Riding The Waves

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Even before J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter, British writer Brian Jacques (pronounced Jakes) was selling millions of 400-page books to spellbound children and parents. His 14-book Redwall series, featuring heroic medieval rabbits and mice battling evil rats, has more than 5 million books in print. Jacques, 61, hosts an animated public television series based on Redwall that begins airing in the U.S. this month, and has a new, eagerly awaited book, "Castaways of the Flying Dutchman," which chronicles the stirring adventures of young Ben and Ned, his faithful black Labrador. TIME spent a morning with Jacques as his U.S. book tour began.

Your Redwall series has been hugely successful. Why embark on a new course?

I've had this lifelong affair with the sea, all the romance of it, since I was a child. Everybody in Liverpool had somebody in the family who went to sea. You looked at other people, and they seemed like little gray people who worked in offices and taught in schools. We had these drunken seaman uncles who were larger than life, who would come back in bright, gaudy, secondhand suits they bought in Palm Beach. They had money, you know, and they'd throw it 'round when everyone else was careful.

What sort of a childhood did you have?

I had a happy life. The place where I lived was no palace. Me dad drove a truck around the docks all his life. I never knew there were other kids who had more than me, beautifully clothed, attending colleges, fathers had big cars. I just enjoyed where I was, see?

And your education?

I went to St. John's School for the Totally Bewildered in the docklands of Liverpool: 52 boys in a class, plenty of stick. Nobody expected writers to come from St. John's. You'd get a smack over the head: "Don't be foolish, sit down." To me, authors were dead men with long names. I left school at 15 and went to sea.

Was that as romantic as you hoped it would be?

[Laughs.] It was horrible! When you went away to sea, there were no palm-fringed islands. When you went to sea in my district, everybody knew your mum and dad. The ship would probably be full of men who drank with your dad. So when you went to one of these ports, and you wanted to know where the tattoo parlor was and the bar with the naughty ladies, they'd say, "Listen, son. You'd better stay here and paint that bulkhead. Your mother wouldn't like that."

When kids ask you how to become a writer, what do you say?

I say, "Well, you can go to libraries, and you can go to bookshops, and you can see the huge thick volumes all telling you, You Too Can Be a Writer, Learn to Write in Six Months, How to Auth. [Laughs] But I can tell you in one sentence: You learn to become a writer by painting pictures with words. If you can do that, you're an author.

Are American kids different from the kids in Europe?

They're so different, the children here in this country. There's less reserve; they wear their hearts on their sleeves. And they do read a lot. I was surprised at how much they do read. The letters I get! We get hundreds a week, and I reply to them all. They all spell Brian as "Brain." They're lovely kids.

Any advice for parents who want their children to love reading?

I always think reading can start among the family by the dad or the mum not actually reading to them but telling them stories. That's where it will start. You can't just come up one day and stuff a book in their hand, and say, "Read that."

Is Redwall finished? Have you written your last one?

Oh, God, no. I love Redwall. Redwall is a world that I can retreat to. I can drop out of 2001, which I will do when I come back off of this tour. I can live there, in the world I've created.

Galley Girl: News from the book biz from Andrea Sachs