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March 29, 2016
Interview: Author Greg McGoon on ‘The Tanglelows’

Greg McGoon with Tanglelows - Photo Credit Greg McGoonThe title creatures in author Greg McGoon's children's book The Tanglelows feed off negativity and distress, they get absolute pleasure out of provoking self-doubt and questioning within the minds they inhabit. Theirs is a world of chaos, only meant to be undone by having absolute certainty, and perpetuating the values of kindness, compassion and love. It's a message children of all ages need to hear in the times we live in. From the beautiful illustrations, to the evocative rhymes The Tanglelows will no doubt be among the favorites of its readers. We had the opportunity to learn about McGoon's process, the themes that haunt him, and what's next for the pesky, but memorable critters from the book.

Tanglelows grow stronger with unkindness, I found that lovely, particularly given how in the current political climate Hillary Clinton reminded us that “kindness” is the only way for unity. Why do you think that negative messages spread faster than positive ones in our culture? Was this what prompted you to write the book?

Thank you! I actually wrote this book a year and a half ago, while I was working through some personal challenges. I constantly questioned my worth and those fears propelled this book. Adapting my thoughts and approach to create the story for children was prompted by the reliance on digital communication in our society. The evolution of this virtual culture we are living in has given way to constant comparisons, and the disappearance of self. We have the ability to create an image rather than live in our reality. It is the perfect breeding ground for negativity, because accountability is practically lost. And a lack of satisfaction within ourselves and situations, it becomes easy to focus on what we consider faults than positive messages, because of the heightened reality of perfection we strive towards. We lose appreciation for what is standing beside us. And that is where kindness comes into play. Kindness is choice, and a powerful choice, because kindness exists in times sorrow, even when happiness seems lost. Choosing kindness has the ability to rebuild happiness. Choose kindness, allow yourself happiness.

Kindness is essential to Tanglelow behavior, not only on how we treat others, but how we treat ourselves. Kindness does unify. When we are kind, we listen. Only through listening can we begin to understand the spectrum of human life and learn to live along side each other rather than against each other. The Tanglelows live inside us all, absorbing what is unkind from the world around. They can be friend or foe, because they sensitive to the environment. And in this book, I acknowledge how unkind behavior is one of the triggers that leads to the chaos in our mind.

The initial Tanglelow poem, created while riding the subway on a late fall evening in 2014, became a way for me to explore some of my own more destructive feelings, by giving me a tangible outlet to express myself, without drowning in angst. Given the current political climate, kindness is unfortunately lacking in many occurrences. It is fascinating for me to see how many parts of this book apply to handling what has become a rather tumultuous, to put it nicely, election process. Which actually provided some inspiration for my next book featuring the Tanglelows.

Have you established a formula to achieve the perfect rhymes yet? Does it vary from project to project?

I’m not sure what would even constitute a perfect rhyme. My rhymes are based on instinct. What makes an impression, while having a flow and rhythm that lingers in my mind. In The Tanglelows, I am interpreting complex emotions and feelings which I wanted to break up into beats to create a certain level off accessibility. Rather than deny myself the words I wanted to use, rhyme opened the possibility for inclusion.

That is how I realized the power of rhyme, especially applicable for children, who might find themselves lost of some of the words throughout this story. Through rhyme I was able to pair some challenging words with familiar words to increase their memorability. Rhyme can bring attention to language and introduce new words into a child’s vocabulary. I love the discussion that can evolve from this story, and rhyme is tool important in opening that discussion. Each word is carefully chosen for that reason. I have other stories, soon to be released, that are mixture of rhyme and prose. Rhyme is used to elevate language in various moments, and also add a bit of playfulness.

The illustrations in the book are quite evocative, do you see how the creatures look in your mind from the get-go, or does Jessa Orr, the illustrator, help realize them and then surprise you?

I had no clue what the Tanglelows were when I first created them. They lived only as a word. But I felt their presence. And all I wanted to do was some how “catch” one, so I could finally see what they looked like. I wanted to create a recognizable silhouette that children could engage with and also something they could recreate. It took me about a year before I began visualize this story, and share concepts with my illustrator.

The concept randomly came to me while eating dinner at a restaurant in a small town in Vermont. I was scribbling with a crayon this random shape on the paper tablecloth. That's when I discovered the look of the Tanglelows. Almost like these ghost like creatures with two long long tentacle ears things that were knotted. The tentacle ears could be manipulated to serve multiple functions as well as listen, and that embodied the nature of these little creatures. Immediately I photographed the crayon drawing and sent it too her, and it all started to fall completely into place. She is able to interpret my imaginative descriptions and scribbles into presentable images. It's wonderful to be able to collaborate with her, because we can play with ideas before solidifying layouts.

The book reminded me of performers who get the jitters and are often insecure going into auditions, or actually doing their work. Do you find that fear in some instances can be a good thing?

It depends. Auditioning can be overwhelming, exhausting, tedious, and yet beyond fulfilling. Performers face constant judgment. My background as a performer heavily influenced this story. My understanding of fear even shifted when writing this book, which helped me as an actor again. There are countless factors that determine how a production is cast and put together. Of course, talent is important factor; it is not the only factor. However more often than not, it is easy to internalize not getting a role by thinking you weren’t "good enough.” I’ve thought that. I have friends who feel that way, and their talent is mind blowing and they don’t always land every audition. Acting, art in general, is vulnerable and requires strength of mind and passion.

It is a matter of shifting the origin of fear. Fear can cripple or motivate. Fear of general failure can create detrimental harm. However, a fear that you won’t do a character justice is something different. That fear can motivate you to take the time fully commit to the role and the choices you make. All you can do is know yourself, highlight your strengths and challenge your weaknesses, allowing passion to overcome fear. All the while, remembering you might not fit into the puzzle that is specific production.

The Tanglelows is dedicated to a teacher. As arts education is cut from schools, can you mention some experiences with teachers that shaped who you are as an artist/author?

The significance of arts education is gravely misunderstood, which is probably why it constantly faces cutbacks. Arts education creates community. It has the ability to explore and develop emotions as well as initiate and cultivate creative thought that adds value to any field of work.

Olivia Parker, who this book is dedicated to is a dear friend and brilliant theatre teacher. I have directly witnessed her change the lives of various students through the arts. She teaches at San Bernardino High School, a Title 1 school, struggling with high dropout and expulsion rates. These numbers have actually improved since implementing arts and CTE programing. Due to these programs, and more specifically her theatre program, many of children have discovered the value of school. They also found value in their lives. Students, who were failing, pulled up their grades in order to be a part of her program. Many of her students are first generation college students as well. Their inclusion in the arts motivated many of them to consider college as viable option.

I am still in contact with my high school theatre teacher, Krista Elhai, who also taught Olivia. Her program was essential to my growth as person and artist/author. While I was in high school we did 8 productions a year. I was at school sometimes 14 to 16 hours a day, tirelessly working on shows, whether performing, assistant directing, or doing scenic design. I loved that experience. The theatre became a second home, and inspired me to create. My art teachers created environments with the freedom to explore and find purpose, for that I'm grateful.

Greg McGoon - Photo 1 - Credit, Anthony GrassettiIn The Royal Heart you feature a transgender character, first of all bravo. Second, I couldn't help but feel how in a way fairy tales have always taught us about transformation, from rags to riches, a pumpkin turns into a chariot, dark hearts are turned good etc., which tends to make children more open to the idea of someone becoming someone else and fulfilling their true potential. Why do you feel we lose that along our way into adulthood?

Thank you! Exactly, transformation is the crux of many fairy tales. The Royal Heart explores transformation through self-acknowledgement. In that story, I was less concerned with the moment of transformation though, and more with the response, “we love you.”

I think it depends on how you interpret transformation in various fairy tales though, and the expectations that come with that, influencing our path towards adulthood. As a child grows more independent, they start to realize life is requires work, and there isn't some mystical being, who will magically make life easier. And cynicism closes the mind off from childhood memories and sensibilities. It is not matter of losing that ability; we suppress it for countless reasons. Transformation needs to be coupled with acceptance, in order to alleviate the fears that inhibit us from acknowledging ourselves. There are plenty of things in world to fear, why add our own identity to that list of fears. I don’t know if there is any one specific answer to why lose that openness as we grow older, however, cutting arts programing in schools is counter intuitive. Writing was a way to bring a little bit of that magic back into my life.

What fairy tales left such a mark on you growing up? What children’s books made an impact on you in terms of design?

Animated films made more of impact on design for me, then specifically children's books. Disney’s Sleeping Beauty is visually one of the most beautifully animated films. Every frame is a work of art. The grandeur and beauty of that story inspired my love of fairy tales. Also, Alice in Wonderland and Peter Pan. The original and Disney versions. The complexity of those original stories and their examination of childhood is brilliant.However, specific to children's books, The Giving Tree and The Velveteen Rabbit had the greatest impact, not necessarily in design, but in the overall message. The art compliments the beauty of those stories. Dr. Seuss as well, had the ability to create such a varied imaginative characters and worlds. I love the surreal nature of it all, because it broadens its appeal and accessibility.

Original fairy tales dealt with mortality, loss and a myriad adult themes. Do you find that the sanitization of children's tales have made our society less prepared to deal with certain things as we grow up?

Absolutely. Original fairy tales are quite dark, and explore adult themes, packaged in a fantasy that children can recognize. Disney, in many ways, has redefined the genre from how those stories are shared. The lack of balance of the stories can skew idealism and expectations towards the unachievable. Nowadays in society, younger and younger children are increasingly aware of the virtual world. If they don’t understand themselves first, they can easily be lost into a vacuum of uncertainty. By diluting stories, we crave happy endings and wonder why everyone else seems to have one but you. It's dangerous to overly shelter children from pain and obstacles for that reason. A child’s ability to recognize various emotions starts at an early age and self-conscious emotions develop around the age of 5. If we neglect exposing children various emotions during these crucial years, how can we expect them to grow into thoughtful well adjusted adults. Rain and sunshine both support growth. Too much of either can lead to destruction.

My first book, Out of the Box, the main character has to overcome children laughing and mocking him for his imagination, and eventually finds a happy ending through persistance. And I love The Tanglelows, because it resonates with adults as well as children, taking into consideration how natural it is to have negative feelings. The importance of self-discovery and recognition weaves all 3 of my current books together, as well as upcoming stories.

How did your experience in Ghana shape your point of view as an author?

My experience is Ghana is rather lengthy story. If it weren’t for Ghana, I don’t know if I would be as motivated to write. I was on my own. I didn’t know anyone when I arrived. I was not a part of a program. My initial reason for going did not go as planned as I left to fend for myself. Rather than leave the country, I decided to stay, wander around and see what happens. And somehow, strangers welcomed me, both locals and expats, once they found out I was living in a 8x8 cinder block cube in slums of LaBodi beach. How I ended up living in an African slum with pig farmer male escort is a story for another time, but certainly set the path for a rather varied adventure. Writing helped me navigate all these feelings while I was processing the day to day far removed from what I was accustomed. Ghana became a momentary home, because of all the people I met and emotional connections were able to provide a familiar comfort. And where I was became secondary to who I was with. I think that overall experience solidified my writing style focusing similarities beyond differences, and what has the ability to connect rather than separate.

Do you get the chance to "test" your books with potential audiences? Do you find children respond more to the rhymes, the images, the text?

In way I do, yes. All my currently published stories, and soon to be published, are all personal to me in some way. I only write if I’m emotionally invested or connected to what I have to say. Until I feel that connection and fully believe in the story, I won’t share it. However, once I reach that stage, I do share the work with a range of people to gauge interpretation, impressions and emotional reactions to see if it aligns with my original intention

Having experience working with children doing theatre and improv workshops, I pay attention to what they respond to and what excites them the most during activities. I personally love alliteration and fun tongue twisters, that is clear by reading the full title of my latest book, Traveling the Twisting Troubling Tanglelows’ Trail. Anything that allows for a bit of silliness is important for me to include when working in a children’s book format. Many children I have worked with are receptive to rhyme. Also, I am able to engage children easier with stories that include magic and adventure. I do play with style for that reason. Although, the style of my work may vary, the overall sentiment is where you will find my voice.

Reading is great and should be encouraged, but do you see your books being turned into stage productions or films? Would you want to be involved in it, or allow someone else to adapt them into their vision?

Yes. Encouraging reading and discussion is my main goal for writing my stories. However, I love storytelling in all formats, and each format has its own strengths. And I am a performer as well, so theatre and film are significant for me. The Tanglelows I can absolutely envision in film format. I have a few ideas already. If my stories were adapted into a film or play, I definitely want to be involved. Also, I do have another fairy tale book in the works, which is almost complete. It is not a picture book. I do intend to write and develop an animated screenplay for that. It has become a rather epic story, detailed, but not long. I am excited for all its possibilities. And I have been approached about adapting The Royal Heart into a children's musical. Who knows what's to come. All I do know, is I have many more stories to tell.

For more information on Greg McGoon visit his official website.

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Written by: Jose Solis
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