What inspired you to write about extraordinarily smart kids like the ones in The Mysterious Benedict Society?
I got an idea one day - an idea that eventually developed into these books - about a clever child taking an impossibly difficult test that had a secret to it. I knew what the secret was and that this child would figure it out. Then it occurred to me that a different child might miss the secret, yet still pass the test by knowing the answers to the questions. This idea, plus a few others about riddles and physical conundrums, led me to wonder why kids would be taking these tests – who the kids were, who would be administering these tests, and what the tests might lead to. From these musings sprang the notion of incomparably gifted kids being recruited to go on a mission.
Are any of your characters based on real people? Are your stories drawn from your own experiences?
I'd love to say that in my childhood I was a secret agent who helped save the world, but the truth is that the stories and characters are entirely products of my imagination.
How do you come up with the puzzles and riddles that you incorporate into your stories?
Originally, I didn't have to. I am an incorrigible daydreamer, and strange things often occur to me. A puzzle test, a chess riddle, a maze with a secret to it – these were all ideas I had without trying to have them. But once I decided to make puzzles and riddles a key element throughout the entire series, I knew that I needed to figure out how to create them on purpose. So I spent some time studying the way they work, and a lot more time trying and failing and trying again to come up with good ones.
Can you tell us about your next book?
I'm currently taking notes for two different novels for young readers, books unrelated to The Mysterious Benedict Society series, but which contain similar elements of mystery and adventure.
What made you want to be a writer?
Who knows? I've always loved stories and have been making them up in my head since I was very young. As I got older I took to writing them down. Then at some point I realized that writing them down was the main thing that I wanted to do.
How do you get your ideas? Do you do any research?
Ideas come to me unbidden all the time. Anything can prompt them – books, music, dreams, conversations, experiences, anything. They just pop into my head. (My guess is that this is the case with most fiction writers.) The trick is identifying which ideas are worth writing about, since many of them aren't. And yes, when I'm working on something I do lots and lots of research on all sorts of things that pertain to the story at hand.
Where do you prefer to do your writing? What time of day?
I usually work in a study in my house. Absolute solitude and quiet is best. I usually try to write in the mornings – waiting till later can mean not getting around to it, for any number of reasons.
Do you have any advice for aspiring writers?
The main thing is to try to be fearless. You can't be afraid to make mistakes, or to write a bad story, or to be rejected, because these things are part of being a writer and becoming a better one. Or rather, you can be afraid of these things, but you can't let that stop you.
What would you be if you weren't a writer?
I'd be a different sort of person entirely, so it's hard to say what that person would be like. My guess is probably some kind of secret agent, though also maybe a shepherd.
If you could have lunch with any writer whom would you choose? Why?
The thing about having lunch with someone is that you hope to enjoy it. So rather than pick someone whose work I really admire, someone I'd be likely to pummel with exhausting questions or else find too intimidating to engage in conversation, I'd want it to be someone who is, or was, famously entertaining in conversation. Samuel Johnson, for instance. Otherwise, I'd choose a writer famous for not showing up, in which case I could dine alone, and read.
WOULD YOU RATHER...
Read or write?
Brain… just… exploded…
Call or text?
Usually text, but even then, not much.
Fly or drive?
Are you asking me to choose between having the power of flight and driving a herd of cattle? Power of flight, hands down.
Beach or ski?
I've never been snow skiing, so for now I'll say the beach. By which I mean the ocean.
Time travel back or time travel forward?
Do I get to come back to my starting point? If so, I'll need to be able to do both. If not, then I would choose to time travel forward one minute. It would be fun to do, but I wouldn't want to miss much.
E-book or traditional book?
TELL US YOUR FAVORITE...
There's a long list, and naturally it changes. In my childhood it was probably either The Hobbit or The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. Right now it is probably Finn Family Moomintroll.
These are really hard questions. In the bird world, I am probably most fond of the sweet song of the wood thrush.
I used to live in Cincinnati, and thus began my long, often painful, devotion to the Cincinnati Bengals.
I love ending up at a good Mexican restaurant.
Spiderman. At least, he was my favorite as a boy. I don't really have a favorite these days, unless it's Robert Downey Jr.'s version of iron Man, who is too witty not to love.
It seems to me that telekinesis (the ability to move objects with your mind) is pretty adaptable. Especially if you can move really heavy things, including yourself. Then it's like several different powers all wrapped up in one (superstrength, flight, etc.). It would also be pretty amazing if you could make something turn invisible just by closing your eyes. Hey, wait a minute…
We are Sweet on Books, so we have to ask – what is your favorite sweet treat?
Probably chocolate chip cookie dough – though evidently it's dangerous because of the raw eggs. Hmm, now that I think about it, my favorite magic power would be the ability to eat as much chocolate chip cookie dough as I wanted without being harmed in any way.
Trenton Lee Stewart is the author of the award winning and New York Times bestselling Mysterious Benedict Society series. He lives in Arkansas with his wife and two sons.