Last month, I was fortunate enough to once again work at the Kansas City Catholic Homeschool Conference. As I was setting up my table, a couple sat down at the table next to mine and began to set up their table for the conference. We introduced ourselves and ended up chatting throughout the 2-day event.
Dr. Mark Adderley and his wife, Dr. Adrianne Adderley, were an absolutely fascinating couple to chat with. Residing in South Dakota, they are the parents to four boys–two of which are still being schooled at home.
I noticed that Dr. Adderley had a stack of books on his table, and I quickly found out that he had written them. After describing the books as “full of adventure” and being like “Indiana Jones with a Rosary,” I knew immediately that I had to grab one for my two oldest boys–and I was fortunate enough that Dr. Adderley offered to sign the books with a message to the boys.
I asked Dr. Adderley if he would be willing to let me interview him for this blog. I was so excited to let other Catholic parents know about these fun–and Catholic!–adventure books for their younger readers.
Imagine my excitement when he agreed!
Can you give us a little bit of background about yourself? I noticed your English accent right away–where at in England are you from? When did you move to the United States?
Dr. Adderley: I was born in Crewe, which is a railway town in the north of England, in a county called Cheshire—where the Cheshire Cat from Alice in Wonderland comes from. I lived there until I was about four, then my family moved to Pelsall, a village in the middle of England, and then when I was eleven, we moved to Bournemouth, a town on the south coast of England. I went to college in North Wales—which is a wonderful place, full of mountains and castles—and met my wife there. My wife’s American, so we moved to America to get married. That was in 1989, and I’ve been living in the United States since then.
You are a medieval literature professor. What made you want to pursue that area?
Dr. Adderley: I’ve always been interested in the Middle Ages, but it was reading T. H. White’s The Once and Future King in my freshman year at college that really sparked my imagination. I wanted to know more about King Arthur, so I read everything I could get my hands on. Somewhere along the way, I fell in love with Shakespeare too. When it was time to go to graduate school, I found a program on which I could study the legend of King Arthur. Later, I wanted to fill in all the gaps in my education, so I studied medieval literature—Chaucer and Langland and other writers of the Middle Ages.
Did you always love school–even as a child–or did you learn to love it later in life?
Dr. Adderley: I did not always love school. I was always good at it, but I was lazy. I would always rather be writing my own stories than studying mathematics, or whatever. I remember when I had to study for my “O” Level exams. I didn’t study—I just read C. S. Lewis’ Narnia Chronicles instead. If my mother entered my room, I could quickly hide my Narnia book and pretend to be studying. I passed a few of my exams, but not as many as I could have, so in the end I couldn’t get into a good university. It wasn’t until I discovered the legend of King Arthur that I began to love school. And then I really loved it—I couldn’t get enough. As a teacher, nothing has been more important to me than helping people to love learning. To me, that’s more important than “getting it right.”
What was your favorite subject in school growing up?
Dr. Adderley: I loved creative writing classes. One of my teachers, Mrs. Parkinson, wrote on my report card, “He should go in for being an author.” I even found that other people liked my stories. I also liked literature classes, later on. One of the best classes I ever took was English at high school, where we studied Shakespeare (Othello and Antony and Cleopatra) and Chaucer (the Wife of Bath’s Prologue and Tale).
You have written a series of books for younger readers and a series for adult readers. Did you ever have a dream to write books or did this just kind of “fall into your lap?”
Dr. Adderley: I always wanted to be an author, ever since I learned to write. For years, though, I didn’t know what I wanted to write—I liked war stories, spy stories, science fiction, some fantasy. I tried writing all of that. Then I discovered King Arthur, and the stories just started coming.
Can you take us back to the first day the lightbulb went off in your head and you thought, “THIS would make a great story!”
Dr. Adderley: With the McCracken books, it started with a board game. The game was called Forbidden Island, and it’s about getting treasures from an island before it sinks beneath the sea. My family thought we should all write stories based on the game, which we loved, and had been playing for over a year. Each one of us began to write a story. I didn’t want to do it, at first—I was too wrapped up in my books about King Arthur. But then, very reluctantly, I sat down at the computer, and thought about how each player in the game could be a character in a story. When we had played the game, I had played the engineer character, so my character in the story would be an engineer. What would an engineer be doing? For some reason, it seemed right that he should be on safari—then he would be a little bit like Allan Quartermain, the hero of H. Rider Haggard’s adventure stories. All the other characters just fell into place—each based on a family member, and each with a different role depending on his or her part in the board game. By the time I’d introduced each of the characters, I knew where my story was going to go, and most of the key episodes. I don’t usually make stories up on the spur of the moment, like this, but McCracken and the Lost Island did grow like that—the game gave me the plot and characters. When I read the first chapter to my family, my wife said, “You should publish that—Catholic boys need adventure stories like that.” In the end, I was the only member of my family to finish his or her story.
How long, on average, does it take you to write one of the McCracken books? From the time you start writing to the time you finish–before editing, publishing, etc.
Dr. Adderley: It takes me about six months.
The McCracken series are full of adventure. Did you, as a child, enjoy adventure stories? What was your favorite genre growing up?
Dr. Adderley: I enjoyed adventure stories when I was a little older—in my teenage years. I loved Ian Fleming’s spy novels, and Dick Francis’ thrillers set in the world of horse racing. They’re not very suitable for children! I read King Solomon’s Mines by H. Rider Haggard. Mostly, though, I enjoyed fantasy and science fiction—C. S. Lewis and Arthur C. Clarke, for example. Especially C. S. Lewis. I read the Chronicles of Narnia over and over when I was eight or nine. Movies also had a profound effect on me, particularly war movies, then Star Wars and Indiana Jones.
Where do you come up with the names for your characters in your books?
Dr. Adderley: Often, I find my characters’ names when I’m driving somewhere. Road signs are a great source of names! We drive to northern Minnesota a lot, and we pass three towns close together called Olivia, Litchfield, and Willard. They became the principal villains of McCracken and the Lost City—Oliver Lychfield and John Willard. I don’t know where the name McCracken came from. It just seemed right. Vassily Sikorsky is based on my son, William. I thought Vassily was the Russian equivalent of William, though I was wrong—it’s the Russian equivalent of Basil. Sikorsky is the name of a famous aviator from the early twentieth century. He has a helicopter factory named after him. Nicolas Jaubert was named after my son, Nicholas, and Georges Jaubert, a Frenchman who invented a process that could be used for breathing for a long time underwater. Ariadne Bell is based on my wife, Adrianne. I took her surname from Alexander Graham Bell, who invented the telephone—Ariadne is an expert in communications. And so on.
The McCracken books are written in first person. Did you base the character of McCracken on anyone you know personally? Is his character based on a combination of people?
Dr. Adderley: He’s me, but a bit cooler. And sillier at times, too.
Do you incorporate any real life experiences into your books?
Dr. Adderley: I think writers always incorporate their real life experience into their books, but you have to disguise it to fit the book. Creative writing teachers say, “Write what you know.” That doesn’t mean that you always have to write stories set at the same time you’re living, and in the same place. But it does mean that you can take situations from real life and adapt them to the book’s setting. I take what I’ve encountered and set it a hundred years ago, during World War I. I’ve met people who believe things similar to my villains. With a slightly different environment, and slightly more money, they would behave like my villains. In a way, the McCracken books are a warning to people who cold become villains if the opportunity presented itself. In another way, they show how Catholics can respond to such people.
You describe the McCracken books as “Indiana Jones with a Rosary.” Did you find it easy to weave aspects of our Faith into the books or did that provide a challenge?
Dr. Adderley: That was a challenge. I wasn’t very good at it at first. My wife was the one who helped with that. But I got better at it. At first, aspects of the Faith were things I put into the books once I’d written the stories. Now, I look for opportunities to weave the Faith into the books, so it’s more organic.
The McCracken books take place during the WWI time period. Do you have a fondness for that particular time period in history? Most people focus on or are familiar with WWII, so why WWI?
Dr. Adderley: I’ve always been fascinated by both world wars. WW1 has two advantages over WW2: first, not many people know a lot about it, so there’s an opportunity to learn—not just my readers, but me as well. Second, WW1 happened just a hundred years ago, now. It’s kind of an end of an era. People were still encouraged to behave chivalrously in WW1, but that was gone twenty years later, at the outbreak of WW2. But also, in Europe, WW1 was the beginning of a series of disasters that led our world into the mess it’s in right now. By setting the McCracken books during WW1, I can look at issues that are actually quite contemporary, and try to help my readers figure out where they stand in relation to issues like industrialism, nihilism, and so forth.
If the McCracken books were ever turned into movies, who could you see playing the main characters?
Dr. Adderley: I think Jude Law would make a fine McCracken, but I can’t think of contemporary actors who would fit the other parts. Twenty years ago, Catherine Zeta Jones would have been a perfect Ari. Gert Frobe, who played the James Bond villain Goldfinger, would have made a perfect Baron, but he died a long time ago.
How much research do you do when writing your books?
Dr. Adderley: A lot, though usually research on the Internet is enough. I look at a lot of pictures to find out what various different locations would look like—the Mexican jungle, for example, or the inside of a zeppelin. I do a lot of research to find interesting WW1 events to form the background of my stories. Thus, in the new book, McCracken and the Lost Lagoon (out in September), the setting is the African campaign of WW1. I didn’t know they fought WW1 in Africa. That’s really fascinating to me. It really was a world war. It wasn’t just confined to Belgium and France. I also try to find historical characters I can just drop into the books for cameos. Thus, at the end of McCracken and the Lost Valley, the Catholic journalist G. K. Chesterton and the English inventor Barnes Wallis both make an appearance.
Oh, my–Chesterton makes an appearance?! How fun to weave historical characters into fiction like that!
This was only part of the interview with Dr. Adderley. Stay tuned tomorrow for Part 2 where he explains how homeschoolers could incorporate the McCracken books into lesson plans, we find out more about the series of books he wrote for adults, and he tells us which historical figure he would choose to sit down and interview and why.
If you are interested in learning more about Dr. Adderley’s books, please visit his website. These are excellent read-alouds for the whole family as well!
Edited: Part II of the interview can be found here!