Daniel Kraus Talks with Roger

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In They Threw Us Away, book one of Daniel Kraus’s new middle-grade trilogy the Teddies Saga, five little teddy bears find themselves in a big bad world (ours) and, trust me, it is no picnic.

Roger Sutton: I was telling some friends about your book over dinner, giving them the outline of the story, and they looked at me like I had grown another head. Do you have a sense, as a writer, of how unusual the worlds are that you create?

Daniel Kraus: I’m kind of used to people looking at me like I have another head. That’s the reaction I want! All my books, in the abstract, sound impossible. That’s what I like about them. Even way back to Rotters — it was extremely gruesome. This is my eleventh book now, and I’m always getting comments, at the early stages, about things being “too much.” But that doesn’t seem to be the case in execution. I always have a sense of how I’m going to level something off, though I never have any interest in softening the edges.

RS: This book gets dark and it gets darker, and then it gets darker. Did you (or your editor) have to pull yourself back?

DK: Increasingly it’s a matter of me stopping myself from going over the edge. I always want to go further. My editor does a nice job of not necessarily pulling me back, but encouraging me to counterweight some of the darkness. A note I often get from him is: “Remind us what they’re feeling, remind us of their emotions.” He wants some light to shine within all the dark. If you read a book of mine and you think it’s dark, it probably used to be darker.

RS: Do the moments of humor arise organically, or do you think, “I’d better lighten up”?

DK: The humor is very organic with this one, particularly with Sugar. She was just a funny character.

RS: And she awakens a protective instinct in the main teddy, Buddy.

DK: Yes, interpersonal — or inter-teddy — tenderness, those moments when they remind each other that they’re important to each other. That’s the kind of stuff I might massage into the text a little bit later, to make sure there’s a pulse of hope going forward.

RS: If you don’t have that, I wonder if you’d lose readers. It’s not even a moral question of: “Can I depict a universe this dark to children?” It’s: “If we don’t want good things to happen to the characters, we might not keep reading.”

DK: Absolutely. That’s the most important thing. You have to at least want good things to happen to them.

RS: Why teddy bears?

DK: As a teenager, I was obsessed with Stephen King. In his nonfiction book Danse Macabre he wrote about how much he liked Watership Down. I had never heard of it, but it sounded preposterous. How could Stephen King be extolling this rabbit book? So I went to the library, and the only copy they had was this large print edition — I’ll never forget it.

RS: It must have been huge.

DK: Yeah. I read the book and absolutely loved it. I understood, “Okay, this is really a Lord of the Rings–style dark adventure, and the fact that the characters are so vulnerable and small actually makes it all the more interesting and impressive.” I’ve wanted to write something sort of in homage to Watership Down, and I’d also been percolating for many years something about teddy bears. They’re even more vulnerable than rabbits — they’re not fast. So I began forming this Watership Down–like story.

RS: But with teddy bears.

DK: But with teddy bears, yes.

RS: I don’t really keep up with horror in any of its manifestations, but this seems to be one of its tropes: cute things being twisted.

DK: There’s something intrinsically disturbing about something sweet and cute being twisted into something terrifying. It feels like a betrayal of trust, in a way.

RS: In your story, I also saw echoes of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, The Pilgrim’s Progress, The Velveteen Rabbit. Were these conscious callouts?

DK: I think story patterns get driven into our brains, as much as anything else. In the case of The Velveteen Rabbit — it was really a mood. It’s possible that entered into this book subconsciously.

RS: It’s creepy, The Velveteen Rabbit. What happens to the Velveteen Rabbit is the opposite of what normally happens to the teddy bears in the world that you’ve created. Your teddy bears will basically lose their souls — this is how I’m reading it — they’ll be absorbed into a child’s love or something and cease to live. It’s the other way around for the Velveteen Rabbit.

DK: Yeah, that’s a really good point. That’s the point of the series: Now that they’ve lived a little bit, do they really want to go out like that?

RS: This is book one of a trilogy. Are the other books done, sketched, or outlined? Do you know what will happen to your teddy bears?

DK: Oh, yeah. All three books were planned out beforehand.

RS: What were you drawn to when you were ten years old?

DK: I was probably starting on Stephen King at that point. I didn’t have a strong or long period of reading youth books. Around fifth grade, I started shifting to adult stuff, before I was really fully ready for it. But I always was drawn to things that were creepy or scary. I wouldn’t say I necessarily liked being scared. It’s dubious that anyone really likes being scared. But I was clearly fascinated by the fear response. Something that I was scared of, that would upset me, or make me physically ill — I would always return to it. I would watch that movie again, or test myself to see if I could take it now. Being afraid was enticing to me, as far as figuring out my limits.

RS: Learning how to manage your own fears. Face them over and over again. This happens in your book all the time. They’re afraid, but…

DK: It’s really an accelerated look at the maturation process. The characters start off completely innocent, but they learn about making mistakes, doing bad things — and all of that is what helps make them who they are. Some of it will be good, and some bad. It’s all part of figuring out your place.

RS: There’s a lot of spirituality in the book. Is that in you?

DK: Yeah. Wait until Book Two or Three! But no, it is not in me. I am not religious, but I write about it a lot. I’m fascinated by religion and the urges behind it, why people are drawn to it. It’s something I explore less to understand religion — which I don’t believe in—and more to understand people’s attraction to it. Why it’s such a balm for some people.

RS: Are we going to find out that the voice Buddy hears has a perfectly reasonable explanation?

DK: Yup…and actually, of all the books I’ve written — I’ve written some massively long young adult and adult books — I’m proudest of the Teddies plot. A lot of clues are spread throughout the books that people aren’t going to catch at first, but when they see how it all fits together, it’s going to be pretty satisfying.

RS: Writing series, how do you know where to end one book and where to pick up the next, so readers don’t feel cheated yet still want to keep going?

DK: I knew that this story line was probably too much book for one book. I’m not very traditional in most of my work, but I like that traditional three-book approach for this one.

RS: My grad school roommate called them tri-ologies. It drove me crazy.

DK: Ha! So, a trilogy was baked into the plan. Then I had to figure out: How am I going to break this story apart? How can I do it thematically, around growing up? How will I mete out the clues about these characters’ backstories?

RS: And from there you figured out a place to stop for volume one.

DK: I work with outlines, so I could look at the whole scope of the story and then try to divide it roughly in thirds. Then I was able to kind of manipulate the pieces to make sure each book had a satisfying ending.

RS: How are you as a reader when it comes to plunging into a series whose end has not yet been published? I get a little nervous.

DK: I’m not big on series, honestly. The same reason why I don’t watch much TV — I don’t want to be overcommitted. Like you, I’d be a little nervous starting a series if it were open-ended. I’m pretty reliable as an author, so you can bank on not having to wait too long for books two (2021) and three (2022).

RS: I remember a book by Avi that ended with a cliffhanger. They were literally on a cliff, and you didn’t know what was going to happen. I really didn’t know how to even review it, because normally you’d look at whether a book wraps itself up well or not, but this one deliberately did not.

DK: I’m glad I cleared up that my book is part of a series! I’m not saying the trilogy’s going to have a super-happy ending, but if this were just a one-off, that would be a pretty ambiguous conclusion.

RS: But it was an ending. And you got enough right for those teddy bears by that point that I didn’t go away feeling high and dry.

DK: Yeah.

RS: Are those Holocaust motifs in there or is that me? I think about the oven that they’re hiding in and the dumpster with all the ripped-apart teddies…

DK: Um, I’m just going to say…that’s an interesting interpretation.

RS: I imagine that’s one of the best parts about being a writer. You do your thing, and then the rest of us do our thing.

DK: It can be the most pleasurable part. Sometimes you put in details that nobody’s ever going to notice — and somebody does notice! And by the same token, you’ll get these theories that you never thought of but that kind of make sense.

RS: Sendak used to say that kids sent him drawings of Wild Things that were way scarier than anything he could have come up with.

DK: I believe it. I’ve written some pretty on-the-edge YA, and people will occasionally complain about them. But I’ve never once in my career received any negative feedback from a kid. That just doesn’t happen. I’m not worried about the kids.

 

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Roger Sutton
Roger Sutton
Roger Sutton has been the editor in chief of The Horn Book, Inc, since 1996. He was previously editor of The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books and a children's and young adult librarian. He received his M.A. in library science from the University of Chicago in 1982 and a B.A. from Pitzer College in 1978. Follow him on Twitter: @RogerReads.

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