Author Interview: Arnold Johnston and Deborah Ann Percy

Today, Feathered Quill reviewer Ellen Feld is talking with Arnold Johnston and Deborah Ann Percy, authors of Mr. Robert Monkey Returns to New York.

FQ: Tell our readers a little about yourself. Your background, your interests, and how this led to writing a book?

JOHNSTON/PERCY: We were readers before we were writers. And before we were readers our parents read to us every evening at bedtime. Of course we didn’t know each other then. Arnie grew up in Scotland, then in Detroit; his favorite authors were Robert Louis Stevenson (Treasure Island and Kidnapped) and Hugh Lofting (Dr. Dolittle). Debby grew up in Kalamazoo, Michigan, reading Ray Bradbury (The Martian Chronicles) and C. S. Lewis (The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe). When we started writing, we took our craft seriously, wrote every day, kept notebooks, imagined adventures, and kept reading writers we admired. When we met, we found that we loved writing with each other. We now write plays together and were collaborators on an Arts & Entertainment column. Debby writes fiction, too. Arnie writes fiction, poetry, and translations. Over twenty of our books have been published, and our plays have had more than 300 productions and readings.

FQ: Please give our readers a little insight into your writing process. Do you set aside a certain time each day to write, only write when the desire to write surfaces, or ?

JOHNSTON/PERCY: Debby likes writing on a more or less regular schedule, often in the morning. She writes a lot, often saving snippets and letting them percolate until they’re ready to turn into stories or plays. Arnie is more of a binge writer, letting ideas develop in his head until they pop out and drag him along with them. When we collaborate, each of us is always surprised and delighted with what the other comes up with. We figure if we can surprise ourselves, that will surprise readers, and the unexpected is always fun.

FQ: Is there a genre you have not yet delved into that you would like to attempt in the future?

JOHNSTON/PERCY: Actually, we pretty much try everything. Writing a children’s book was one of the last genres we’ve explored. We’ve worked hard and practiced a lot to improve our writing, and we’ve both taught creative writing to lots of aspiring writers. As for us, we just keep hoping to get better and enjoy what we’re doing.

FQ: Who are your favorite authors?

JOHNSTON/PERCY: Debby loves Ernest Hemingway for the perfection of his Michigan stories and his amazing dialogue. She also admires Mark Twain, especially Tom Sawyer. Arnie has always enjoyed Charles Dickens, especially Great Expectations and David Copperfield. As playwrights, we admire Anton Chekhov, Alan Ayckbourn, August Wilson, Harold Pinter, Wendy Wasserstein, and Lorraine Hansberry.

FQ: How do you approach a new story and when you set pen to paper, is there a specific process you follow (or do you just write and let your story take the lead to where it must go)?

JOHNSTON/PERCY: As we said earlier, stories depend on a major challenge for the main character, as well as obstacles to overcome, all of which add suspense and make readers want to know what will happen next. We also wanted Mr. Robert’s adventures to be fun for adults to read to children, so we wrote the story in rhyming couplets, which are enjoyable to listen to—and every rhyme in itself is a small happy ending.

FQ: Where did the idea for your story come from?

JOHNSTON/PERCY: We started writing this book because we acquired a little stuffed monkey toy one day. We accumulated a pretty large collection of stuffed monkeys, and we often give them as gifts to children we meet along the way. We called that first one Mr. Robert Monkey, and it amused us to take him along any time we made a trip somewhere. Then we decided to write the book about Mr. Robert taking a trip of his own. We believe this book about friendship and loyalty can appeal to contemporary children in the way an earlier generation was captivated by the first tales of the classic Winnie the Pooh.

FQ: Did your family & friends encourage you to write your book?

JOHNSTON/PERCY: Our parents certainly encouraged us every step of the way. Now our sons, their wives, and our grandchildren cheer us on—as we do them. We read early versions of the story to our grandchildren and the children of friends. They immediately loved Mr. Robert and said, “More, more, more!”

FQ: Was the plot worked out completely before you started or did it evolve as your wrote?

JOHNSTON/PERCY: The plot grew from the germ of an idea about a father who, on a whim, buys a little toy monkey for his son Bobby. We enjoyed imagining how Bobby and Mr. Robert became fast friends. As with all plots, complications are necessary, so we invented a main difficulty for Mr. Robert to overcome—getting lost on the way to a new home in New York. Then we had to think of more problems to make his journey back to Bobby challenging—and fun! We also decided late in the process that Bobby should wear glasses, because lots of children who need to improve their sight are too young for contact lenses. And everyone in our families wears glasses, too!

FQ: Tell us about the protagonist in your story.

JOHNSTON/PERCY: Mr. Robert and Bobby share a special bond and share imaginary adventures. “When you see one of them, you’ll always see the other.” As with Calvin and Hobbes, Mr. Robert comes to life when he and Bobby are together or when he encounters other toys or animals. Otherwise, he’s a stuffed toy.

FQ: Are any of the characters based on real people you know? If so, how closely does your character mimic the real person?

JOHNSTON/PERCY: One of our granddaughters has a beloved stuffed pig toy she received when she was a baby. She never takes it on trips because she couldn’t bear to lose it. We found her a duplicate pig for her to take on trips. She calls it TP—Traveling Pig. That, and our habit of taking Mr. Robert along on our own travels gave us the germ of Mr. Robert Returns to New York. The plot—getting lost and finding the way home—goes all the way back to Homer’s Odyssey. And like The Odyssey, our little tale has a happy ending.

FQ: How did you approach the need to keep readers engaged and tuned in to keep turning those pages?

JOHNSTON/PERCY: As we said earlier, stories depend on a major challenge for the main character, as well as obstacles to overcome, all of which add suspense and make readers want to know what will happen next. We also wanted Mr. Robert’s adventures to be fun for adults to read to children, so we wrote the story in rhyming couplets, which are enjoyable to listen to—and every rhyme in itself is a small happy ending.

For more information on Mr. Robert Monkey Returns to New York, please visit the publisher's website at: www.belleislebooks.com

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