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Q&A with Stuart Gibbs
Stuart Gibbs is the author of the middle grade novels Belly Up, Poached, Spy School, Spy Camp, the Last Musketeer series, and the FunJungle series. He also writes for TV and film.
You are quite the prolific writer, with among other works, 3 separate multi-book series (Moon Base Alpha, FunJungle and Spy School). The 6th book in the FunJungle series - Tyrannosaurus Wrecks - will be out in March and the eighth book in the Spy School series will also be out next year. How do you keep track of so many completely different stories at once? Do you work on projects simultaneously or focus on one at a time?
I do my best to work on one draft of a book at a time. So, I might be writing the first draft of Spy School 8 for a few weeks, and then I’ll do the third draft of Tyrannosaurus Wrecks for a few weeks. Although it doesn’t always work out perfectly. Some days, I might have to do work on more than one book. It’s not hard to keep them apart, though, because the worlds are so different. I do keep a lot of yellow pads filled with notes so that I don’t forget any ideas.
You have a new book that recently came out called Charlie Thorne and The Last Equation, about a genius and mischievous girl who is looking for a long lost Einstein equation that, if it fell in the wrong hands, could have disastrous implications. The book sounds fantastic. Was it important to you to have a girl as the hero? And did you find that any different to write than writing a boy as the hero?
It was very important for me to have a girl as a hero in this book. It’s going to be a series where scientists throughout history have hidden discoveries — and most of the great iconic scientists from history were men. That’s not because men have been smarter than women throughout history; it’s because men got all the breaks. They got to go to university and have careers while the girls got married off and ignored. Since my protagonist would be running around the world, solving clues to find things that men had discovered, she ought to be a girl. It was fun to have a girl be at the center of my book — although I wrote this one in third person, rather than first. There were many reasons I did that, but one was because I didn’t feel comfortable writing from the perspective of a girl.
You're a father of a school aged son and daughter; how much of a role do they play in helping you come up with story ideas, and/or, do you run ideas by them? Or do they have to buy the book like everyone else?
They have given me tons of ideas for my books. For example, Spy School British Invasion has several action sequences that my children mapped out with me on a trip to London. I have even based characters on both of them. They are also a key part of my editing process. I read early drafts of the books to them and they catch plenty of mistakes, ranging from small typos to huge plot holes.
It seems like you interact with readers and fans a lot, at book signings, school visits, even on your website. That might be something that's part of your job, but you seem to enjoy it. Is that accurate?
I do enjoy it. I had no idea that it would be part of the job at all when I started writing for this age group. I didn’t know that book tours would mean traveling around the country and giving presentations to auditoriums full of kids at schools. I didn’t have any idea how many emails and letters I would get from readers. But it is really the best thing about my job. The kids in my target audience are so enthusiastic about reading, it’s incredible. If they like your book, they’ll read it a dozen times. Adults don’t read like that.
You wrote on your website that you knew you wanted to be a writer a long time ago, even generating creative works back in kindergarten. At Penn you studied biology and specifically capybaras, the world's largest rodent (future book series?!). Were you educating yourself at that time for a career in writing or did you not yet know at that point you'd carve a career as a writer?
When I went to Penn, I still wasn’t sure how likely it was for me to become a writer. I was writing all the time, though, and I had shown some of my stuff to a literary agent. He told me that I shouldn't study writing, because I was already a decent writer, so I should study other things that I found interesting. That was some of the best advice I ever got. I studied psychology, film-making, real estate finance and, yes, field biology. For that class, we had to study animals at a zoo for a semester. I picked capybaras on a whim, not realizing that no one else from the English-speaking world had studied them yet. So when I wrote my paper, a lot of what I had observed hadn’t been documented yet. That led to me spending a lot more time at the zoo doing research — which ultimately led to me creating the FunJungle series.
You and your family have lived in Windsor Square for several years; what do you love about the neighborhood?
We love that we can do so much here without ever getting into the car. We love walking to our friends’ homes — or to the farmer’s market or dinner or ice cream on Larchmont. And of course, there’s Chevalier’s Books. It’s wonderful that there’s an independent bookstore within walking distance of my house. I do all my LA book events there. The whole staff is wonderful. Even my dog loves it. (He knows exactly where they keep the dog biscuits.) Having a local bookstore is pretty rare these days, so please folks, stop buying your books from Amazon. If there’s something you want, just call up Chevalier’s and ask them to order it for you. They’ll be happy to take care of it.