Interview with Trenton Lee Stewart, Author of The Mysterious Benedict Society

Absolute Blank

By Mollie Savage (Bonnets)

There are many joys working in a bookstore, among them when an author walks in and asks if we’d like him to sign the books of his that we have on the shelves. That was how I met Trenton Lee Stewart, author of Flood Summer and The Mysterious Benedict Society. Trent is a local fellow. In his own words: “I grew up in Hot Springs, Arkansas, went to a small liberal arts school called Hendrix College, and finally attended the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop. I continued to live in Iowa City for several years while my wife finished work on her Ph.D., after which we moved to Cincinnati, where I worked at the public library and also did some teaching. Both of my published novels, Flood Summer and The Mysterious Benedict Society (a children’s novel) were completed while I lived in Cincinnati. Last year we moved back to Arkansas, where I now write full-time—most recently on a follow-up to The Mysterious Benedict Society due out in 2008.”

The Mysterious Benedict Society is hugely successful. Here’s an interview with him.

Interview with Trenton Lee Stewart

TOASTED CHEESE: How did you get your start as a writer?

TRENTON LEE STEWART: I wrote occasional stories and poems beginning in elementary school and continued until college, where I began to write fiction in earnest. Afterward I was accepted into the graduate creative writing program at the University of Iowa, spent a couple of years discovering how little I knew about craft, and then spent several years more working various odd jobs as I tried to figure things out. During that time I published several stories, but I also wrote a lot of fiction that would never be published. I suppose it all amounted, in the end, to a start.

TC: What’s the first thing you published?

TLS: The first thing I ever published was a story I wrote in college about a man who falls overboard, unnoticed, in the middle of the ocean. He is certain to die (probably by drowning, though he also fears shark attack), and the story deals with his final hours. I sold it for five dollars to a tiny amateur literary journal now long since extinct. The most interesting thing about this story, though, is that some years later, flipping through an anthology of horror stories a co-worker had pressed on me, I came across a story that was almost identical to the one I’d written. Though I was stunned by how similar the two stories were, there could be no question of plagiarism, because the anthologized story had been written almost a century before, and by none other than a young Winston Churchill. My wife said this just proved I have a great deal in common with famous world leaders.

TC: That’s a great story. Do you drink brandy every day like Churchill? 😉

TLS: I’m pretty sure that story was the only thing Churchill and I have in common. I like brandy, actually, but rarely drink it. My beverage of choice would have to be strong coffee with a little milk. That’s something I do drink every day, with the occasional latte thrown in for good measure.

TC: I’d like to add that you are most diplomatic, another thing you have in common. Moving on, tell us about your path to being published.

TLS: It was a fairly straight path, but with lots of steep hills. My early interest in reading, and in words in general, helped me to excel in my English classes. I received lots of encouragement about my writing from teachers along the way, which led me to focus on it as a possible vocation. I studied literature and took a couple of writing courses in college. After that it was a matter of applying myself relentlessly to writing, to sending out my work again and again, and to accepting innumerable rejections as part of the path.

TC: About your path to getting published—tell us more about the entire process.

TLS: I’ve sold all my short stories myself, but years ago a friend of mine referred me to a good agent, who liked my work and with whom I developed a rapport. He wasn’t enthusiastic about selling Flood Summer, though—this happens a lot, actually; an agent may like your work yet not be excited enough to commit to trying to sell it—so I ended up selling that myself (to SMU Press). But I got in touch with the agent again when I finished The Mysterious Benedict Society, and he loved it and sent it out right away to several different editors. It was a bit dream-like. Within a couple of weeks I was talking to editors—more than one wanted the book—and deciding which publisher I wanted to go with. A rare situation and certainly nothing like my previous experience trying to sell my work. And by sheer coincidence, both Flood Summer and The Mysterious Benedict Society were sold at virtually the same time (six weeks apart).

Both book editors wanted some revisions, so I was suddenly extremely busy. I finished Flood Summer first, after a few months of work, and it came out a year later. SMU is a university press without deep pockets, of course, so although they produce handsome, high-quality books, and are able to place some ads and send out review copies, much of the marketing ultimately depends on the author’s own motivation. I have writer friends who have arranged countless readings and signings at bookstores and universities and really get the word out there, but when Flood Summer came out I had two small children, a working spouse, and another pressing deadline, and I didn’t feel capable of more than a few readings and an interview or two. Still, I expected, or at least hoped, that it would receive some additional attention as a result of the publicity for The Mysterious Benedict Society (and it has).

The Mysterious Benedict Society was different. I spent a year, off and on, revising and editing it. The editors would suggest changes, and I would make changes, but the draft still wouldn’t feel quite right to everyone involved, and we’d go back to work. To be honest it was a very difficult process even though I liked my editors. Eventually it was finished, though, and Little, Brown put an enormous amount of energy and a lot of money into marketing it. Promotional mailings, websites, etc, and they sent me to do signings and meet prominent booksellers and librarians both before and after the book came out. I also was sent on a tour doing bookstore signings and talking about the book to students in schools.

TC: In Mysterious Benedict Society you use some delightful names that reflect the characters’ and places’ personae: Constance Contraire, Ledroptha Curtain, Nomansan Island, to name a few. Talk about your process of naming.

TLS: It began with wanting to make the names distinctive and memorable, then developed into an enjoyable exercise in making most of the names hint at or reflect something deeper, such as a personality trait or a thematic joke. I set out in writing this book to have fun, to give myself freedom to fool around and be playful, and the naming process ended up being part of that. A lot of minor characters would have mundane, place-holder names at first, but eventually most, though not all, of them earned a more interesting moniker.

TC: There are so many elements in creating an engaging story: plot, setting, character, theme, point of view, conflict. Where do you begin?

TLS: Most of the time I begin with a scene, or part of a scene, that has occurred to me and engages my interest—often it’s an unusual visual image or an unusual interaction between characters. I suppose conflict is at the heart of it, but it might be anything, really. If this scene or partial scene holds my interest, I’ll eventually start wondering what led to it, and what would follow it, and what kind of people would be involved in it. In other words, plot and character usually develop, more or less simultaneously, from some other element that drew my interest.

TC: Do you see writing Young Adult fiction as your future? Is Mysterious Benedict Society an ongoing series?

TLS: I see it as part of my future but not all of it. I’ve almost completed a second Mysterious Benedict Society book and intend to write a third (and final) one, and I would like to write still more children’s books, which afford their own particular pleasures. At the same time, I have always written fiction for adults and love doing that, too, so I imagine (and hope) I will continue to write both.

TC: Do you have a particular, or peculiar, writing schedule?

TLS: It’s shifted frequently over the years to fit my circumstances. I’ve stayed up late, gotten up early, whatever made sense at the time. More recently I write every weekday, usually starting in mid-morning and finishing in the mid-afternoon, with some breaks throughout.

TC: What do you most/least enjoy about your job?

TLS: I love writing the first draft of any project—from arranging ideas and scenes into a rough plot to the actual crafting of sentences—no matter how difficult. The second or third draft, whichever one requires the most destruction in service of producing a better work, tends to be my least favorite stage of the process. But on an everyday level, what I enjoy least about writing is having to stop.

TC: Have you ever experienced writer’s block? If so, how do you break through?

TLS: It seems to me that writer’s block is not so much a lack of ideas as it is a flare-up of perfectionism: the writer doesn’t want to put something bad on the page, and everything he or she can think of seems bad. When this happens to me (as it occasionally does) I remind myself that the act of writing is different from thinking about what to write, that if I will just start laying down prose I will probably discover something to help me move forward. I may need to discard what I’ve written, or it may reveal to me that I need to be writing something different, but one way or another the act of writing tends to eliminate the act of fretting before a blank page.

TC: Why do you write?

TLS: It’s a natural outgrowth of something I’ve always done. Even before I could write—in fact even before I could read—I created elaborate stories in my head. I called it “thinking,” and I would shush my family if they were being too loud while I did it. I loved making up stories, then, and this led to writing them down, which (once I gained some competence) I also loved—and still do. If I didn’t love it I’m sure I wouldn’t still be doing it, because it’s a hard thing to do, with too many inconveniences, frustrations, and risks. So while it may seem too simple an explanation, I suppose the answer really is that I write because I love it.

TC: What is your advice for writers who want/hope to be published?

TLS: I can offer specific advice only to fiction writers, but more broadly I can say that nothing is more important than the writing itself, so you need to feel confident that what you’re sending out is as good as you can possibly make it. Beyond that, the key ingredient is perseverance, by which I mean insane stubbornness. You have to accept—even embrace—rejection as part of the process. If you can stomach that, and you work and work, your chances of eventually being published are helped immeasurably.

More specific advice for fiction writers: If you’re trying to sell short stories, don’t try to talk editors into liking your work. They’ll either like it or they won’t. Your cover letters should be professional and brief. If you don’t have any publications to your credit, fine: just say thanks for considering the enclosed story and be done with it. No gimmicks. The writing must speak for itself.

For book-length fiction, finding an agent usually helps, but you still have to send your very best writing, and you still have to be ready for rejection.

The Novel and Short Story Writer’s Market, Children’s Writer’s & Illustrator’s Market, and Guide to Literary Agents are all updated yearly and are a really good starting place for publishing information.

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