Raymond Arroyo has worked for the Associated
Press, the New York Observer, and as
founding news director, managing editor, and lead anchor for EWTN News. He has
interviewed cardinals, politicians, presidents, actors, authors, and more. He has
also written several books, including a two-part biography of EWTN foundress
In recent years, however, he has branched out
into new territory: middle-grade fiction.
This month, the second book of Arroyo’s “Will
Wilder” adventure series for young readers comes out. The first book in the
series came out a year ago to wide acclaim, and has rapidly grown in popularity.
The series centers around a young man named Will
Wilder, whose family has a mysterious and wondrous history involving the saving
and protecting of sacred relics. The first book, Will Wilder: The Relic of Perilous Falls, was published by Crown (a
subsidiary of Random House) in March 2016. The second in the series, Will Wilder: The Lost Staff of Wonders,
comes out on March 7, 2017.
Arroyo recently spoke with Catholic World Report about this series and his foray into fiction.
CWR: You’ve been at EWTN for a long time now; you’ve written on the life of
Mother Angelica, and written columns and articles on various topics over the
years. Is Will Wilder your first stab at fiction?
Arroyo: It is; it is my first work of fiction.
When I was thinking about what I wanted to write and the genre I wanted to
write in, I kept returning to children’s fiction and young readers. I mean,
when you think back to the books that touched your life and changed you, and
left a mark on you, it’s usually the books you read as a young person, as a
child. For whatever reason, young readers are more available and open. Their
hearts are more open to works of fiction. So when they read a book, they’re not
just reading it at arm’s length, they’re really taking it into themselves. They
become those lead characters, they’re identifying with them and going on this
journey with them in a very personal way. And so I think that’s why the stories
we’re told as younger people leave such a mark. And they can sort of set the
compass for your whole life, which is why it is so important what they’re
reading during that period.
And then I thought about my own children. This
whole series came from telling them stories, usually during their bath time
when they were very small (that’s where the characters came from). The story I
grew and built elsewhere, but the characters, the basic template for these
charactersWill, his brother and sister, his Great Aunt Lucillethose
characters I’d been telling the kids about. Will would have these sort of wild
comic adventures when I would tell the kids these stories, and it was just a
way to keep them entertained and to get them through the bathing process! And
then as they got older I would continue telling them some of those stories at
nighttime, right before they went to bed. So it had its origins there.
CWR: Is that how you settled on middle grade [ages 8-12] for the intended age
of your readers?
Arroyo: Well, I always sayand I can prove it, from the letters I’ve been
getting for the last yearWill Wilder is intended for the young at heart, the
young of all ages, but it’s not just young people. I have letters from 60-year-olds
and 80-year-olds and 30-year-olds and kids in college. I think there’s a huge
appetite in this middle-grade space, and the reason people are drawn to these
tales that are obviously intended for a younger audience is because they’re
filled with wonder, there’s a possibility of the supernatural, and yet you’re
right on the cusp of adulthood. So all of that is happening, and I think for
older readers there are lessons and there are insights here that the young eyes
just won’t see. But I think that’s true of any great kids’ book.
The books I loved as a child, when I go back to
them now, and I read them to my own children, I come away with a very different
storyline, or I think very differently about certain characters, because I’m
seeing it through different eyes, and I’m ready to see things that I wasn’t
ready to see then. So I wrote this series with that in mind. I want to reach young
people nowI also want to reach them again when they’re older, and come back to
this with their own children, I hope. So it’s written on two levels.
CWR: Do you see the Will Wilder series, explicitly, as a way to evangelize?
Arroyo: My goal with this series is first and foremost to entertain families
and children. That really is my goal. I did not write this to evangelize anybody.
I wrote this to send kids on a great adventure and to acquaint them with
antiquities and relics that they might have been unfamiliar with. Really, if
you pin me down and ask me what the series is really about, the series is
really about how the adventure we go on in life is not a solitary adventure.
One of the things that has always annoyed me
about the trend in middle-grade fiction is that it’s the protagonist all alone,
it’s the hero alone with his friends. I wanted to create a series and a
protagonist who is surrounded by his family who went on the adventure with him.
So it’s an intact family there that goes on this journey with Will. Because I
think that’s all of our stories on some level. And whether that family hinders
you or helps you, they are part of your adventure and you have to embrace them.
And in Will’s case, as one character says in the first book, “If you don’t know
your past, you’ll never really discover your future.” It is about the decisions
of our parents and grandparents that shape our own path in life, and who we are
and who we’re called to be. And that’s what I wrote this series about first and
CWR: Did the publisher or editors balk at all at the Catholic aspect of the
series, since the Catholic milieu is so uncommon in middle-grade fiction?
Arroyo: This book was purchased byand my publisher isBarbara Marcus, who is
the woman responsible for publishing all the Harry Potter books, the Baby-Sitters Clubshe’s a legend in
children’s publishing. No one at Random House asked me to soften or backpedal
or do anything to my manuscript, or the characters.
Harry Potter had, as the axis on which that
series spun, witchcraft and wizardry. And J.K. Rowling was very true to that.
Rick Riordan is very true to the Greek mythology that drives his [Percy
Jackson] series. I am very true to the antiquities and the relics that drive my
series. The difference, the thing that I love about this series, is that
readers of my books can actually go into museums and churches and libraries all
over the world and come into contact with the items that drive the plots of my books,
in most cases. And that’s a wonderful thing. I mean, I wanted to excite kids about
history and pull back the veil on some of the historical figures attached to
these fascinating relics and antiquities. So that was part of what I was doing
here. But no, [the publishers] never at any point said, “You can’t use a finger
bone of St. Thomas,” or, “You can’t use Moses’ staff”no.
CWR: These books are 300-400 pages, and crammed with historical and
archaeological details. How much research went into the books, and how much
stemmed from your existing knowledge of the Church and of Judeo-Christian
Arroyo: I don’t trust my residual knowledge for anything, and I learned this
long ago as a journalist and as a biographer: you trust your memory at your
peril, because memory has a way of tricking you, and getting confused and mixed
and mingled with other things. So I go back, when I start every book, and I do
extensive researchon not only the relics, but at the beginning of each of
these books there’s a historical flashback to Will Wilder’s great-grandfather,
Jacob Wilder. Those are all historically accurate settings, times, and some of the
figures there are accurate, as well as the relics.
Now, in the case of Moses’ staff, there was an
article in a journal that I came across in England, and it was a professor
making the case that the staff of Moses was in a museum in Birmingham, England.
Well, I was fascinated by that. Now, my personal belief is it is not in a museum in Birmingham, England.
In fact, there is another museum in Turkey that claims to have the staff of
Moses. I think both of those are probably counterfeits. I read this years and
years ago, but it lodged in the back of my creative mind and I thought that
would be an interesting plot device down the road somehow. So, when I came to
the Will Wilder series, it just fit. And so the staff of Moses is in the museum
there in Perilous Falls. Well, then I started to do research on the staff of
Moses, which is rich and fascinating. In the Jewish rabbinical literature (which
is sort of a commentary on the Old Testament), the Midrash tells us that the
staff of Moses is actually a sapphire staff, and it has engravings on the side about
the plagues, in Hebrew letters. Fascinating.
We know from the Old Testamentand again, this is
why I can’t trust my knowledgethat few people remember where the staff of
Moses comes from. When Moses falls in love with Jethro’s daughter, Jethro says,
“If you go in the back yard here, there’s a tree, and if you remove the staff
from the tree, you can have my daughter’s hand.” Well, several suitors go out
and try it, and they all die in the act. But when Moses goes out he pulls it
out, and he is the chosen one and he gets the girl’s hand in marriage.
This is part of why I think familiarity with
these stories is so important for children, because…these stories have a way of
reverberating through our literature. And in the case of Moses’ staff, this is
the archetype for King Arthur’s Excalibur, when he pulls the sword from the
stone and he’s the chosen one to lead the kingdom. That all comes from Moses.
I love origin stories. I love to know where
things came from. When I began to dig into the beginnings of these stories we
kind of take for granted, in this case Moses’ story, I unearthed all kinds of
things, and started seeing all kinds of connections. And I used those and wove
those through this particular tale. But this is a wild adventure. Kids have
loved this book, just because it moves so quickly, there’s so much happening in
it. It’s a full-fledged adventure, and a bit of a mystery beneath the surface.
CWR: Do you already know how many Will Wilder books there will be? Or is it
Arroyo: Nothing is open-ended in Perilous Falls! I spent seven years building
this world and the background for these characters. I give myself freedom as I
write, but I know how the story ends, as well as the characters. The relics are
deliberately chosen to amplify Will’s story in each book. Little is left to
chance, but inspiration is always heeded and welcome.
CWR: Do you have Will’s future mapped out already in a big-picture sense,
or does each book come together as you go along?
Arroyo: It’s all mapped out. I have outlines that run through multiple books and
story arcs. Some authors freestyle and just let the story unveil itself to
them. I have always needed an outline, then I let it twist and turn as it
desires in the writing. Some of the best moments in the second book were
complete surprises to me as I wrote. Those inspired moments are often better
than anything I devised beforehand. So you let it happen. But when writing a
story rooted in history with such a large cast, you need a roadmap.
CWR: What if anything have you learned from your experience as a children’s
Arroyo: Over the last year, I have spoken to thousands and thousands of
children, at something like 50 schools. What I’ve seen has been so incredible,
because you realizewell, the first thing you realize is kids really do want
great stories. They want a story they can sink their teeth into, and they will
read if you give them material they want to read.
I think, so often, we as parents or teachers want
to give them the classics, and in many cases they aren’t ready for the classics
yet. So, I see Will Wilder as kind of a middle-ground. It taps into a young
person’s natural sense of story, their sense of adventure, and I also think
they’re looking for, they’re drawn to the supernatural as we all are. There’s
something else here at play. And, to my mind, that’s what explains the success
of Harry Potter and Percy Jacksonthey mingled in the real world with these
supernatural elements, something that was happening outside of our normal
existence, but yet is explainable within it. And I loved that notion, and I think
it’s what kids find appealing in this type of literature. So I did try to make
that a part of Will Wilder’s DNA. The supernatural is always there.
As Aunt Lucille says in the second book,
something like, “There is grave evil and wondrous miracles all around us,
whether we see them or not,” and I think that’s true. And Will certainly sees
it in stark relief. He has a particular gift that allows him to see this more
easily than you or I, but it’s at play whether you see it or not. And the
recognition of that can be its own adventure.