Today I’m thrilled to interview fellow Mixed-Up Files member Beth McMullen, author of the best-selling middle-grade adventure series, Mrs. Smith’s Spy School for Girls. Her latest book, Lola Benko, Treasure Hunter—the first in a series—is out from Aladdin on August 25, and I was lucky enough to snag a copy. (Spoiler alert: It’s really good.) Here’s a brief summary:
“Having a world-traversing archaeologist dad means twelve-year-old Lola Benko is used to moving around not putting down roots anywhere. But then her father disappears. The official story is that he was caught in a flash flood, but Lola’s research shows the day in question was perfectly pleasant. And it will take more than empty reassurances from suspect strangers for Lola to give up on her dad. She has a feeling his disappearance has to do with a mythical stone he was studying—a stone so powerful, it could control the world. But in the wrong hands, it could end it, too…”
And now, without further ado… heeeere’s Beth McMullen!
MR: Beth! I have so many questions for you. May I start with a confession?
BMcM: Haha! Of course!
MR: I loved Mrs. Smith’s Spy School for Girls and wish I’d written it myself. Kidding aside (okay, I wasn’t really joking), how did you come up with the concept? A 12-year girl who’s drafted into an elite spy ring at a fancy-schmancy Connecticut boarding school is an entirely original idea.
BMcM: I went to boarding school as a kid and always wanted to use the setting because….come on…who thought putting 600 teenagers together day and night with minimal adult supervision was a good idea?? It felt ripe for ridiculous adventures! At the time, I was writing mysteries for adults and made a few attempts to work in the boarding school angle but…no go. I just couldn’t get it to snap. I even tired a young adult version but that, too, felt flat (like, pancake flat). It wasn’t until I landed on Abby Hunter, twelve years old, that it started to come together. The spy idea just naturally followed as I always suspected the school I went to was up to something other than attempting to educate us. Plus, I love spy stories and can’t seem to stop writing them.
MR: Mrs. Smith’s plucky protagonist, Abby Hunter, has a delightfully distinctive voice. In fact, you could teach a master class on MG voice using Abby as an example. What’s the secret?
BMcM: I didn’t want Abby to be a superhero. I wanted her to be real, to be scared of things but walk through them anyway, to rise to the challenges as they appeared even when the result was messy or awkward. Part of the reason I wrote this series in first person present is so I could show the dialog in Abby’s head, how she convinces herself to do something that might otherwise feel overwhelming. To show a girl being brave despite uncertainty was appealing to me on so many levels.
When I’m writing, I keep a list of the main character’s defining traits and keep that close at hand. And then I start working out the details and fine tuning as I move through the plot points. It always takes me about fifty pages to find the ‘voice’ but when it clicks I know it. The key to Abby was her dry sense of humor and sardonic leaning take on the world. Once I figured that out, I was in.
MR: Another secret I’m dying to know: What’s it like to write a series? Did you have the plots for all three books planned out in advance—or did you wing it? Also, how do you keep the enthusiasm going from book #1 to book #3?
BMcM: Oh boy. Series!! I am never prepared! It took me a long time to show Mrs. Smith’s #1 to my agent (I didn’t write for kids and was pretty sure it was a complete disaster) but when I did, she said we had to pitch it as a series. Well…great! Right?! So I went back and rewrote the last quarter to give it series potential but that was the extent of my thought. When the offer to write three Smith’s books came, well..again…great! The panic didn’t set in until I sat down at my laptop to a blank page and thought, so what is book two about anyway??
The great thing about writing a series is that you’ve done a lot of the hard character work already. On the flip side, you are locked into things that maybe you’d have done differently if you’d known where you were going. I’m hugely envious of authors who plot out an entire series arc before writing a single word. However, I am not one of those people. So I start with plot and additional secondary characters and a destination that hopefully lets the characters learn something new and different about themselves along the way. And I keep my fingers crossed it works. 🙂
MR: Lola Benko, Treasure Hunter is your second series with a plucky preteen protagonist. How is Lola similar to Abby? How is she different? Also, how did you ensure that Lola’s voice was entirely different from Abby’s? Considering that you’ve had Abby’s voice in your head for so many years, it couldn’t have been easy.
BMcM: That is a great question! Both characters are single minded in their determination and discover that good friends and a team make a world of difference in reaching goals. But Lola is a bit more cavalier, a little more likely to step over the line, very comfortable justifying the means with the end. She believes need is the mother of invention so is constantly tinkering and creating things that will help her in her quest to find her missing father. Lola is worldly in many ways but also clueless about a lot of regular things, like how to make friends. I really enjoyed watching her realize how nice it was to no longer be so alone.
MR: In terms of your writing routine, how has it changed since the pandemic? What have been the biggest obstacles you’ve had to face? Any unexpected positives?
BMcM: This pandemic…wow…didn’t see that one coming. It’s hard to write fiction when real life is so unbelievable, isn’t it? When the shelter in place order came in California I was just finishing up Lola #2 and suddenly I could no longer go to my office and the only reason I have an office is because I am terrible at working from home. TERRIBLE. I had to really discipline myself to finish the draft and also keep it from going too dark because I was absorbing all the horror that was happening in the world. That was pretty tough. And as soon as I turned in that draft in May, I had to launch right into my third series for Simon & Schuster, a more fantasy oriented story which is due in December. That was brutal. But I returned to my office two weeks ago and I’m pleased to say things are improving. Pandemic positives? Working in my bunny slippers, no question.
MR: Finally, Beth, you’ve extremely prolific, having written novels for both children and adults. Not to be repetitive, but what’s your secret? Also, what advice would you give to aspiring writers?
BMcM: I spend a lot of time noodling ideas before I put anything down on paper. Like, years. (And if an idea can survive years in my head, I like to think it has staying power.) This means by the time I sit down to actually write, I’ve worked out quite a bit of what a character is like already. For example, right now I have a middle grade idea that first occurred to me last summer. I keep coming back to it in idle moments. I keep adding things to it, pushing out the edges, and I know at some point I’ll start writing it, if only to free up the space in my head for something new.
The advice I always give to aspiring authors is that you just can’t quit. If you do, you are absolutely guaranteed that nothing will happen. But if you keep at it, keep pushing, who knows where things will go? I’m a firm believer in possibilities. They are limitless.
MR: Oh, one more thing. As you know, no MUF interview is complete without a lightning round, so…
Preferred writing snack? Anything with sugar! Lots of sugar! So much sugar! (Sorry, clearly I’m unhinged.)
Coffee or tea? Coffee. If I could hook up an IV, I would.
Cat or dog? Cat!
Favorite song? Oh boy. This is hard! “Vienna” by Billy Joel
Zombie apocalypse: Yea or nay? Definitely. It’s 2020. Expect it any minute now.
Superpower? If I drink caffeine I can stay awake forever.
Favorite place on Earth? New Zealand
Hidden talent? I’m a total Type A but no one knows it.
If you were stranded on a desert island with only three things, what would they be? Three tubes of chapstick.
James Bond or Harriet the Spy? (Okay, this was a setup. 🙂 ) I feel like I exist to blend (shaken not stirred) those two together and put them on the page.
MR: Thank you for chatting, Beth—and congratulations on the upcoming publication of Lola Benko, Treasure Hunter! I really enjoyed it, and I know MUF readers will too!
BETH McMULLEN is best known for the Mrs. Smith’s Spy School for Girls trilogy (Aladdin/S&S), middle-grade spy thrillers, packed with action, adventure and humor. She is also the author of the forthcoming Lola Benko, Treasure Hunter series (Aladdin/S&S) about a globetrotting 12-year-old searching for her father, a famous archeologist who has gone missing. And in March 2022, look for Cats & Dragons (Aladdin/S&S), a middle-grade action/adventure series packed with friendship, fantasy, whiskers and wings. Beth lives in Northern California with her husband, kids, cats and a very tolerant parakeet named Zeus. Visit her website and follow her on Twitter and Instagram.