Our guest: Stuart Gibbs is an author of middle grade fiction whose work includes the Spy School and FunJungle series. His latest novel –out today!– is Spaced Out, the second in the Moon Base Alpha series, which also includes 2015’s Space Case. He is published by Simon and Schuster and lives in Los Angeles with his family.
The Proust-Esque Questionnaire is based on a set of 36 standardized questions designed by Marcel Proust in the 1890’s to give an overview of the respondent’s personality. Our goals are less lofty, but hopefully will provide some insight into how your favorite authors and illustrators work and what they love.
I’m not trying to boast here, but I started reading at a kind of ridiculously young age. I was only three. I had a copy of The Cat in the Hat which I would pretend to read all the time, but one day I opened it and, to my astonishment, realized I could actually read it. I went right to my mother and announced that I could read. My mother figured I had simply memorized the book and gave me another one and I read that one too. (My mother will be happy to provide verification about this, should you need it.) Not only is this my first memory of children’s literature, it’s pretty much my first memory, period. That, and seeing the big blue whale that hangs from the ceiling of the marine life gallery at the American Museum of Natural History. Both very seminal events in my life: literature and megafauna.
Encyclopedia Brown. I’m not saying I’m as smart as he was, but he definitely inspired me. Encyclopedia was proof that being smart was a key to success, he respected women and wasn’t afraid to hang out with a girl who was tougher than he was (the glorious Sally Kimball), and he had his own business.
3. WHO IS YOUR FAVORITE CHILDREN’S BOOK AUTHOR? ILLUSTRATOR?
This isn’t going to win me any awards for originality, but Roald Dahl was the writer whose books I read and re-read all through my childhood. Some, like Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator haven’t held up so well (though I thought it was absolutely hilarious back then) while others, like Danny, Champion of the World are even better now.
As for illustrator, I’m going to be nepotistic and vote for Lucy Cummins, who isn’t just the immensely creative and talented designer of my book covers, but who also just released a fabulous picture book of her own, A Hungry Lion: or A Dwindling Assortment of Animals. It’s beautiful and extremely funny. (If you happen to be on Twitter, @lucyruth is also the funniest person out in the Twitterverse.)
- Carl Hiassen
- Mark Twain
- Donald J. Sobol
- Ellen Raskin (right)
5. WHICH QUALITY DO YOU THINK IS MOST IMPORTANT IN GOOD CHILDREN’S LITERATURE?
Not writing down to your audience.
6. IF YOUR OWN WORK HAS A DEFINING CHARACTERISTIC, WHAT WHAT IS IT?
I like to celebrate smart people, and to show that, even if people are smart, that doesn’t necessarily make them nerds.
First of all, this is an awfully good hook if you’re planning on starting a new religion. Is it cool to pick one of my own characters? Because the whole idea behind the FunJungle series was to give Teddy Fitzroy the life I had always dreamed of as a kid: he lives at the world’s biggest zoo and gets to go behind the scenes all the time. Also, he has very cool parents and an awesome potential girlfriend.
8. IF YOU COULD GO BACK AND REDO ONE THING IN YOUR WORK, WHAT WOULD IT BE?
I was just learning to write a middle grade book when I wrote Belly Up so I think I get a bit wordy in the opening chapters now and then. I could have tightened some things up a bit.
9. WHAT IS THE GREATEST PIECE OF ADVICE YOU WERE EVER GIVEN?
There was only one book agent in the city where I grew up, a guy named Chuck Neighbors. I sought him out as a teenager. He didn’t think I was writing anything quite good enough to get published yet, but he advised me not to study writing in college. He told me I already knew how to write, so I might as well study things I didn’t know much about. So even though I wanted to be a writer, I studied biology, psychology and communications (which was the closest thing my university had to a film degree at the time). All that opened up whole new worlds to me — for example, the biology degree led to my working in a zoo, which led to Belly Up, and I think my life is a lot richer for that.
10. DESCRIBE YOUR WORK PROCESS.
I start most days with a walk around the neighborhood to get my thoughts in order. I outline my books in freehand on yellow legal pads, often drawing maps of the worlds I’m imagining. I never start writing a mystery until I’m sure I know who did it — although that has changed while writing on occasion. Once I have the first half worked out, I start writing. Every once in a while, I will fiddle around with outlining the second half of the book as the story takes shape. Once I finish, I rewrite at least once, probably twice, before sending it off to my editor, and there will be several more rewrites after her notes come in.
I need a lot of peace and quiet to write. My office is at the back of my house. It is very hard for me to write anywhere else (though I’m okay at outlining on airplanes during book tours).
11. TELL US ABOUT A BOOK THAT YOU LOVE, WHICH, FOR ONE REASON OR ANOTHER, HAS NOT FOUND A WIDE AUDIENCE.
A Riddle in Ruby, by Kent Davis. It takes place in an incredibly imaginative world, has wonderful characters, inventive twists and a lot of humor. It’s the first of a trilogy, and I’m dying to find out what happens.