Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Interrogation Room #18: W.H. Beck, Author of Malcolm at Midnight

MALCOLM AT MIDNIGHT from fellow sleuth W.H Beck is out in stores today! Internal Affairs has hauled her in for a few questions, but we're pretty sure she's innocent. After all, MALCOLM is getting rave reviews. It's no surprise it was a BEA buzz book this past June. "A rip-roaring tale!" Kirkus says, "Even rodent-haters will have to like Malcolm." Publishers Weekly calls it, "A first-rate debut." We couldn't agree more.

A bit about W.H. Beck:
W.H. Beck grew up in Wisconsin, the oldest of four kids. As a kid, her dad always teased her that she would be a librarian someday. That’s because she read all the time—walking home from school, while brushing her teeth, under the table at dinnertime, and under the covers at night. And, sure enough, after earning an elementary teaching degree from the University of Wisconsin (go Badgers!), she went on to get a master’s degree in information studies from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.
Yes, that’d be library school.
She still lives and reads in Wisconsin, but now she shares her home and books with her husband, two sons, and two big black dogs. Malcolm at Midnight is her first novel. She's hard at work on her next.


When Malcolm (a smaller than average rat) arrives at crumbling McKenna School, he revels in the attention, the Poptart crumbs, and his new Comf-E-Cube. He also meets the Midnight Academy, a secret society of classroom pets that protects the students. There’s just one problem: it turns out that rats have a terrible reputation. Have you heard? They are sneaky, disloyal, dirty, and greedy! So when everyone assumes Malcolm is a mouse, he doesn’t exactly squeak up. Maybe once he proves himself in the Academy, he can admit his rattiness.

But Malcolm’s is not the only secret at McKenna. Why does fifth grade teacher Mr. Binney roam the halls after midnight? Who is stealing chemicals from the science room? And what exactly are those shrieks from the clock tower? Then Malcolm’s secret is exposed—just as an Academy member disappears. The Academy turns on Malcolm with suspicion. After all, rats can’t be trusted. And now, banished from the Academy, Malcolm must use all his rat traits to prove his innocence—and to learn what kind of rat he really is.

Kristen Kittscher: MALCOLM AT MIDNIGHT has a classic feel that reminds me of some of my all-time favorites, like Stuart Little, The Borrowers, and – a book referenced in MALCOLM – The Tale of Despereaux. Who are your favorite authors and influences?

W.H Beck: Oh, boy. You do realize that you just asked a librarian what her favorite book is? Pretty much the whole reason I went in to librarianhood is because I loved so many of them and wanted to be near them all. But to answer your question—and because this IS the interrogation room—I’ll try to be more specific.

The three you named are all close-to-my-heart favorites. I can still remember my second grade teacher’s voice as she read aloud both The Borrowers and Stuart Little. Others I dearly love from my childhood—and that have been a lasting influence on me—are A Wrinkle in Time, The Rescuers, Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, Ramona, Summer of the Monkeys, Anne of Green Gables, Watership Down, and Nancy Drew.

While I still read all kinds of books, my very favorites are still along these lines. Books with a lot of action, an element of mystery, and generous dollops of humor and heart. More recent influences would include Megan Whalen Turner’s Attolia books, Andrew Clements’ school stories, Gary Paulsen’s funny stuff, and Harry Potter. I do read books for grown-up, occasionally, too, but mostly nonfiction, which I do think sifts down and influences my middle grade writing.

KK: I read somewhere that you wrote many versions of MALCOLM and revised for many years. What insight can you give us into your revision process? Any lessons learned or advice to share?

WB: I did. There are 10 versions/drafts of MALCOLM on my computer and it’s been a 4-year span from idea to publication. Yikes! However, while that sounds like it’s been a long, grueling process, it really hasn’t been. First of all, part of the reason it took so long was that, in the beginning, I was also writing a nonfiction series (Follow That Food Chain) for Lerner. So my time was divided. And the first four drafts were really barely drafts, they were so loose and incomplete. Just sketches and lists of ideas, really. In fact, I had set aside MALCOLM—after all, it was pretty much what every editor says they DON’T want: talking animals, second-person voice, footnotes—when it won a Work-in-Progress grant from SCBWI in 2009. That vote of confidence was what really got me plowing through and finally finishing a complete manuscript.

As soon as I finished that one, I already had a list of notes of things to change, so I turned right back around and fixed those. So I think it was the 6th draft before I shared MALCOLM with anyone in the world. And even that draft, as I sent it off, I knew was going to change the most. Because, while the story made sense (finally!) and all the characters were there, it was sad (Mr. Binney was looking for his recently-killed son’s class ring and Amelia was Troubled). And that wasn’t exactly the story I wanted to tell. So I brainstormed ways to make it lighter, then I got out my index cards of scenes and sat down with my fistful of highlighters and went through the manuscript, marking down all the plot threads and places I’d need to rewrite. That 7th draft is what secured me an agent, the 8th is what sold to Houghton Mifflin, then there was a small revision for my editor, and copy-edits—which I think brings us to 10…and 4 years later!

Lessons learned or advice to share? Well, I learned I can only write one manuscript at a time—I turned down some additional nonfiction work to finish MALCOLM. I learned that early drafts are HARD, but it’s okay to have starts and stops, scenes out of order, and for it to not make sense to anyone but you. The only point of a first draft is to finish it. And I learned that, once I finish a draft, it’s important to step back and think about it as a whole—is this really the story I wanted to tell?

KK: I fell in love with Malcolm—his struggle to be a rat of “merit and valor,” his endearing anxiety, his unique exclamations (“Oh, crumb!” “Sweet Nubbins!”) all stick with me a year after reading it. I’m very curious to hear more about how you developed his character. What, if anything, inspired his story?

WB: I’m so glad to hear you’re fond of Malcolm. (I am, too.) As a writer, his character is probably what I’m most proud of in this book. Past writing efforts have had great plots twists and fun premises, but have lacked the depth of character Malcolm and his gang have. Writing Malcolm felt different, and I think it’s because of my connection to them.

As far as inspiration, it sounds trite, but Malcolm came about as a bedtime story for my then first-grade son. My son was pet-obsessed, and I was writing a nonfiction animal series, so I think we already had critters on the brain. At the time, too, we were doing a lot with restitution at the school I work at (and my son goes to) and talking about choices and being the person we want to be, so I think Malcolm just bloomed from there. And after that—well, I just put in anything that would make us giggle.

As for character development, I wrote about this earlier on Sleuths, Spies, & Alibis, but as I searched for ways to make my characters stronger, I was really helped by Cecil Castellucci’s Superman analogy—that every character needs a special skill or superpower, a flaw, a place of their own, an arch enemy, and a love/passion. I used this to go back and analyze favorite books and characters and found she was right. Another really useful thing I did early on, was write a letter from each of the characters, explaining what had happened from their point of view and in their voice. These letters were really useful to refer back to throughout subsequent drafts.

And the “slang?” Well, I have a dog who is VERY food motivated, so I extrapolated that most pets would be. I had a lot of fun creating sayings for the critters based on that.

KK: MALCOLM is illustrated by the very talented Brian Lies. Can you tell us a little bit about what it was like to work with an illustrator?

WB: I am so fortunate to work with Brian Lies on this, in more ways than one. First, I have to say that I’ve taught a unit with his Bats books for the past several years in my library. So when my editor made her offer on MALCOLM and said she’d like to bring in Brian, I was beyond thrilled. His work is so perfect for MALCOLM.

A lot of times, there is not a lot of contact between an author and illustrator working on a book, and there wasn’t with us at first. Eventually, though, he had so many questions about my text that we started talking more directly. (Brian was a great copy-editor of sorts, pointing out all sorts of inconsistencies!) I ended up sending him links to rat cages, oscar fish, clock towers, and my rough sketches of McKenna school’s floor plan. Throughout it, I felt really lucky that he had such attention to detail—I was (and still am) one of those kids who noticed when the illustrations don’t match the story. However, in return, I tried not to be too bossy and to be respectful of his creativity. It’s been my past experience working with illustrators that they usually come up with amazing stuff I’d never even dream of, and I didn’t want to get in the way of that. Brian didn’t disappoint.

Throughout this whole process, Brian’s become a friend. We’ll get to meet at some dual book events this fall, and I’m very much looking forward to it.

KK: As an elementary school librarian, you’re in the business of introducing books to young readers that you hope they’ll love. What are some of the mysteries you recommend to them?

WB: Some never-fail favorites of mine are Icefall, the Buddy Files series, Guinea Pig, Pet Shop Private Eye series, Smells Like Dog, and The Trouble with Chickens. However, I tend to think that most stories are a mystery of sorts, so sometimes I stretch the definition and recommend old favorites like Harry Potter or Holes as mysteries. And sometimes I include nonfiction, too, like Ain't Nothing but a Man: My Quest to Find the Real John Henry or The Case of the Vanishing Golden Frogs: A Scientific Mystery. As far as recent mysteries? I’m very much looking forward to booktalking The False Prince, Three Times Lucky, The Case of the Deadly Desperados, Explorer: the Mystery Boxes, and The Secret Tree to my students this fall.

KK: Since this is the Interrogation Room, we have to torture at least some secrets out of you. Tell us: what’s the most mysterious thing that’s happened to you lately?

WB: Well, since you’ve asked, I will confess that I recently had a very mysterious occurrence. It was at night and at my parents’ cabin in the Wisconsin north woods. I stepped outside to get something from the cabin next door, and was stopped by a hoarse whining coming from the edge of the trees. It sounded a little like a dog who badly needed a drink of water and was maybe hurt. However, since there are bears, cougars, and wolves up there, I wasn’t about to go out investigate. Then, as we stood on the porch listening to it (yes, I went in and got reinforcements), a second creature, on the other side of us, started making the same growly, whining noise. And they began to circle us. All night we could hear whatever it was talking to each other. VERY creepy.

We did finally figure out what it was, but I’ll let you listen to it too, and you can see if you can figure it out

Thanks for coming in for questioning, W.H. Beck! We're so glad everyone else is going to have a chance to fall in love with Malcolm. The book hits stores today. You can order it at your local indie, Barnes & Noble, or Amazon

Interested in a sneak peek? Check out the MALCOLM trailer here:


  1. Great interview! And that cabin story is most creepy....

  2. Oh my gosh, what a great interview! And I love the trailer. I love Malcolm :) can't wait to read how he saves everyone at school. That noise is creepy -- is it a bird?

  3. Thanks for a great launch week, detectives!


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