Q&A with Mike Mason, author of The Blue Umbrella
Where did you get your inspiration for The Blue Umbrella?
I live at the top of a hill. At the bottom of the hill, a couple of blocks down, is the real Porter’s Store. A few years ago I awoke in the middle of the night to a flash of insight. I recalled that when I was a little boy, many years ago and many miles away, I also lived at the top of a hill and at the bottom was an old store. How interesting! With this strange convergence of my present and past lives, the whole geography of a children’s fantasy novel flowed into my mind. I could set the story right in my own neighborhood! But it would really be the neighborhood of my childhood, which is the deepest source of all writerly inspiration.
There was also a third old store, Foster’s, which I knew as a young man living in a small prairie town. Old Mr. Foster was always talking about the weather and he even made up little poems about it. In winter he might say:
Snow, snow, the lovely snow,
You step on a bit and down you go.
Or on a rainy day he’d say:
Sun, sun, the beautiful sun,
It never shines, the son-of-a-gun!
Listening to Mr. Foster recite his silly poems, one day my imagination got to wondering what might really be going on in that store …
Which character is most like you?
There is quite a bit of me in Zac Sparks—in two ways. Firstly, as a little boy I was very active and excitable and I got into a fair amount of trouble. I used to climb on top of the piano and shout, “Jump, Mommy, jump!” and from wherever she was in the house my mother would have to come running to catch me. And I once pushed the neighborhood bully off a high stone wall into a big tub of water! I picture Zac, under normal circumstances, as being like that.
This story, however, does not take place under normal circumstances. Zac’s mother has died and he’s been plunged into a dark situation, so for most of the book he struggles with grief, shock, fear, and confusion. This changes him. While he still has “sparks” of mischief and excitability, on the whole his behavior is much subdued, his natural character repressed. Interestingly I think this side of him reflects, to some extent, my adult self. Life has a lot of hard experiences that can knock you sideways. At some level aren’t adults trying to get back to the fully alive children they once were?
So yes, I identify with Zac. But to say which character is most like me, I have to admit it’s Ches. I like Ches a lot—so much that I decided to write book two in the series from Ches’s point of view. Talk about repressed! Due to his background he has so many problems. But precisely because of that, he has a great journey to make from darkness to light.
Who is your favorite character?
Chelsea! I love her because she is the one who has most retained her childlikeness. Through her connection with Eldy, she has resisted all pressure to conform to the evil that has Five Corners in its grip. Book three in the series will be from Chelsea’s point of view and I can hardly wait to write it!
This story seems to be an allegory. Did you start out intending to write an allegory or did it just happen?
For years I’d written nonfiction books with a message, and I was tired of that. I had nothing more to tell anyone; instead I just wanted to tell a good story. I had just turned fifty and I realized that fiction is what I’d really wanted to write all along. Somehow I’d gotten away from that, and it was time to return to my original dream.
So with The Blue Umbrella I set out with no message in mind, no allegory, just a story. As I went along, I myself was very surprised at the spiritual depth that developed. But I don’t think this makes my book an allegory, so much as a work of literature with an allegorical dimension. An allegory tends to feel wooden because there is a clear one-to-one correspondence between all the elements of the story and some other reality. An allegory is so linked to what it represents that it cannot really stand on its own, whereas a good literary story, while it always points beyond itself, is fully alive in its own right.
What is the main thing you hope readers remember from The Blue Umbrella?
Weather: how it looks and feels, and how it suggests something much more than meets the eye. I want readers to remember Zac in his room at the Aunties’ house, listening to the wind as it moves tree branches against his windowpane like someone tapping to be let in.
Have you ever wondered why weather is the number one topic of conversation? It seems like the smallest sort of small talk, but I think weather is really a very BIG topic. This is obvious in our own time, when the world is heading for climate disaster and everyone’s talking about it. But even just normal chitchat about weather is, I believe, far more significant than it appears. I think it’s a safe way for people to acknowledge something very important. We all have a deep yearning to discuss the big questions in life (such as “Why are we here?” and “What’s it all about?”), but often we cannot talk freely because there are so many different beliefs and it just gets really awkward. Weather, however, is something right in our faces that both deeply affects us and that we can all agree on. It’s perfectly obvious if it’s raining or snowing or the sun is shining, and it’s also perfectly obvious that such magnificent phenomena reflect a greater reality. Weather is the ultimate metaphor.
The Blue Umbrella by Mike Mason
David C Cook/October 2009
ISBN: 978-1-4347-6526-0/425 pages/softcover/$14.99