Winner of the 2019 Kraken Book Prize for Middle-Grade Fiction
I can still remember the day my father brought home a copy of The Mummy, the Will, and the Crypt by John Bellairs from our local library in Connecticut. It was the amazing cover art by Edward Gorey that first grabbed me. While I would later learn about Gorey’s unique style that would change the illustrating world until it became its own adjective goreyesque, I knew that what I held in my hand was a portal to a new world. That world has changed my life—literary and otherwise. Twenty-six years later that first brush with Gothic brilliance still inspires my own spooky writing and illustration.
I grew up along the shoreline in New England, but one could argue I never grew up at all. My first literary efforts were poems about ocean life—the tide pools of glittering tiger minnows, the yearly migrations of horseshoe crabs to mate, chained together like Greek hoplite shields. My first job was as a freelance dragonfly hunter, hired by a family’s close friend, an artist wishing to paint these spirits of another world that somehow share a bridge with our own. I describe that experience in a recent reflective piece on The Art of Dragonfly Hunting:
For me, getting recognized for a talent I didn’t know I had was exhilarating. There was flinging newspapers as a paper boy (my other job) and then there was catching dragonflies… There was something immensely material and something that required patience, skill, and craft. Unbeknownst to me it would be my first lesson in writing.
Getting recognized for something as wondrous as the Kraken Prize for Middle Grade Fiction is that same exhilarating feeling: the wild snag of a buzzing thing in the net, something borne of another world before human naming, but now the naming and description of the wild thing matters. It matters because words are the stepchildren of our deepest feelings. You send them off into the world bright-eyed and clear, while you remain steeled in the hope that you have guided them right. Right now our daily discourse is flooded with “echo wars” to quote the great songwriter Peter Case. Writers and creative people at all ages and stages have a profound opportunity to shift the discourse back to imaginative possibility. Without imagination we are all just working stiffs treading a habitual cycle of ups and downs within a map largely defined by others. Imagination has the power of throwing out all maps while suggesting new alternatives that our fight-or-flight instincts haven’t historically allowed.
To me writing is an occult art, an alchemy less of science but of the heart, memory, and imagination. Like the great sculptor Henry Moore who would collect pieces of driftwood, sea glass, and stones to study their contours, writing can also be like beachcombing—what the world forgets or rejects you as a writer can use. In that spirit over the past decade I have taken elements from own childhood experiences in New England and as a working musician (my night job) to write about music in short stories like “Like Machines” published by Owl Canyon Press in April 2019 that follows a troubled Baltimore musician in his quest to make one last meaningful record. There are incredible insights flitting like invisible dragonflies right outside our line of sight. There are ghosts, too. In a recent short story “Angel in the Foxfire” one of my teenage characters wonders if ghosts are like “glitches in a big computer mainframe of time,” residual cache of life’s great traumas unresolved by the grave. A brush with a ghost in my own house in Virginia has given me even more cause to believe in this line of thinking. But that’s a story for another day…
I’ve written a fair amount of flash fiction (typically less than a thousand words) that has been published and recommend to emerging authors to explore this smaller space. Every word is like a bead joining a beautiful necklace. Each bead is unique and pleasing but it’s the stringing together that gives continuity and form. Starting small and expanding has helped me hone my craft. Earning a B.A. in History from Brown University in 2006 also gave me the opportunity to study how other cultures interpret our human experience. In Yuval Noah Harari’s great recent study Sapiens: A Brief History of Mankind he suggests that fiction has been necessary to our cohesion as a species. Our belief in stories, myths, legends connects us, helping us explain the weirdness and wildness of our humanity when it seems unexplainable. Now, perhaps more than ever, we need connection in a time of eroding resources and growing xenophobia. I am honored to accept the Kraken Prize from Fitzroy Books and excited to share Thomas Creeper and the Gloomsbury Secret with the world not just because it is a love poem to my unending childhood love of Gothic fiction, but because the protagonist is a young man born into horrible circumstances, but who through pluck and faith in his innate abilities transforms his life rather than suffer limitation by geography, self doubt, and family history.
Fitzroy Books is delighted to bring you J.R. Potter’s novel for middle grade readers and the winner of our 2019 Kraken Book Prize, Thomas Creeper and the Gloomsbury Secret, in 2021.