author q & a

1.      Describe in a couple of sentences THE WOLLSTONECRAFT DETECTIVE AGENCY.

A Snicketesque girl-power adventure featuring Ada Lovelace and Mary Shelley at eleven and fourteen in 1826 London, for ages 8–12.

This is the made-up story of two very real girls—Ada, the world’s first computer programmer, and Mary, the world’s first science fiction author—caught up in a world of hot-air balloons and steam engines, jewel thieves and mechanical contraptions.

2.     How did the idea for your book originate? What was your inspiration? Was there a particular event, circumstance, or something else that spurred you to write this book

I want my eleven-year-old daughter to grow up to be a mad scientist and take over the world.
This is going to require role models—real, historical figures who changed the world using intellect and imagination. I’m constantly blown away by my daughter’s friends’ inclination toward science; asking questions, wondering about cause and hypotheticals, experimenting by poking dead things in the forest with sticks. This is how we save the world—we let this natural impulse off the leash and amplify it.

3.     Why did you decide to use Kickstarter to promote WOLLSTONECRAFT? Were you surprised by the overwhelming positive response from people supporting your project?

I find the “crowd” aspect of crowdfunding vastly more valuable than the “funding” part. The pitch was able to find 3,000 people to self-identify as supporters; people who said, through their pledges, “I want to live in a world where this kind of content exists.” Just the most amazing people ever. And of course there were literally hundreds of thousands more via social media likes and retweets. That’s extremely validating when you’re on a mission that sounds pretty crazy at the outset, as I think most creative ventures do. And should!

It was two and a half years between the campaign and my seeing the book on shelves. And throughout that agonizing and glacial period, supporters (who read the early drafts ages ago) were still cheerleading, still encouraging, still engaged with the series as it develops and goes out into the wider world.

4.     Please describe the greatest challenge you faced in writing this book, why it was difficult and how you resolved it.

Typical story stuff. I became very attached to one aspect of a character, and while expressing that seemed very valid in my head, it made the early drafts kind of monotonous. I had to ease up a little. I had great notes from amazing people who helped address that. That’s part of “writing naked”—this project wasn’t me toiling away in my studio in secrecy; this was sharing drafts and previews and story beats with thousands of people, some of whom said, “Hang on, this bit isn’t working yet.” That kind of brutal honesty is priceless.

5.     How much and/or what kind of research went into writing this book?

I think writers are researching all the time. It’s just part of the curiosity that’s essential to the task. What was the cost of a loaf of bread in the Regency Period? How many buttons on a hussar’s uniform? Fortunately, that kind of granular detail is readily available, and even the ability to just walk, via street view, around historic neighborhoods for hours, getting your bearings, then looking up the history of interesting buildings—all this data becomes like leaves on tree branches, collecting sunlight, or a murmuration of starlings. Wow, that was pretentious. It makes a sort of shape, is what I’m saying.

6.     In THE CASE OF THE MISSING MOONSTONE, do you relate to the characters in the book? How, and if so, why?

I don’t at all, really, because I’ve had these girls in my head so long I really do hold them as distinct creatures. Right, I think, there goes Ada pondering something. Ah, Mary feels this way about that. It’s like asking how you relate to your pituitary gland. It’s just there. Digging it out would be inadvisable.

7.     What important lesson do you want the reader to take away from reading this book?

Well, the first is that we currently inhabit a world created by these two very real girls. Ada and Mary gave us the iPad and Star Wars. Our cultural stories and the way we navigate them, share them. All out of the heads of these two young women who made their contributions as young women. That says a great deal about human problem-solving potential on a planet where we tend to use only half of it.

Secondly, I think there’s a valuable note about how science is not simply dry, objective data. It’s just not. It’s also about intuition, about meaning. There are cognitive processes chewing away in the background, expressed as creativity and imagination and dreams and hunches, and these processes are critical to posing questions and solving problems. So the takeaway here is that science is completely natural, and people, particularly young people, are engaged in this all the time. Wondering. Guessing. Trying. Observing. Playing. Wondering some more. It’s as human as laughter.

8.     What can we look forward to in the next book of this series?

Well, once the girls have a routine and feel more or less on top of things, I can’t just leave them be. I stir the pot a bit by introducing the sisters, Allegra and Jane, who want to be part of this grand adventure but aren’t sure how. Mary and Ada have to really examine what they’re doing and why, and how (and if!) they can accommodate more people—and more variables—into an equation that seemed to be working. So there are more baddies to thwart, more puzzles to solve, more obscure literary in-jokes, more peril, generally. Having built the world of Wollstonecraft, I use the second book to unsettle that world a little bit. It’s good fun.

9.     If you could create a sound track for THE CASE OF THE MISSING MOONSTONE, what songs would you pick and why?

I wrote much of the first three books in the series while listening to the music of my friend Jill Tracy, a dark cabaret siren who supplied me with a stylish, haunted-house ambience, which is great for writing mysteries.

10.  If someone wanted a peek into your writer’s room, what would they see?

A stained-glass window looking out onto an overgrown courtyard garden. High ceilings, French doors, paneling, bookshelves, a Moroccan rug, an overstuffed red comfy chair in which I write, a Korean War ammo crate, which I use as a coffee table, a miniatures table littered with robots and zombies and battle apes and jetpack soldiers (it’s a game I play with my nine-year-old son) and a dog. Also piles of dog hair and a collection of mugs I’ve forgotten to bring into the kitchen, but I won’t mention that bit.

11.  What is your work schedule like when writing a new book?

I worked for years as both an advertising copywriter and a screenwriter-for-hire, so I tend to be pretty disciplined and used to deadlines. I have about two dozen books in my head at any given moment, and I collect scenes for them constantly. So when I pick one, I work out the plot (beginning, middle, end; then end of the beginning, beginning of the end, that sort of thing) and I define what each character wants—and how I cannot give it to them. After that, it’s largely about coloring inside the lines (“oh, today I have to write the scene where character x almost gets y, but they don’t at the last minute. That’ll take about 3,000 words”) and just making everybody increasingly miserable until the end. 

Tuesdays are my grinding days—I try not to leave the house and strive to hit at least 5,000 words. That way, if I have to move things around the rest of the week, I’ll always get another Tuesday. This results in the hairy, shambling monstrosity that is the first draft. Plodding, painful, formulaic. Seriously cringe-inducing. But at least then I have something to work with: bits to chuck out and other scenes to shed more light on. That’s when it really starts to take shape—during the first edit. It’s the worst part because you’re very aware you’ve written something awful, yet oddly satisfying because, however rough the second draft is, it’s so much less awful than it was.

The worst part is waiting for edits. When they give you a good editor, well, they’ve given that good editor to other authors, so they have a lot of books on the go and you can wait for months for very basic things, and you’re into this weird realm of not knowing. That’s the time to grab another book out of the brain and begin something else.

12.  Which books and authors do you feel have influenced your writing?

I read a lot of South American authors in my twenties, and when I overwrite, which I do often and am likely doing now, I think that’s where that comes from. I’ve re-read Nin’s diaries many, many times, so that creeps in and I have to apply all the sparse Hemingway and Miller and Fitzgerald and Beryl Markham (who owns sparsity of phrase) I’ve read to rein that in. I love Shakespeare’s alliteration, so that’s huge for me, the musicality of the read-aloud phrase. I think Gaiman does that masterfully. Pynchon. Hesse. Philip K. Dick for story twists. Tom Robbins for humor and punning. Austen for Regency voice.

So much Austen. I find myself doing Austen voice by accident now, when I’m driving or buying milk. It’s ridiculous.

13.  What is your favorite book, author, TV show?

I can’t have a favorite book—that’s why I have a library. There are some authors who can do no wrong in my experience: Gaiman, William Gibson, Douglas Coupland, Margaret Atwood. If they write it, I’ll read it. But I also look at comics and film scripts from a writer’s perspective. Luc Besson, Alan Moore, Grant Morrison, Whedon. Hossein Amini is really interesting, as is Kelly Sue DeConnick’s work, and Brenden Fletcher, whom I just discovered. We’re huge Buffy/Firefly nerds in our house, but I think my favorite TV series has to be Carnivàle in terms of ensemble-cast writing and intersecting story arcs. It’s probably the best world-building I’ve ever seen.

14.  What are your favorite children books and why?

I grew up with Enid Blyton, and I love how she understands the interstitial nature of childhood. You’re supposed to be in one place doing one activity, and then another place with another activity, but in between those expectations are a danger and an excitement and all the memory of childhood. Her characters are all innocently poking about the beach when, just out of earshot from parents or teachers, there are pirates or treasure or smugglers or what have you. And there are. That’s what tests children, what makes them. All the things they discover while they’re assumed to be elsewhere.

Nowadays for me it has to be Gaiman’s stuff like The Day I Swapped My Dad for Two Goldfish and Fortunately, the Milk—not just because he’s a huge influence but because I identify with that kind of stream of silliness I make up for my own family. I recognize my own dad reflex and voice in his kids’ books.

15.  What has been the greatest influence on you with respect to encouraging you to write and become a published author?

In my teens, I grew up, effectively, in my girlfriend’s house. Her father was Robin Skelton, the poet and professor, who hosted a weekly salon of writers and artists. The university would fly in all kinds of amazing voices from all over, they’d do a reading, we’d go out for dinner and come back to this sprawling Victorian pile and party into the wee small hours, reading each other’s poetry. And do it again next week. And I thought, this is it. A life of arts and letters. Gallery crawls every Sunday, readings every Thursday, and scrambling like hell to create something new to share for next week. Never looked back. Why would I?

16.  What are you reading now?

The Secret History of Wonder Woman by Jill Lepore. It’s partly a biography of Marston, her creator (or more rightly, one of her creators), but it’s also the history of the ideas and agenda behind such a character. It’s equal parts scholarly and nerdy. I’m kind of in heaven right now, bookwise.

17.  Any words of wisdom and advice to aspiring writers?

Nothing original, sadly. Writers write. Sure they talk about writing and complain about writing, but you have to have something first to complain about. So write that. Write something lame and cliché and awful first, and then fix it. Then don’t show it to anybody, then fix it again, and THEN tell them it’s your crappy first draft and listen for notes. But the hardest part, for most anyway, isn’t story or character or dialogue or world-building, it’s the bit where your fingers mash the keys. Get that draft over with. Don’t put it off because you’re afraid it will be terrible. Of COURSE it will be terrible. But that gives you something to fix, and that bit is really joyous, really rewarding.