Amelia and the Guardian Spirit
Interview with Freddy Milton
To start at the beginning, it says “Between life and death” someplace. Why?
It is the first volume of a series on that topic.
How many volumes is the series planned to include?
Twelve books at least, but with different characters and changing storytelling structures.
What inspired you to write the first book?
It was a combination of several things, of course, but it was mainly because I'm interested in phenomena concerning alternative and multiple levels of existence.
What is the book about?
It is a tale of life on Earth and the collective human behavior that is destroying the planet as a future residence for human beings, at least if we expect the luxuries we are accustomed to in the Western world. It is probably the most comprehensively symbolic story I will ever write and possibly the funniest. Now I have written several further books, but compared to this one, the others have a narrower scope.
It is pretty thick, and in two parts.
Yes, my original version only consisted of the first part. After a year, however, I got the idea for the second part, and fortunately I was able to include it. It extends the concepts beyond the first part in a way that I was quite pleased with.
What is the difference between writing this book and the comic albums you‘ve done in the past?
There are many differences, but complexity is the key. Members of our association The guild of Danish Comics Creators were invited to a lecture on scriptwriting at the local film school, and the lecturer said something that hit the nail on the head. At some point in writing a story, there is a change in the workflow. First it is the writer who controls the process, but sooner or later a good story will take over and demand to be continued in a certain way. You as the writer will mostly act as an instrument putting the different elements in place following a pattern of internal logic that the story demands. I can agree with that, and it is a very satisfying discovery to make during the writing process. It also works with comics, but when you write a book, you find yourself in that situation for many days.
You are operating on two levels, and isn’t the second level a kind of spiritual level, where the souls are supposed to go when people die?
That's true, but most of the book takes place in a limbo that is a sub-level on the spirit’s way to the other side, the soul level. In the story, I have a 10- to 12-year-old girl who refuses to accept the fact that her time has come, and then the accompanying guardian spirit has to convince her that it’s true. He has a really hard time doing that, and that leads to a number of funny situations. I can’t resist that. Talking about life and death from a humorous angle makes things bearable. I have always had a weakness for strange backgrounds and situations, especially stories in which a child's perspective is the viewpoint for the whole story.
You develop the theme of levels of existence even further. You portray the relationship of life and death not only on Earth, but throughout the universe...
Yes, and I think those elements suited each other well in the dramatic context. There should preferably be familiar elements that hit the reader close to home, and here a girl's struggle for her own continued life on Earth is a theme that is easy to identify with. Meanwhile, humanity’s continued collective life on Earth as we know it has become very problematic in recent years, and people are gradually becoming aware of that. So I would also like to play with that part of the consequences of how life unfolds. From my perspective, there is a close relationship between these elements, which I explain along the way.
Couldn’t that become heavy and cumbersome?
It’s an obvious risk, and I wouldn’t have attempted it if I didn’t think I had found a workable structure in which I thought the story could flow smoothly and entertainingly, so that it’s both mysterious and dangerous, exciting and fun, touching and thoughtful, if I may say so myself.
Why do you think you have succeeded?
I came to the conclusion that I could include science fiction as a genre framework around the problems depicted in the story, presenting things on a larger scale. Experts always say that “fantasy” is making the impossible probable, while “science fiction” is making the improbable possible. Science fiction has endless possibilities for unusual approaches, strange perspectives, and amusing details.
Was it difficult to handle?
No, it was basically less difficult than I had expected. The science-fiction oriented elements came quite easily to me when I needed them as a structure for that part of the story, but I think it is because I have a large stock of designs and models for that kind of description in my subconscious. Now I have just written a follow-up story about a soul that is frozen in limbo and can’t go on from there, but it will not be book number two, which will be a more serious story.
Where did you get your interest in science fiction?
It probably goes back to my youth, when I greatly enjoyed reading science fiction for several years. I was very much interested in writers like Dick, Asimov, Clarke, Bradbury, Ballard, Aldiss and Vonnegut. This league of extraordinary gentlemen covers a wide span, and I have added some personal humor to the inspiration they gave me. Some of this humor also comes naturally when I contrast highly philosophical and existential motifs with the old mechanical bicycle technology from the fifties used to manage the soul’s journey. As the story evolves, the soul administration will try to adopt the new digital technology in the second part, and that is also a lot of fun to write about.
While reading, are you a bit unsure as to where the story is going?
That's really quite deliberate. You don’t know where you are basically going or why. There must be a mysterious element of intrigue, and there must be some looming threat. Although readers will probably suspect that the story might not come out quite as badly as it looks along the way, it should preferably come as a surprise how things are pulled off at the end. I suppose I have put out a tiny red thread and hopefully managed to tie a bow in the end, although perhaps it is a bit frayed around the edges.
Did you have to do some research?
No, I have kept myself to subjects that I felt I already knew about, and in which I am actively involved. The story ranges from pure everyday realism, such as a divorced father's experiences with his pre-teen daughter, to the exciting phenomena of ghostbusting that was the theme of some TV programs a while back, along with thoughts about the transmigration of souls. In addition to that, I have included the more fantastic features from my science-fiction framework and the semi-religious mythology.
So do you believe yourself in this journey of the soul?
Oh yes, I do. If I didn’t, I don’t think I could have immersed myself so deeply in the various characters’ viewpoints in the book, and that is necessary if you are to be able to make things seem convincing.
Speaking of the religious element, are you a little nervous that your treatment of these elements might be considered offensive in some circles?
No, I'm really not negative or skeptical of the notion of religion as such. But in the past some groups have done some very questionable things as a result of their faith, and of course I disapprove of taking it to that extreme.
What about the light and cheerful attitude to spiritual matters you exhibit in your concept?
That isn’t a problem at all. Many Hollywood films have had a relaxed, even casual approach to spiritual matters like God and Heaven, and if there’s anyone who has thought long and carefully about that kind of approach and its relation to the market being addressed, not to mention about not offending religious groups, it is Hollywood's media machine. In this context I’m only following along in the wake of a good old storytelling tradition.
The realistic part may seem a little autobiographical. Is it?
You might say that. I’ve been happy to have had close contact during the writing process with my youngest daughter, who was the same age as Amelia, so I'm sure that my description of divorce and child custody throughout as well as today's language and tone comes through quite convincingly. I can guarantee it because I've been there myself. Much of the dialogue is colloquial, as it is between her and me, and my daughter is almost as bright as Amelia. So I can’t agree if any readers think Amelia is a little too precocious. Such kids exist. I have one of them myself. Besides, a young audience will be ready to accept and even appreciate a viewpoint character who is bright and thoughtful.
Are you also equally old-fashioned and stuck in the past as Amelia accuses her father of being?
Oh, I'm much worse!
And do you perhaps have a weakness for regional museums, folklore, dialects, and traditional crafts?
Yes, I am very interested in history, and the details in Amelia and the Guardian Spirit are an expression of things that interest me personally.
Who is the audience?
That is a tricky question because I have always been telling grown-up stories for kids or children’s stories for grown-ups. Either way, my approach has always been the same. I think my readers are mostly those adults who don’t mind reading about themes and concepts that go back to their childhood days. But if a kid doesn’t like science fiction, there won’t be a problem with just reading every second chapter or so in the book to find out how Amelia saves her own life. And if that should evolve into an interest in how she contributes to saving the totality of life on this planet, you will then have to read the rest of the story, but that can be done later without any difficulty.
Have you carried over any storytelling approaches from the writing of your comic albums?
Yes, in particular the need to be precise and express things in a short form. I also concentrate a certain scene or climax into each chapter and then shift between two storytelling threads from chapter to chapter. When you do that, you can go back to the old thread without thinking that some time has passed since you were there last, and then you can continue with a new situation and a new climax to develop. Also, my chapters are of about equal length. That has evolved that way automatically, since I have told about as much as I feel is natural when I have been in a scene for a certain amount of time, and then I want to leave the place and shift to something different.
Have you had any inspiration during the writing?
While I was writing this book, my daughter and I saw the computer-animated Coraline. It was amazing, and I noted with satisfaction that a story seems even stronger when it has a resonance in some understandable human weakness, such as the negative consequences of possessive mother love. It was also the conflict in the Oscar-winning cartoon short Oh My Darling, in which my old friend Borge Ring managed to put the same theme across in just seven minutes. It is best if there is also some kind of human weakness involved, and I always make sure to include that in my stories.
But before you started, did you think of some models for your story?
There are of course parallels with stories of children who fall asleep and dream themselves into a fantasy world in which there are recognizable elements from their daily lives, such as in the classics Alice in Wonderland, Peter Pan, The Wizard of Oz, and probably Narnia as well. Otherwise, it has mostly been movies I've seen in my childhood and youth, such as Wim Wenders' thoughtful Wings of Desire (Der Himmel über Berlin) and Frank Capra’s magnificent It’s a Wonderful Life, which I have seen several times. From my childhood I also remember Vincente Minelli’s musical Cabin in the Sky, in which all the actors are black. After a screening on TV around 1962, we had a running joke in my childhood about the phrase “the asbestos carriage is ready,” when Lucifer’s henchman stands ready to take the apparently lost soul to hell. I recently looked up that scene in my DVD copy of the film, and that remark was spoken in two seconds. We don’t even see any asbestos carriage in the picture. This recollection of a gloriously imaginative and funny image was delivered in two seconds and apparently fixed itself deep in my memory, making it clear to me now in retrospect that even then I had a penchant for the humorously grotesque. In general, though, there's a whole tradition of Hollywood movies that deal with Paradise and Heaven. For example, the actor George Burns played God several times in the Oh God! trilogy. The last Lord I saw in a movie was Morgan Freeman in Evan Almighty. I have a particular weakness for the movie Delivering Milo in which a soul is reluctant to accept its new reincarnation, and so the pregnant mother must go past her time before it all falls into place. It gave me the idea for the protest actions in the department of rebirth in the afterlife, and I developed that into a universal problem in Amelia and Guardian Spirit.
Since you have chosen not to illustrate the story, I would like to know if you ever imagine the visual aspect as though you actually had drawn it in the form of a comic album?
No, I don’t. I must admit that I think more of the images along the lines of a live-action film with elements of computer animation, as though I've been given a free hand to spend as much as I like without any limit on the production budget. It would be hard to include everything I have in my book into a movie, and images in your mind have an unlimited budget, so to speak, even if it actually did become a movie someday. Here you really would be talking about “production value” in a high-budget feature presentation and that is very satisfying. I discovered that I can literally paint with a brush of letters on a large canvas, and that has been a very exciting new experience for me. But if the first half should eventually be made into a movie, it’s nice to know that there is an equally strong story as a follow-up in the second part of the book.
Is there something in the book that you particularly like?
What makes the biggest impression on me, both in writing and rereading, are the passages where you sit with a lump in your throat, and there are a couple of those. Now, I obviously don’t know if that will also apply to other readers, but I feel that it’s a good sign if I manage to create something that induces genuine emotions. Then I know that I have succeeded in something extra, but you can never be sure it will carry through to the audience. It is a rare occasion, and if I also get a lump in the throat during the revision and polishing process, I think I’ve touched on something important.
Each week, you share a writer’s studio with Jussi Adler-Olsen who has had great success with a worldwide breakthrough and has risen high on the bookselling charts even in the USA. Are you a little envious?
Absolutely not. To develop that kind of envious attitude, it requires that someone else be successful with something that you yourself would have liked to be successful with, and maybe even think you could have done better, and I've never experienced that. I've never had any ambition to do something in which colleagues have already succeeded. On the contrary, I am pleased when someone gets ahead in a difficult business. As for my studio associate, I have followed him from before he became rich and famous, and he had written three excellent thrillers before he rose to international fame and glory. As it happened, it was also a matter of the time being ripe for the approach he had and that Jussi was in the right place at the right time with the right product following in the footsteps of a thriller-writing author colleague who passed away prematurely. I’m referring to the Swedish writer and journalist Stieg Larsson. That’s how it often is with that kind of thing. Everything has to be lined up just right, otherwise it doesn’t matter how fine a product you launch. In my friend's case, there is of course the important point that he has aimed at an adult audience that will pay a high price for the books. It is generally difficult to succeed in what is considered to be children’s or young-adult literature, since there the actual readers don’t often buy the reading material themselves, but are dependent on parents or others, and it's the buyers’ taste that determines things. There is unfortunately no way around that situation, unless of course launching your book titles on the digital book market. I’m thankful that has become a possibility.
And will you continue with the theme of life and death?
Yes, it's an excellent theme that seems to inspire me, so I will stay in that borderland. There are still approaches that I haven’t used and places I am looking to explore, although perhaps not quite as humorous. That is also why my books on www.questland.org have the line where it says “Between life and death.” That category will do for the other titles as well.
Will Amelia and Guardian Spirit also be your literary debut in the U.S.?
Yes. I will begin with four titles, two of which are the first and second parts of Amelia and the Guardian Spirit. The other two are the two titles in the series “Between Life and Death” published in printed form as the two Questland titles. Later come Sasha’s second Chance and Matthew and the Apocalypse.
Why embark on the English-language e-book market?
Because I believe that my ideas are international. Sasha’s Second Chance will even fit better into an American context. And Rosa’s Baby has an ending that refers to something especially American. The tradition I have a connection with is more in line with something you have grown to appreciate in English-language literature, namely fantastic tales featuring children in which there is a transition between our world and something supernatural. And I assume that these books are also read by adults. In my homeland, there is no established tradition among grown-ups for reading that kind of story. I'm too outlandish.
An ugly duckling?
Yes, and I'll probably never get to be a swan in my own country.