In bookstores this week from Penguin Random House are beloved characters that have been lovingly cared for by writer J.M. Lee with the release of Song of the Dark Crystal.
The year was 2013 when The Jim Henson Company along with Grosset & Dunlap of the Penguin Young Readers Group put out the call for author submissions. The Dark Crystal Author Quest sought a prequel to Jim Henson’s 1982 iconic The Dark Crystal. Seeking a new novel over 500 writers took up the challenge.
It would be J.M. Lee’s story The Ring of Dreams that would take the prestigious Author Quest and lead to Jim Henson’s The Dark Crystal: Shadows of the Dark Crystal. Released in 2016, the story is years before The Dark Crystal in Thra as Naia, a young Gelfling, takes on the quest of proving the accusation of her twin brother’s treason to be false.
Her journey leads her to clues to prove his innocence but also something dark is in Thra and Naia is headed straight into the heart of it. You’re thinking ‘that’s it?…going to leave me hanging like that?’ The answer to that is – would I do that to you?
This week J.M. Lee brings readers of all ages back to the lands of Gelfling with Jim Henson’s Song of the Dark Crystal. The journey from Thra to the Gelfling Capital is even more intense as Naia seeks to warn others about the Skeksis. It won’t be easy as something is following them making trusting anyone difficult.
Born and raised in Minnesota (one of my favorite states), Lee is also a graduate from the University of Minnesota with a degree in linguistics. He has not only taken up the mantle of The Dark Crystal but also is the writer and creative consultant on the Netflix prequel series The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance.
I had the wonderful opportunity to speak with author J.M. Lee about his own journey into The Dark Crystal as its new story teller and keeper of reader’s dreams.
Jeri Jacquin: Good morning Joe, thank you so much for taking the time to talk with me this morning.
Joe Lee: Thank you too.
JJ: I’m very excited to talk to you because my kids have been fans of The Dark Crystal since forever. They are in their mid-30s now so that tells you how long that fandom has been going on.
JL: That’s so great.
JJ: Tell me how you got involved with writing the next chapters of The Dark Crystal storyline?
JL: Sure, in 2013 Grosset & Dunlap sent out a call for submissions specifically for this project. My agent emailed me letting me know it was going on and wanted to know if I’d be interested. She didn’t know this but The Dark Crystal was one of my favorite movies growing up as well. So I said ‘yes I do’ and read what they were looking for. I wrote my submission and a couple of years later the first book Shadows of the Dark Crystal came out. That’s how that happened and here we are with the second book Song of the Dark Crystal coming out.
JJ: When you were writing your submission, that had to not only be intense but you are delving into something so iconic.
JL: Absolutely, when I first was reading through the material that was presented for the submission I had seen the movie but didn’t know there were so many other publications produced. There were the graphic novels and so it was all pretty new to me. I was very excited to know there was so much existing mythology for The Dark Crystal so I nerded out on it. There is so much extended world information. At the time when I was first writing my submission there wasn’t that pressure yet, it was more just entering a contest. I think it was when Penguin called me and said I was a finalist and wanted to know where I would take the story as a full length novel that I began to feel the pressure. It was very intense in the beginning but I think now I’ve become acclimated to it. I think there is so much that I wanted to make sure it was on brand and cannon.
JJ: Did you know that you were going to get so involved even further into it as you are now?
JL: No, I had no idea! The original contest was for one novel and when we were wrapping up Shadow’s of the Dark Crystal my editor came to me and said, ‘it just occurred to me to ask if you wanted to do more, I just assumed you did’. I said absolutely and the books were happening and then the involvement on the television series was a total treat and a surprise for me. The whole thing has been a fun and crazy ride.
JJ: Speaking of the series that had to be the ultimate geek-out! In my family you have three generations of The Dark Crystal fans so watching your words spring into being had to be amazing.
JL: The book writing process is so long, it takes time to write and edit and it can be years between writing a book and finding it on the shelf. You think you are ready for it but there is something so special seeing a book on a shelf in a store and especially seeing The Dark Crystal logo on it. There is something that doesn’t feel totally official until you see it in a story, it’s like magic.
JJ: The interest part of this for me is that kids still want to actually read a book, with all the technology out there it’s easy to get away from an actual hold-in-your-hand book. It is amazing to see the ‘new’ generation of kids reading The Dark Crystal and you are responsible.
JL: I was at a teen literature conference here in the Twin Cities and it was on a Saturday held at a high school. I wondered how they were going to get teens to come back to their high school on a Saturday. It was packed! The kids were so excited to meet authors and to buy books and to share with each other. They were having the best time and I am so happy to be part of that. I think that there is something so special about fiction for young people. There is something about the way teens love fiction and especially love books. There is some sort of notion with adults that there is a pressure to choose which book is the best and which ones aren’t and with kids all books are the best. They have arms full of books from all different genres but they are going to love them equally. To be able to give them more stuff that they love is why I write.
JJ: That’s thrilling to me watching kids get focused on a series of books, and I know a few kids like that who love a certain writer or story and turn their rooms into libraries. Don’t need to paint the walls just put up book cases and books become the paint and you are now part of that so congratulations sir.
JL: Thank you and let me say I’m so happy to be here.
JJ: To go back into the world of The Dark Crystal you said you had to do research of your own, was that process difficult because you don’t want to repeat what is already there. You want to bring your own vision into the mix as well so was that on your mind as part of the process, finding that balance between the source material and are your own thoughts?
JL: It was definitely part of the process. I’m a very collaborative person and I’ve done it with other writers and other situations like this. I really enjoy the collaborative aspect and in my opinion the more the merrier to a point. The one thing I really appreciated about that is that The Dark Crystal books had a story that was unique to them but also fit into the mythology of The Dark Crystal world. So there is definitely a balance that had to be found that was a balance between were can we go that we haven’t gone before and a great opportunity before me. This is the first time that a novel that would be in this mythology. You can do a lot in a novel that you can’t do in a graphic novel and vice versa so there was a lot of opportunity there. There is also maintaining The Dark Crystal world and I wanted to make sure that it is true to The Dark Crystal, it’s true to the film and it’s true to the character of the property. I would never say that it was a challenge really in the sense that it prevented me from writing something. In every case where I ever felt I needed to search for new material, there was something there that existed in The Dark Crystal. So it was more of collaboration rather than a challenge.
JJ: I told people I was speaking to you this morning and I just mention the words The Dark Crystal and there are gasps. They are very curious to know what’s in the story and of course they worry about losing their childhood memory of the original. They want things to be as they were and yet at the same time they want the story to grow.
JL: Yes, I think there is some anxiety from the fan base because every time something new comes out from an existing storyline they get nervous wondering if they are going to like it. I would say speaking for myself that whenever I would worry about letting fans down or not doing it right I think to myself that The Dark Crystal means as much to me as it does to a person who is a creator in that world. That is the same with anyone that I have worked with who is part of The Dark Crystal, we are all fans first which is why we want to do this. I think that whenever I would get stressed out by that pressure I go to the feeling that I love The Dark Crystal and that’s why I’m doing this – I am a fan. That always pointed me in the right direction thinking as a fan what would I want to read about or see. That has served me pretty well.
JJ: I think that is very important to tell the readers who are waiting for this. You are a fan and you embrace it as much as they do and knowing that should alleviate their anxiety. Now that you are engrained and you can’t get away, from The Dark Crystal world where do you see this going for you?
JL: I don’t really know because there are so many places to take The Dark Crystal. There is endless opportunities and from a nerd perspective <which made me laugh>, seriously if you look at the mythology of The Dark Crystal it’s a huge universe, a huge world and a huge timeline. There are nooks and crannies that we can explore so it’s up to Jim Henson and everyone involved who want to know where we can go next and I’m here for that and totally up for it.
JJ: I’m giggling to because this is Comic Con week so this is the best place for The Dark Crystal to be and there is always a group dressed as the characters. I love what they do because you can see the love they have for the characters and story being part of their lives. The best part right now is I’m talking to the person keeping that story alive and now that you’ve done it everyone is going to expect you to stay!
JL: That’s alright, I’m here and ready!
JJ: When people of all ages come across Song of the Dark Crystal what would you like them to take away from the story?
JL: For me as a child, The Dark Crystal had a couple of major take-aways that have lasted a lifetime for me. I think that one of the major themes from The Dark Crystal film is one that I have been trying to really reinforce in the books which is harmony. The harmony between people and their different ideas or the harmony between the land, the earth and the people who are here to take care of it. There is always the idea of challenges or problems but that harmony is the key to solving or surmounting those challenges. That is the big concept takeaway. The smaller level take away is that everybody has something special about them that they can use to make the world a better place.
JJ: I like that, that’s really important because most of the young readers are looking for is someone to say ‘it’s okay!’ and it’s okay to have a love of the written word and it’s okay that you are not on a computer or playing a video game. Most of all that it’s okay to pick up a book and go into another world.
JL: I think the main character of Shadow in the first book is a tough, athletic girl and she is trying to find her place in the world. The main character in the Song of the Dark Crystal that is coming out tomorrow actually is kind of a bookworm and sort of a nerd. The book is about how he doesn’t have to be like his friends in order to be important or to have something to say in about helping the world. It’s about embracing who you are even if that’s a bookworm and that story is close to my heart.
JJ: Congratulations on the book and I can’t wait to jump back into that world and see where you will take us next.
JL: Thank you!
After speaking with Joe I am anxiously waiting for the book to be in my own hands. The Dark Crystal is part of our family as well and I am always ready to pass down to my grandkids the love of adventure through holding a book in their hands. In this world of The Dark Crystal are themes of loyalty, trust, relationships, good vs. evil and most of all learning to be true to one’s self.
Lessons we all truly need to embrace and, on occasion, remind ourselves that it is still truly possible. This week from J.M. Lee and Penguin Random House is a reason to curl up in our favorite chairs and go on an adventure with The Dark Crystal.