Novelist brings youthful G.K. and H.G. to literary life
Imagine G.K. Chesterton and H.G. Wells as reluctant adventurers in a science fiction thriller, with the founder of the Knights of Columbus, Father Michael J. McGivney, making an appearance. That is just what John D. McNichol has done in his second novel of a series called Young Chesterton Chronicles, a sci-fi historical fiction series that brings to youthful literary life two of the 20th century’s great intellectual sparring partners.
McNichol’s latest book, The Emperor of North America, was released in August 2011 by Bezalel Books. Having survived a Martian invasion – echoing Wells’ classic The War of the Worlds – Chesterton and Wells are cast into more trouble when they are attacked during the World’s Fair in Germany. What follows is a cross-continental adventure in which the two young men square off against airborne assassins, steam-powered cowboys and an enigmatic dictator who calls himself the Emperor of North America.
When he is not writing fiction, McNichol teaches at St. John the Apostle School in Oregon City, Ore., and raises seven children with his wife, Jeanna. A member the Knights of Columbus, he belongs to Dr. John M. McLoughlin Council 2325.
Patrick Scalisi, the associate editor of Columbia magazine, spoke with McNichol about his books and family life.
Fathers for Good: You and your wife have seven children, and you teach full-time at St. John the Apostle School. How do you find time to write?
John McNichol: Most importantly, I have a very supportive wife. That’s essential! But still, you don’t want to abuse your spouse’s generosity, like spending three hours a night writing while she takes care of the kids.
Most successful writers I know have a routine, and I try to keep one, too. In my case, early morning is the only real undistracted creative time I have. I get up at 5 a.m., take a walk-jog through my neighborhood, and then try to crank out pages while eating breakfast. I love my job, but it keeps me very busy during the day. And when I get home at night, things are even busier — one of my colleagues called home time “second shift,” and I’m learning how right she was the older my children get.
FFG: The Young Chesterton Chronicles definitely has positive themes about faith and catechesis. The latest book, The Emperor of North America, even has young Chesterton questioning his beliefs for a brief period at the end of the book. Why do you think it’s important for books to have this kind of message?
McNichol: Primarily so that young people will have a model to work from when they have doubts and questions about their faith.
I can look back at my own adolescence and recall books that had a profound impact on my outlook, often because they validated what I was feeling at the time. Sadly, in nearly all secular media stories today, doubt or disappointment with God is depicted as a natural precursor to “growing up” by walking away from your faith entirely.
Instead, I wanted to show the reader how one can come through a period of difficulty and trauma with your faith intact and either strengthened or changed for the better. And, with a rich intellectual heritage spanning 20 centuries, Catholic literature is in a unique position to answer these doubts and questions. A book that depicts doubts as normal, as a potential strength to your faith (provided one’s doubts are properly answered) will help the reader who one day hits a spiritual wall.
FFG: What specifically do you hope readers will take away from the Young Chesterton Chronicles?
McNichol: If I could choose just one lesson, it’s that every person’s value depends solely on the fact that an infinitely loving and good God created you. The world will try to tell you that [value] stems from your income, the things you own, or how useful you are to those in power at the time — and that’s a lot of twaddle.
FFG: Both The Emperor of North America and its predecessor The Tripods Attack are populated by characters from literature and history. Do you choose characters — like Chesterton’s priest-detective Father Brown or Blessed Charles de Foucauld — who have something specific to say to your audience?
McNichol: Most assuredly. I bring out historical figures in my fiction that hopefully my readers can learn from. Charles de Foucauld, for example, had the kind of pre-saintly life most young men are taught to envy — one of travel, pleasures and adventure. Why on earth would someone leave that kind of life to be a priest? What about the life of a priest would be so preferable to the “perfect” secular life? It’s my hope that in the age of Google, young readers will check out these names after seeing them in my book and learn more about them and the truly heroic lives they led.
FFG: The founder of the Knights of Columbus, Venerable Michael McGivney, even makes an appearance in The Emperor of North America. How did that come about?
McNichol: The Knights of Columbus has been a source of inspiration to me ever since my college years. I joined Bishop John King Mussio Council 9804 as a sophomore in college at Franciscan University of Steubenville and later became grand knight of the council. As a youth, I met many fine, pro-life Catholic men who showed me what I could and ought to be when I was older. Plus, it was an article in the September 2001 issue of Columbia magazine titled “We Need a Catholic Harry Potter” that helped put the idea of the Young Chesterton Chronicles in my head.
In The Emperor of North America, I depict the fictional Father McGivney as a fearless urban priest who works with the poor and needy in New York and also saves Gilbert’s life through the sacrament of confession. It seemed a fitting way to pay homage to what the Knights have been to me and to inspire others to look at the real life of this extraordinary priest and what he accomplished.
FFG: Studies have shown that parents reading to their children can have positive effects. As a teacher and a father, why do you feel it’s important for fathers to tell stories to their children?
McNichol: It creates a bond between you and your child, as does any shared activity. It impresses upon your child the social aspect of storytelling, which is often lost in a print-based culture. If you share stories with your children that have a point and a lesson, your children will naturally absorb those lessons. They’ll be given a foundation that will survive even popular culture’s attempts to tear them down.
For more information on McNichol and his writing, visit YoungChestertonChronicles.com.
Patrick Scalisi is associate editor of Columbia magazine.