A storyteller for the ages
Brian Jacques' life on the 'Redwall'
(CNN) -- Best-selling children's book author Brian Jacques is a man who can't believe his good fortune. Known for his creative and entertaining adventure series set in the idyllic woodland world of Redwall Abbey, Jacques' gift for storytelling is hardly confined to the page.
The world, after all, is an audience that the former stand-up comic believes is starving for stories.
"I still pinch meself when I wake up of a morning," Jacques says, the accent of his native Liverpool, England, familiar at once to anyone who's heard the Beatles -- only Jacques' roughened baritone sounds kissed by sandpaper. "Who ever thought I'd be a children's author -- let alone a best-selling children's author? I feel I should still be driving a truck, or (working as) a longshoreman."
A talent for writing was revealed by the time Jacques was 10. The youngster turned in a tale about crocodiles and the birds that clean their teeth, and was caned for his trouble by a schoolmaster who refused to believe the story was original.
Still, Jacques left school at 15 to work and help to support his family. Stories were shelved for other jobs -- stand-up comic, truck driver, longshoreman and more. Merchant seaman, police officer and milk deliveryman, he's been there, too.
But Jacques likes where he is now just fine.
"I suppose there's a child inside me who wants to get out," he says, then a beat later: "A little baldy child with a beard. Ha!"
There have been more than a dozen Redwall-themed stories since the first book appeared in 1987. And Jacques promises to keep writing them as long as people want him to.
Television viewers in the United States will soon be able to see Redwall stories in a 13-part animated series premiering April 7. The half-hour episodes recount the original "Redwall" book.
Shown in Canada and France beginning in 1999, and last year in the United Kingdom, the series will eventually be available on video.
Jacques was deeply involved with the concept, which features European-style animation similar to that used for tales of Beatrix Potter's Peter Rabbit and Babar the Elephant.
The quality is not as lush as a Disney feature, but it is far richer than Japanese anime. Animal characters are fully realized and infused with a quintessential British sensibility.
"It's the first time I've seen any of my work done like this," says Jacques.
The author retained a great deal of control over the series, advising writers and producers about the smallest details -- including his characters' slang. "I told them 'No, you can't use that word, it's English, not American,' " he remembers.
"Any time I go into anything like this, I make sure, before I ever put pen to paper, that I've got the say," Jacques continues. "If you don't, it's like putting your kid in an orphanage."
"Redwall" began as a story he wrote while volunteering as a reader for students at the Royal Wavertree School for the Blind in Liverpool. At the time, he was working as a truck driver and delivered milk to the school.
Because he was writing for blind children, the story was brim full of luscious language, a trait for which Jacques has since become known. In part because of an early childhood marked by the deprivations of World War II, the author's depictions of food are particularly appealing.
Jacques' characters -- warrior mice and their allies, the badgers, birds, moles and other peaceful creatures of the Abbey -- often banquet in style. Their feasts include such delicious-sounding fare as meadow cream, strawberry cordial and October nut brown ale.
It is a pastoral setting that evil rats, weasels and stoats seek to conquer time and again.
Why animal characters?
"Kids are more drawn to animal characters than human," says Jacques. "They know what a 'dirty rat' is."
Children identify with the hero mouse, Matthias, who becomes a warrior, the author notes. "He is shown the way, not through magic, but through his own determination."
A connection with fans
Jacques introduces each episode of the "Redwall" animated series with evident relish. It is an addition particularly beloved of his many fans, to whom the author feels a deep affection.
Jacques' official Web site, is still maintained by a fan, Dave Lindsay, a college student who created the site as a pre-teen after asking the author's permission. When Jacques speaks of Lindsay, his voice takes on proud, paternal tones.
As often as possible, Jacques corresponds with students who enjoy his work. One recent request concerning a school project earned a Tennessee fifth-grader a handwritten reply.
Jacques gave the boy permission to use the name and title "Redwall" for a proposed restaurant provided -- among other requirements for honest and fair business practice -- that the author "be allowed, free of charge, as many portions of delicious woodland fare as he desires, whenever he visits said restaurant."
Many of Jacques' fans are drawn to his gift for describing foods, and the author promises a cookbook edition "with lots of nice recipes" is due for publication "in a year or two."
E-mails posted on his Web site indicate that Jacques seriously considers fan questions and provides thoughtful replies. He told one fan that her made up recipe for meadow cream, a mix of whipped cream and cream cheese and pudding, "sounds delicious!"
'A good strong yarn'
Jacques' newest book, "Castaways of the Flying Dutchman," set for publication Monday, March 19, is already in its second printing due to pre-publication orders, according to marketing partner Penguin Putnam Inc. of New York.
Jacques' first non-Redwall book, "Castaways" tells the story of a boy, Neb, and his dog, who find themselves shanghaied into service aboard the legendary Flying Dutchman. Yes, that Flying Dutchman -- the one whose captain is condemned to eternally sail the seas for his blasphemy and is immortalized in Richard Wagner's fourth opera.
Brian Jacques -- and Wagnerian opera?
"Ah, 'tis a good strong yarn, about the sea, and all the legends that surround it," says Jacques, who was raised not far from Liverpool's docks.
Because Neb and his dog are innocents, the angel of the Lord spares them from the fate of the rest of the Flying Dutchman's crew, but commands them to their own eternal quest -- to wander the Earth and help people in distress.
Some fans have already weighed in on "Castaways," says Jacques.
"I've had a letter from a fellow who's quite worried," he explains, chuckling. "He says 'if it's at all possible, could you please have the paperbacks printed in the same size they've always been because they fit in my pockets.' "
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