Jonathan Rogers grew up in Georgia, where he spent many happy hours in the swamps and riverbottoms on which the wild places of The Wilderking are based. He received his undergraduate degree from Furman University in South Carolina and holds a Ph.D. in seventeenth-century English literature from Vanderbilt University. The Wilderking Trilogy has already found a receptive audience among Jonathan’s own six children. The Rogers clan lives in Nashville, Tennessee, where Jonathan makes a living as a freelance writer.
Tell us a little bit about yourself.
I live in Nashville, Tennessee, where my wife Lou Alice and I are raising six kids. I originally came here to go to Vanderbilt University, where I got a PhD in 17th century poetry. I'm a native of Warner Robins, Georgia. I got an English degree at Furman University in South Carolina, where I met my wife.
Right now, I make a living as a writer. I write a lot of different things. I do a lot of books that don't necessarily have my name on them—devotional books, gift books. I also write advertising copy, and I've got a book coming out in October  called The World According to Narnia, about Christian themes in the Narnia books.
Have you always wanted to be a writer?
When I was little I wanted to be a writer. But I lost that interest as I grew up. I only just came back to it in the last two or three years. I reached a point in my "cubicle career" (I was working for an Internet company) where I felt like a just had to get back to what my talents, interests and abilities were. In retrospect, you could call it a leap of faith, but at the time it was mostly naiveté—I quit my job and started writing. And God has seen fit to redeem that. Writers are often reluctant to give anybody else advice about getting into a writing career, and I used to think it's because they were being standoffish or proprietary. But I realize now that nobody thinks that the way they did it was the right way to do it. I certainly wouldn't tell somebody else, "Well, the first thing you do is quit your job when your wife's pregnant with your fifth child!"
Is The Wilderking Trilogy the first fiction series you've ever written?
This is the only fiction I've ever done.
What age range did you have in mind when you wrote this series?
When I go to a school to read, I find that the first and second graders will listen and enjoy it, but it's the third through fifth graders who really respond. They get the jokes and laugh. When I read aloud, I'm not expecting the kids’ jaws to drop because of some new wisdom that they've gained, but I do want them to laugh at the funny parts! The kids that are a little bit older start to do that, and I also get great response from middle schoolers. I was actually picturing a little younger audience than what has been responding to it. For me it's hard to know what age range I’m writing for. I write what I find to be interesting or funny; people of many different ages find the same things interesting and funny. The goal was definitely to write something that parents wouldn't mind sitting down and reading with their kids. I think I accomplished that goal. I've gotten good response from grown-ups; they like The Wilderking too.
Tell us about The Wilderking Trilogy. What was your inspiration for writing it?
I think I answer that question differently every time I’m asked it because there are so many things that inspire me or give me ideas. I read Wild at Heart right before I started writing these books, and that was an important influence. I was thinking about the role of wildness; I kept thinking, “I want my boys to know these things about authentic manhood.” But you can't very well sit an eight-year-old down with Wild at Heart and tell him to start reading!
The swampy wilderness of South Georgia and Florida was definitely an inspiration. It's not one of those settings you see all the time in adventure stories. I've always wanted to write something that was set in that world—as it turned out, it’s an imaginary world, but it still looks and sounds and smells like my native wilderness.
You grew up near the swampland of Georgia, right?
Actually, I grew up in a comfortable ranch house in the middle of town. But I had ample opportunity to explore the swamps and riverbottoms in Georgia’s southern half. For whatever reason, swamps have always fascinated me. One of the pleasures of writing your own book is that you can give people reason to be interested in the things you're interested in!
In Bark of the Bog Owl, we are introduced to Dobro and the Feechies. How did you come up with the idea for the Feechie people—their distinct culture?
Believe it or not, there's a person out there who inspired Dobro! I came back to my hometown for a couple of summers, while I was in the PhD program at Vanderbilt, to work for a remodeling crew. I worked with a fellow named Jake, who lived way out in the woods somewhere. Most nights he went out hunting wild boar in the riverbottom forests. He didn’t carry a gun. He had some dogs that would catch the hog, and he’d whirl in with a length of rope and tie it up. He and his buddies would carry the boar out of the woods on a pole, alive. He came to work crying one morning because an alligator had eaten his dog. I thought, "Wow, what a world this is; I'm living this suburban, academic life, but I'm working shoulder to shoulder with a guy who lives this way!"
That's the idea of the Feechiefolks—their wild existence is buzzing in the trees around the civilizers, and the civilizers don't quite realize it. I had thought, back when I worked with Jake, "If I ever write a book, I'd love to have Jake in it." And there he is! Dobro is a bit exaggerated—Jake wasn't quite that wild, but he was pretty wild. That notion of valuing physical courage that's so important to the Feechiefolks came from Jake and his crowd. I might value physical courage, but I'm not going go out in the woods and tie up a wild boar!
Why did you choose the story of David and Goliath, and really the whole story of David, to translate into this world you created? Was that difficult?
Another inspiration that I failed to mention was Eugene Peterson's book about David called Leap Over a Wall. It really opened my eyes to some of the narrative possibilities, and in my case, the narrative possibilities became fictional possibilities.
I'm very interested in the notion of a child who knows he's got a very special future, but is not there yet. What's it like to live in that gap? There’s no better way to talk about that than with David's story. Even though the David and Goliath story plays a central role in The Bog Owl, it's the David and Samuel, or Aidan and Bayard, dynamic that I'm really interested in. The boy hears from the prophet that he is destined to be a great king, but he doesn't know whether to believe it or not. The Biblical narrative doesn't make that dynamic explicit. That's why I wanted to portray a prophet who may be crazy. We don't know for sure if he knows what he's talking about, and it's always possible that the old man was making it up!
The other great thing about the David story is that three adventure plots are all contained in the one story. First, there's David and Goliath. We have all sorts of stories in our tradition of the little guy defeating the big guy, and David and Goliath is the best example of that. But there's also the quest story, which I put in book two, The Secret of the Swamp King. It's not one of the better-known stories about David, but Saul assigns him the task of killing a hundred Philistines, thinking he's sending him to his death. That's where idea of the search for the frog orchid comes from. I knew it had to be a seemingly impossible quest. The third major adventure plot that the David story contains is an "outlaw plot," the Robin Hood plot. It's the Ziklag stage of David's life. That's where book three is going. It’s a Robin Hood-esque story where Aidan is an outlaw, and inadvertently collects a band of outlaws around him.
How do you think the quest changed Aidan—without giving too much away?
It really changes him in the last few pages of the book, so I don’t want to give it away, but I think I can say that through the book, there is the dynamic of a young person who's sworn his loyalty to somebody who isn't showing any loyalty to him. He has every right (and we'd certainly understand) to give up on his loyalty. But what is he going to do? This theme comes up in Peterson's book, A Leap over a Wall—a boy who's not sophisticated enough yet to understand the hypocrisy and cynicism of the adult world around him. This boy shows up at the battlefield where Goliath is and says to all these adults cowering in fear, "Wait a minute! Aren’t you the ones who told me that God's on our side?" This is something that young people deal with all the time.
That's an important theme in the Wilderking Trilogy. Kids have got to figure out how to deal with the hypocrisy of grown-ups. It doesn’t seem fair, but it’s the way it is. Just because it turns out that the grown-up who told you something doesn't really believe it, that doesn't let you off the hook. You are still accountable to that truth. I think it's important to understand that just because somebody is using the truth in a cynical manner, that doesn't mean it's not the truth. Come to terms with that truth and let God deal with the person who is being a hypocrite.
A lot of authors say that when you write something, it takes on a life of it's own. Do you find that?
If you get to the right starting point, the story unfolds. One of the pleasures of writing a story is that I typically know where it ends and where it starts, but then you get to take this meandering course to see how it gets from the starting point to the ending point. Starting with the facts, you reverse-engineer to get to the motivations. That's what reading the David and Goliath story in the Bible is like—a king let a boy go out and face the giant on behalf of his whole army. Why? The Scripture doesn't explain the motivations behind that. When you write fiction, you get to come up with the motivations. That's one reason I didn't want to write this as biblical historical fiction. I decided that if I was going to tell this story, I would have to tell it in an imaginary world. I was leery of adding anything to Scripture!
Your books have a sense of adventure, nobility and honor that reminds me of The Lord of the Rings. Was that one of your influences?
Sure—especially in The Secret of the Swamp King. Although it’s hard to say where The Lord of the Rings influenced The Wilderking and where The Wilderking is influenced by the same things that influenced The Lord of the Rings. With any quest story, your plot structure is to a certain extent laid out for you already—it’s about going “there and back again,” as Tolkien put it.
The sense of courage, nobility and honor also came through in your books, which also reminded me of The Lord of the Rings.
You've got the Feechiefolks and you've got Aidan and the other civilizers, and though there are many things that separate them, they do share a sense of nobility and honor. The Feechiefolks’ sense of honor may be a little skewed, since it starts from some peculiar presuppositions, but it is the strongest social adhesive in their society, which to us seems very wild and unorganized. For instance, rudeswap, whether or not we think it's a good policy, is certainly the very basis of some of their relationships. They might fight with each other, but they're also going to fight alongside each other.
Kids can relate to it—they know what it means to have a rudeswap!
Another great thing about the rudeswap to me is that it says words aren't just words. You can't say something and not be accountable for what you've said.
The The Secret of the Swamp King recently came out [May, 2005], and The Bark of the Bog Owl has been out since October of 2004. What kind of response to this series have you had so far?
Kids can be such enthusiastic readers—they tend to think the last book they’ve read is the best book they’ve ever read. It’s a little-known advantage to being a children’s author. I've gotten great response from my readers; and one very gratifying thing is how much girls have liked it. I figured boys would like it, but it's been the girls who have surprised me. Of all the e-mails I get from kids, more than half are from girls. It's been great to see that they've responded to it, because I wasn't sure they would—I was afraid they'd be a little put off by the alligators and the snakes and the like.
And there are adults, like me, who are waiting for the next book!
What do you hope that kids and adults, too, take away from reading this series?
I would boil it down to the value of wildness. We spend so much time telling kids, especially boys, to calm down and sit down. Even I do it: “Sit down and be quiet, boys! Can’t you see I’m trying to write a book about the value of wildness?” But boys’ wildness isn’t just something we need to discipline out of them; it’s something that can be channeled and used for God's glory, and for the good of the people around them. Especially when they're grown men, and they're responsible for a family they need to protect. That desire to aggressively meet challenges, which may be aggravating when he's a boy, is going to be an important part of who he is as a man, fulfilling what God has for him. And that's not just true for boys, it's true for girls, too. I guess the most important theme is this notion that wildness is one of those things that's not good or bad, it just is. What really matters is what you do with it.