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 world through a machine called the Whisperer that could manipulate the thoughts and memories of people.
Three books were published in The Mysterious Benedict Society series between 2007 – 2009, with a fourth novel, a prequel, released in 2012, and a few years later a companion book full of puzzles and riddles. Stewart recently announced a new novel, The Mysterious Benedict Society and the Riddle of Ages, to be released in the fall of 2019. Along with my daughter (Geek Young Lady), I had a chance to talk to author Trent Stewart about his popular series. Below is the second part of our interview. You can read Part I of the interview here.
GeekDad: Let’s talk about the characters, particularly the four main characters (Reynie, Sticky, Kate, & Constance) who form the Society. All of these characters are extraordinarily gifted children. My wife is an educator who has worked with gifted & talented kids, and we were both wondering if you have any experience or background with gifted & talented children?
Trent Stewart: I was in gifted & talented classes when I was in school; I guess that was my first exposure to the term. But I don’t know in what ways that fits into my books, necessarily, other than I was a good student and a fairly smart kid, and I had friends who were smart kids, and we liked to imagine our way into adventures – or, at least, I certainly did a lot of that. I was just always interested in characters who were able to figure things out. And I always wanted to figure things out myself, so when I was a kid, I loved the Encyclopedia Brown books, in which you try to figure out the clues that the character himself had figured out. I always found that appealing. And in The Hobbit, there is a chapter in which Bilbo Baggins is under the mountain with the awful creature, Gollum, and they have a riddle contest with life-or-death stakes. And I love that book, and I realized that I wanted a whole novel to be just like that chapter, in which there are these life-or-death stakes that pertain to this riddle contest. So all those things kind of came together in writing a book about gifted & talented kids who have these kind of life-or-death stakes attached to their abilities to solve these problems.
My mother spent a little time teaching gifted & talented kids as well. She became a teacher; she went to college at the same time I went to college. She got her degree in education, and she taught a variety of groups of students. Some were students who needed particular help, and some were those students for whom nobody knew what to do with because they were smart enough to be bored in all their regular classes. So she provided a little bit of a lens on some aspects of gifted kids and what certain kids are capable of. I remember her talking about one student she had, who at a very young age was really interested in meteorology, and he was essentially her personal weather man, he was always telling her different weather facts because he knew everything about it. And it was just a small reminder that kids are capable of really extraordinary things, you just have to give them the opportunity.
GeekYoungLady: How did you think of or develop the Society characters? Did you base them on anyone that you know?
TS: I always like to joke that I based Milligan, a secret agent, on myself, but that wouldn’t be true. I do have a friend named Reynard, and I named that character after him; that’s the first name I started with in the book. I started with Reynie because I have this friend who’s really nice and friendly, and I knew that I wanted the first character I introduced to be the one who had solved this riddle of attempts, this test that was more than it appeared to be. I knew from the beginning that I was going to need at least one character that I would like, and that I would want to be friends with, and that I’d be happy to spend a whole novel with. So I made this character like this friend of mine, in the sense that he’s agreeable and friendly and has a good sense of humor, and so on. But also because of his name, I thought it was fitting, because in old French folk tales there is Reynard, the “clever fox,” and I thought that would fit his personality and his gifts.
Then, once I had done that, I knew I wanted more characters who each had their own special gifts, and I realized that I kind of wanted the characters’s names to all be sort of additional jokes or puzzles or riddles – they all say something more than you might think, if you look at them closely. So most of the character names in the book reflect something about the character’s personality, or something about their gifts. So I just started with this one agreeable character, and then with each new character that came along, I knew I wanted them to be different from the one I’d thought of before, and so it really kind of ended up being a process of elimination. It doesn’t always happen this way in books, but in this case I created the characters in the order in which they appear, so each character is in some ways the result of the need for them to be different than the person that came before.
But Constance, of course, what’s unique about her is, I created the first three characters and came up with their abilities and personalities, and I thought they all worked well together. And it occurred to me that they were all pretty nice, and they all got along pretty well, and I thought, well, they need more trouble than that! There should be somebody who’s cranky and difficult to work with, and that’s what lead me, ultimately, to come up with Constance. I did create Constance at the time when my older son was two years old, and capable of throwing some serious tantrums, so I think some of her tantrums are definitely based upon real life.
GD: There haven’t been many details released about the new book yet, The Mysterious Benedict Society and the Riddle of Ages, but from some pre-release material, it looks like there’s a new member set to be introduced to the Society in the new book. Without giving too much away, what kind of dynamic do you hope the new character adds to the group?
TS: I won’t have to give away too much or spoil anything because he shows up at the very beginning of the book. A little boy, five years old, named Tai Li, shows up mysteriously (at least, to Reynie and Sticky his appearance is mysterious) at Mr. Benedict’s house at the outset of the novel. You eventually come to learn how it is that he arrived there, and how that fits into what is the central crisis of the story. He is a character who is infinitely happy. He has his bad moments, for sure, but he’s excited about everything, he gets delighted by everything. But he certainly needs to be cared for in a way, because he’s five. In some ways, he represents a sense of wonder. For me, it was fun to catch this side of the Society because we love them, but we kind of get used to the fact that they’re so amazing. So it’s nice to have a fresh set of eyes show up and be sort of amazed by everything they can do, especially because they’ve kind of grown into more competence. But also, we get to see a different side of [the main four], because they’ve been taking care of each other, and saving the world and so on, but they now also have to be responsible for somebody who’s younger than them. And I think that opened up different facets of their characters and their relationships with each other, in addition to the new member who shows up. These are all things we can explore differently because of that.
GYL: As you were writing the books, did you change the stories in any way from the way you originally thought they would be?
TS: That’s an excellent question! I’ll have to think about whether I have a good example for you, but that definitely is the case. And it’s sort of related to what I sometimes tell readers when they ask me about writer’s block, because it’s all connected, in a way. When I’m asked about writer’s block, what I say is that I don’t really believe that writer’s block is an inability to come up with any ideas. It’s that you have ideas, but you don’t think they’re good. And you don’t want to write them down, because you don’t want to have to think about them, because you think they’re bad ideas. But what I tell people who are having trouble with writing, or maybe experiencing something like writer’s block, is that you really do think differently when you’re planning to write something than how you think when you’re actually putting words on the page and figuring out how to express it all. And often, the answer to writer’s block is to write down whatever is in your head, and then your brain will shift into a different gear, and then eventually you’ll come up with something that you’re interested in. The great thing about writing is that you can write stuff, but then you don’t have to show it to anybody. You can throw away the first three pages of the first chapter, if you want to, and follow the stuff that’s good.
I liked my ideas for The Mysterious Benedict Society. But it’s certainly true that you plan one thing, then once you start telling the story, if you’re trying to get into the heads of your characters, who are a bit different from you even if you have a lot in common, you start to realize what this character would say this in this situation, or what that character might do that in that situation. And it surprises you as a writer, but it’s fun and it makes the story feel more alive. So you definitely want to pay attention to that and allow for that. And that means sometimes you do have to change the story somewhat. I wish I had a great example to illustrate that, but I guess one thing would be that when I was just about to get going on the first book, I was imagining the three characters, and as I told you, I realized that we needed somebody, we needed some more trouble. And then Constance came up.
GYL: Who are your favorite authors, and what are your favorite books?
TS: Another great, and difficult, question! I usually find it’s easiest for me to narrow down who my favorite authors or what my favorite books were when I was younger, because I’ve had enough time to see over the years how other books fell away, off my mind, but certain books stayed and ended up being an influence on my own work. So, certainly the Tolkien books, The Hobbit in particular. I read it a few times when I was a kid; I didn’t get to the Lord of the Rings trilogy until I was older. But also The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis had a big impact on me, when I was 9 or 10. I read The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe and ultimately ended up reading the rest of the series. And then I came to Madeline L’Engle, who wrote A Wrinkle in Time; I didn’t read that first book until I was somewhat older, but I read the third book in that series just because it was on my school library shelf, A Swiftly Tilting Planet, and kind of became wrapped up in that. So that was another sort of touchstone book. And then Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH by Robert O’Brien, and Watership Down by Richard Adams are all books that I sometimes think back on. All of those books were big adventure books with small heroes and mysterious elements that had to be figured out.
GD: I can definitely see some of those influences in The Mysterious Benedict Society! Finally, to wrap up: without giving too much away, is there anything you’d like to tell readers about the new book, or anything readers should be prepared for when the book is released in the fall?
TS: Well, I suppose maybe readers are curious, because time has passed and the characters are somewhat older, and maybe they’re wondering if the book is different from the previous books in any critical ways. And I would say no…with the prequel aside, because I felt like that needed to be a different beast. The Extraordinary Education of Nicholas Benedict, I wanted it to be more of a contained, domestic kind of mystery. I felt like in The Mysterious Benedict Society series, the kids save the world, and Mr. Benedict says “I’ve never had a group of kids like you!” and “it’s the most important thing that’s ever happened”. And I didn’t want to do the obvious. One obvious, but I think wrong-headed, thing to do would be to give him equally important adventures as a child, in which he basically saves the world. I thought it was more important to leave that “honor” to the Society rather than Mr. Benedict, but nonetheless let him have done truly extraordinary things that led him to become the person he is. So that book has a lot of mystery and riddle-solving and so on, cleverness and giftedness in it, but it’s not this big, rollicking adventure like The Mysterious Benedict Society books are.
This new book has The Mysterious Benedict Society members at the forefront again. It has that kind of rollicking adventure in it, and they still have to work together to solve puzzles and riddles and various kinds of problems. Once difference, though, is that they have become even more gifted. They’re already gifted, but they’re more skilled – they’ve grown into greater competence. And they’ve worked together for a long time. So we get to see what it’s like when people have been in a small, tight-knit community for several years; you can see some of the dynamics that have changed over time that you wouldn’t know were coming, but they would make sense to you once you see them. People who spend a lot of time together tend to develop certain kinds of habits together. But I think the most important thing would just be to say that all of the old dynamics are there. It’s a new adventure, but it still depends upon their various gifts. There’s great peril, and there’s a need to work together under a bunch of pressure to solve riddles and problems.
GD: Trent Stewart, thank you so much for talking with us! We look forward to the new book!
The Mysterious Benedict Society and the Riddle of Ages, by Trenton Lee Stewart, is scheduled for release in the fall. You can pre-order the book here or here. And stay tuned to geekdad.com for an exclusive excerpt from the new book!