In anticipation of the trade paperback release of Douglas Clegg’s novel, Neverland, our very own Sheila Merritt had the opportunity to ask Clegg a few questions. We thought you’d enjoy this rather engaging interview that was the result.
1. You have stated that your novel Neverland is “my favorite of anything I’ve written.” Could you please discuss that in more detail?
Clegg: I loved writing it, and I drew it from aspects of remembered childhood from the 1960s, which is when I was a pre-adolescent. I love the South, love islands, and have a particularly vivid memory of visiting an island off the southeastern seaboard when I was young. There is not much of autobiography in Neverland, but emotionally I understood these kids and this fascination with the dark side of thing as a child.
So that’s part of it. But I also think that Neverland captured something fictionally that I hadn’t been able to capture before: the place where friendship and family and absolute darkness meet.
2. “The bunny screams because it is alive” is a haunting Neverland sentence that gets repeated at intervals through the novel. How did you come up with this refrain?
Clegg: It came out of the writing of the story. And I believe it – we suffer because we’re alive. It’s a signal of life.
Regarding the rabbits and rabbit lake: I lived at one point near a lagoon where people dropped their rabbits off that their children go at Easter – and the town protected the rabbits and even brought food to them. So, after many years, there were all these fluffy bunnies hopping all over the place in the ivy and flowers by the lagoon.
Rabbits are the ultimate prey animals. I love ’em, and have two rabbits in my house at this point who teach me daily about joy and beauty.
The brutal irony of life is that the sweetest, most cuddly of animals happen to be the ones that every single predator animal wants to eat.
The idea that life eats life to survive – and this is a horror of childhood, frankly, when you realize that the packaged chicken at the store once was a living bird with wings and feathers – is also part of the idea of looking at the beauty and nature and even the childish nickname “bunny” and thinking of it screaming.
And bunnies do scream. It bothers me that this universe was created the way it is, and it bothered me as a kid, too. So I wanted to bring that into this novel. We imagine a perfect world, but we deal with one that is full of brutal contradiction.
3. Neverland’s magic first invades a run down shed which is a secret haven/hideout for the children in the book. It is detailed in its decor; what went into creating that interior?
Clegg: My imagination – all the things I saw in that shack when I closed my eyes and thought about it. I dragged in things from childhood, forbidden words, taboo magazines – things that I’d have gotten in big trouble for as a kid. Taboos hold huge power for kids.
When I was a kid, if you dropped an F-bomb in front of grown-ups, it shattered some kind of glass wall that meant you might not be the kid they thought they had raised. I was about seven when I first said it in front of my family. Now, kids I knew said it at school on the blacktop all the time, but no one who I knew said it in front of their parents.
And I did. Accidentally. I meant to say, “swear words” – my euphemism – but I said the old F-bomb and boy did it blow up into a mushroom cloud that’s still floating somewhere over New England to this day. I wanted to bring all of this – what I remember kids really being like – into the story.
4. You write quiet horror, that isn’t excessively violent. Is that more of a commercial challenge in today’s market?
Clegg: If I worried about the market and commerce, I’d probably quit writing fiction and try and get a job at the local Quickie Mart. I write for story – sometimes the stories are violent, sometimes quiet, sometimes somewhere in the middle. But I put story first and go where it goes.
5. In the narrative, you acknowledge the concept of purity of innocence. Yet, there is not a romanticizing of childhood. What is involved in sustaining such a balance?
Clegg: I think this is one of the challenges of life: to recognize the difference between ignorance and innocence – and to appreciate and protect innocence. Childhood is a very dark journey for many kids – maybe for all. You’re navigating the waters of life without having any idea how big that river might be. Adults give signals, but often in the form of half-truths (with the intent of protection, but I think some of this just leads to greater childhood mysteries and gaps in knowledge.)
I set the book in the ’60s because that was the world of my childhood, and I wanted to be as honest – within a range of fictional honesty – as possible in terms of what I remembered about it. I also wanted to capture how a child’s reality is often a direct but distorted reflection of the secrets and mysteries that the adults keep from them.
6. There is much evocative sensory imagery in the novel; usually from a child’s perspective. Was there a process that helped you tap into those sights, sounds, and smells?
Clegg: It’s how I write. If I can’t imagine the world of the story completely – at all levels – it won’t get written. It’s what keeps me coming back to the writing of fiction again and again. While it’s a public career, it’s a very private obsession with re-creating the world again and again through the art of the story. I’ve been doing it since I was eight years old, and I’ll be doing it right up until they unplug me in the nursing home. It’s bigger than my life.
7. With Sumter, you have created a complex character; a sadist, but mostly sad. What was delving into his psyche like?
Clegg: I think every kid has a side like that. Children – like adults – have sadistic streaks. I think this is why Beau understands Sumter. He has empathy for that side of Sumter because he has the potential for it within him, too.
Sumter to me is a whole person, but he represents a bit of the idea that a child – a person – all of us – have internal battles raging all the time. And sometimes, aspects of those battles take form in the outer world in terms of action and influence.
8. You are an animal lover. Did writing the scenes of their ritual sacrifice/brutal deaths distress you?
Clegg: Yes. I wish I didn’t write those scenes, but it’s what the story required. On the other hand, if you carefully re-read those sections, you’ll see that there’s some question about what’s really going on.
But I do remember kids who killed animals when I was young, some of whom bragged about it. They didn’t do it all the time, and some of it was from negligence. But they bragged about sticking firecrackers in frogs mouths, or stomping on ants or throwing fish out on the docks. And those are the more innocent cases I remember. I knew a kid who claimed he … well, you know what, I don’t even want to mention it. Just the bragging this kid did traumatized me as a kid.
I suspect most kids have known this kind of kid. I didn’t want to flinch from writing about that. Sumter is a bad kid, at base. He wants power over things, over others — and the power of life and death is part of that. And yet, he’s got a good side, too — he wants connection to others. He wants to find out the truth about his life.
9. This edition features wonderful illustrations by Glenn Chadbourne. Was there exchange between you to create such amazing artwork?
Clegg: Glenn is a fantastic artist, who also created the classic illustrations for Stephen King’s The Secretary of Dreams as well as my recent book, Isis. We spoke daily about Neverland as he worked on the pen-and-ink drawings – but he is the genius in that. He captured the flavor of the story in a very different way than he did for Isis. He’s a true artist. I visited him up in Maine and saw some of the drawings in progress.
Everything is pen and ink — no digital. He just sits at his drawing table and creates.
He’s one of the best illustrators out there, and I was fortunate that he was able to create this art for Neverland.
10. What would you like the reader to take away from a visit to Neverland?
Clegg: A sense of wonder and terror – and an enjoyment of it in fiction.