Author Spotlight: An Interview with Bruce Calhoun

I’m thrilled to have Bruce Calhoun, author of the upcoming Cinderella retelling Ardennia: The Unlikely Story of Cinderella’s Prince on the blog today. Bruce is a gifted and accomplished writer who writes in a variety of mediums.

Getting to Know Bruce Calhoun:

What prompted you to start writing?

When I was very young I used to love telling yarns. Had I been born around the same time as Homer I probably would have become a bard.  But I was born in 1953, so I eventually switched from telling yarns to writing short stories and poetry as a way to express my thoughts and feelings.  One of my first serious efforts to publish a work was when I was in college.  I wrote a condensed version of the bible for Reader’s Digest.  I was rejected.  A couple years later, while taking an 18th English literature class, I convinced some other students to collectively write a novel as a class project.  The project earned us an A+, and many years after this I turned the novel into a play that was performed by a theatre group I had joined.  This play, The Sinister Minister, earned me the Wisconsin Council of Writers Dramatist of the Year award in 1986.  The judge said the play was a tour de force of writing that was on a par with Tom Stoppard’s work. That praise made me want to keep writing.  Praise is important, isn’t it!

Author Bio:

Bruce Calhoun is an award winning playwright and the founder of Save the Rainforest – His most recent stageplay premiered in Madison, WI in 2018: It is about a modern day Cinderella and an enchanted necklace. His new novel is another Cinderella themed work – ” Ardennia: The Unlikely Story of Cinderella’s Prince”. It is due for release on Nov. 2. 2021.

He attended both the University of Alaska and the University of Wisconsin, majoring in literature and biology. In 1988 he founded Save the Rainforest, Inc., a non-profit organization. In 1998 he wrote “Close Calls and Foolhardy Romances”, a memoir that includes stories about dog sledding in Alaska, filming gorillas in the Congo, fending off sharks on Autralia’s Great Barrier Reef and surviving a shipwreck in the Devil’s Triangle.

He lives in Wisconsin with his wife, Samira.

Which books or authors are your biggest literary influences?

I grew up living in the country and exploring the woodlots and fields of southern Wisconsin.  So I was predisposed to loving Jack London’s Call of the Wild.  Not only did this make me want to write, but it made me want to go to college in Alaska and experience the great wilderness of that state.  Which I did:  I went to the University of Alaska in Fairbanks and it was incredible.  But I digress.  Ernest Hemingway’s novels drew me in next.  I liked his terse style of writing and his robust characters.  Later I became a big fan of several French authors who were very different than Hemingway.  I loved Albert Camus’s The Stranger, and I was enchanted with Victor Hugo’s books.  But perhaps it was Oscar Wilde who I most wanted to emulate.  He could write plays – The Importance of Being Earnest – and novels; The Picture of Dorian Gray.

I noticed that you write in a variety of mediums (plays, fiction, memoirs, etc.).  How does your writing process change when writing in different mediums?

With plays and fiction you have the beginning, the middle and the end (three acts).  They both need to have a strong plot, subplots, conflict, thematic purpose and sympathetic characters that evolve.  In a play you have to pull all this off with dialogue and stage directions.  With fiction you can employ descriptive writing to a much greater extent, but you must be careful to do so in such a way that actions and dialogue tell the story and you aren’t just saying what your characters think and feel. Furthermore, when writing a novel you tell your story through the viewpoint of the main character(s) while in a play the story comes through unfiltered.  As for memoirs, my memoir, Close Calls and Foolhardy Romances, drew on personal experience and was really a collection of short but true stories.  There was a chapter on capsizing a small sailboat in the Devil’s Triangle, facing down a grizzly in Glacier National Park, filming lowland gorillas in Africa, working my passage on a tramp freighter etc.  Stringing these stories together was a bit like stringing together scenes in a play.  Each scene – each chapter – told a distinct tale but also advanced the overall story. 

Do you have any quirky or unique writing habits?

Not really.  I started out writing in long hand, graduated to a manual typewriter and eventually an electric typewriter before I finally began using a word processer.  I wonder how many more books John Steinbeck could have written with a modern computer, or if those books would have been as good.  All I know is there have been a lot of great books written with what we would today consider archaic instruments and quirky approaches: i.e. Hemingway would write while standing up and Victor Hugo wrote The Hunchback of Notre Dame while naked.

Something else you’re really passionate about is Save the Rainforest, which you founded.  Can you tell readers a bit more about this wonderful non-profit organization?

Founded in 1988 with the help of fellow teachers and students from Dodgeville High School in Wisconsin, STR was instrumental in raising awareness about the ecological importance of tropical forests and need to protect them.  We did this by organizing teacher/students trips to the rainforest reserves we were creating through innovative  adopt-an- acre programs in Costa Rica, Belize, Panama and Ecuador.  The students who returned from these trips were inspired to become ambassadors of the rainforest:  We had an ongoing student speaker bureau of over two hundred students in the 1990s, and many of our students went on to careers in science and conservation.  Our current Executive Director was one of my students who went on a trip in 1992 to Belize.  The trip changed her life, and now she has come full circle to assume a leadership role in STR.

About the Book:

SYNOPSIS: Ardennia, in a nutshell, captures the magic, brutality and earthiness of the age of chivalry as it chronicles the many adventures and tribulations of Cinderella’s prince. It is based on the original story of Cinderella, but adds original tales about pixies, trolls, dwarves, fairies and nymphs. It also has secondary and tertiary love stories that feature a buffoon and a hunchback. In addition Ardennia brings to life an amazing number of memorable medieval characters that include a bean counter who wagers his gold tooth in a dice game, a merchant who can never be too prosperous, a band of female brigands, pilgrims that argue over who is the most pious, a cobbler who has come into the possession of a goose that lays golden eggs, a hermit who is mistaken for a hobgoblin and a beggar who has been cursed with leprosy for committing all the cardinal sins.

What makes Ardennia unique is that it adheres to the following tenant: There is much that is magical in this world, but hardly any real magic to be had. This nuance allows for a great deal of realism in my novel and keeps the magic – most of the time – at the periphery of the action.

Can you tell us a bit more about Ardennia?

Ardennia: The Unlikely Story of Cinderella’s Prince is a light YA fantasy novel that captures the magic, brutality and earthiness of the medieval ages.  While writing it I adhered to this tenent:  There is much that is magical in this world but hardly any real magic to be had.  This nuance allowed me to write a story that straddled magic and realism.  For example, the ogre beneath a bridge the Prince has to cross over is really a . . .  well, I don’t want to spoil the tale for your readers.  But I will say this – the novel is divided into three parts:  The Prince’s upbringing and coming of age on the battlefield; the masquerade ball where he meets Cinderella; his quest to find her.  The quest takes place across three realms and features memorable characters such as an epileptic bard, pilgrims arguing about who is the most pious, a viscount’s daughter who towers over the Prince like a tree, a bean counter who gambles away his gold tooth (which will need to be extracted) and a merchant who can never be too prosperous.  The use of satire in this part of the book is reminiscent of Gulliver’s Travels and The Canterbury Tales.

What compelled you to write a Cinderella retelling, and why did you decide to write a story that follows Cinderella’s Prince?

A few years ago I wrote and produced Diamond Girl, a play about a lovelorn jewelry clerk and an enchanted necklace.  It was a modern day fairy tale that featured a modern day Cinderella. The premise was so good that the CEO of Broadway Across America told me Diamond Girl would make a great movie. Encouraged, I wrote my first screenplay and pandered it to the powers that be. After that I felt I wasn’t done with Cinderella, so I decided to write a YA fantasy novel using Cinderella as a fulcrum for a historical retelling of the story.  Telling it from the viewpoint of the Prince is nothing new, but I used this approach so I could end the book with a Don Quixote-like sojourn where the Prince and his travelling companion encounter adventure and a stellar cast of medieval personages with a plethora of flaws.

When you write a retelling, how do you decide which elements to keep from the original story?  How do you keep the essence of the story while still making it your own?

Since I wanted to keep magic at arm’s length most of the time I eliminated all the mice, lizards and pumpkins from the story. But I did need to allow the intervention of the Fairy God Mother and the loss of the glass slipper – which allowed me to be true to the main premise of the original tale.  Just about everything else that happens is more or less plausible and unique.  I dare say none of the hundreds of retellings of the Cinderella story are anything like Ardennia.

What themes or messages do you hope to convey in your writing?

The main theme is that our world is full of wonder and that we don’t really need the magic of a wand or a staff to be entertained and amazed.  As Shakespeare’s Hamlet said: ‘There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy”.  The subthemes are:  Life is not fair (as Cinderella and Sir Guy point out to the prince) and women are in many ways superior to their male counterparts.


Can you tell us anything about any of your future projects?

Volume II of Ardennia: Sir Guy and the Fountain of Youth.  I am also thinking about publishing a literary novel, Carlotta of San Javier.  Furthermore, I am working with high schools to stage (without paying a royalty) my purpose play, The Donation.  It is about the representatives of three charities that are vying for a donation from a wealthy recluse.  One of the charities is a conservation group trying to save the rainforests of Borneo.  Students and teachers will be allowed to add to the dialogue of the main characters and be credited in the playbill.

Where can readers learn more about you and your writings (i.e., website, Twitter, Facebook page, Goodreads, etc.)?

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