The Big Idea: Jason Fry
Intergenerational family dynamics — in spaaaaace! This might sound like an odd combination at first blush, but with any idea, it’s the execution of the concept that matters. Author Jason Fry is here to tell you how he made it work in his new middle grade novel The Jupiter Pirates: Hunt for the Hydra.
The Jupiter Pirates, my middle-grade space-fantasy series, didn’t start with a big idea at all, but a little one. While walking through Hudson River Park with my wife Emily, I mused that it might be fun to write a kids’ book about space pirates. We chatted about that and the ideas started clack-clack-clacking into place, in a faintly miraculous way that almost never happens to me or any other writer.
“Space pirates” became “a family of space pirates.” Then “a family of space pirates” became “there’s a family starship – the mother’s the captain, the father’s the first mate, and the children are midshipmen.” And then the last domino: “As a ship’s crew, the children have to cooperate. But they’re also competitors. The rank of captain is handed down from one generation to the next, and only one of the children will be the next captain.”
Emily and I looked at each other. That did sound like fun. In fact, it sounded like a lot of fun.
Starting with that little idea, I layered in ingredients inspired by stories I loved. Star Wars went into the mix, of course – I was eight years old when the original hit theaters and have written some two dozen Star Wars books, so it was guaranteed to be in there somewhere. There was a helping of Treasure Island and all its descendents, a pinch of Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey/Maturin series, and even a dash of “The Sopranos.”
But the big idea came later, while I was writing what would become The Hunt for the Hydra. My first glimpse of it came as I figured out the backstory. When my protagonist Tycho Hashoone was a baby, there was a big battle in which warships from Earth ambushed and destroyed many of the Jupiter pirates. After that the Jovian Union outlawed piracy, but gave some of the surviving pirates letters of marque as lawful privateers. The family patriarch, Huff Hashoone, was so badly injured that half his body was replaced with cybernetic parts and he had to step aside as captain. His daughter Diocletia was raised a pirate but became the captain of a privateer. And her children – Carlo, Yana and Tycho – would grow up thinking of piracy as a thing of the past.
And that’s where my mind started to go beyond carbines and tattoos and unironic uses of “Arrrr!” (Though all those things have been great fun.) The kids are privateers, learning space law and standards of conduct. Their grandfather is an unreconstructed pirate, given to grousing that the end of piracy was the ruin of the family tradition. Their mother and father are caught in the middle, ex-pirates trying to teach their children to stay on the right side of the law.
That made for a basic, fundamental family conflict beyond the competition to be the next captain. And that, in turn, showed me the path I wanted for my protagonist.
Tycho is 12 years old in Hunt for the Hydra, insecure about his skills and doubtful that he can eclipse his twin sister or his older brother in the struggle to become captain. Hunt for the Hydra starts as a mystery (with a side of courtroom drama) and ends with a hammer-and-tongs fight between warships and their crews. By the time it’s over, Tycho’s learned he has capabilities he hasn’t guessed at, and that some of his skills are more important to commanding a starship crew than he thinks.
I think that makes for a satisfying story — but there’s also a shadow of what’s to come for Tycho. He’s trying to measure up to his famous grandfather and his formidable parents, but he’s not growing up the way they did. As he gets older, Tycho will start to question the value of the Hashoone family tradition. He’ll discover family mysteries and become obsessed with solving them, even though he might be better off leaving them alone. He and his siblings will wind up valuing very different things. And he’ll ask himself hard questions about what he thinks is right and what he really wants.
That’s the big idea that came into focus: What happens to the hero’s journey if the hero changes his mind? I think answering that question will lead to a more believable path than those taken by some heroes, one with unexpected roadblocks and detours and a chance of getting thoroughly lost. That’s something I think kids will understand – you’re a different person at 18 than you are at 12. Now, it’s my job to make sure future books in the series fulfill the promise of that idea, while making sure Hunt for the Hydra feels like a first step and not a feint in a different direction.