Catholic readers most likely recognize Raymond Arroyo from his work on EWTN, in particular his weekly show The World Over with Raymond Arroyo. He is a regular Fox News contributor, has written for numerous outlets, and is the author of several books about EWTN’s foundress, Mother Angelica.
He is also the author of the popular Will Wilder books for middle-grade readers. The first book in the series, Will Wilder: The Relic of Perilous Falls, came out in March 2016; the second, Will Wilder: The Lost Staff of Wonders, in March 2017; and the most recent, Will Wilder: The Amulet of Power, in February 2019.
Arroyo spoke with CWR after the second book came out, discussing the series-thus-far and the challenges that come with writing fiction for middle grade readers. He recently spoke with Catholic World Report about the series, the importance of reading for young people, and more.
CWR: How long were you working on this book, from start to finish?
Raymond Arroyo: This one took me about a year. It hit when the Trump administration was starting, and the news was like an avalanche, and there was no getting away from it. That did distract and break up my writing time and made it more difficult. So this did take a lot of time.
I also have a better feel for the characters than I have in the past; in that respect it was an easy book to write, in that I knew the main characters I was dealing with really well. They took over at points in the writing more than the first two books. The characters sort of went their own way, and there were some major changes in the plot as a result of that while writing.
CWR: Why do you think that children are drawn to Will? What do these books have that others don’t?
Arroyo: I can tell you what they tell me. I do a lot of book signings, and school visits, so I’m very in touch with the audience, which is a great thing. And of course they email me and tweet me, so I hear from them!
I think they like Will’s adventurous nature; he’s a little daring. I also think they inherently know he’s a good kid. And those are all appealing things. And they love his friends and his family! I get more letters about Aunt Lucille (who is Will’s great aunt and sidekick through a lot of these adventures); people are very attached to Aunt Lucille. I think they also like that he makes a lot of mistakes, but at some point he usually sort of wakes up and rights the wrongs and corrects course, and I think that appeals to kids.
On a deep level (to steal the old Chesterton line), kids have understood that dragons are real since the day they were born, and our job is to show them they can slay that dragon. This is a clash between good and evil in these books, and I think kids recognize the evil around them. They can feel it, even if they can’t always give voice to it. And so when they read these books, they’re immersed in an adventure where it becomes very dramatic for them. I think that is part of the appeal and allure of the Will Wilder books.
CWR: You recently wrote a piece at Fox News about literacy in the United States, especially among children. Why is it important that kids not just know how to read and be literate, but love reading?
Arroyo: For a number of reasons. The person who can read can reflect on things, and the world is really theirs. They can access any idea, they can access any place, through a book. It’s a wonderful tool and resource. I think libraries are our most under-utilized treasure houses.
I think it’s important that kids love to read because, first of all, the imaginative experience is so important for children, to have the literary experience of challenging themselves, to go to different places and wear the skins of different characters. Not only does it strengthen their imaginations, but it teaches them empathy and care for others, and a real understanding of the world that is beyond their years. Reading gives you so much, strengthens your mind, broadens your understanding. It gives you an emotional vocabulary that you don’t have if you don’t read. Then the external things: language, linguistics, grammar; all of those things you can learn through the avid practice of reading.
I get letters every day from parents, grandparents, aunts, and uncles, who share the book with kids—either reading it with them, or putting the audio book on while they’re traveling. So they’re having he experience together.
I make a lot of historical references in this book; a lot of the relics can be found in museums and libraries and churches around the world. So that cultural conversation is one they wouldn’t have if they didn’t go on this adventure together. It’s mutually beneficial, and I think everyone has a good time.
CWR: Would you say that the Catholic elements of these books are fundamental to the stories, or incidental? Could the relics just as easily be other archaeological objects, or are the stories fundamentally Catholic?
Arroyo: I don’t know if I’d call them “fundamentally Catholic.” But I would say that the relics are historically accurate, and they are all deliberately rooted in the western civilization and therefore Catholic. And that’s an important part of the story.
This is not a book for Catholics only. Obviously Will’s family has a Catholic pedigree; these are people who have collected these relics for a good reason (which has yet to be revealed), and they vie and war with dark forces to control and possess these objects. So they’re not incidental to Perilous Falls! They’re very important in Perilous Falls.
Every writer has to make a decision about what their universe is going to look like. I made a decision that, at the center of this piece was going to be objects and artifacts that I was familiar with. That ruled out Greco-Roman statuary and items that Rick Riordan might obsess with; I wasn’t going to focus on witchcraft and wizardry; so I made these relics central my story. The relics are central. And their supernatural and Catholic pedigree is important to them. And I think that gives a fascination even to those who are not well-versed in these items. There’s something fascinating about the history here.
CWR: You once told Catholic News Agency that the Will Wilder books are the most important work you’ve ever done. You’ve got The World Over, all your work at EWTN, your work with Fox News—why is this the most important work you’ve done?
Arroyo: It’s very personal to me. When you’re writing a novel, there’s more of you in the novel than anywhere else. Any writer will tell you that. Even though you’re writing about fictional characters, they’re very real to you, and they inevitably are tied to your personal experience and understanding of the world. Without your knowing it, you do bleed through. I can see myself in Will, in his father, in the villains, everywhere. When I’m writing it I have no awareness of that, but on reflection I see it.
What I meant by the comment about this being so important is that it is speaking to an audience that I’m privileged to speak to: young readers. I talk to grown-ups all the time. Grown-ups are great, but they’re fixed, they’re set, they’re done, by and large. You can move them a little bit. To be a part of kids’ internal universe, their imaginative world, is a gift, because you have a hand in shaping them in some ways, and pointing them toward the light and exciting them, and I hope entertaining them.
My first obligation is to entertain them. Then to excite them about the things I’m excited about. I’ve always been excited about these historical relics and antiquities, and why people would war over them.
And that is at the center of the whole series: who would steal a relic and why? That was the whole motivation at the beginning. There was a relic in the Dublin cathedral that went missing—the 700-year old heart of the patron saint of Dublin (St. Lawrence O’Toole). I couldn’t fathom why someone would break into a church and break out a ladder and steal that. You’ve got golden goblets and plates that belonged to Henry VIII, and they take this 700-year-old heart. Why would you do that? I try to imaginatively answer that in the book.
CWR: What do you hope to accomplish with these books, and in particular this third volume? What do you hope the reader will take from it?
Arroyo: I don’t intend anything but to tell a good story. I’m just trying to tell Will’s story. All of the books are outlined already; I know where the story is going. But this one surprised me a lot: a lot of things happened while I was writing that changed where the story was going. There were a lot of reveals about Will and his family that I hadn’t intended to reveal this early, but the timing was right and it came out then. So this book surprised me a lot. Readers have loved it because it does have a lot of natural twists and turns. It’s a fun ride.
I don’t intend to say something weighty. I really do subscribe to Madeleine L’Engle’s line. She had this wonderful line that the writer is the slave to the story—that means being true to these characters and to the world you’ve created. So when I’m writing, that’s really where my head is. I’m just trying to get the story out and be true to these characters. I’m not trying to say anything larger.
When I step back, I realize that this story is really a dramatic look at strength, and power, and what it means to be a strong young man today. Will comes into contact here with the locks of Samson and he gets incredible superhuman strength. But there’s a dark side to that, and it’s cost and obligation. Will comes to learn all of that in the course of this story.
CWR: Over the course of writing the series, how has your writing process changed?
Arroyo: Well, my writing time is limited. So I have to really hyper-focus when I’m writing. But what it has allowed me to do is free up my process a little bit. I’m not as committed to the outline once I’m in the process of writing. I allow the story to take its own shape. That can also throw you into rewrite hell and 15 drafts, which I’m not interested in—and don’t have time for! But, within limits, I’ll depart from the outline and kind of reshape things, re-outline as I go.
So my process is less rigid than it was in the first book. I would argue that you can feel that. You can feel the difference between the first and third books. The first book is fine; it’s fun, everything happens as it’s supposed to. But the third book is much more free-wheeling. A lot happens. That’s because I was going through that as a writer. I enjoyed the ride of this book more. I still love the second book, but the third book was a lot of fun to write.
A series is a big responsibility because kids love series. Part of my mission is to get kids to read more, and love reading, and the only way to do that, really, is to create a series for them, so that they want to move from one book to another to learn about these characters and continue the ride. So if there’s a larger mission I have, it’s to get families to read together, and to get kids addicted to this story and this world. Part of the challenge of that is that you have to keep raising the wattage and the stakes from one book to another. So that is a challenge for a writer, to keep the stakes rising and the audience engaged.
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