Tree of Story article

by Liz Withey


Raising three children takes commitment. Writing them a trilogy of fantasy books, well, that takes a father’s dedication to a whole new level.

But Thomas Wharton has no trouble, on the page and off, navigating beyond the bounds of the ordinary into the fantastic territory.

The Tree of Story, in stores Nov. 2, is the third and final volume in his YA fantasy series, The Perilous Realm, published by Doubleday Canada. With its release, the award-winning Edmonton author is breathing a well-earned sigh of relief.

“I didn’t realize it would take this many years to do this,” Wharton says. “It feels good to be done. It’s been a long road.”

It was way back in 2005 that Wharton had his first inklings of the dazzling, intense trilogy that centres on the adventures of Will Lightfoot and Rowen of Blue Hill in the land of Story. The Tree of Story is, without question, the darkest instalment. Wharton always knew the story would build to a huge war but didn’t think it was realistic to avoid violence and death. Still, he felt a sense of responsibility.

“One thing I don’t like is books that use gore as a means to grab the reader, in a really sensationalist way. I think it’s important we see the characters behaving in terrible ways because of the story they’re caught up in. But I didn’t want to drench everything in blood.”

A lifelong fan of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, Wharton wanted to create something epic, but also of literary merit, for a young audience. He drew inspiration from the His Dark Materials, Philip Pullman’s trilogy. “I realized, this is a beautifully written book. Fantasy doesn’t have to rely on the same familiar tropes of language. That was an inspiration, in terms of trying to craft something that would stand as writing.”

Wharton isn’t afraid to use big words — scabbard, phalanx, manacles, obsidian, rebuke — and he doesn’t shy away from sophisticated concepts. It’s just the sort of writing he craved as a kid. “I liked being mystified, trying to figure out what the writer was saying,” he recalls. “I always wanted to feel like I was reading something I wasn’t supposed to, reading the books the librarian might say, ‘I don’t think you’re quite ready for that.’ That just means I want it all the more!”

The move to YA was an ambitious one for Wharton, and certainly not motivated by past failures. Icefields, Salamander and The Logogryph, his three adult novels, were all hits, earning him a slew of awards and getting him on shortlists for many major book prizes, including the prestigious IMPAC-Dublin Prize.

Readers should feel at home in this trilogy. The Weaving, which characters travel to through a magical raincabinet, is where all stories come from and return to, a tangible “realm within” that Wharton developed “as a metaphor for the imagination. I’m trying to create a physical version of that metal space. I wanted a representation of where stories come from.”

The Three Little Pigs break bad as the nasty, bumbling Marrowbone Brothers, and the Big Bad Wolf has been freed from his typecast villain role, instead playing Shade, Will’s loyal talking companion. “It’s imagining, what else could he be?” Wharton says of the wolf. Loremaster Nicholas Pendrake, a toymaker, is not dissimilar to other grandfatherly figures like Gandalf, Dumbledore and even Santa Claus.

But there’s plenty of invention, too, as is clear from the glossary and character list included in the trilogy’s final volume. Such reference material is welcome, given the impressive number of terms Wharton has created: werefire, gaal, the Untold, fetches, harrowers, mordog, knotpaths, wisps.

Dreaming, inventing, storytelling is in this author’s blood. His father, Tom Sr., was always telling him tales as a kid (some inventions, some truthful accounts from the farm); Wharton credits him as the force behind the trilogy. And his grandfather, also Tom, contributed (uncredited) a 1940s Alberta folklore collection centring on a fictional storytelling spirit, Johnny Chinook.

Wharton’s two older kids (ages 21 and 17) have yet to read the trilogy but that doesn’t faze the author. “My daughter said, ‘It’s because YOU wrote it, Dad, and I wouldn’t be able to read it like a real book, I’d just keep thinking it was written by Dad.’ I know they’ll get around to reading them someday.”

He’s honest about his motivations, too.

“I say that I started writing for the kids, but like any other book I’ve written, I’m the one I’m really writing it for. I want to please myself. That’s where the satisfaction comes from.”

Writing The Perilous Realm, Wharton got time to really think about stories: the ones he loved as a child, and the ones that define us as human beings, “stories about who we are and where we come from, who we can be and can’t be. I began to see, more and more, how we live in stories all the time. I’d catch myself thinking, why do I think it has to be this way or that way?

“The realization Rowen comes to is kind of the realization I came to by writing this, about finding a way to step outside the story you’re in, and seeing it as a story. It’s not the only story, it’s just one way.”

© Copyright (c) The Edmonton Journal


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