What would prompt a famous English author to leave his garden, his beloved terrier, and a half-finished manuscript to fly to the US for a book tour? Brian Jacques says the answer is simple: "My Redwallers!"
That's what Mr. Jacques calls thousands of young readers, mostly boys, who turn out for his bookstore visits. There he talks to these fans and autographs their copies of his popular Redwall books. Certainly there's a business advantage to these promotional tours, but Jacques's affection for his readers is genuine. "The feedback is great! Just great!" he says in his Liverpool English.
Two of the thick (300- to 400-page) Redwall books are currently on US bestseller lists. The nine-book series is read by both children and adults, has been translated into nine languages, and is available in 16 countries.
In the stories, Redwall Abby, a walled, red-sandstone building, is the gathering spot for all good animals. It's been besieged many times, but always survives. Frequently, Jacques hears of young readers who would like to live there.
Fondness for the Abby doesn't surprise Jacques. He says he's often writing for latch-key kids, who return home to an empty house day after day. That doesn't happen at Redwall Abby; it's always full of good friends and good food.
Redwall books feature more action and adventure than an old-time pirate movie, more fine food than a five-star restaurant, and more animals than the San Diego Zoo. In the end, good wins over evil and justice is served. Jacques insists he just loves to spin a "good yarn."
As Jacques tells it, he had no intention of publishing his original manuscript. It began when the BBC host was working with the Royal School for Blind Children in Liverpool. Being unenthusiastic about the selection of books he was given to read to the classes, he wrote a story of his own on 800 pages of recycled paper. Jacques had the story with him one day when friend and Shakespearean scholar Alan Durband asked to read it.
Mr. Durband declared it the best children's story he'd ever read, took it to a publisher, and the Redwall books, first a trilogy, sprang to life.
The books are chock-full of the author's own passions and experiences. "I've always loved to write, even though I didn't have much formal education," Jacques says. "I attended the 'University of Life,'" he quips. "I quit school at 15 and went to sea. I learned about life by observing it." The Jacques "U of L" included working as a sailor, policeman, radio and TV host, truck driver, folksinger, and dock worker.
The author's childhood memories give Redwall a solid sense of place, as well as its name. In his hometown of Liverpool, a real red-sandstone wall, covered with ivy, stood beyond the terraces and bowling greens in Stanley Park. "With a kid's imagination you could escape with your dreams over that wall," he says.
Part of Jacques is willingly stuck in the past. "I don't write la 1997 - with a computer," he says. "I like the feel of pen to paper. And I have an old manual typewriter. When I'm writing the battle scenes, the punctuation pops out on the back of the page like Braille."
Jacques usually sets up in his garden, where he writes in the company of his West Highland white terrier. If rain starts, as it's apt to do, Jacques puts up a big table umbrella and just keeps on typing.
"Looking at my manuscripts from the side you can see what parts I wrote in the rain; they're the crinkly bits, " he says. If a wind blows, tea cups become stain-producing paperweights. And if there's a strong wind, author and pet race for the pages. Often the dog wins, adding paw prints to the manuscript.
In this somewhat idyllic setting, Jacques happily writes a book a year - and only his "Redwallers" can pull him away.