I sat down with Trenton Lee Stewart for a once-in-a-lifetime interview. We began by discussing the book, but Trenton's most shocking revelation came when we discussed pizza!
Q: First, let's talk a little about The Mysterious Benedict Society, which character in the book do you most relate to? Why? Which character do you WISH you were like?
A: I probably relate most to Reynie, who has a wry sense of humor and a lot of curiosity, although I'm not half as clever as he is. I wish I had Reynie's shrewdness and his gift of perception, just as I wish I could read as quickly and remember as well as Sticky does, and be as acrobatic as Kate, and have a fraction of Constance's ability to say what she thinks. Obviously this book was one long exercise in wishful thinking.
Q: The names in the book are very clever – how did you come up with things like Ledroptha Curtain and Nomansan Island? A: I was just being playful. I wanted the names to be distinctive, and eventually I decided it would be fun for them to reflect the characters' personalities, or to refer to something that might add meaning to the book or serve as a hidden joke. A few characters are named for friends of mine, however, and don't hint at anything deeper. (So if you're pulling your hair out trying to find the joke, it may be because there isn't one.)
Trenton Lee Stewart
Trenton Lee Stewart is a first-time children's novelist who teaches creative writing. He graduated from the Iowa Writers' Workshop. The idea for this novel came from his belief that children are often seen, rarely heard, and always underestimated! He lives with his wife in Little Rock, Arkansas.
Carson Ellis has established a loyal following for her artistic collaboration with the band the Decemberists. She lives in Portland, OR.
Q: The puzzles that the children encounter are a bit challenging. How did you come up with them? Do you feel the story would work without them? And, most importantly, do your kids call you the "Puzzle Master?" A: It was the puzzles that led me to write the book in the first place. I'd long had an image in mind of a child taking a difficult test that was more than it appeared to be. To me that seemed the beginning of an intriguing story. When a similar idea occurred to me later, I thought of it as a possible addition to the first one. From there the story began to take shape. So although the book might work without the puzzles, it would not exist without them.
As for being a puzzle master: the truth is I'm not one; my kids are more likely to think of me as the sleepy guy who pours their cereal. But I've always loved riddles, which are so often a kind of sleight-of-hand with words; that is, their trickiness depends on making you look in the wrong direction. (If a riddle mentions a cabin, for instance, you will probably picture a building made of logs rather than a room in a ship.) Thinking about how riddles work helped me when I was trying to come up with new ones.
Q: It's pretty cool how the kids are challenged to basically save the world – do you think that in the real world kids could really have that much power? A: I've read accounts of kids who felt so passionate about a cause that they single-handedly raised incredible amounts of money to donate—and did it while going to school, playing sports, learning to play oboe, you name it. Kids are capable of amazing things. Of course, in the real world doing good on a large scale usually requires many people—be they kids or adults—to work together with dedication and passion. And there are people, including kids, doing exactly that every day. That kind of work may sound less exciting than what my fictional kids do, but it's extremely important—and much less dangerous.
Q: What was it like to work with the illustrator, Carson Ellis? A: I didn't work with Carson Ellis directly, but she's a marvelous illustrator and I feel lucky she worked on this book. Some of her illustrations are the best I've seen anywhere.
Q: OK, enough about the book – let's talk about you! Who is your favorite superhero? Why? A: I learned to read with Spider-Man comic books, and Spidey has always remained my favorite. My reasons are the same as everyone's: He's a regular guy with a lot of problems, and he has to work hard for everything—whether that's defeating a super-villain or paying the rent. And, of course, nothing is cooler than being able to jump around the way he does.
Q: What kind of books did you read back when you were a kid? And how about now? A: When I was a kid I read just about everything I could get my hands on, which meant I read a lot of bad books along with the good ones. But my favorites were always adventures about kids in strange and difficult circumstances. Or if not kids, then rabbits (as in Watership Down), rodents (as in Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH), or hobbits (as in—you guessed it—The Hobbit). I seem to have preferred my heroes on the small side.
As an adult I've been drawn to classic novels, though I read a lot of modern fiction, too. Until recently, I hadn't read books for older children or young adults in a long time, but I often looked back upon my favorites with a certain longing—I missed them—and since writing The Mysterious Benedict Society I've been rediscovering the pleasures of books written for that age range.
Q: Can you describe the best pizza you've ever had? A: You wouldn't believe the trouble I've had trying to answer this question honestly. The simplest answer, apparently, is "no." I'm sure that it was cut into slices and covered with cheese and tomato sauce, and that it was more or less flat, but beyond this my powers of recall and critical judgment fail me.
Q: If you had to choose between chocolate chip cookies and apple pie, which would you pick? A: A good chocolate chip cookie usually wins out over a good apple pie, but a bad cookie definitely loses to a good pie. So a chocolate chip cookie should never feel comfortable in its superiority. (Unless it's unbaked, because I love chocolate chip cookie dough more than anything.)
Q: What else do you like to do besides writing? A: I love to read, watch movies, take long walks, play music (inexpertly), visit art museums, play chess and poker, and of course spend time with my family—especially reading to my young sons and playing with them. I also spend a lot of time being mysterious.
Q: When you were in school, what were your favorite subjects? Did you know then that you wanted to be a writer? A: Although I was interested in most everything, English was always my favorite subject, and I wrote poems and stories even in elementary school. For a brief time I thought I wanted to be an inventor, but that dream fell apart (as did the things I tried to invent), and by the time I graduated high school I knew I wanted to be a writer.
Q: How can I become a writer when I get older? A: Write a lot—every day, if possible—read a lot (including a few reputable books on the craft of writing), and stubbornly refuse to be discouraged. If you like to tell stories and compose sentences, and if you work hard at being good at these things, then you are a writer even if you haven't published anything. And if you keep at it long enough you very well might publish something. I know a lot of excellent writers who haven't been published, though, because there is a certain amount of luck involved in finding publishers who appreciate your particular kind of writing. So if you want to be a published writer, you should also try very hard—every day, if possible—to be lucky.