Thursday, April 26, 2007
A Manual For Boys And Possibly Grown Men That Never Grew Up. The CTD Interview of Conn Iggulden
My childhood wasn’t all I expected it to be. I wanted to make catapults (to launch cows with parachutes), learn spy things like “codes, cipers, and secret inks” (to spy on the soviets- I grew up largely in the 80’s), build a go-cart (like the Little Rascals), make a nuclear battery out of coconuts and Capri-Sun (like the professor on Gilligan’s Island), learn to perform First Aid on myself in case I was shot or bit by a venomous snake (like Rambo), or make a bow and arrows like Legolas.
But alas, I was too busy playing Atari, watching T.V., and was told repeatedly by a demanding mother not to get into trouble (or be “a boy”) or else she’d sell me to the gypsies. That’s no way to grow up.
So imagine the day I read this book “The Dangerous Book for Boys” – a book on how to do all that. And now envision the good folks at HarperCollins arranging an interview with one of the authors, Conn Iggulden?
I may yet be sold to the gypsies (…or get arrested.)
CTD: How did you and your brother come up with idea for this book? Was this stuff you guys did as kids or did you miss out growing up?
Conn: The first list of chapters came from things we did growing up. The treehouse, the bow and arrow, the go-cart, crystals, the electromagnet and secret inks were all things we made, with varying degrees of success. The original treehouse was unbelievably ugly, so we wanted this one to be a good design. We grew up in a suburb of London with a tiny garden, but with the local park, it was enough to get up to all sorts of things. In theory, we were the ‘Black Cat Club’, but in fact it only had two full members, with my brother Hal on Provisional status. He was the one who had to accomplish various tasks to see if we would make him a full member. One was jumping off the garage roof. I told him it wouldn’t hurt if he said the words ‘Fly like an Eagle’. As he landed, his knees came up so fast he knocked himself out. By the time he came round, we’d gone in for sandwiches.
CTD: Have you actually tested these things out? For instance, making your own battery or using urine as secret ink - because God knows I want to try them out but I want to be absolutely confident they'll work.
Conn: Rule number one of the book was that we had to make everything again to be sure they worked. I’ve read too many instruction manuals where it’s obvious the author hasn’t made the raft they’re describing, for example. Making them is the only way to see the problems. My son ended up with the go-cart and I use the workbench myself. The treehouse is in my mother-in-law’s garden as she was the only person I knew with a big tree. The battery was tricky, but we did manage to light a small LED. I’m not admitting to anything about the urine secret ink.
CTD: On Parentdish.com, Susan Wagner wrote about how much she, her son, and husband loved your book - but in the articles comments some moms were criticizing the whole idea of this being a "boys" book. As if girls aren't allowed to build go-carts or treehouses. What do you say to those who think this book is sexist?
Conn: I’d say ‘what’s wrong with celebrating boys?’ I know there was a time when we all tried to believe that boys were basically girls who didn’t wash as much, but the reality is they are very different. They learn differently, mature differently, think differently and care about different things. Men and boys love knowing things other people don’t know – from baseball stats to coins, stamps and historical facts. They are competitive and there’s just nothing wrong with understanding that can be pretty healthy. As soon as you accept that boys are different to girls, you have to accept that there’s nothing wrong in writing books for them. As an ex-teacher, I lost count of the number of mothers complaining that their sons never read, but apart from science fiction and Harry Potter, what was out there for them to read? The nice thing about this book doing well is the number of parents who have written to say how pleased they are to see a book that doesn’t bother to please everyone.
CTD: Do you think there could be "A Dangerous Book for Girls"?
Conn: Of course, though I could never write it. My brother and I put everything we know about girls and it came to a page. I’ve heard there will be a girls’ version coming out in the UK and I’m pretty pleased about that – I have two daughters, after all.
CTD: What were you and your brother like as kids? Did you guys get into a lot of trouble?
Conn: Occasionally, of course! We burned a hole in the living room carpet trying to make a huge candle and made the treehouse by taking all the rare wood my dad had collected for twenty years and nailing it to a tree. My dad in particular was a very, very patient man. One thing I try to remember with my own kids is that if they are stupid, or nasty or tell lies or any one of a hundred other things, it doesn’t mean they will turn out to be a monster – kids can make a lot of mistakes and still turn out all right if they have loving parents. That said, my dad walloped me for stealing from him and I’ve never stolen anything from that day to this.
CTD: I must commend you on the history lessons in the book (famous wars, seven wonders of the ancient world, etc.) I very much enjoyed those. But, then again, I'm the kind of guy that really enjoys those History or Discovery Channel "Modern Marvels" specials on the construction of the "Death Star" or "Starship Enterprise". What were your reasons for including those chapters?
Conn: Those chapters came from my experience of teaching 11-18 year olds. In the UK, our kids end up knowing a lot about the Nazis and very little else. I’ve always loved the stories of history and I wanted to pass on some of them that have been allowed to slip away. Good stories of courage never age – and I’ve always thought they raise the game by showing us what we are capable of. After knowing about Scott of the Antarctic, it’s a lot harder to wail and scream if I stub my toe.
Also, I love facts and dates, just as you do. Almost every man tries to become expert in something at some point. It’s just something we do.
CTD: I'm surprised there are no chapters on life threatening situations like aliens invasions, or how to kill attacking zombies with chainsaws. Was that ever considered?
Conn: Yes. In the end, we had to stop adding things in, but I wanted to put my dad’s method of defending yourself from a tiger (As it bites you, reach inside to the end of its tail and with a yank, pull it inside out) or how to survive attack by a giant octopus (bite it between the eyes where there is a nerve point), but sometimes there just isn’t room for everything. The one about the octopus is real, though I have doubts about dad’s tiger story.
CTD: In this day of Video Games and the Internet do you think today's generation of boys would be interested in making paper airplanes, crystals, tying knots, and batteries?
Conn: It turns out the answer is a definite yes, though I admit I wasn’t certain when I was writing the book. Skills and crafts still attract boys – I think it has to do with controlling the world. It’s the same urge that led to latitude and longitude, navigation and all the rest of it. The important thing to remember is that every generation of ten year old boys is a blank slate. If a father takes a weekend to make a go-cart with his son, it will be a memory that will last forever. If that same father shows him how to do a death move in Total Kill Combat, it just won’t.
Also, I think men like the idea of passing on crafts and skills. With computers in our cars, we can’t really show a boy how to clean spark-plugs or regrind the valves on a cylinder head any more, but by god, we can teach them knots, carpentry and simple electrics. Why not? Being competent at things is extraordinarily satisfying.
CTD: I really like the chapters on How To Play Poker, Making a Water Bomb, and Coin Tricks, but my absolute favorite in the one simply titled "Girls", although it's very funny, there are really good tips about how to be a 'gentlemen', but still remain witty and charming. Have you thought about making a book on just "Girls" – because that would not only be beneficial to boys, but also grown married men in their 30's -- not for me of course --- but for a friend.
Conn: I really liked writing that chapter. I kept it as light as possible and yes, it’s a style of writing I enjoy. I’m glad you felt it was gentlemanly – I still see that as something worth passing on to my son. I’m still learning though. With two daughters, it’ll probably be a steep learning curve in the years to come – perhaps I’ll write one when they’re grown.
CTD: Are there things you wish you had included in this book? For instance building a robot, mind reading, or applying war paint. Are you working on a sequel?
Conn: Mind reading is a great one – the sort of techniques the stage performers used. That was a real problem with this book: whenever I told someone what I was doing, they said ‘Have you put Nitric acid etching in? Or the correct way to throw a ruler?’ or somesuch. There are some things I couldn’t get to work, so they didn’t go in. One was a paper balloon with a tiny candle to provide lift. I know it’s possible, but I just couldn’t make one lift off the ground. I almost set fire to my kitchen with one attempt.
I also couldn’t make a telegraph machine work. I built one, but it just wouldn’t tap out morse code the way I wanted. There’s a couple I could perfect if I went back to them. I’ve no doubt I’ll do a sequel at some point, but first Genghis must ride! I love the epic stories of history and as always, there are too many stories to be told and not enough hours in a day.
The book is released in May (father's day gift? or "talk like a pirate day"?) Now I'm off to throw this water bomb off a balcony.