Conran spoke with fellow author Bree Barton about her middle-grade adventure, which was just published by Gosling Press. Conran’s a member of the Sweet Sixteens, an online group for authors debuting in 2016. Barton rolls with the Swanky Seventeens.
ABOUT THE NOVEL
Fourth graders Mikey and Kyler are convinced they’ve seen a real live Celtic warrior transported to the present as part of a secret defense project. They’re determined to help him return to his own time and in the process write the best Veteran’s Day report ever. Instead they discover a quite different secret.
THE LOST CELT is a modern adventure story, drawing upon video games, time-travel conspiracies, Roman and Celtic history, and the ancient stories of Irish warrior hero Cuchulain, but, ultimately, it deals with the invisible effects of war on veterans of all generations and their families, and the transcendent power of friendship.
The novel was 60 percent funded by a group of Desert Storm veterans.
About the Author
E. Conran (Amanda) is a children’s book author, freelance editor, children’s book specialist, and children’s book club facilitator at Book Passage, Corte Madera, CA. Originally from England, Amanda now lives in the Bay Area with her husband, two kids and lots of squirrels, deer, and coyotes…in the back garden, not in the house! You can find her at aeconran.com, as well as on Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest and Goodreads.
TALKING ABOUT “THE LOST CELT”
Bree: What a tremendous thing you’ve accomplished in THE LOST CELT. I was crying so hard by the final scene, I couldn’t even see the words on the page. How important was it for you to take your reader on an emotional journey? Were you angling for tears?
E.: Thank you so much for saying such nice things about THE LOST CELT. Yes, it was extremely important to me that I touch my readers deeply because the subject matter is very dear to me. I wouldn’t say that I angled for tears, but I surprised myself by crying when I read the final ending of the book. This was after I realized that Mikey had to change his report, that he had come to a more profound understanding of the nature of war and its effects on families, that his experiences had brought not only Mom and Grandpa closer together, but him and Ryan closer together and had put “the Celt” on the path to recovery even if he still has a long way to go, which in my mind is also the case. Those moments still affect me because I really want them to be true. I think it’s also important to point out that I wanted this to work in the context of a very mainstream, adventurous, child-friendly and funny book.
Bree: You mention in the Author’s Notes that you grew up in England with a father and a grandfather who were both soldiers. Had you always wanted to write a book that paid homage to veterans and their unique struggles? Was this the kernel of the idea?
E.: No, I never set out to write about veterans, and I’ve never considered that I come from a military family, although I realize I have a more military background than some. My grandfather was a career soldier in the Army Physical Training Corps and was away in Africa, Palestine, Cyprus, and other places for years at a time. My father did his National Service, nearly entered the Army as career, but then decided to go to Art College instead. He was in the Reserves for many years when I was young, and is still very involved in the Royal Legion. His was the true military childhood, not mine.
THE LOST CELT was inspired by a conversation with two Emergency Room doctors at a local VA Medical Center. They told me there were always more admissions in the ER on “certain nights,” when war stories or natural disasters were in the news. Secondly, one friend remembered a man with red hair and beard, acting very much as I describe my Celt. My friend, who was truly worried for him, could not help but think he was witnessing a warrior, a Viking, in the ER. That idea, of the continuity of the potential effects of war through history, stayed with me. I was sure that something needed to be written about it, but I didn’t know what.
Four years later, I was stopped at a traffic light when the idea for THE LOST CELT came to me. I pulled over and wrote it all down, literally on the back of an envelope, before I lost it. Has it changed since then? Yes to a certain extent…but the germ of the idea never has.
There are many other factors at play as well in the inspiration for this story. I’ve always loved history, and I was particularly fascinated by ancient history as a child. I painted tiny Roman and Celtic soldiers and visited historic sites across the UK, including walking Hadrian’s Wall. I read a lot of historical fiction, especially the works of Rosemary Sutcliffe and Henry Treece, as well as Greek classics like Homer. Most of these were stories about living through, and returning from, war.
Add to this the fact that I grew up in a small English village where there were still veterans of the First World War. Their stories surrounded us. One great uncle had survived the trenches in the First World War only to die as he returned home. He was so eager to see his family that he jumped out of the train before it stopped at the station. He was trapped between the train and the platform and died two weeks later of his injuries. My Grandma’s favorite uncle joined up for the First World War at the age of sixteen. He was recommended for a medal for taking a German machine gun nest, but refused to accept it. He said he acted only out of anger, not bravery, because his friends had been killed around him.
It’s strange, but the fact that my generation had been brought up by people intimate with the effects of war did not fully strike me until I came to live in America. One particular incident really hit home. My mum came to visit and we went for a meal with a group of friends of my age. When we left the restaurant my mother burst into tears. “They ordered so much food,” she said, “and they didn’t even eat it. There was more food on that table than we had for our entire family for a week during the war…and they didn’t even eat it.”
There was definitely a disconnect between my mother’s experience and my own upbringing and that of my friends. I think it was this that led me to make one of my main characters a veteran of a recent war. I hadn’t planned to, but as I listened to the news, I became very aware how deeply the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were affecting a relatively small portion of our society. Unlike the experience of previous world wars, it struck me how large a gap there was between those who serve and their families and those of us who do not. That did not feel right. I really wanted to write a book that addressed that gap a little. Stories were not being shared, as the stories of earlier wars were shared when I was a child, or even the stories that the ancients told. I sometimes wonder whether the ancients were more willing to tell it, and accept it, how it is. Their understanding of a hero was more complex and maybe more helpful than ours today.
Bree: I would never call your book “pro-war,” but I would never call it “anti-war,” either. It’s beautifully nuanced and complex—Mikey’s mom has removed all the plastic guns from his toy soldiers and tries to boycott war movies in the house, but the novel also features veterans from two separate wars and pays them the highest respect. Do you think it’s important for middle-grade readers to contemplate war and a culture of violence as a gray area, never black and white?
E.: Thank you for saying THE LOST CELT is nuanced and complex. I really appreciate this because I think this reflects my own “gray” attitude. I, too, removed the tiny guns from my son’s soldiers (I recently found a film canister stuffed full of them) and yet when I was younger, I was a member of the Combined Cadet Forces. I have the greatest respect and admiration for my family members and friends who are veterans, but I chose not to join the military myself. I did contemplate it when I was applying for university.
One of the most important moments in my schooling was when I learned about the First World War at the age of fourteen. I’ve never forgotten how horrifying and deeply disillusioning those lessons were. At the same time, Testament of Youth by Vera Brittain was being televised. Boys that I knew at Uppingham School, where Vera’s fiancée and brother were students, were getting their hair cut and acting as extras. They were drilling in the town dressed in WWI uniform, just like their counterparts in 1914. It was a very easy leap to realize that in the event of another war these boys, my age, could be a lost generation too. I know I was slightly older than middle-graders at that point but yes, I think it’s important for middle-graders to be aware of the realities of war and warfare in an appropriate fashion.
With respect, however, I think there’s a difference between war and a culture of violence. A culture of violence is always wrong even in a military situation.
Bree: An excellent point. There’s definitely a distinction. On a related note: Why do you think war movies capture the American imagination so completely? It seems there will always be more war movies. Do Brits have the same obsession?
E.: I’m not sure. I think in the best of cases, war movies can show us the horrors of war, acknowledging that some of the very best and very worst human traits are brought out under these extraordinary conditions. On a more simplistic basis, I think the war movie can be an opportunity for people to revel in the triumph of good over bad, but that can be troubling and reductive. Yes, the Brits do have the same obsession. It is strange to think that when I was a kid, war films were always on the television: Bridge over the River Kwai, Guns of Navarone, The Dambusters, The Longest Day, Dirty Dozen, The Great Escape, Desert Fox, Reach for the Sky, Hannibal Brooks, etc.
I watched them all, avidly, until I was in my late teens, when I completely turned away from them. I was born twenty years after the end of the Second World War, so every adult I watched these movies with had been there in some capacity and they were still watching them. I find that intriguing. I suppose you could say they are an attempt to tell stories, much like the ancients told their stories, but only a few manage to get the nuances across. The ones that do should be commended. Certain stories have to be told and remembered.
In your perfect world, if your readers were to walk away with one shining insight after reading THE LOST CELT, what would it be?
E.: Oh my goodness—so many good, but really hard questions. I would like people to remember the majority of people returning from a conflict do not have PTSD, but as Mariko says, “…Once you’ve experienced certain things, they never quite go away. But people do get better.” And I hope it’s the case that telling stories, listening to stories, finding solace in friendship and seeking help, when necessary, along with the passage of time, all make a difference, as in Grandpa’s case. I’d also like there to be recognition that, as Mikey says, children of veterans are veterans too in the struggle to get back to normal.
I love that. It speaks to one of my favorite lines in the book: “Because when a veteran comes back, the war doesn’t stop. A new war starts for them and their families.” Punch me in the gut, it’s so damn beautiful! And true.
Favorite fictional character.
Ivan in The One and Only Ivan.
Period of history you’d most like to be transported to.
Three objects within arm’s reach when you write.
I write at the dinner table…so the honest truth is a salt grinder, a porcelain chick for Easter, and no matter what the season, a cup of Barry’s Irish breakfast tea.
Best compliment you’ve ever gotten about your writing.
Your book made me cry!
Favorite war movie. (“I hate them all” is a perfectly reasonable answer!)
Master and Commander. I’m so moved by the way Jack both cares for and yet has to make tragically hard decisions about the men under his command. He doesn’t always make the right decisions, but he tries.
ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER
Bree Barton enjoys a good cry, and is grateful for all the books that get her there (thanks, Amanda!). She volunteers at WriteGirl in LA and teaches a rockin’ dance class called RockAsana. She is very happy eating cheese. Bree’s short fiction is coming at you in The Iowa Review, Mid-American Review, and some other places, and her debut YA novel, BLACK ROSE, arrives shrinkwrapped from Katherine Tegen/Harper Collins in fall 2017. (Just kidding about the shrinkwrap.) The book follows Mia Rose, a magical girl who would rather rappel with her wedding dress than actually wear it—and who runs the hell away from a marriage she doesn’t want. Bree, too, is not married, but she IS on Twitter @BreeBartonYA and her very own website breebarton.com. Drop by and sit a spell!