Interview with ‘Mysterious Benedict Society’ Author Trent Stewart – Part I

Reading Time: 10 minutes
Mysterious Benedict Society
Well-read copies of ‘The Mysterious Benedict Society’ series. Image credit to the author.

In 2007, Trenton Lee Stewart introduced readers to The Mysterious Benedict Society, a tale of adventure and intrigue featuring four young heroes, each with unique gifts. A brilliant benefactor, Mr. Benedict, recruits the young protagonists for a mission to help save the world from a dastardly villain called Mr. Curtain, who is bent on controlling the planet through a machine called the Whisperer that could manipulate the thoughts and memories of people.

Readers were captivated by the first tale of the Society – featuring Reynie Muldoon, Kate Weatherall, Sticky Washington, and Constance Contraire – as they used their unique talents to solve intricate riddles and puzzles on their way to stopping Mr. Curtain’s evil plot.

The Mysterious Benedict Society quickly became a best-seller, and it was followed up by two sequels in 2008 and 2009 to form a trilogy of books. The second novel, The Mysterious Benedict Society and the Perilous Journey, featured the quartet embarking on an international scavenger hunt that soon turns precarious due to further maneuvers by Mr. Curtain. And the third novel, The Mysterious Benedict Society and the Prisoner’s Dilemma, challenged the group even more as they struggled to prevent Mr. Curtain from re-acquiring the Whisperer. After completing the original trilogy, Stewart dived into the early life of the titular Mr. Benedict in a prequel novel released in 2012, The Extraordinary Education of Nicholas Benedict.

The Mysterious Benedict Society series gained a strong fan base, but it’s been several years since fans have been treated to any new adventures for the popular Society.

That all changes this year: Stewart recently announced that a new novel is set to be released in the fall! I, along with my daughter (who we’ll call Geek Young Lady), had a chance to talk with Trent Stewart to ask some questions about the series and plans for the upcoming novel.

The first part of the interview is presented below, and the second part will be available tomorrow. Finally, come back to geekdad.com later this week to read an exclusive excerpt from the upcoming new novel, The Mysterious Benedict Society and the Riddle of Ages!

Trent Stewart
Author Trent Stewart. Image courtesy of Little, Brown and Company.

GeekDad: It’s been about 10 years since the last book in the trilogy came out. It was 2009 for The Prisoner’s Dilemma, and even 7 years since the prequel focusing on Mr. Benedict was published. What’s bringing you back to the series after so long away?

Trent Stewart: Well that’s a question I asked myself. I guess I finished the series a couple of times. I thought I was finished after the first book; I had originally set out to write only the first novel, and in the process, I realized that I might be interested in writing more if anyone else was interested in reading more. So my original plan was to write the one book, but then it turned out that people were interested in reading more, and once I knew I was going to write a second book I thought that I would probably write three. Then I thought I was finished.

A couple years later, I was working on a different project and I realized, through a series of things – it’s often through reader correspondence, kids writing me and asking me questions about characters and their pasts and their futures, and they get me thinking about them again. And I realized that I was really interested in who Mr. Benedict would have been as a child. But then I felt that [the prequel book] left things in a nice place. Over all these years, I’ve often thought about the Society and how they would be when they were older. So, I was interested in it, but I never really thought I would write about them when they were older, I just thought it would be an interesting thing to figure out or spend some time with. But I really had no plans.

And then a couple of things happened. First, the 10-year anniversary edition of the first book came out, and the additional bonus material that came with that was a list of questions and answers that I did. And one of them that I got asked was if I missed the characters. And the thing is, I really hadn’t for a long time. I loved the characters, but I felt like they had been left in a good place, and I was doing other things I was interested in. But I never stopped talking about them, because I get letters from kids and readers all the time and I respond to those readers and answer questions about the Society, even when I visit schools and libraries. When my last book came out and it wasn’t part of the series, I still inevitably ended up talking about the Mysterious Benedict Society.

But when I was answering that question, it was around the same time I had gotten some readers who had written asking what these characters would be like now if the time had passed in their world the way it has passed in ours. Because they had read the books years ago and now they’ve gotten older, and they’ve wondered about these characters. All of these things happened at once, and I just started pondering it, and soon enough I realized that I did miss them. And I started feeling really intrigued by what might their lives be like if some time had passed since we saw them last.

GD: Interesting, so I take then that when the new book comes out, we’re going to encounter the Society having aged with everyone else. So are we talking about young adult characters now, Reynie and Sticky and Kate in their twenties, and Constance presumably a teenager? Or what’s the timeline for them?

TS: That was my original idea, to think that the exact same amount of time would have passed in that universe as in our real universe, so it would be around ten years. Which would have placed them, yeah, roughly in their early twenties. And Constance, well, my idea was that she would have gone through a period of being a pleasant child, a non-contrary child [laughs]. But now that she’s in her teenage years, she’s hit some rough spots and she’s back to the familiar person she was.

But I talked about it with my editors, and we thought about different possibilities, and in the end, I didn’t make it completely analogous. So some years have passed, the older three are definitely on the cusp of a kind of adulthood, and they’re having to figure out whether they want to move on to pursue certain opportunities, knowing that would disrupt their small community, the Society. And Constance, she’s not a teenager yet, but she has certainly hit a spell in which she’s so cantankerous that [the others] have said she’s not a teenager or even a “tweenager”, but she’s a “mean-ager.”

GeekYoungLady: How long does it take you to write one of these books? And what’s your process to write them?

TS: Great question! Because these books, as you know, depend upon these characters figuring out certain things that then lead them to the next thing, whether it’s a clue or a problematic situation or a riddle, I really do have to outline the books in some way – I have to plan ahead. Because they all need to come together in a way that’s really satisfying at the end, or that’s the hope. I can’t just sort of figure it out as I go. As I write, I do figure out how the characters are going to interact when they’re trying to solve the problem. And how the problem would reflect different things about their personalities and their relationships. So that all continues to be surprising to me as I work on the book, but before I get too deep into the story, I have a general sense of the kinds of things they’re going to have to do, and where that’s all going to lead.

And then, it’s varied with all of the books, with the first book I had a few trusted friends read it and give me some feedback, and with the later books, I had my editors read it first. But at any rate, there are the original early drafts, and then I work with the editors, and we have correspondence back and forth. It’s usually for some months, and they call attention to things they think are working, or things that they think might work better, and they see if I have any ideas about that. And then I rework, make some revisions and changes until I find something that we’re all satisfied with. And so, give or take a few months, most of the books have been around two years from the time that I start writing them until the time that I’m finished working with the editors on them. For this newest book, I’m just now going over the final proofs to send back to the editors, and it’ll be just over a year since I started it. So this one has gone relatively quickly, start to finish.

GYL: I was wondering if you have any pets? And also, what was your inspiration for Kate’s falcon, Madge, in The Perilous Journey?

TS: Yes, I have pets that come and go; they spend some time here and some time elsewhere – it’s a complicated menagerie. I grew up with lots of dogs and cats. And my mother has always been a horse person, so I’ve had a lot of exposure to horses as well. Lots of animals in my life, I love animals. But I’ve never had a bird, and I never really wanted a bird. But I’m trying to think about why Kate ended up with this falcon. I knew when I was writing the second book (and the same was true for the later books) that I wanted to make things new for the characters.

But I also thought there were lots of hints of their lives, or aspects of their lives, that had gone unexplored in the first book, and I ought to explore those further whenever it made sense. And one of those things was that Kate had spent so much time in the circus. So I thought, well, there are lots of animals in the circus, and she spent time there and she’s gifted in so many ways, it would make sense that she has learned something about training animals and working with animals.

So once I had thought about it for a while, I thought it would be amusing to have Kate training animals on the farm to do various tasks. And I’ve always thought birds of prey were fascinating, especially when I was younger, and I still do. So the notion that this incredibly fast, physically gifted girl would have the world’s fastest bird as her pet – and a very unlikely pet, at that. That’s one of the things I try to do in the books as well, is to do things that are surprising. So if she’d had a hamster or a hedgehog, that would be fun, but…most people don’t think of a predator, a flying predator, as a pet. But I thought that would be a fun, sort of surprising element in the story.

Mysterious Benedict Society
Image credit to mysteriousbenedictsociety.com.

GD: Right, I don’t think a hamster would fit Kate’s personality very well.

TS: Yes, she needs something fast and dynamic for sure! And the great thing about Her Majesty The Queen (Madge) is that because she acts more like a pet and less so like a raptor, and because she’s actually attached to Kate, then she can show up even if Kate hasn’t intended to make accommodations for her. She can go anywhere because she can fly, and she can settle down on a ship, or settle on top of a vehicle, or she can fly along.

So I didn’t have to work too hard to accommodate for her. Although I did do lots of research about – anything in the book, I’ve usually done a good bit of research even if I don’t use most of it. Many things in the book are a little preposterous, but I always try to tie them close enough to reality that if you squint, you could actually think they could really happen. That was my goal.

GD: To the point about tying things to reality, the next question revolves around some of the locations in the stories. What I found interesting was that a good majority of the locations in the books are fictional (such as Stonetown, or Nomansan Island), but on occasion, we’ll see a real location. I’m particularly reminded of Lisbon in The Perilous Journey. How do determine whether an actual location is going to be useful in a story instead of a fictional one? Is there any distinction there, or is it just kind of what the story needs at that moment?

TS: It ultimately becomes the latter, I think. With the first book, I wanted to have the freedom to tell the kind of story that I wanted to tell, but I wanted everything to feel familiar to the reader. So I invented a slightly alternate version of what our reality is in the modern United States. But a lot of readers would say they felt there was kind of an English or British flavor to the story, which I thought was pretty natural because I was trying to channel my remembered storytelling voice from the books that I read and loved when I was young, and a lot of those came from that part of the world, England and Scotland. So it didn’t surprise me that that crept into the language of the story.

But there are hints in the first book – there are mentions of Chicago; George Washington is an obvious nod to the fact that the book is set in the U.S. But it’s an United States in which the internet is not a thing, in which cell phones have not become a thing. Computers, and TVs and radios, they’re all a part of the story in some way. But mostly I wanted those things to not be part of [the characters’] reality because I wanted the kids to be able to solve all of these problems by virtue of their ingenuity, and their ability to work together, as opposed to gadgets and stuff. So that’s why I created a kind of alternate version, but nonetheless, I wanted it to feel like a familiar world to the reader.

Mysterious Benedict Society
Image credit to mysteriousbenedictsociety.com.

In the second book, I really was just drawn to the idea of a huge scavenger hunt with life-or-death stakes. That was always fascinating to me, that idea of a dramatic scavenger hunt, when I was a kid I loved that idea. So I wanted to create something like that, and I started with Portugal, with Lisbon in particular, because I had been there myself, and I thought, why not make that the first stop when they get across the ocean? It would be fun for me to revisit that place, and I knew I could think of ways to use that setting in a way that would be a kind of puzzle or problem they would have to solve.

But then there are places the Society arrives at by the end of the book that I’ve made up. I’ve spent a lot of time looking at maps and thinking about where certain places might be. And I tweaked invented certain things because to serve the story. But it was fun too to ground the story in a world where you could find places on a map if you were interested. I’ve never actually spent time in the Netherlands, Amsterdam or anywhere around there for instance, but my sister lived there for a year or so. So I did a bit of research and talked to her about things that stood out to her, that other people might not notice if they haven’t lived there, something that could feel authentic from a precise kind of location. There are some place names, such as Thernbaakagen…

GD: Yes, I noticed that. Did that happen to be a subtle reference to Tolkien, to Bilbo Baggins’ chronicle?

TS: Definitely! So ‘Thernbaakagen,’ that’s a reference to The Hobbit, which is all about Bilbo Baggins’ epic journey, right? It’s all about his big adventure. But what’s also interesting is that the Dutch pronunciation would be something that sounds a little closer to “turn back again.” A few readers have suggested that it was a point of no return.

Visit GeekDad again tomorrow for Part II of our interview with Trent Stewart, author of The Mysterious Benedict Society series, and also come back on Friday for an exclusive excerpt from the new book, The Mysterious Benedict Society and the Riddle of Ages! You can pre-order the new book here or here.

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