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.