to control some demons, and three of them become his companions, but he never controls the Beast, who is hidden through much of the book. Sharing a writer's tip, Buckingham said, "It's scarier to hide your monster."
"Can Nathaniel use demons?"
"Yes," said Buckingham, "but only in ways that make sense, like he uses his three demon minions."
Related to that, a student asked, "Can demons take any shape?"
"The shape of the demon depends on the shape of the chaos they create," said Buckingham. "For example, wind demons have wings."
"Why don't you write about gangsters?"
"Because I don't like to," said Buckingham flatly. He prosecuted kids in gangs for years, and there is nothing entertaining that he can see about that. In his writing, Buckingham prefers fantastic allegory to real life.
Buckingham has compassion for street kids. "Demonkeeper" was inspired by a 13-year-old he routinely prosecuted. "He was eaten up by the street life," said Buckingham. "Any analogy breaks down if you push it too far, but the Beast represents the chaos of living on the streets." Moral of the story: Kids need stable homes.
Buckingham also told McClure students the beginning of his next book, "Goblins," due out in May 2008. Taking his narrative through many plot twists, he sometimes asked, "What do you think happens next?" Kids answered with a sprinkling of ideas, usually at least one of them right.
Finally he stopped.
"Want to hear more?" he asked.
"Yeah!" came the answer, this time in unison.
For more information about "Demonkeeper" and Royce Buckingham, visit www.demonkeeper.com