An interview with Mark Boliek
Magic swords, secret potions, holy grails – these are some of the objects that colour most fantasy-adventure novels. But what happens when marvels and magic, secrets and spiritual beings represent real-life events and emotions? The story that evolves represents feelings about friendship, perseverance, and about accepting help from someone larger than one's self along the way. This is the story Durham, NC, author Mark Boliek shares in his new novel for young and young adult readers entitled, The Mahogany Door.
In the book, three 20-something friends, separated by tragic events, must reunite to travel back through the great Mahogany Door in the basement of a coastal mansion to complete an unfinished destiny. Becoming kids once again as they enter the Vryheid world of Bruinduer beyond the Mahogany Door, the friends must work fast to keep this fantasy world from collapsing. They must also come to terms with a seemingly monstrous spirit guide named Billy.
Fantastical as it is, the book actually parallels Boliek's life – a fact he didn't realize until after years of writing and revising.
“It wasn't until the third draft that I started to think, you know what, this story is about me,” he said as he sat down to discuss the genesis of the book recently.
The son of veteran broadcast journalist Dave Boliek, Mark Boliek's creative self emerged in junior high school. Absent from school for three weeks due to an illness, Boliek completed his Language Arts poetry project at home with his mother, a former teacher.
“I really enjoyed working on it with my Mom, and I liked the whole creative process,” he said “After that, I wasn't into poetry much, but I did start writing short stories.”
It wasn't until 1994 that his creative juices really started flowing again. Although he received a full athletic scholarship to go to college, he opted instead to go into the Navy. By 1994, he'd just finished his four-year tour of duty, which he served during Operation Dessert Storm. So he enrolled in a creative writing class at Appalachian State University in Boone, N.C.
“I was never as creative as the other students. It was just something I enjoyed doing,” he said with a grin. “My professor was really instrumental in giving me confidence. She was motivational and complimentary.”
Boliek's idea for a fantasy story began two years later in 1996. But it wasn't until September 11, 2001, that the story percolating in his mind took on much greater meaning.
“After 9/11, everything started to come into focus,” he remembered. The parallel between Americans' reactions to two national tragedies -- Operation Dessert Storm in 1991 and the terrorist attack on New York - immediately struck this military veteran. And one question reverberated in his mind, he said: How do adults tell children about war?
“Having been in the military and knowing that a war would no doubt take place, September 11 was really close to me,” Boliek said. “There were a lot of questions from kids, and I just wanted to write about it.”
A fantasy novel became his way of answering those questions. He wrote for the children who lost loved ones on September 11; for those who had family members going to war; and for those who were simply confused about the tragedy and tensions afflicting their nation.
“I wanted to write a book for kids to let them know that everyone goes through tough, sometimes even tragic, events or moments. But with a little perseverance and faith, you can get through it.”
Faith had a deeper meaning for Boliek. In 1997, he went through a difficult divorce that seemed to come “out of the blue,” he said. That followed his parents' divorce seven years earlier. During those times, Boliek struggled with his faith, and in the early versions of “The Mahogany Door,” his unrest transmitted to his writing and to the creation of the character “Billy.”
Billy, the book's all-powerful spirit guide, was initially a frightening, clown-like character.
“Billy was my perception of God,” says the big man with the soft voice. “At the time, I was seeing God as big, scary, and mean since a lot of bad things were happening in my life. As I got older and tried getting back into my faith, I realized that God hadn't changed. What had changed was my perception of Him.”
At this point, Boliek was quickly unearthing the vision for his story and was determined to make his fantasy-adventure novel as relatable as possible. Specifically, he wanted to weave a life lesson into the plot that he's learned as a young boy.
“My parents told me that I had to hitch up my own belt and get through life,” Boliek said. So during hard times, “there was nothing I could turn to except my spirituality and my faith to get out of my issues.”
Boliek's memories of playing with friends as a child also became inspiration for the novel. Growing up on a double dead-end road, he and his neighbourhood friends created their own fantasy adventures outdoors.
“We would go up and down the street and create our own world. It was something that we created. It wasn't something that anyone else created for us to emulate. And we didn't do 'magic spells' or something that we weren't. And if we got hurt while we were pretending, we were really hurt.” So he decided to bring that concept into the story. “There's nothing my characters can use to get out of their predicaments other than their own imaginations, their own ingenuity, and, ultimately, some spiritual help,” he said. “And one of the rules in Bruinduer is that if you bleed there, you really bleed.”
After a few drafts, Boliek's characters began to parallel people from the writer's life, including himself. The brave and composed antagonist, JT, represents the person Boliek said he subconsciously strives to be. The “emotionally unbalanced” Michael represents how Boliek felt about himself as he went through his painful divorce. And the fearless and clever girl, Kali, represents three special women in Boliek's life. “They've always been strong women,” Boliek said of his mother, his younger sister, Mary Alice, and his second wife, Jill.
Another character, the story's narrator, was also about to be born from Boliek's life.
It was 2004, and Boliek had finished writing his novel - or so he thought. At a mere 160 pages, it included all three of the adventure stories that comprise The Bruinduer Narrative Trilogy (which, later, would be separated into three individual books). Boliek was eagerly awaiting comments from his editor. When those comments came, however, eight years of writing came to a sudden halt. His editor responded with anything but encouraging words.
“She hated the story,” Boliek remembered, grimacing, “inside and out. She called it tripe and bad. She said that she could fix my punctuation but she could never fix my writing.”
Boliek was devastated and decided to give up.
But the story still lingered in his head.
A year later, Boliek was living in a house in Raleigh, N.C. On an ordinary night, he walked upstairs to his office and pondered the story he had lived with for nearly a decade.
“I thought, this is a story I really love, but apparently I just don't know how to tell it,” he said.
As he sat there in his home office, he pondered the story's symbolism, the message of perseverance and faith, and the meaningful characters he'd created. And it occurred to him that he hadn't created just a fantasy story for children; he'd created a story about his life. So he closed his eyes and drifted back to his childhood. How did he hear stories back then, he wanted to remember. After a few moments, someone once very important to him appeared in his mind's eye.
“My family and I used to go to the beach every summer when I was a child,” he explained, “and I there was this old man, Mr. Oslo, who lived there.” He and his siblings would visit Mr. Oslo's beachside home. And there, in a room decorated with sharks and seashells, they would become mesmerized by their old neighbour's stories. “Suddenly I knew: Mr. Oslo should tell the story in the book.” A smile spreads across his face. “I found my voice through him.”
Still stung by his previous editor's vitriol, Boliek began to write again, slowly. He even wrote a disclaimer, of sorts, in the novel. The first thing the book's version of Mr. Oslo says is, “I have never been a professional storyteller.”
“I had him say that as a way of asking my future readers to give me a break if I mess up or have some holes in the story,” Boliek said, smiling again. “I'm not a professional, you know. I just love to write.”
With the help of a new and more supportive editor from his home state, Boliek revised his story and completed the book. On Christmas Eve, 2010, he received the first proof. He couldn't have gotten a better Christmas gift that year. “Seeing the characters come together and seeing the final product,” he said, “it was like the world was finally tangible.”
Boliek's aspiration for “The Mahogany Door” is simple: “I just hope people have as much fun reading it as I had writing it, even though it was a little daunting at times.”
Signed copies of “The Mahogany Door” (and accompanying soundtrack CD) are currently available in paperback at Boliek's website, although he hopes to be in local bookstores soon. The regular ebook is available for Kindle, Nook, and iPad users from Barnes & Noble (BN.com), Amazon, and from Apple's iBookstore. The enhanced version, which features embedded music from the CD, is also available from the iBookstore for iPads, iPhones, and the iPod Touch.
Interview conducted by Mary Georger.