The Big Idea: Mark Van Name

Fiction can inspire those who read it to do new and even possibly noble things with their lives – but fiction can also be cathartic and transformative for the writer as well. While writing Children No More, author Mark Van Name discovered he wasn’t just trying to write an efficient page-turner, he was working on something that would make him confront parts of his own past… and work to change the future of some whose own pasts need healing.

MARK VAN NAME:

Novels begin for me like small leaks in a dam.  One idea shoots through, then another, then more and more, each one growing stronger until the dam vanishes beneath the water.  With Children No More, what came first was an image of my protagonist, Jon Moore, standing with a few other people, one of them a child, in front of a small army.  The child had until quite recently been a soldier. 

I knew I’d write the book the moment the image came to me. 

In addition to thinking about what would have brought Jon to that point, I also wanted to challenge myself to attempt things I hadn’t done in any previous books.  Other notions then rapidly added to the idea flood.

 Jon couldn’t fight safely with a child at his side, so I had to create a situation in which not fighting was better than fighting—even with armed soldiers threatening him and others dear to him. 

Jon is a classic American mono-myth character:  People ask for his help because of the skills he possesses and his willingness to use them, he deals with the problem at hand, and he leaves.  Leaving is vital, because the very traits, such as an aptitude for violence, that make characters such as Jon necessary also make them undesirable when the action is over.  When you work in conditions that are fundamentally horrific—think soldiers, cops, firefighters, relief workers, and many more—you pay dearly and are forever altered.  You witness things no one should have to see, PTSD settles into you like a black mist, and you never again fit into normal society as well as you once did. 

So of course I had to make Jon stay when the action was over. 

That decision immediately led to another problem:  How to sustain dramatic tension while writing about the post-action parts of the story.  The previous three novels in the series all had the reputation of being page-turners, and I wanted the same compelling reading experience in this one. 

Excellent.  Make him stay, make fighting the less attractive alternative, and make the book a page-turner. 

About that time, I remembered that Jon had been trained as a child to fight and to kill, but I’d never told the story of those times, so I’d do that, too. 

Even better.  Make him stay, make fighting the less attractive alternative, weave in a long story arc from a much earlier time, and make it a page-turner. 

As I was starting the book, my mind finally reminded me of something I’d managed up to this point in the process to ignore:  I had been trained as a child to fight and to kill. 

When I was ten, my most recent father died.  In an effort to give me some male influence, my mother signed me up for a youth group that trained boys to be soldiers.  Its intentions were good:  To use military conventions and structures to teach discipline, fitness, teamwork, and many other valuable lessons.  It accomplished many of those goals with me—but it also did many bad things.  Part of the problem was the time:  I joined in 1965, as the war in Viet Nam was gaining speed.  My first day, an active soldier on leave acted as our drill sergeant.  When he formed us up in ranks and started screaming at us, I began to cry.  He punched me so hard in the stomach that I fell and vomited.  He then ground my face into my own puke with his boot.  A few hours later, I saw my first–but not my last–necklace of human ears and learned the ethics of collecting them. 

I was a member for three years.  The first day wasn’t even in the top twenty worst days I had. 

The worst of those worst days was nothing, nothing at all, compared to what child soldiers around the world endure. 

Those years, though, gave me a strong understanding of their pain and a deep desire to help stop the practice of using children to fight wars. 

That desire led me to the last big idea of Children No More, one that hit me last February, when I was finishing the third draft of the book, about a month before I turned it in.  I was sitting at TEDactive, listening to people talking about changing the world, and I decided I wanted to do something concrete to aid child soldiers, something more than just write the book. 

After some research, I found a group, Falling Whistles, that was working to help rehabilitate and reintegrate child soldiers and other war-affected children, mostly in the Congo.  I partnered with them in a simple program:  I’m giving everything, including the advance, that I earn from sales of the hardback edition of the novel to them to help those kids.  So, when you buy the book, you’re not only getting a good read, you’re not only spending time on an important social topic, you’re also doing a good deed, because money is heading to those children. 

So, I had to make Jon stay, make fighting the less attractive alternative, weave in a long story arc from a much earlier time, make the book a page-turner, and spend months dealing with a lot of shit from my past.  I feared that I might not have the skills to do all that, and I definitely didn’t want to spend that many months in those dark places in my head. 

If I succeeded, though, I could help child soldiers in the real world. 

With a payoff like that, I had to try.

—-

Children No More: Amazon|Barnes&Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt from the novel.Visit Mark Van Name’s blog.

25 thoughts on “The Big Idea: Mark Van Name

  1. Just based on the description alone I would have wanted to read this book. But to know that it helped heal some of Mark’s own wounds and that he is using the money to help other child soilders makes me want to buy the book even more. I’m ususally not a hardcover buyer only because they are heavy to lug around but will make the exception for this book plus I will look in to how I can support such a worthy charity.

    Brovo Mark for your detemination and for sharing just a small part of your story.

  2. I’ve read all of the John & Lobo books including this one. Got them from Baen’s Webscription service. I highly recomend them. Excellent books with a compelling protag.

  3. I picked a copy of this up at NASFiC, partly because the proceeds are going to Falling Whistles. (I also like military SF.)

    I’m not quite halfway through, and it’s a damn compelling read. I look forward to the rest of the book.

  4. Sounds great- and donating to a great cause as well. Can I start the series here, or should I read books 1-3 first?

  5. Thanks for the kind words, guys. Pam, you can start reading with this one or with any of them; I’ve done my best to make them each one stand alone.

    That said, please by all means buy them all :)!

  6. I dunno – I think the relationship between Jon and Lobo is better understood by reading them in order, but maybe that’s just me. I’ve liked each of them, and am looking forward to more. Highly recommended series.

  7. Wow, thanks for the heads-up! I’m not sure how I’ve avoided hearing anything about your actual books for the four years I’ve been living in the Triangle area, but better late than never. I’m looking forward to reading them.

  8. I’m glad you’ve discovered them now, Tracey. I hope you enjoy them.

    Tim, you may be right, but I have tried hard to make them easy to read in any order.

  9. Pre-ordered it from Amazon.

    Some people glorify warfare.

    Some people see it as it is: the destruction of lives, even those of the victors.

    Children are always the victims, even when spared the immediacy of the conflict.

    JJB

  10. @9

    I strongly agree that they are better read in order. And since after you read this you’re going to want go back and read the others anyway just start at the beginning.

  11. @9, @13. While I very much liked the three previous books, I think this book is the best one Mark has written by some way. So it is possible that if you read the first couple of books you could decide that you aren’t that excited by this story and thus decide not to read this one. And that would be a mistake because this is a great book.

    Having said that I do think that it would help to read at least book 1 before reading this one because although Mark does a pretty good job of weaving in backstory etc etc where necessary, the first book helps to really get into the universe he has come up with.

  12. I think that you could easily start with this book, since it has so much of Jon’s backstory in it. But, to really enjoy this, I think you need to read the series in order. Not to slight Mark in any way, but Lobo did not really shine in this one. I loved finding out Lobo’s own origins in one of the earlier books, though, so I guess the wheel turns and things all balance! :) All things considered, it’s a fantastic universe, with a protagonist that is emotionally varied and deep, combined with great action and an interesting cast of characters as sidekicks, old frienemies, and the corporate nemesis looming over all! I read these on Baen’s Webscriptions, and cannot recommend them any more highly.

  13. Folks, if you want to read them all in order, far be it from me to argue with you :). I should note that the cheapest way to read the first two books is to buy Jump Gate Twist, which includes both of them. It also has the first Jon Moore story and a solo Lobo story–all for far less than the cost of two paperbacks.

    Daryl, Lobo did indeed play a more minor role in this book than in previous ones, but that’s because of the large amount of Jon’s past that I revealed in this one. Lobo will definitely be back in full form in the next one.

    Thanks to all for the kind words and support.

  14. Great series … I highly recommend it.
    And I also am of the opinion that it is worth reading in order.
    Children no more is a very engaging story and finding out the proceeds from the hardcover go to such a worthy cause is very satisfying. Kudos Mark!
    I’m keeping an eye out for the next volume with a lot of anticipation.

  15. Thanks for the advice- I’m hedging my bets and ordered the first three through my library (thank you, inter-library loan!), but have just ordered Children No More.

  16. Mark,

    Thanks for the glimpse into the writing. This book definitely had a far more personal feel to it, and now I know why. I’m greatly enjoying the Jon & Lobo series, and look forward to the next installment when it arrives! I got the early release fr Baen because I’m an impatient reader of eBooks, but also great kudos to you for donating to help child soliers.

  17. Also, do not type on really crappy keyboards! Now that I’ve thoroughly managed to mess my comment up, back to the mines for me! And I hope you’re buttoned down for Earl, or that it misses you thoroughly.

  18. A new Jon & Lobo book – yeah!

    This series is sooooo worthwhile. I got hooked via my library, but since they’ve stopped buying so much sci-fi, I’m buying the hardbacks now myself. Supporting such a worthy cause is an added bonus; thank you Mark for your generosity & letting us do a little to help too.

    I’m glad I read the books in sequence, but you wouldn’t have to. One thing I’m not glad about, is that I guessed who would be involved in the latter part of CNM, curiosity overcame me, and (dreadful!) I turned right to the page where … well, the ending wasn’t as dramatic or funny as it would’ve been. Advice: Don’t do it!

    It’s worth buying Jump Gate Twist just for the short story, “Lobo, Actually.” I’ve been lending it to all my friends, and everyone loves it – even those who aren’t keen on the genre.

    Thanks Kate for featuring Mark (& Jon & Lobo) on The Big Idea!

  19. I’m a little behind on my reading list and just put down Children No More. Of course, I just picked it up three days ago and spent any available snippets of time reading it. Compelling storytelling – hoping to pack one of your earlier novels in my beach bag!

  20. very pleased with all the books and any machine AI – human interconnects (catch the lightning by catherine asaro is also good for this kind of theme)

    So Mark, when is the next one coming out?

    the good part about discovering a good series is that you have some good reading ahead. now I have to wait……………..

    incidentally, started reading your series after in was referenced in David Drake’s rcn series, and got to his series through David Weber

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