T. A. Barron
1. All your novels—from The Lost Years of Merlin to The Ancient One to The Great Tree of Avalon—deal with the theme of heroism. What really is a hero? Does our world need them? And why?
Well, let’s start with what a hero does not mean: a celebrity. In our society, we often confuse the two, but they couldn’t be more different. A hero is someone who, faced with a tough challenge, reaches down inside—and finds the courage, perseverance, or wisdom to triumph. That someone could be utterly unknown to most of the world. It could be a girl or a boy; a Tibetan refugee you’ve never met or the person next door; a member of any race, culture, or economic group. But in every case, it’s someone with impressive qualities of character.
By contrast, a celebrity is just someone who has won our attention—whether for fifteen seconds or fifteen years. That fame could have come from entertaining us, serving us, or even harming us. Now, sometimes heroes can become so well known that they also become celebrities: I’m thinking of people such as Abraham Lincoln, Mother Theresa, Thomas Edison, Winston Churchill, Eleanor Roosevelt, Mohandas Gandhi, Wilma Rudolph, the Dalai Lama, Jane Goodall, or Martin Luther King, Jr. But you can see the difference, can’t you? For a celebrity, what counts is fame—period. For a hero, though, what counts is character.
That’s why, I think, heroes are so important—today more than ever. Heroes, whether real or fictional, are our companions on the journey through life—trail guides, you might say, on our long hike from birth until death. They remind us who we really are, what we can become, and just how far we can go. And best of all, heroes remind us of our own heroic potential. For anyone, no matter how young or small or unlikely, can find heroic qualities down inside. Just like that half-drowned boy who washed ashore on a strange, hostile coastline…and who ultimately became Merlin, the greatest wizard of all times.
I guess, more than anything, heroes are important because they show that our choices really do matter. And because of that, we ourselves matter. Every single one of us, every day. So we can choose to admire someone’s courage or tenacity or humor—more than someone’s fancy car or hook shot or momentary fame. And we can, if we choose, be more than just what Madison Avenue calls consumers: We can be creators! Of our own lives, our own destinies.
2. The great adventures of your novels are often set in Nature. Why are Nature and wilderness so important—in your stories as well as in real life?
Well, for starters, I grew up in places where Nature was always nearby, so I could explore a creek, climb a tree, pick an apple, or just cover myself with mud. The nearness of Nature shaped me profoundly. Not just in the challenging, adventurous ways you might expect—in deeper, spiritual ways, as well.
For example, I remember a snowy day when I was very young. My mother dressed me in one of those big puffy snowsuits that made me look like a huge, waddling balloon, and took me outside. There was so much snow, the drifts were even taller than me. Then my mother patted the top of an enormous snowdrift, and said, “Guess what? Believe it or not, there are flowers under there. You won’t see them until springtime, but it’s true.” I was astounded. Amazed. Flowers? Under there? She was telling me about the patterns of the seasons, of course—but also about something more. Something like hope. Transformation. Renewal.
Or…another day, when my brother and I found a slab of petrified wood, over fifty million years old, on the hill behind our Colorado ranch house. Geologic time—now there’s a great way to gain some perspective on human ideas of time and mortality. And then there was another day, as I was walking through a meadow on the ranch, following some fox tracks, when I saw some geese flying overhead. They were so close, I could hear their wings whooshing as they flew. I realized that some of those geese had started their journey way up in the Arctic, in Alaska, and had flown over western Canada and the Rocky Mountains, all the way to our little meadow. And it struck me that their flight tied together some of the most beautiful places on this continent—that, by the very beating of their wings, they showed how connected those places really are. And how connected I was, too, to those very same places.
So why is wilderness important? Because unspoiled Nature is the last, best place on Earth for people to stand upright and tall, dwarfed by the sweep of the stars or the sweep of time, and yet still part of it all—connected to the changing seasons, the fox tracks, or the flight of geese. In Nature, we can feel both very small, and very large, at once—part of the universe, the pattern, the mystery.
And one more thing. In wilderness, we can still experience silence—a quality that’s increasingly rare in this world. We can hear voices apart from our own, sounds not made by automobiles or chainsaws. We can even hear, sometimes, the whispers of creation— that remarkable process whose essence is life, and whose engine is silent.
Your books work especially well on audio—with their varied characters, humor, and poignancy, they are perfect to read aloud and listen to. Why do you think this is true?
Well, if that’s true, I’m glad! That’s the goal of every bard—to tell a few tales that make people lean forward a bit, and maybe see themselves or the world in a different way. And if it is true, it’s largely thanks to the fact that I was lucky enough to grow up in a home where people often read aloud, made up plays, and told campfire tales. My wife and kids and I do all those things now at our own home—and we also severely limit the use of our one old television. The result is a rich and vibrant conversation around the dinner table most evenings, as well as a houseful of creative, active kids who are also good readers. And all this has really helped me as a writer, because I hear voices and descriptions in my head as I’m crafting a story. Not to mention the challenge of telling tales that can hold the attention of our five rambunctious kids…for five or ten seconds, at least.
Good fiction, you see, is true . That may seem bizarre to some people, who think only nonfiction can be true. But good fiction, the kind of stories that touch our lives and stand the test of time, are also true. How? The places they describe must enliven our senses, and seem absolutely real—the sort of places we can walk into and stay for a while, with all the richness, complexity, and irony of a well-drawn character. Characters, too, must feel true—people who walk right off the page and into our hearts. Their habits, their motives, and most of all, their voices, must ring true. And the story’s underlying idea must also feel true—to the human condition, to our deepest selves.
When stories are read aloud, performed, or sung, they can also tap into another sort of truth. In a primal way, they connect us to the earliest people on the planet—and to all the diverse peoples who have shared their feelings, experiences, and dreams through the human voice. The ability to tell stories—whether around an ancient campfire or in a modern movie theater—is what sets human beings apart from other animals. And it may also be what brings us closer to the profoundest truths of all.