Meet the Authors
Jake Halpern is a journalist and author born in Buffalo, New York in 1975. His book, Braving Home, was a main selection for the Book of the Month Club by Bill Bryson and was a Library Journal “Book of the Year.” He is a contributor to NPR's All Things Considered and This American Life. He has written for The New York Times Magazine, The New Yorker, The Wall Street Journal, Sports Illustrated, The New Republic, Slate, Smithsonian, Entertainment Weekly, Outside, Forbes, New York Magazine, and other publications. He is a fellow of Morse College at Yale University, where he occasionally teaches a class on writing.
Peter Kujawinski is a diplomat and author born in Chicago, Illinois in 1974. He works for the State Department as a Foreign Service Officer. Among his travels as a U.S. diplomat, he spent two years in Tel Aviv, Israel, two years in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, and four years in Paris, France. He is nearing the end of two years at the U.S. Mission to the UN in New York City. He has visited American prisoners in jail, visited human rights activists in rural Haiti, given speeches about U.S. foreign policy to French high schoolers, and negotiated UN Security Council resolutions. He writes fiction and non-fiction, attended the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, and has been published in the International Herald Tribune. He speaks French, Haitian Creole, Hebrew and Polish.
An early conception of the Dormian capital Somnos
Did you guys always intend to write a book like this?
No – not at all. Jake never intended to write a fantasy book. He was a journalist whose stories on American pop culture and Hollywood appeared in the New Yorker, Entertainment Weekly, and on NPR’s All Things Considered. Then one day, his wife announced that she had landed a job as a doctor with the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Not long after this, Jake found himself living on the Navajo Reservation in northwestern New Mexico, which remains one of the most remote and sparsely settled regions in the continental United States. From his desk, in their tiny ranch house, Jake watched prairie dogs frolic and tumbleweed blow across the street. On most days, there wasn’t much to report.
Vice Admiral Purcheezie welcomes Alfonso on her ship Meanwhile, halfway around the world, Jake’s longtime friend Peter was serving as an American diplomat in Paris. His environs could not have been more radically different. Peter, known simply as “Kujo” by friends and family alike, inhabited a sprawling three bedroom penthouse with stunning views of the Eiffel Tower. On weekends, he and his wife Nancy – a popular local musician – hit the bars, nightclubs, and bistros of the Left Bank. However, by almost any measure it was not an ideal time to be an American in France. America was knee-deep in a war that was as popular in France as Spam or Kraft Singles American Cheese Slices. As he lunched with diplomats from other countries, Kujo often imagined that he was in another country all together – that country being the kingdom of Dormia.
Dormia is a kingdom nestled deep in the Ural Mountains, inhabited by people who do all manner of curious things in their sleep – ski, climb, compose operas, make pancakes, and shoot arrows with deadly accuracy. Dormia is, of course, a made up place – a figment of their collective imagination – and the setting for their forthcoming novel.
Okay, so you guys were living on opposite ends of the planet, how did you write a book together?
We overburdened our e-mail accounts by sending the 500-page manuscript as an attachment to each other at least once, sometimes twice or even three times a day. “We just passed the thing back and forth like a cyber football,” says Peter. “I would go out for drinks at a local bistro, come home late, burn the midnight oil in Paris, hammer out a new chapter, and then fire the thing across the globe to Jake.”
Dr. Van Bambleweep inspects the Dormian Bloom in Barsh-yin-Binder Jake was initially living in Boston, but then in 2006 he and his wife moved out to the Navajo Reservation in New Mexico. Later that year, Peter left Paris and moved to New York City, where he is currently stationed at the US Mission to the United Nations. Throughout the writing of the book, we never lived in a remotely similar time-zone. “We really didn't even talk much by phone in those days,” recalls Jake. “We were like two pen pals who just happened to be writing a book together. We would also text cryptic messages to each other like: I just got the best mutton sandwich from this Navajo grandma by the side of the highway. By the way, check out what I did with the fight scene in the iceberg fortress.”
Is it true that, while living in the Southwest, Jake had to hike up a desolate cliff face in order to get cell phone reception and call Peter?
Yeah, sometimes Jake had to do this. Jake did much of his writing from a remote cottage in southwest Colorado. He would hike from the cottage to a massive rock on top of a desert butte in order to get cell phone reception. The rock offered panoramic views of Mesa Verde National Park. Here it was possible to gaze out for fifty miles without seeing any signs of civilization. Jake called this perch "Telephone Rock." “So I'd hike up to Telephone Rock to call Peter,” recalls Jake, “And when I'd finally reach him at the United Nations in New York, he'd say: 'Sorry man, I can't talk during lunch today – we’re having an emergency session of the Security Council.' So we kind of gave up on the phone, at least during the week. We did e-mail, and it worked out for the best, because we just focused on the nuts and bolts of writing the book.”
How many strange and unlikely places did you travel to in order to write this book?
Quite a few. Every few months we rendezvoused in order to collaborate and write together – in person. It was during these times that the major themes and scenes of the book came into being. We argued the finer points of Dormian mythology while hiking from village to village in the Burgundy region of France. We crafted Dormian law and sketched out Dormian architecture from a tree house at the foot of a waterfall in the Berkshires. We edited portions of the manuscript aboard planes, in cars of all shape and size, in the Paris and New York subway systems, and at diners in New Haven and Chicago. On one occasion, during their time together in Navajo country, Jake and Peter took a break from their writing in order to go on a snowshoeing expedition in Colorado. On their way home, we got caught in a blinding snow storm and took refuge in a warm, sulfurous hot spring. This served as inspiration for many of the hot springs in the book.
The book is a fantasy, but – in many ways – it is no more fantastical than the environs in which we did our writing.
The illustrations you see on this page are the very first sketches of the world of Dormia. They were done by Steven Mertens, an illustrator and musician living in Brooklyn, New York.
See more of his illustrations here!