Patrick Carman, who lives in the Northwest, was in his mid-thirties
before conceiving The Land of Elyon series, and writing his first book,
The Dark Hills Divide. An entrepreneur like his father, Carman can't remember
a time when he wasn't searching for a way to creatively express himself,
an urge that led him to start an advertising agency, then create board
games, and finally develop and sell a dotcom before finding the thing
he was obviously meant to do: write youth fiction.
One could say it was serendipity how he finally got up the courage
to take that path. The father of two young daughters, Carman began trading
places once a week with his wife, so she could have a night out, and he
took over reading to their young daughters.
As the months passed, Carman began spinning a tale for his four- and
six-year-olds about a girl trapped behind the walls the town elders had
built around her village and her exploits in trying to find a way to explore
the forest that lay beyond. In the year that followed, he "journaled"
his thoughts and sketched out impressions about the characters and place,
which became The Land of Elyon series.
Please talk about the creative process you went
through for the book.
Carman: It was a journey. Getting to the point where I was ready to write
a book has been about a 20-year journey of being, really honestly, too
afraid to try - which I think is pretty common for people who are trying
to write a large piece of fiction.
When did you start thinking about writing a
Carman: I remember all the way back in high school thinking about writing
books. And in fact, I've written a lot of stories. I've got dozens of
stories I've written that no one's ever seen.
Did you ever take writing courses?
Carman: I took English courses in college, but I don't have an English
degree. I have a degree in economics. But, for me, I think it was more
about the creative process. I've always been somebody who wanted to be
involved in creative things and felt like that was my passion. And so
I was really involved in filmmaking and film studies when I was in college,
and put on a big film series at Willamette University for a couple of
years and was just really into that whole scene.
Is that why you got into advertising, because
you could be creative?
Carman: For the nine years I spent owning my own agency, I think I tried
to fulfill that desire. I mean, I actually did a lot of the design, but
I never felt like I was really doing more than looking at what everybody
else was doing and just kind of doing the same thing. That's pretty typical
of designers. So I was just spitting out work and running the business,
but I felt frustrated in terms of the creative process. And I think it
was the same thing with the board games I designed in a sense.
And what got me into writing was I finally came to the conclusion that
I can't really draw. I really am just an okay designer. I can't paint
or sculpt. No matter how hard I try there's no way I'm ever going to be
very good at those things. And with writing, it was like from the very
beginning - when I started thinking, okay, I can do this - it just felt
like this is perfect. I can totally do this. It feels very natural. It's
a great creative outlet and I just love doing it. And so I think that
for me part of that journey was just coming to a place of understanding
about the creative process. For each person it's different, but for me
writing feels very natural. So, anyway, that's kind of the journey I went
Have you and your wife always had a ritual of
reading to your daughters every night?
Carman: Yes, we're pretty into books around my house. We have lots and
lots of books around. We have TV, but really no one ever watches it.
Were you reading the classics to them?
Carman: Pretty much everything. We read everything from the classics
to Captain Underpants. It just depends on their mood.
So you were pretty much up on the children's
books out there?
Carman: Right. And I did a lot of research, and I just like those stories
anyway. I just like youth fiction myself. I read it just because I like
to read it. You know, they just tend to be good, fun stories.
So how did The Land of Elyon series evolve?
Carman: It started out where Karen and I decided she'd get out of the
house one night a week and I'd just hang out with the kids. And I came
up with this idea of a girl who's in this town surrounded by walls and
she has to figure out a way to sort of crawl under it and she'd go out
and have these little adventures. And more than anything that was the
spark that kind of got it started.
I had been working on all these different stories. It was like, okay,
I'm ready to write a book. And for whatever reason, this just sort of
emerged as I started keeping a journal as I was weaving the story for
the girls each week. I spent about six months with this journal working
out the rest of the characters and the plot. And it just developed from
What was the purpose of the journal?
Carman: As I tell students at the schools where I speak, if you have
some idea for a story, start making little pictures about it and writing
little notes about the characters and where they are and all this kind
of stuff and pretty soon it'll evolve into something interesting. And
so this journal that I had started out as, well, what does this place
look like? So I was drawing all these crazy little maps and things. And
then who were some of the characters? And what might happen in this story?
And so a good deal of the work was kind of done before I even started.
I spent all this time doing all this research and all this writing on
little notes to myself in this journal. And then, of course, once you
start writing, everything changes.
When did you officially start writing the book?
Carman: I would say the actual writing of the book started at least two
and a half years ago. It took about six months to write the first draft,
then it went through all the editing. I hired a professional editing company
to go through it.
How did you find the illustrator and the book
Carman: I actually went through all the books on my bookshelf and picked
the one I like the best, which was The Thousand Balloons. And it had this
awesome illustration by Brad Wienman. His name was in the back of it and
I looked him up and called him.
How did you find him?
Carman: I put his name in on Google and it came right up, because he's
so well known. You know, honestly, I didn't think I'd be able to afford
him. I was like, well, this is going to be way out of my league. But he's
going to do all three books. He's under contract to do illustrations all
the way through, and we're releasing a new sketch every month to anyone
who signs up for our e-newsletter.
What are some of the moral messages in The Dark
Carman: Probably a good passage to illustrate what I was really trying
to get at with this book is on page 70 in Chapter 10. This is the first
time she's been outside the wall, and she's walking up into the mountains
and turns back and sees the circumstance she's been living in her whole
"I looked back over my shoulder and saw the wall getting smaller
and smaller in the distance. I was surprised at how insignificant it looked,
cowering at the foot of the mountains. Beyond the walls the Dark Hills
rolled on and on, into ominous and forbidding valleys unseen from Bridewell
itself. I turned to the mountains and began walking again. The higher
I went, the higher they seemed to go, ever farther and brighter in the
sunlight, ever expanding to places I could never fully discover. I stopped
and turned to look upon Bridewell again, and I saw it as I had never seen
it before. It sat squarely between darkness and light, its roads a three-headed
snake, bound at the center with a hideous head, dividing vast lands. It
had a certain balance, a symmetry - as if each land were pushing against
the walls, trying to bring them down, to dominate, and to rule. As I began
walking again, following the little man, I felt a profound sense of exhilaration
and fear, and I promised myself never to venture out into the Dark Hills
no matter what duty might call into its sinister lands."
Interestingly enough, the second book begins with her going off into
the dark hills. But this to me describes in a metaphorical sense what
the book is trying to get at: if we're going to build all these walls
around ourselves, then not only are the bad things not going to be able
to get at us, but nothing good is going to be able to come in either.
Also, there's another scene, where she's in the forest with the big grizzly
bear and she finally starts to understand: well, who's the real enemy
here? And the real enemy is the walls themselves. And so, in a very real
sense, it's a story about her beginning to understand as a young person
that "I can't just protect myself from everything. If I try to protect
myself from all the bad things that can come into my life, then nothing
good is ever going to come in either."
How can kids relate The Dark Hills Divide to
their own lives?
Carman: The walls in the book are very much like the emotional walls
that kids build around themselves to cope with all the peer pressure.
They feel they have to dress a certain way, to act a certain way, to talk
to only certain people, and all of that. That's not what being a kid should
have to be about. You should be able to just be yourself and be with the
kids you want to be with and dress the way you want to dress and, you
know, have a good experience with school. But so many kids are so afraid.
And they lose themselves and they lose the opportunity of meeting the
kids they probably should have met - of being the kid they really should
What makes Alexa so interesting to follow around is that she's far from
perfect. She's very normal for her age.
Carman: I wanted the story to also be an examination of a person's choices.
Alexa tends to lie. She does it three or four times, and there's always
some sort of consequence to that. What I wanted to show is that you're
responsible for your own behavior whether you like it or not. It always
comes back to bite you. And there are things she does and she has to say
she's sorry, that she has to come clean about.
How do you relate what the story's about to
the kids you talk with at schools?
Carman: When we get to the point in the discussion where, well, what's
the story really about? I try to get them to totally visualize themselves
in this story. So I say, imagine yourself on a cart. One of the old-style
Western carts. And you're sitting with your father, and there's a couple
of horses in front and you're just going down this nice dirt road. And
it's a hot day. It's just like an oven. But if you look to either side,
there are these walls - big walls that go very high up in the air. And
you're on this road with these walls next to you and they just go on and
on like that. And pretty soon you come to a big, giant wooden gate. They
open the gate for you. You go inside, and you're in a town where you're
going to spend the summer. The houses are all single story. They're all
well below the wall. And the town is also walled in. And so that's the
way it is and you've never known anything different. There have always
been these walls everywhere. And when you ask adults about it, they say,
well, there's this legend about why they were built and who built them
- but you really don't get the answer you're looking for. So you're just
kind of hanging around for the summer with not a lot of kids around. And
you have one desire and really one desire only: this is the summer you're
going to figure out a way to get outside the wall. To find out what's