Sunday, April 20, 2014

Words and Images

In 2011, when I learned that my first book -- SECRETS OF SHAKESPEARE’S GRAVE -- was to be published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, I immediately wanted to know what the publisher had in mind for illustrating the novel.  As a former art major, this mattered to me.  I felt that a mystery novel set in such wonderful locations as New York City, Mont St. Michel, London and Stratford-upon-Avon deserved proper illustrations.  My editor informed me that a gentleman by the name of Mark Edward Geyer would be providing the interior illustrations for the book.  At the time, I was not familiar with Mark’s work, so I immediately Googled his name.

The first thing I learned was that Mark had provided illustrations for two Stephen King novels -- ROSE MADDER and THE GREEN MILE.

My life, at that point, was complete.

I had grown up reading Stephen King.  I adored Stephen King.  His book -- ON WRITING -- is one of my most treasured resources as a writer.

Needless to say, I was a bit excited.

And then, to make things even better, I learned that Mark Edward Geyer lived in Atlanta -- just a short trip from my home in Warm Springs, Georgia.

I contacted him and set up lunch.  We met at a small restaurant in Atlanta.  I was instantly charmed.  His passion for art, for illustration and for writing was clear.  In the last three years I have come to know Mark not just as a colleague, but as a friend.  Moreover, the illustrations he has provided for my books have brought them to life in a way I could not have expected.  They are timeless renderings which capture the mood and whimsy that I so desperately wanted to express in my novels.

Illustration and art, as I learned, are in his blood.

Mark comes from a line of French Canadian artists. His mother, Joan Lavigueur Geyer, has exhibited at the Smithsonian and The Museum of Modern Art in New York City.  His maternal grandfather, Roch Oliver Joseph Charles DeLage deLavigueur, was a landscape artist and architectural draftsman.

Mark received his B.A. in Studio Art from Florida State University in 1979, and then spent many years as an architectural renderer. Upon breaking into the publishing market, he started out illustrating horror novels and, as noted above, is best known as the illustrator of Stephen King’s ROSE MADDER and THE GREEN MILE.   Fortunately for me, he is now illustrating for middle-grade novels. He has worked on two middle-grade series: THE INQUISITOR'S APPRENTICE and its sequels and THE SHAKESPEARE MYSTERIES. He is also providing illustrations for the “Who Was” series by Grosset & Dunlap, his work appearing first in the book WHO WAS ULYSSES S. GRANT?  

Mark is a busy man with tight deadlines.  As such, I was somewhat hesitant to ask him to answer a few questions about his craft.  As usual, however, he was ever so gracious.

What lead you to become an illustrator?

A love of pen and ink and a love of drawing. I started out as a fine artist, doing landscapes in pen and ink. Then I got into editorial illustration, product illustration, architectural rendering, and finally, book illustration. I had always wanted to contribute to books because of how well interior illustrations are suited to ink and because of the permanence that your work has once it’s in print.

How would you describe your style of illustration, and how did you develop your style? 

I never set out to acquire or shape a particular style. A style emerged naturally for me.  I’ve always just tried to make the most powerful and handsome images possible. This is a matter of heeding instincts in steering a piece so that it strikes the deepest possible chord in me once it’s finished. I guess I would describe my work as looking old-world or classical, and, although that’s a genre that I love, it’s not a genre that I set out to emulate.  

What illustrators/artists influenced you and why?  

My earliest and strongest influence was my mother, her artwork, and her high standards. I wanted so badly to draw like her when I was a kid. I especially liked anything she did in pencil, charcoal, pen and ink or ink washes. My mother’s father was an artist and my mother had saved some of his work—sensitive landscapes in pencil and dry watercolor. The sensitivity of his work was a big influence on me. Also, when I first started showing my work in art galleries in 1978 in the little town of Orange Park, Florida, there was a local artist named Teddi Jo Ryan and I was in love with her pen and ink and pencil work.

When you read a manuscript for the first time, what are you looking for as an illustrator?

I am looking for scenes and details and moods that light me up. I am wondering what I can do to enhance the work.  This is a fun phase because I always reread the piece a second time as I daydream about what would make the best illustrations.

What's the biggest challenge in bringing a book to life in illustrations? 

The biggest challenge comes when I am commissioned to do only one illustration for a novel: a title frontis or frontispiece.  This one drawing has to be a counterpoint to the author’s words. Not being a fan of collages or montages (these to me always end up having a dated 1970s look), the challenge is to distill the book down to one scene that I feel strongly about and hope that the editor and author approve of my idea.

More information about Mark Edward Geyer can be found at his website:  You can also follow Mark on Twitter at @mrkgyr.

Deron Hicks lives in Warm Springs, Georgia with his wife Angela, daughter Meg and son Parker.  His first book - SECRETS OF SHAKESPEARE'S GRAVE -- was published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Books for Children in September 2012.  His second book in the series -- TOWER OF THE FIVE ORDERS --  was published in October 2013.  You can follow Deron at Facebook or Twitter.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Easter Eggs from HIGH & DRY by Sarah Skilton

My second YA book, a desert-set mystery called HIGH & DRY, comes out today, woo-hoo!

What's it about? Framed for a stranger's near-fatal overdose at a party, blackmailed into finding a mysterious flashdrive everyone in school seems anxious to suppress, and pressured by his shady best friend to throw an upcoming game, high school soccer player Charlie Dixon spends a frantic week trying to clear his name, win back the girl of his dreams, and escape a past that may be responsible for all his current problems.

"A dark, well-constructed mystery with a strong voice." - Kirkus Reviews 

To celebrate the book's release, I thought I'd share some behind-the-scenes Easter eggs with my fellow sleuths.

1) Lead character Charlie Dixon is named after Dixon Steele, Humphrey Bogart's character in the film In a Lonely Place.

2) Charlie's scheming ex-girlfriend, Bridget Flannery, is named after Brigid O'Shaughnessy in THE MALTESE FALCON by Dashiell Hammett.

3) Mr. Donovan is the name of a teacher at both Charlie's school in Palm Valley, California, and at Imogen's school in Glenview, Illinois (the setting of my first book, BRUISED). One of the Donovans teaches history, the other, statistics. This was simple human error on my part. OR WAS IT? Perhaps one of the Mr. Donovans is an imposter! Perhaps there are clues placed carefully throughout one or both books... You decide.

4) There are three possible references to Breaking Bad in the book. This is fairly bizarre considering I hadn't seen a single episode of the show when I wrote HIGH & DRY. Since then, I've become a big fan, which is why I noticed that...

 a) In Breaking Bad, Skyler White's maiden name (and Walter White's alias) is Lambert. In HIGH & DRY, Charlie's father teaches new media journalism at a local liberal arts college called Lambert College.

 b) In Breaking Bad, Flynn is the name that Walter, Junior occasionally demands to be called. In HIGH & DRY, a Flynn Scientific baseball cap is evidence in a crime.

 c) Breaking Bad was originally set in Riverside, CA. Palm Valley is based on locations near the same Inland Empire locale.

You can pick up HIGH & DRY at any of these fine retailers:

Barnes & Noble




Sarah Skilton is the author of BRUISED, which received a starred review from Publishers Weekly, and which the Horn Book called, "nuanced and honest." She lives in southern California with her magician husband and their young son.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Ghostly Adventures

Ghosts have been on my mind lately. Just one ghost, really. The one I'm moving in with this summer. He (it?) haunts the halls of Thurber House, James Thurber's childhood home in Columbus, Ohio where I'm lucky enough to be spending the better part of June and July as their Children's Writer-in-Residence this year.

He's a not a malevolent ghost, it would seem from all reports--the most famous (and hilarious) one coming from James Thurber himself. I should be able to handle some heavy running footsteps and creaky cabinets, right? After all, I'm a ghost story fan--and Lisa Yee assures me he's gentle (though can she be sure this injury was really an accident?). Still, I find myself pausing before picking up any potentially creepy reads lately.

Maybe you'd like to pick up the slack for me? Ghosts haunt some of my very favorite middle grade reads. And ghost stories and mysteries are a match made in--well, I suppose I can't say heaven, exactly--but they certainly do go well together. 

Since there are plenty of newer ghostly titles floating around the Twittersphere these days, I thought I'd share a list of some of my favorite bone-chilling reads from the past. (Click the images to see full synopses.)

Hope you enjoy. Keep the lights on! Wish me luck in Ohio---and if you know any enthusiastic young writers in the Columbus, Ohio area, tell them all about Thurber House's fabulous summer writing camp and Young Writers' Studio! I'll be dropping in to work with the fourth and fifth graders for several sessions. I can't wait.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Interrogation Room #42: Marcia Wells, Author of EDDIE RED UNDERCOVER

Here's some "uber"-exciting news to kick off April: EDDIE RED UNDERCOVER: MYSTERY ON MUSEUM MILE, a new middle grade mystery, is on sale in stores today!  To mark the occasion, we've tracked down author Marcia Wells and taken her in for questioning in our notorious Interrogation Room. Set those lights to "blinding!" 
Here's a quick synopsis of EDDIE RED UNDERCOVER: 
Sixth-grader Edmund Xavier Lonnrot code-name “Eddie Red,” has a photographic memory and a prodigious talent for drawing anything he sees. When the NYPD is stumped by a mastermind art thief, Eddie becomes their secret weapon to solve the case, drawing Eddie deeper into New York’s famous Museum Mile and closer to a dangerous criminal group known as the Picasso Gang. Can Eddie help catch the thieves in time, or will his first big case be his last?
And here's a little about Marcia: 

Marcia Wells taught middle school students for more than a decade before becoming a full-time writer. She lives with her husband and two kids in Vermont, where she knows entirely too much about chickens, pigs, and sword fighting. Eddie Red Undercover is her debut novel, winner of the Indies Introduce New Voices award, Spring 2014.

Now for the interrogation! And Marcia, in case you're having any thoughts of making a run for it, be informed that we have a highly trained sketch artist with a photographic memory on staff. (We also have your photograph... but the point is, we'll find you!) 

1) What is EDDIE RED's genesis story? Where did you find your inspiration to write this story?

During the summer of 2010, I was preparing to teach an AP Spanish high school class in the fall, so I was reading some short crime mysteries by Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges. He had one mystery in particular where the detective and the bad guy chased each other using alphabets and geometric patterns. I had also just finished writing my first manuscript (a very mediocre YA story) and was wondering what to write next. I read some industry articles about the need for more boy mysteries. I visited relatives from New York City. After mixing all of that together in my brain, I woke up one morning and Eddie was there!

2) Eddie and Jonah aren't exactly your typical middle-grade heroes, but they are "uber" unique, charming, and likeable. What kind of process went into their development? How have they changed, if at all, throughout your revisions?

The two boys came to me very clearly. I had just taught a Spanish class of all seventh grade boys, who were equally unique and charming  they provided great inspiration. Eddie originally was shyer and less proactive in solving the case. But his humor has remained constant. Jonah has always been the same – very hyper and funny. He’s the character I have the most difficulty with. He’s such a force on the page that he’s constantly hijacking the story. I have to make a real effort to tone him down, and in the end, I always have to knock him out at the climax so that the spotlight remains on Eddie. The three of us have a lot of fun together.

3) What kind of research was necessary to write EDDIE RED? Did it involve any trips to New York or skulking around in museums?

I did A LOT of internet research, and pestered my NYC relatives about what it’s like to be a New York kid. After the story took shape, I visited Museum Mile and Central Park. I also took drawing lessons and chess lessons from my fellow teachers. Details are so important, especially in a mystery.

4) If you could have one super-sleuthing ability (such as Eddie's photographic memory and drawing skills), what would it be?

I would love to have a photographic memory  it would be so nice to remember things as a picture, to know all the details. Instead I rattle around my house with a bad case of Mommy brain most of the time…

5) What is your personal background as a writer? What led you to writing? What was the first story you ever wrote?

All of my writing classes in college and grad school were in Spanish. I love studying literature, but it was always Spanish literature. When I turned 35, I was teaching middle school kids and decided to just start writing for fun. I discovered a whole new wonderful world of YA and MG lit. My first manuscript was terrible! But a great learning experience. I then attended conferences and took online writing classes – I really dedicated myself to the craft. And I read hundreds of books  reading is such an important part of the process! Eddie was my second manuscript  after I wrote the story, it took two years of editing and revising to land an agent.

6) What is the most rewarding aspect of writing mystery for kids? The most challenging part?

The most rewarding part is the characters  they come to life and direct the action. They make me laugh! There are two challenging parts for me with this series – one is knowing how and when to reveal information (and having that reveal be natural) and the second is being funny. When I wrote the second book, it was hard to sit down and force the silly 11-year-old humor to come. It’s a process that takes months.

7) Did you learn anything about yourself as a writer while penning EDDIE RED?

I learned that plotting a mystery is an amazing writing exercise. I think if you can plot a mystery, you can plot anything!

8)  Have you ever solved a "real-life" mystery?

Ever since I became a mom, my life has become a series of real-life mysteries! Questions like, “Why is the baby crying again?” or “Where is the sponge? Oh…I put it in the freezer.” I think parents have to be the most creative sleuths of all.

9) Can you share a fun fact that your readers may not know about you?

I know how to tap dance :)

10) Can you tell your readers anything about Eddie's next adventure?

Eddie and Jonah go to Mexico on a two-week family trip. When Edmund’s father is accused of stealing a priceless artifact from the hotel, Eddie Red must save the day. The boys get tangled up with a Mayan god, a teenage street gang, and a 30 year old unsolved mystery. Tagline: Never underestimate the power of projectile vomit.

11) What one writing secret will you reveal only under the harsh lights of this Interrogation Room?

Never, ever, ever give up. I almost gave up on Eddie  I was so tired of rejection and I had moved onto other projects. I told myself I’d query one more agent  she was the agent who said yes, thank goodness, but what if it had taken five more agents? Or ten? I never would have gotten him published. Believe in yourself and your work, and don’t get discouraged!

Thanks, Marcia, and congratulations! 

Want to learn more about Marcia and EDDIE RED UNDERCOVER? 

Follow her on Twitter @WellsMarcia

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