SELECTIONS FROM EOIN MCNAMEE’S LIBRARY
Navigator, Random House, 2006.
The City of Night, Random House, January 2008.
Eoin (pronounced Owen) McNamee remembers opening a box of his old childhood books that had been stored away in the attic. “I can remember each and every book,” he says. “What it felt like opening it for the first time.” Each book drew McNamee into its own world and he remembered how good that world was. An acclaimed novelist in Ireland and England, McNamee’s newest book, The Navigator, is his first foray into children’s literature. “I wanted to create a world that kids could lose themselves in,” he says.
McNamee loved C.S. Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia as a child, and only recently found out that Narnia was modeled on his boyhood home in County Down, North Ireland. According to McNamee, “When asked what picture [Lewis] had in his head when he thought of Narnia, he said he imagined himself standing on the shore at Rostrevor looking across Carlingford lough at the Cooley mountains. It struck me as strange and wonderful that I grew up in Narnia without even knowing it.”
McNamee remembers coming home from school and throwing his book bag in the corner. “I loved the freedom to ramble for the day,” he says. One of his favorite places was the Workhouse—an abandoned workhouse for the poor with an overgrown graveyard on the bank of the river. Like his main character, Owen, McNamee had a secret den where he collected his thoughts and stashed his treasures. “It was my kingdom.”
Perhaps because of Narnia’s influence and his time exploring the workhouse, setting figures prominently in The Navigator. A strong sense of place is important to McNamee. The Workhouse’s brooding sadness is both magical and spooky. “I always knew some kind of story was going to flow out of it,” he says. The concept of time flowing backward hit McNamee at three in the morning while snug in bed. He knew it was a good idea, so he forced himself to walk to the kitchen to scrawl the idea on a piece of paper before he forgot it.
McNamee describes writing as an “organic process.” For The Navigator, the setting was part of his own childhood, so it seemed only natural to write about children. He also wrote the ending first to see if he still liked the idea. Writing the ending also helps him to keep the entire concept of the book in his head as he creates the beginning and the middle.
Other parts of McNamee’s life inspired him while writing The Navigator—parts unnecessary for the reader to know to enjoy the story, but which, according to McNamee, provide “a resonance behind the words and a depth to the characterization.” Dr. Diamond (the absent-minded scientific genius) is based on an eccentric physicist of McNamee’s acquaintance; the Raggie’s harbor was his Uncle Bill’s boatyard. McNamee also used to play in a scrap yard like the one in The Navigator. On one particular day, he remembers climbing in the cab of an old truck, pretending to drive it. “The door was wrenched open and this guy was standing there. He pulled me out of the truck, clipped the back of my head and turned his dogs on me. They chased me all the way home without touching me.” But McNamee had the last laugh. He named the villain in The Navigator after Mr. Johnston of the scrap yard. “They say that revenge is a dish best tasted cold. I waited a long time, but now he’s a villain on two continents!”
The next book in McNamee’s time series is called City of Night. With time still flowing backward, heroes Owen and Cati, receive a message that says time is running out. It’s up to them to decipher the true meaning of this message—a quest that leads them to the City of Night.
The concept of time in McNamee’s books can be difficult to grasp. “I don’t’ want kids’ interest to founder on some Einsteinian detail of time,” he says, so he developed “an island in time”—an isolated geographic place where time runs correctly.
McNamee says he’s acquired a set of skills as a writer—skills that are useful no matter the audience. Suspicious of rules and formulas regarding writing for children, McNamee believes the story is the most important thing. “If you can’t construct a story, you’re in the wrong business.” While writing The Navigator and City of Night, McNamee steered away from morals and lessons. “I was careful not to patronize,” he says. “Children detect falsehood in the tone straight away. The quality of the work has to take precedence over the message.” Paraphrasing the famous director, Cecil B. DeMille, McNamee says, “Give me a good story. Messages are for Western Union.”