Interview: Justin Glanville
What was the genesis of Munchen, Minnesota? And why Minnesota and not Ohio? (“Munchen, Minnesota” sounds like the tagline of a Twin Cities candy company....)
My writing partner, Christine Borne, and I wanted to set our show in a fictional Midwestern city that was in decline. And we wanted the show to be funny as well as scary and dramatic. We started thinking about all the cities in the U.S. that are named after foreign cities -- only the pronunciation is completely Americanized. For example: Montevideo, Minnesota (pronounced MonteVIDeo); Lima, Ohio (pronounced LIE-ma); Milan, Michigan (MY-lin); Marseilles, Ohio (pronounced Mar-SAYLES). We thought: “Munchen,” pronounced “Munchin’!” Funny and a little spooky sounding!
We picked Minnesota partly for the alliteration with Munchen, and partly because we wanted to tap into the Scandinavian folklore tradition. Of course, Minnesota is heavily Scandinavian. (Yeah, we know Munchen is in Germany! Poetic license!)
What’s your creative process? Do you have an overarching idea of the stories about Munchen you want to tell or are you taking things organically and letting the city lead you where its wants you to?
When we first conceived the series, it was going to be a straight drama -- kind of a soap, really, about people living on a particular street in Munchen. We developed a bunch of characters and relationships. But then we thought, hey -- you know what? We want there to be supernatural happenings too! Christine and I are both huge fans of books and TV shows that combine the supernatural with real human drama. John Bellairs of course was a pioneer of this, with his stories of lonely kids fighting demons and ghosts, and we also both loved Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which does something similar. So then we spent a summer building a mythology about what had happened in Munchen’s past and why it’s about to suffer a supernatural invasion. The characters stayed mostly the same, but the threats they face are scarier now.
In terms of the writing, we outline each episode before we start writing. We also have an idea where we want the “season” to end. But we absolutely make discoveries along the way each time. That’s why we’re writing through the whole 10-episode season first: so that we can go back and add things to early episodes that we discover later on. We expect to be done writing and recording in Summer 2014.
How do you research? Your blog notes finding the World’s Largest Turkey in Frazee and Norwegian dancing over in Stoughton, Wisconsin online. Have you journeyed to Minnesota to get a feel for that part of the country?
Christine and I have both been to Minnesota, though not specifically (yet) to research our series. Both of the things you mention we found just through Internet research.
I’d love to visit the Iron Range region sometime. What an evocative name. It’s where Duluth is located, and it’s where I vaguely picture Munchen. Back during the height of the Cleveland steel industry, this is where they mined the iron ore that was shipped via the Great Lakes down to Cleveland to process into a final product.
Minnesota has a very different feel from Cleveland and Northeast Ohio, where I grew up and live now, even though they’re both considered parts of the Midwest. Minnesota is newer, less fraught with racial tension (in part because it’s home to a far smaller black population), and I feel there’s a sense of the “backwoods,” “the wilds,” being much closer at hand.
You wrote a great piece on your blog about the influence of John Bellairs, noting the three communities he wrote about in his novels – those being New Zebedee, Hoosac, and Duston Heights. Do you have a favorite of the three? Which one do you connect with the most, or feel is the most developed?
Oh, I love this question. I’d have to say Duston Heights, Massachusetts was my favorite. As a kid, I identified most with the Johnny Dixon books, which was the series on which Bellairs was focused while I was growing up. As your website notes, he wrote eight Dixon books within the seven-year period between 1983 and 1990 -- amazing! But as I wrote in my post, all of Bellairs’ towns seemed familiarly eerie to me. I think they would to anyone who grew up in the industrial Northeast or Midwest: the big old churches, the majestic street trees, the spooky autumns. (Cleveland has its fair share of all of the above.) When you live in an “old,” perhaps declining town, hauntings and ghosts seem entirely plausible. Even probable.
How did you first encounter John’s work? Favorite novel?
I believe the first book I read was The Curse of the Blue Figurine, the first in the Johnny Dixon series. I found it at my public library, a cozy 1960s building in suburban Cleveland right across from a crumbling cemetery! I was hooked right away. My favorite books were Figurine and The House with a Clock in its Walls.
What are your feelings about Brad Strickland continuing the stories?
To be honest, I haven’t read any of them. Not out of protest: by the time he picked up the baton, I’d moved on to more “adult” fare, I suppose.
Would you happen to have a fond memory involving his stories you’d like to share?
Just the delicious anticipation of his latest book arriving. Back when I was a kid, before the Internet, I had no way of knowing when that would be. But every time I visited the library, which was often, I’d eagerly check to see if a new volume (with tantalizing Gorey cover, of course!) had appeared on the new books shelf of the children’s section. When one had, it was a very happy day. I was a pretty lonely kid, and his books gave me a world of company to escape into. As I write this, I realize one of the librarians there must have been a Bellairs fan him- or herself, because his latest would always be displayed prominently.
Knowing John’s love of history and trivia, what’s one place or thing in Cleveland that you think John would have enjoyed?
Lakeview Cemetery, on the Cleveland’s east side, is one of the grandest and spookiest cemeteries I’ve encountered anywhere. It’s on a steep hillside, with lots of stone angels and mausoleums. John D. Rockefeller is buried there. So is James Garfield, the assassinated 20th president, in a teetering red-brick tower that might have easily been the setting of a Bellairs climax.
In your reading, have you found any other authors who remind you in some ways of John Bellairs?
I’ve been looking for them ever since adolescence, and I wish I’d found many more than I have! The closest I’ve come is probably the first few adult novels by Carlos Ruiz Zafón, and the work of the contemporary British ghost story writers Sarah Waters and Susan Hill, who share Bellairs’ sense of creeping malignance. There’s a ton of supernatural stuff out there now, but for me what made Bellairs’ books stand apart were the simultaneous undercurrents of melancholy and humor that he brought to his tales. They were emotionally complex. They were happy and sad just like life.
What other author/book(s) would you recommend to a Bellairs fan?
- Sarah Waters, The Little Stranger
- Susan Hill, The Woman in Black
- Carlos Ruiz Zafón, The Shadow of the Wind and Angel’s Game
- John Connolly, The Book of Lost Things
- Dan Chaon, Stay Awake (short stories)
- Peter Cameron, Andorra
- Andrew Davidson, The Gargoyle
- Diane Setterfield, The Thirteenth Tale
(I should read more current YA than I do. I bet I’d find some great stuff.) And then they’re not horror stories or even books, but the television shows Freaks and Geeks and Friday Night Lights did Bellairs-style adolescent yearning really well.
Compleat this sentence: you know you’ve read too much John Bellairs when –
...to the summer and sun, you prefer decrepit towers, empty churches, graveyards and gusts of autumn wind. (I still do.)
Thank you, Justin.