Catholic Historical Sci-Fi for Teens,Young Adults: Young Chesterton Chronicles

The Tripods Attack! is the first book in the Young Chesterton Chronicles, an adventure series aimed at middle and high-school age boys. Its main character is a fictional, teenaged GK Chesterton. In The Tripods Attack! Gilbert fights off an alien invasion with the help of his mentor, Father Brown, and his best friend, the youthful H.G. Wells. The Emperor of North America is the latest in the YCC series and has just been released by Bezalel Books. (Books available at your local Catholic bookstore or online at Amazon.com – also on Kindle)

Kay Anne KellyPlease give me a brief overview of your first book, The Tripods Attack! What inspired you to begin writing the Young Chesterton Chronicles?

John McNichol: Inspiration for the book came from several sources, namely my family, my life and my students. As a middle school teacher, I saw quite a few of my students doing book reports on novels whose plots ranged from weird to asinine. Moreover, I too-often found that characters of a more secular, liberal outlook were depicted as noble, competent and compassionate, while characters with anything approaching the Catholic worldview could be cruelly and unfairly caricatured as vicious, cruel and evil, stamping out people’s joy without even any sympathetic motives, but just for the heck of it.

Added to that, my own sons were getting older. I was looking for quality reading material for them to both learn from and enjoy. Unfortunately, a significant amount of secular literature for middle-to-high school age boys had the above-mentioned problems, and a lot of the new Catholic fiction seemed aimed squarely at girls. I wanted to find an adventure series that guys would find exciting and enjoyable, and would show the Catholic worldview for the truly heroic effect it has had on human history. I also wanted to realistically depict the deleterious effect that secular humanism has had, from the Reign of Terror to the current Abortion holocaust.

Most of all, I wanted to introduce a generation of young people to the writings of GK Chesterton, a real-life Catholic writer who looked at life as an adventure to be celebrated, and wrote with the air of a swashbuckler fighting pirates in the rigging of a tall ship. Making him the hero of an exciting series of novels seemed too good of an idea to pass up, once it jumped into my head.

Kay Anne: Why do you think your first book, The Tripods Attack!, was so successful? What can fans of Tripods expect in The Emperor of North America?

John: All I have on this is anecdotal evidence, but here goes: Many parents realize the effect that a good story can have on a young man’s outlook. True, there’s a lot to be said for novels that work hard at being the Catholic Anne of Green Gables or Pride & Prejudice, but even novels that do this well really aren’t aimed at a young man’s heart. Tripods had such a good reaction among its target audience because when a book like mine comes along that does at least try to do this, eager parents and young readers alike pounce on it.

When I wrote The Tripods Attack! in addition to telling a good story, I tried to get across a Catholic worldview, coupled with elements boys could identify with and enjoy. In my experience, for example, Catholicism done right creates a respect for the human person unmatched in world history. Secular humanism, on the other hand, creates a kind of institutionalized bullying that is as smug and elitist as it is terrifying when it is in a position of power over the weak. One need only look at the hundreds of millions dead in Communistic revolutions, the abortion holocaust and the convenience killing of the Terri Schaivos in the world to see the logical end of the atheistic worldview.

Being bullied in some way or form is something that most boys have experienced, and my hope is that if they’re ever tempted to go over to the bad guys, they’ll remember what kind of people they are signing on for, regardless of how nice it may look on the outside. I also want them to see how joining and/or staying with Christ and His Church brings true freedom and respect for all men, despite what the world may say.

The Emperor of North America is the second act in Gilbert’s trilogy, and following the classic pattern, I wanted to write a second episode in which the main characters are all dropped down into a deep hole by the novel’s end. Not so deep that folks are in despair, but enough that they’ll buy the third book to find out how they’re going to get out of their latest fix! Gilbert, Herb and the Red-Haired Girl are all going to have to face their own trials and difficulties. Sometimes they’re successful, and sometimes they aren’t.

In the novel itself, Gilbert returns from Britain to his homeland of the United States, on the run from some very bad people. And these very bad people are after Gil with steam-powered limbs, lightning Zeppelins, and (yes, Virginia) giant, steam-powered robots at their disposal. Gil and Herb will encounter other opportunities to be good and bad while on the run through the streets of late-1800s New York, fighting their way through a floating city, and a host of other places that were an awful lot of fun to write about.

Kay Anne: What is the goal of writing Catholic fiction particularly works like the YCC trilogy, which are aimed at adolescent and young adult men?

John:  For me, it’s the desire to write a good piece that will inspire others to live their faith more deeply, or at least take a good, honest look at the Catholic faith versus the secular worldview.

One of the really gratifying parts for me is how readers of both Tripods and Emperor have recognized those parts of the novels that strive to do some ‘stealth’ education of the readers while entertaining the audience.

In Emperor, for example, as much as Gilbert has embraced the faith, he’s still a teenage boy at heart. And teenage boys are often tempted to misuse popularity or romance, to indulge in vengeance, along with a host of other things that can become spiritual snares. One of my goals is to depict not only a whiz-bang of an adventure, but realistic benefits and consequences of good and bad choices. And if I’ve done that well, the reader has a great time while learning from Gilbert and Herb’s mistakes, rather than having to make their own.

Kay Anne: Your characters are intricate and layered; many are also based on real people. What made you choose this avenue for telling this story?

John:  I did it in part because GK Chesterton has been unfairly scoured from the literary canon, and I wanted the reader to be exposed to his writings and thoughts. What better way to do that than put him in an adventure where he has to put all the theories of the Church into actual practice?

As for multilayered characters, it’s important to remember that people rarely have what they see as truly evil motivations for what they do, even if they are doing truly evil things. In my own experience, most people who do bad things are terribly broken or misguided. Characters written for older audiences ought to have motivations that make sense, at least to them.

In the YCC, Herb Wells has been taught that religion is bosh and only the secular life can bring true freedom. He’s also been taught (as all proper ‘science’ taught back then) that most races are inferior to the white European race. He does have an evil philosophy, but Herb himself doesn’t see it that way. So much so that someone like Herb has to get a shock on the level of having his life threatened by aliens to really see the folly of his worldview.

What has proven odd for me is how sometimes the truth has been stranger than fiction. More than once now, I’ve found that long after I’ve decided to place together certain historical figures in my stories, they’ve turned out to have had connections in real life as well.

Kay Anne: Reading each book, maybe more so in the second, I could not help but detect the strong life ethic being put forth by the main character, Gilbert. How do pro-life beliefs get woven into a historical/sci-fi work in a manner that does not appear forced or contrived?

John:  I’m very glad that came through. In a work of historical fiction, one can illustrate a truth of the human condition by using previous examples from our history. Slavery was the chief issue of the 19th century, and the cause of the Civil War- the inaugural statement of the first and only Vice President of the Confederacy proves that beyond a doubt. And slavery can be used to illustrate a pro-life lesson precisely because of slavery’s similarity to the abortion and euthanasia issues of our day. All these issues are about the inherent worth and dignity of the human person, regardless of their geography or usefulness to those in power. Thus, if you have characters talking about slavery, you’re going to see a number of parallels in the issues in their conversations to the modern issues of human life concerns.

As a writer, I’ve found that my convictions and experiences naturally flow into the conversations of my characters. I’ve worked in more than one argument I’ve had with a pro-abortion, pro-choice person outside an abortuary into the conversations between Father Brown and the Doctor, for example.

Usually in a story, though, if you’re going to have characters argue, it’s best to keep it short, make sure the conversation is honest, give the good guys the last word, and end the argument with a rip-roaring action sequence. Far better for someone like Herb to realize on his own that the law of the jungle only looks good when you think you’re one of the lions!

Kay Anne: You are a middle school English teacher at a Catholic school. Have any of your students read your books?  If so, what were their thoughts? Has your job as a teacher helped with your writing?

John: Fortunately, most of my students have said they liked it. Though admittedly I have more fans among the boys than the girls, some of the girls have been quite enthusiastic, especially when it comes to puzzling out the identity of the Red-Headed Girl!

And, truthfully, my most gratifying moments as a writer thus far have come not from a good review or a royalty check, but from some of my students.

Kay Anne: It is obvious you have a deep love for, and knowledge of, Catholic classics. How does this impact your writing style and content?

John:  I’ve been a student of the Bible for most of my life, both looking at what its original authors intended and at what it can mean to my life today. And of all aspects of Biblical study, I’ve always found typology-the repetition of patterns in the Bible in progressively larger and more consequential forms- to be the most fascinating.

As such, Biblical symbols kept cropping up in the story, whether I intended them to or otherwise. There were times I consciously tried to make Gilbert’s journey similar to Christ’s (ie. having Gilbert descend into the underworld to battle a monster and emerge victorious and changed), but some of my more satisfying scenes drew their elements from the Bible without my being conscious of it at all.  I don’t want to give too much away for potential readers, but my editor at the time noted how Gilbert acts as a type of Adam when he stomps on the head of a snake-like creature in the sewers. I really hadn’t considered it at the time, but when I looked back at it I had to admit it was there.

I also had a great deal of fun working quotes from the real-life GK Chesterton into his fictional adventures. For example, one of his more famous quotes was that “A dead thing can go with the stream, but only a living thing can go against it.” I put that quote into play in Tripods when he thinks about giving up when his only hope of survival was in walking and slogging against the current of an underground river, despite his physical and emotional exhaustion. It’s very gratifying when Chesterton fans spot these, and understand the spirit in which they were constructed; “A-ha,” wrote one reviewer, “so that’s his version of where GKC got the idea of saying this!”

I especially enjoyed turning this quote on its head in the second novel, when Gilbert is in the floating city. But I’ll leave it up to the reader to spot it.

I’ve also enjoyed bringing in Catholic Saints and other figures from Church history and literature as well. As story elements, they serve either as guides to Gilbert and Herb or serve other functions in the story. I’d like to think doing so could inspire the reader to look more deeply into the lives of the Saints as well. If you look carefully, you’ll spot references to St. Charles Borromeo, St. Charles De Foucauld, Father McGivney, the founder of the Knights of Columbus, and a younger version of St. Thérèse of Lisieux. One of the greater enjoyments I had in writing Emperor was also bringing in JRR Tolkien and CS Lewis as allies for Gilbert, though they’re in a format you might not immediately recognize.

Kay Anne: What do you want readers of any age to take with them after finishing your books? Is there a third book in the works?

John:  The biggest message I’d like them to take from the whole series is that their worth and dignity comes, not from what they can do or contribute, but from the fact that they are made in God’s image. It’s truly impossible for any society to establish authentic justice or avoid tyranny without believing this.

Plus, I’d like them to say, “Whoa! That was a cool story, especially the part where…”

There is definitely a third volume in the works. I am half way through its first draft, tentatively titled Where the Red Sands Fly. This time Gilbert travels to Mars in order to finally confront the Doctor and untangle the web of his life. I also introduce a new character, a young army officer based on Chesterton’s feisty, real-life friend named Hilaire Belloc.

I don’t consciously try to name a theme for each book; it more grows spontaneously as I write, and I develop it in the rewrites. Tripods introduced the characters and the clash of Catholic dignity vs. secular worldviews, and Emperor shows how a life lived for God is the most rewarding one, even though its fraught with temptations, stumbles, falls and risings. In Where the Red Sands Fly, the characters face a challenge I’ve seen in more than one Catholic media figure over the years: how success tends to make one cherish their independence, so much so that God is slowly and subtly pushed out of the picture, and it often takes a smack upside the head (symbolic or real!) to get them and us back on track again.

John McNichol was born in Toronto, Canada in 1970, lived the first eighteen years of his life in Toronto, and left to attend college at Franciscan University in Ohio. There he met his American wife, and has remained a resident of the United States since his graduation and wedding in 1992. John and his wife Jeanna live with their seven children and The Dumbest Dog in the State in Vancouver, Washington. John is a Middle School teacher and continues to pursue excellence in his vocation while writing steampunk-themed science fiction about his favorite authors and literary characters.

John loves loaded pizzas, meaty lasagnas, and killing 3-5 hours at a stretch at his local Barnes & Noble on the weekend and seeing fan art based on his works. He hates broccoli. Hates it. Still.

Kay Anne Kelly is the pen name of a Catholic homeschooling mother of four who is head of her parish Respect Life Ministry, and professionally trained to give endless grief to her beloved husband.