T. A. Barron grew up in Colorado ranch country and traveled widely as a Rhodes Scholar. He is the winner of the de Grummond Medallion for “lifetime contribution to the field of children’s and young adult literature” in 2011, the Nautilus Award Grand Prize, and many other awards. T. A. Barron has written than 30 highly acclaimed books, many of which are international bestsellers. They include the Merlin Saga (now being developed into a feature film by Disney), The Great Tree of Avalon(New York Times bestselling series), The Ancient One, and The Hero’s Trail(nonfiction stories of courageous kids). The Hero’s Trail was the result of his national award that he founded in 2000 – Gloria Barron Prize for Young Heroes which honors 25 terrific young people every year who help other people, or the environment.
T. A. Barron with Jane Goodall
(British primatologist, ethologist, anthropologist, and UN Messenger of Peace)
Besides being an award-winning author, T. A. Barron is also an active conservationist. He serves as a board member for The Wilderness Society, the Alaska Conservation Foundation, and The Nature Conservancy of Colorado. He also helped to create the Princeton Environmental Institute at Princeton University in 1990. He received the Robert Marshall Award from The Wilderness Society – its highest award given to citizens active in conservation. Moreover, California’s Save the Redwoods League gave him the Redwoods Muse Award for “inspiring people of all ages and descriptions to protect the world’s tallest trees”.
J.J. Gow: How did you come up with the stories and what inspired you to write the books for both Merlin Saga and Atlantis Saga?
T. A. Barron:
Ah, Merlin. How I love that wizard! When I was a student at Oxford, I often sat under an ancient, twisted English oak that I called Merlin’s Tree. But I had no idea at all that, twenty years later, I would be adding a few threads of my own to the glorious tapestry of Merlin’s legend. Real life is much more surprising than legend!
Why do I write about Merlin? For the same reason that people have been telling stories about this character for over fifteen hundred years: Merlin stands for three enduring ideals — the universality of all people; the light and dark within ourselves; and the sacredness of nature. We don’t need to look far to see the importance of these same ideals today.
First, take universality. When you look at the original Celtic tales, Merlin’s role was truly astounding. He could connect with anybody of any description: Druids and Christians, nobles and peasants, archbishops and old gray wolves.
Now take the light and dark in every person. Merlin’s understanding of his own weaknesses and strengths made him far more humble, compassionate, and wise.
Finally, take the connection to nature. Nature is Merlin’s greatest teacher — a source of wisdom, healing, and inspiration.
Plus something more personal: The young man I write about in The Lost Years of Merlin books is a lot like you and me! Right from the moment he washes ashore, more dead than alive, we feel young Merlin’s struggles, sorrows, fears, joys, and secret dreams. And he also has, hidden deep inside, his own special magic. Same as you and me.
All this is why I find Merlin so compelling — and why I couldn’t resist writing the story of his lost youth, a story we haven’t heard before. Just like the rest of us, Merlin is burdened by the human experience… while at the same time exalted by it. Just like the rest of us, he can wash ashore… and also climb to the stars.
Why did I choose to write about Atlantis? Everyone knows about Atlantis — the mythic island destroyed in a single catastrophic day (as Plato first described long ago). It’s one of the most enduring — and tragic — tales ever told. We’ve all heard a zillion versions of the destruction of Atlantis. But I’ve always wondered… how was this magical place born? How was it created? That inspired my new book, Atlantis Rising, the first book in my Atlantis trilogy.
So this is not just another tale of the destruction of Atlantis. Instead, it is the secret, untold story of its creation. You will discover exactly how Atlantis was created, what people — young heroes, greedy masterminds, and all sorts of bizarre, surprising creatures — fought to make it happen, and how this magical place gained such power from the wonders of nature.
It is a creation story, a fantasy adventure, and a heroic quest — but it’s also a love story between a mysterious young man, Promi, whose dreams reveal more than he could guess, and a young woman, Atlanta, whose courage is as deep as the ocean. You will witness their ultimate triumph… along with their great sacrifices. And you will see, even in the miracle of Atlantis’ birth, the seeds of its future destruction.
J.J. Gow: Do you hide any secrets in your books that only a few people will find?
T. A. Barron: Oh, yes. Always. What are they? I’m not telling.
J.J. Gow: What is the message that you want your readers to grasp from your writings?
T. A. Barron: There are two core ideas that inspire all my books — about Merlin, Atlantis, or anything else: the magic in us all and the inspiration of nature.
First, every person has some magic down inside. That’s true regardless of age, gender, background, or description. So everyone has the potential to find that special magic… and use it to help themselves and the world.
Second, nature is my greatest source of inspiration. Whenever I’m out in the mountains, forests, and rivers, nature reminds me of how small and brief I am — while at the same time connecting me with endless wonders that make me feel as big as the starry sky above my mountain cabin. Nature gives me perspective, as well as sustenance, healing, and an enduring sense of wonder.
J.J. Gow: How did you do your research or build the world for books of the Merlin Saga?
T. A. Barron: Whatever worlds I’ve written about — whether Merlin’s Isle of Fincayra, Avalon, the lost island of Atlantis, a fictional Native American tribe, a faraway galaxy, or any other place — must feel authentic. That’s the key. If that world feels real, then anyone can enter into it — and have a big adventure. So I use a lot of the skills I developed as a nature writer in Colorado to create believable fantasy worlds. Those imaginary places need to feel every bit as real as a Colorado wildflower meadow in the height of summer — with all the right colors, sounds, smells, tastes and touches.
For example, in writing about Merlin’s world, I started with the character himself. Before starting to write, I did a year’s worth of research on Celtic mythology and Merlin. Supported by that research, I have imagined a fictional landscape: Just imagine a poor Celtic village, much like any other from 6th century Britain that is built on an old Roman road in the place that today we call Wales. In the distance, you can see a craggy mountain, thick forest, and the sea embraced by a rugged coast.
Now add a drop of imagination… and you have the ancient village where the story of Emrys — the boy who will one day be Merlin — begins. Soon he will discover a new, more magical place, a mysterious island that lies beyond the mist — the isle of Fincayra. Fincayra is the bridge between this world and the realm of immortals… and the place where Merlin will discover his true powers as a wizard.
J.J. Gow: What are some of your works in progress?
T. A. Barron: Right now I’m devoting all my creative energies to helping the terrific people at Disney who are making a movie of young Merlin’s epic adventures. They are being very inclusive of me and respectful of the Merlin Saga. Every time I’m at the Disney Studio for creative meetings (which I was just last week), I feel the magic of Merlin!
J.J. Gow: What was your hardest scene and the most fun scene to write?
T. A. Barron:
My hardest scene:
On a cold Colorado night over 20 years ago, I woke up suddenly with a terrible dream — a dream of a boy, half drowned and only barely alive, who had washed up on the shore of a strange land. He had no memory, no idea who he was. But he did have something special, maybe even magical, down inside. After a few sleepless hours, I realized who he was — young Merlin. And I struggled to write that scene with all its terror, struggle, and a hint of magic.
That night began my work on the first book of Merlin’s adventures, Merlin: The Lost Years. It also began my biggest writing project ever — the 12 books of the Merlin Saga, which took me 17 years to complete. (How that’s possible, given that I’m still in my 30s, I don’t understand… but it is what it is.)
Now, after 13 books about Merlin (plus a film script, many articles, and too many poems to count), I think back on that dream as the beginning of an epic journey. Despite all the hard labor Merlin has caused me, I am deeply grateful to him for choosing me to be his companion on this amazing journey.
My most fun scene:
The Ancient One really came from a night I spent camping out in a redwood forest in California. That night I wondered what stories those ancient trees might tell… and it ultimately led to the book. I guess you could say that the awesome experience of sleeping amidst those great trees planted a seed in my imagination — a seed that grew into an idea as big as a giant redwood!
The story features a brave teenage girl, Kate, and an ancient redwood tree that is also a time tunnel. Confronted with a crisis that could destroy her town in Oregon, Kate discovers that the only solution is to find out what really happened to a lost tribe of Native Americans who had lived in that place for centuries and then mysteriously vanished. To save her town, Kate must find the strength to surmount her deepest fears…even as she finds the secret of hearing the voice of the redwood tree she calls The Ancient One.
That means Kate must do the hardest thing she has ever done — she must become a tree, which is very difficult for impatient creatures like us. At the same time, it was thrilling for her to live through the life of her ancient friend, to experience centuries in the redwood forest. And it was also great fun for me as a writer!
J.J. Gow: What other authors and editors are you friends with, and how do they help you become a better writer? Do you have different mentors throughout different stages of your writing career?
T. A. Barron: Some of my friends from my years at Oxford will remember when I wrote my first, utterly wacky novel — and gleefully accosted people on Longwall Street to read them the latest passage. That book, which I thought was my great American novel, I sent off to 32 publishers. Even before I’d finished the mailing, I could already imagine a life writing books in some wilderness cabin in Colorado. I guess you could say the book got a terrific response: By the end of the year, I had received a grand total of 32 rejection letters! None of them were what you would call warm and cuddly.
It took me another 7 or 8 years, and the experience of a business career, to work up the courage to try again. That was the crucial moment, and I almost didn’t go for it. Right then, I had dinner with a good friend and wonderful writer, Madeleine L’Engle (author of A Wrinkle in Time).
During the meal, I told her about my dilemma and called myself “a would-be author”. She looked me right in the eye and declared, “No, Tom. You already are an author. Just not a published one.” That was the nudge — more accurately, the kick in the pants — I needed. So I made the big decision to try again. And I had the great fun of shocking my business partners by telling them that, despite our success, I was going to quit as president of the company and see if I could write just one book.
We moved out to Colorado, where I’d spent much of my youth, and my writing career began. My first book, Heartlight, got accepted by a publisher right away. That was 27 years ago… and 31 books ago.
J.J. Gow: What are some important/helpful books or magazines you would recommend for writers?
T. A. Barron: First, I have written an essay on my website: A Special Essay For Writers: Growing a Writer’s Tree. I hope this essay will be helpful to anyone who wants to write. It’s meant to encourage writers to find their voices and tell their stories.
In addition, there are several excellent groups that support aspiring writers. For example, check out SCBWI, The Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. This organization holds many workshops for aspiring writers and illustrators, which are attended by agents and editors looking for new talent.
Beyond that, there are great MFA programs worth checking out. Hamline University is one of the best. And there are events to support aspiring writers sponsored by universities and other organizations around the country. For example, in the past year I have spoken at writing conferences in California and Ohio.
J.J. Gow: What 3 pieces of advice will you give to young and aspiring writers out there?
T. A. Barron:
1) Writing is a craft, something we learn by doing. So there is no substitute for constant practice — and the discipline that it requires. Writing is the hardest work I know — and also the most joyful work I know.
The bad news is, no matter how good you get at the craft of writing, there are always things you can learn to do better. And the good news is — exactly the same. That’s why writing is a wonderful way to grow as a human being.
2) Write through your passions. That energy will flow into your writing, breathe life into your words.
3) Ignore advice from other writers.
J.J. Gow: If you could tell your younger writing-self anything, what would it be?
T. A. Barron: Remember that you are a writer, even if you are not yet published. You have things to say—important things—and you deserve to find a voice of your own.
J.J. Gow: Please tell us about your recent trip to the University of Oxford. What are a few of your favorite moments/memories during your visit?
T. A. Barron: Going to Oxford, in the heart of England, is always a trip back in time. I love walking through the college gardens, down those old cobblestone streets, and visiting my favorite trees (especially one graceful old walnut tree that I discovered long ago -the very best place to hear all the bells of Oxford chiming at midnight). And of course, I always visit one pub, the Eagle and Child, which was the favorite hangout for J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis…and drink a pint in their honor.
On this trip, the meeting I attended was held at the oldest part of the university library, so it was easy to have that feeling of going back in time. Under that fluted gothic ceiling, with light streaming in through stained glass windows, there were illuminated manuscripts so old they are in glass cases – but they still radiate the love of knowledge and words that inspired their creators 500 years ago.
My only regret about that experience was that the folks at Oxford required us all to wear a long robe and a hat that looks like a soggy pillow! (See the photo.)
J.J. Gow: You have established Gloria Barron Prize for Young Heroes for 16 years now. The prize program was named after your first hero, your mother. What was the fondest memory of your mother?
T. A. Barron: One of my fondest memories of my mother, Gloria Barron, was when I was in middle school. I’d just come home from school, which meant walking up our long ranch road from where the bus had dropped me off. Thirsty, I dropped my backpack, went right to the refrigerator, and grabbed some orange juice. But before I could pour myself a glass, I noticed my mother sitting by the window. She was looking wistfully out at Pike’s Peak, a strange expression on her face. So I asked her if anything was wrong.
Instead of answering, she turned to me and pointed at the mountain. “Do you know what that is?” she asked. Knowing my mother well, I knew that the wrong answer would be to say, “That’s a mountain, Mom.” So I said, “No, what is it?” I will never forget how she replied.
“That,” she said, “is a book. An ancient book full of amazing stories. And I am going to learn how to read it.”
That was the day she had decided, at nearly 60 years old, to go back to school and study geology. Although she had never studied science, having been a major in French Literature at Smith College in the 1930s, she had always loved rocks and crystals and wondered what stories they could tell. This was the moment in her life when she decided it was time to learn more – and she did. She embarked on a journey that took almost another decade, but she completed all the geology courses at Colorado College and then did a Master’s Degree in the formation of crystals. Even though she was twice the age of many of her fellow students, they loved her true passion for learning.
In that moment, I learned that life is an incredible opportunity – that we never stop learning, growing, and changing. Whatever form books might come in… let’s learn how to read them!
J.J. Gow: You have traveled extensively in Asia, Africa, and the Arctic and even participated in a traditional roof thatching in Japan. What were some of your favorite or funny/embarrassing moments during your travel? What other places would you like to visit?
T. A. Barron: During the summer I worked as a roof thatcher in a remote Japanese village in the mountains of Shikoku, I had a problem. Not only was I much taller than anybody else in the village, I was (and still am) a born klutz. So it was very hard for me not to trip on somebody’s foot, drop a bale of thatch on a co-worker’s head, or – worst of all – rip a hole in a beautiful rice paper door. Believe me, I was chagrined by all of those happenings…and also deeply moved by how forgiving and good-humored the villagers were to me.
By the end of my first week, they had given me a nickname which they always said with great respect — as well as a humorous twinkle in their eyes. They called me O Chucku Choi, which means something like “Honorable Butterfingers”.
When the time finally came to leave this wonderful group of people, the whole village stood together at the top of the path that I would walk down to the place where a bus would come once a week, which I’d ride to the port that would take me to the more populated part of Japan. Elders with wrinkled faces and young children with big smiles all waved white cloths and chanted together, “O Chucku Choi, O Chucku Choi!” Even now, more than 40 years later, I can still hear their voices…and feel their kindness to a stranger from a faraway land.
J.J. Gow: Which was your favorite book when you were a child? What memory do you have associated with it? Which one is your family’s favorite?
T. A. Barron: Too many books to pick one favorite! What I can say is the first book I ever checked out of a public library was a biography of Abraham Lincoln. I’ll never forget the experience of reading A Wrinkle in Time, A Tale of Two Cities, and The Lord of the Rings.
One book that changed my life was The Once and Future King, T. H. White’s great retelling of the tale of Camelot. I read that book as a student at Oxford, sitting under a great English oak tree. And I remember well falling in love with the character Merlin, the original wizard. He was by far my favorite character. Little did I know that 20 years later, I’d have the chance to add a few new stories to the glorious myth of Merlin. Life really is stranger than legend!
As a dad, I’ve loved all the times reading aloud to our 5 kids. Those have been wonderful shared experiences. Personally, my most favorite of those times was when I would read a book by some little-known writer named T. A. Barron. At some point in all of those books, one of my kids would pipe up and say, “Daddy, this writer sounds a lot like you!” (Funny thing about that.)
J.J.Gow: What is your favorite snack and beverage?
T. A. Barron: My family knows that I love to drink orange juice, eat fresh crab, and (whenever possible) down a bowl of Haagen-Dazs coffee ice cream. Also, in the winter months, I absolutely love a bowl of fresh Colorado snow with maple syrup drizzled on top.
There is only one snack I love more than all of these: Every morning, when the sun pours in our kitchen window, my prism on the window sill sends colorful rainbows all around the walls. Whenever I sit down to breakfast, I take a spoon and walk over to the nearest rainbow. Quietly, I scoop up a little rainbow and then carry it over to my bowl of cereal. I pour in the rainbow, stir it with gratitude, and eat breakfast. It’s a lovely way to start the day.
J.J.Gow: Thank you, Mr. Barron, to give me such an honor to interview you!