Quill and Quire

Kenneth Oppel

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Train dreams

Kenneth Oppel embarks on a quest to mythologize Canada’s early history

It’s pleasant enough for a writer to hear that one of his books has landed on someone’s Christmas shopping list. But there are shopping lists, and then there’s the shopping list of the most powerful man in the world.

Back in late November, kidlit author Kenneth Oppel’s name popped up in stories about President Obama’s pre-holiday book-buying spree. Among the nearly two dozen titles nabbed by the president last year were novels by Willa Cather, Jhumpa Lahiri, and E.L. Doctorow, an Oprah-approved memoir, some sports books, and a crateful of children’s books – including Oppel’s 2010 novel, Half Brother, about a family’s failed attempt to raise a chimp as human.

A few months later, in a small café near his Roncesvalles Village home in Toronto, Oppel tells me he half-jokingly suggested the book’s U.S. publisher market it as “Obama’s Christmas Pick.” Half Brother, with its realistic storyline, heartbreaking ending, and humane critique of scientific hubris, is in many ways a perfect book to interest a liberal and relatively earnest American president.

It’s also something of an anomaly among the best-selling author’s books. Since publishing his first novel, Colin’s Fantastic Video Adventure, right after graduating high school in 1985, Oppel has written nearly 30 works of fiction – most of them packed with freewheeling adventure and borrowing heavily from sci-fi, fantasy, and horror. He writes books that are made to be gobbled up in a couple of marathon reading sessions then passed on to friends, not the kind destined to end up looking all respectable on a White House bookshelf.

Oppel’s newest novel, The Boundless (to be published in April by HarperCollins Canada), is a perfect example of the sort of story he tells best. It is a literally propulsive tale: most of the action takes place on an immense, moving super-train called the Boundless, which is more than 11 kilometres long, with multi-story luxury cars, a cinema, a swimming pool, and whole communities of people inhabiting its 987 carriages.

The novel takes place in 1888, and Will Everett, whose father is a general manager of the Canadian Pacific Railway, has been invited to ride on the Boundless for its maiden voyage across Canada to the West Coast. He witnesses a grisly murder near the start of the trip and, after nearly getting left behind, must fight his way from the very back of the train to warn his father about a band of killers and thieves who are looking to pull off a daring heist. It’s a little like Die Hard, as written by Pierre Berton.

It’s not an entirely straightforward action tale, though. In the novel’s first chapter alone, Will drives in the famous last spike of the transcontinental railroad, which, in Oppel’s telling, is made out of gold and encrusted with diamonds. (Donald Smith, who is normally credited with hammering the thing, apparently only bent it on his first attempt.) Shortly after, the boy survives an avalanche, foils a robbery, and is nearly attacked by a sasquatch.

That’s right: a sasquatch. Oppel takes the basic facts of the CPR’s nation-building exercise, as memorized by most Canadian students before they hit high school, and adds about a dozen surreal twists. William Cornelius Van Horne, for example, the man perhaps most responsible for building the railway, is depicted in The Boundless as an obsessive and hugely quirky character who demands that his preserved corpse be carried in a permanent, fortified coffin-car near the front of the train. (It’s the treasures inside Van Horne’s crypt that the thieves are after.) Also along for the ride are magicians, animatronic bartenders, strange, chronological anomalies (in the book, time stands still as the train crosses into new time zones), and bogs haunted by treacherous hags.

Oppel admits the novel started out as a much simpler tale that grew more fantastical. “I couldn’t help myself,” he says. “That’s not the way my imagination works – I always want to add a layer.”

And he makes no apologies for the sasquatches, which were inspired by real-life accounts of railway workers fighting off Rocky Mountain fauna. As a writer (and as a reader) he likes even the wildest imaginings to be grounded in a plausible reality; he is “not a fan of sword-and-­sorcery fantasy, where everything is magical – there are magical stones, magical runes, magical trees. Eventually, you tune out.” Oppel began work on The Boundless by making maps of the train’s interior, figuring out exactly how many cars there would be, and in what order. As part of his research, he and his 16-year-old daughter travelled from Toronto to Vancouver by train.

Whenever an author takes liberties with recorded history, he can expect some angry mail – especially in this country, where we tend to protect our heritage moments (the ones we can remember) like anxious parents. Oppel couldn’t care less: “I’ve played fast and loose with the facts before. In Airborn, I invented a new freakin’ element and changed the periodic table.”

Canadians, he says, are terrible at mythologizing themselves. “Before you can be excited about your history, first you have to tell some lies about it. We have this amazing source material to draw on.”

Oppel probably has a more restless view of this country and its history than most. He was born in a small town on Vancouver Island, and spent much of his childhood and young adulthood moving around Canada, and later to England, before settling in Toronto with his wife, the Shakespearean scholar (and former Q&Q contributor) Philippa Sheppard. (Oppel himself has ties to the magazine: for a year-long stint in the 1990s, he served as Q&Q’s  Books for Young People editor.)

He is nearly as restless in the books he chooses to write. Getting published early happened because one of his father’s colleagues, a good friend of Roald Dahl, agreed to show Oppel’s manuscript to the English author. (Dahl liked it, and showed it to his agent.) After penning a handful of early readers and a couple of sci-fi stories, Oppel made his name with the mega-selling Silverwing series, about a colony of bats who do battle with owls, rats, and each other. His next series, the Airborn books, were set in an alternate reality full of giant airships and creatures that live entirely in the sky. Previous to The Boundless, he wrote a pair of YA novels – This Dark Endeavor (2011) and Such Wicked Intent (2012) – about the pre-monster adventures of a young Victor Frankenstein.

Despite the success he’s had writing series, Oppel is adamant that The Boundless is a standalone story. “I am series’d out,” he says. “It’s a big investment, and it encourages sloppiness – The Two Towers is the most boring thing ever created. There’s something beautiful about books with open endings. The readers do some of the work.”

That position puts him at odds with the current literary marketplace, where series books rule – as do books for older teens, a cohort he’s not crazy about writing for. (When he reads his works-in-progress to his children – he has three – Oppel must endure rolled eyes and cries of “laaaaaame….”)

Oppel prefers readers between the ages of eight and 12, the group for which The Boundless is written. “That’s the most exciting age of my own reading,” he says. “The most memorable reading experiences that I had happened in that spectrum. Also, at that age, boys and girls are still reading together. After 13, boys start dropping off – YA fiction is 80 per cent aimed at girls, and heavy on the romance and paranormal. I hate the idea of writing for only half the population.”

Oppel has been a professional writer for long enough to understand the rules of the game, but claims to have felt very little pressure in his career to write a certain way, or for a particular audience, either from himself or from a publisher or agent. “There’ve been a few times when I thought I should’ve written Book A or Book B, just to be savvy,” he says. “But when I look back at my books, my biggest successes – and the ones I am happiest with – I wrote because I wanted to write them.” He thinks it’s pointless to write for the market, anyway, since publishing trends can be short-lived. Though not all, obviously: “How many hot guy/werewolf/angel/demon/zombies can we have?” he asks. “A lot, is the answer.” (For his part, Oppel is busy researching a new book that features dinosaur bones.)

And, in the end, the realities of literary success are often very different from the perception. You’d think, for example, that the many awards and nominations Oppel has racked up over his career (he’s this year’s Canadian-author nominee for IBBY’s Hans Christian Andersen Award) would pale in comparison with getting the presidential seal of approval. Yet when he checked the sales figures for Half Brother the week after Obama’s plug, he discovered the novel had sold a seriously underwhelming nine copies since the news broke.

“I think Obama has a way to go before he has that Oprah touch,” Oppel says. “It got a lot of ‘likes’ on my Facebook page, anyway.”