When someone considers a writhing mass of garter snakes beneath a sheet of plywood abandoned in a forest as “one of the coolest things I’ve ever seen in my life,” you know he’s a bona fide nature lover. That’s Geoffrey Saign ’77. He’s a bona fide writer too. Saign (pronounced “sign”) has, for the most part, devoted up to 30 hours per week outside of his full-time job as a youth and childhood educator to writing a dozen books over the past 20-plus years. His first creation was a picture book he started after graduating from St. Thomas with a degree in biology.
In his recent work WhipEye, the first book in his middlegrade urban fantasy series, The WhipEye Chronicles, he introduces readers to the series’ protagonists: 12-year-old Samantha “Sam” Green and her young friend, Jake. The two children, accompanied by Charlie, a 1,000-year-old smart-mouthed parrot, are hunted by magical Great Ones. The trio have 24 hours to decipher a supernatural wooden staff called WhipEye and find the courage to save KiraKu – a magical world almost like ours except that animals do not fear humans – and their own world. The staff’s carvings of animals come to life and are heroic characters to which his readers can relate.
A reader of fantasy novels since childhood, Saign knows instinctively “that children can resonate with messages in fantasy stories at a subconscious level.” The book, “about love, nature, wildlife, intuition and trusting yourself,” is steeped in Saign’s love of nature. He writes not only for the love of writing but also with the hope of empowering young readers and to inspire them to discover the beauty of the outdoors.
To get a full view of Saign’s love of nature, it helps to know that the early part of his life reads like a tale of epic adventure. As a graduate student at the University of Minnesota he did field research on hummingbirds and then studied humpback whales. After that, he moved on to a job at the Bush Children’s Center, a residential treatment center run by St. Paul’s Amherst H. Wilder Foundation, where he worked with children aged 4 to 10.
Six years later, disillusioned by a string of book deals that almost but never quite came to fruition, he set sail for Fiji with just $500 in his pocket. When a coup on the island scrapped his plans to be a charter captain, he island-hopped across the South Pacific painting houses, becoming a massage therapist and continuing to write. He outlined his first fantasy novel – Wyshea Shadows, of Divided Dragons, a young-adult series about three strong women and their efforts to save their natural world.
In developing Sam and Jake for WhipEye, Saign tapped into the sense of loss he felt after a serious physical health condition kept him confined to his apartment for 15 years. Having to avoid sun exposure, he couldn’t indulge his favorite outdoor pastime.
“I lived for water. I would swim and sail and scuba dive all the time, so from the ages of 30 to 45 was a big loss,” he said. “When I came out of it, everything had a different feel. It was stunning to me. You get some of that in Whipeye. Sam is just enamored by nature.”
Saign prefers not to dwell on the details of his illness and maintains that the experience had relatively little effect on his writing compared to the support of loved ones and his relentless drive to look on the bright side. Even when he was too ill to commute to work, he maintained the mental fortitude to write 50 to 60 hours a week.
Still, it’s hard not to wonder about the impact a long exile from the outdoors would have had on such a diehard nature enthusiast like Saign, especially after he introduces readers, through Sam’s eyes, to the breathtaking environs of KiraKu – accessed via a door/portal hidden in a cabin in the woods.
From WhipEye: “Colors are more vivid here, and the air is rich in some way, making my tongue tingle with every breath I take. My worries fade, and suddenly I feel light-hearted, as if anything is possible and everything will be all right.”
The passage captures how one might imagine he felt the moment he finally was able to step out of his home and experience the outdoors as he once did.
Saign said, as a writer, experience is important for manufacturing emotion that comes across as genuine.
“Sam and Jake are going through a lot of issues, but loss and the strength it takes to recover from loss is a big theme in the book,” he said. “Sam is coping with the death of her mother, and Jake is dealing with his parents’ divorce. As a kid, that takes a lot of strength.”
In all of his writing, particularly in his children’s fiction, Saign said he hopes to reconnect youth to the emotional rewards of spending time in nature without hitting them over the head with his message.
Saign’s longstanding environmentalism is a testament to his affinity for wildlife and makes him a real-deal candidate for reaching kids, who tend to be experts at spotting inauthenticity. His advocacy work includes a full-time job with Clean Water Action and volunteer efforts with the Sierra Club and Northland Bioneers, where he spent one year on the board. He also is co-founder of Right to Know Minnesota, a nonprofit that pushes for GMO labeling.
As a child, Saign was one of the earliest and youngest members of Greenpeace, founded in 1971. “At 15 I was telling people we need to change or by 2000 the earth would be a mess,” he said. “My writing is heading in a direction that I have been emphatic about since that age, which is to save the planet, raise awareness and change society for the better. This has been the driving force in all of my writing, and in how I have lived my life,” he said.
“In WhipEye, I wanted to create a character that would show kids that you could be away from technology and discover the beauty in nature,” he said.
Through his work as a youth and childhood educator for District 287 Saign said he’s observed a widening disconnect between youth and nature. “Kids these days are being told that they have to have the latest version of every technological gadget or they won’t be happy, and it’s nonsense. We’re in a culture where parents are crunched for time. Ninety percent of kids spend time daily on tech devices while only 11 percent consistently spend time in nature. That means only a fraction of our kids are getting outside. And that’s what stirs creativity, gives you exercise, reduces stress,” he said.
Saign, who also has written a handful of adult thrillers, prefers to write for children above all else.
“Children live with the expectation of the extraordinary,” he said. “We don’t like to believe children have difficult lives, but they can and they do. … I love the energy they have and the process kids go through in discovering life.”
That said, Saign will continue to write nonfiction for adults. He noted that the writing genres aren’t as disparate as they appear; they actually parallel each other: “In my nonfiction I’m interested in stress, the environment, trusting yourself, the value of nature on emotional health, all things I think about when I’m writing my urban and epic fantasy novels for kids,” he said.
John Harten, an editor Saign has used the past four years, can attest to his client’s passion for writing, environmentalism and the symbiotic nature of the two.
“While he’s a fine writer, Geoff is an excellent storyteller,” Harten said. “He doesn’t let accepted notions of style, or concerns about the market, or anything else to get in the way of telling a great story. It’s hard to explain, but some people just want to be ‘writers.’ I think they want to have written a book, to stake a claim to some sort of status attached to that. Geoff wants to tell stories, stories that both examine the difficulties of growing up, and that have a consistent theme of planetary caretaking.”
In true form of art imitating life, Saign’s tenacity is reflected in both his life and literature. He confided that as a writer he has experienced his fair share of disappointment and suffering, be it dashed publishing deals or nagging illness. Still, for most of his life, Saign has conquered those obstacles to produce a dozen complete, edited, professional manuscripts.
He has self-published two of his titles, including WhipEye (with more from the series on the way), tirelessly promoting them through school visits and garnering copious print and broadcast publicity as well as awards.
He counts the scores of enthusiastic ratings on www.goodreads.com as among his most beloved accolades because they come directly from readers, who can be the most discerning critics. Though he thinks the two awards – Outstanding Children’s Fiction book in the 2015 IAN Book of the Year Awards and a USA Book News International Book Award for Children’s Fiction – WhipEye has garnered are pretty nice too.
Ever ambitious, Saign has adapted WhipEye to a screenplay, entered it in the Final Draft Big Break Screenwriting Contest and actively is seeking a producer. He’s received encouragement from his young readers and radio interviewers, who have told him WhipEye would make a great movie. His dream cast? “Younger versions of Emma Stone and Jonah Hill as Sam and Jake, and Johnny Depp as the shape-shifting villain, Magnar.”
He also plans to write two more books to round out The WhipEye Chronicles. Where his imagination will take Sam and Jake is up in the air for now. What readers can count on is a happy ending.
“Creating stories with only depression and misery at the end does not portray my life, the life I wish to live or the life I wish to project for my readers,” he said. “Those kinds of stories are not uplifting or inspiring for me, so I write endings with positive growth and some measure of joy and happiness.”
While Saign never has been happier, he stated, “Life continues to get better, and the best adventures are always yet to come. I also want that as well for all of my young readers.”
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