I’m thrilled to interview author Ena Jones about her middle grade novel, CLAYTON STONE, AT YOUR SERVICE and her newest spy adventure, CLAYTON STONE, FACING OFF.
Welcome to the Mixed-Up Files, Ena! How did you come up with the idea for Clayton’s stories and how did they change during revisions?
Hi, Mindy. Thank you so much for having me! I love the Mixed-Up Files website! It’s such a wonderful resource for middle-grade lit lovers.
The idea for Clayton’s story began one day when I was reading a report about a string of kidnappings involving mothers and children. As a mom, the news story was horrifying and I was instantly brought back to an evening when I was in 7th grade. I was listening to the radio when I heard a familiar name, followed by the shocking news that a boy my younger brother rode the school bus with had been murdered.
Even many years later, I can still remember the overwhelming feeling of powerlessness in that moment. I was fearful, angry, sad, and confused. I didn’t know how or why this sort of evil could exist. And the worst thing? There was nothing I could do about it.
Kids have always had to deal with scary situations, but these days it seems we are constantly assaulted with bad news, from large-scale disasters to closer-to-home tragedies. I wanted to create a character in Clayton who, in seemingly impossible situations, would take control and do his best to help, the way all kids wish they could: Empowering them to fix the world, or at least the small pieces of it falling apart around them. And that’s how Clayton Stone was born.
CLAYTON STONE, AT YOUR SERVICE took several years to write. I set the manuscript aside for weeks and months sometimes, letting it gel in the back of my mind, before feeling ready to move on—it seemed to take forever to finish that first draft. When my agent at the time finally read it, she liked it a lot, but suggested that I make the over-arching plot “bigger.” It also took me a loooonnng while to find the right beginning to the story. Although the roots of the broader story remained the same, recently I looked back and counted about 7-8 completely different beginnings! Then, after my editor at Holiday House offered me a contract, we mainly worked on streamlining the weedy bits of plotting that remained from the first drafts.
The other thing that changed was the title. Originally it was CLAYTON STONE, UNDERAGE AND UNDERCOVER. I really liked that title, but Googling the second part would probably not lead to the best websites (I admit, I didn’t try!), so my editor suggested we come up with something else. I believe AT YOUR SERVICE not only ties in with Clayton’s job at the Special Service, but also his sense of duty, Big Stone’s Diner, and the overall theme of “service” in the book. I think about what John F. Kennedy said in his 1961 Inaugural Address: “ . . . ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country.” To me, this is the underlying charge of so many professionals/professions in the United States—from our police and military forces, to teachers, librarians, and especially parents. When we combine our passion with our sense of duty as we serve our country, our families, our co-workers, and our teammates—fully committing ourselves to the challenges in front of us, in spite of risk and in spite of personal difficulty—that’s what ultimately gives us the most personal satisfaction.
And that’s the person I wanted Clayton to be!
Wow, thank you for sharing that with us, Ena. Your vision for Clayton definitely shines through. He quickly grows from a seemingly ordinary boy into an incredibly dedicated and empowered person. Why does Clayton decide to go on his first mission, even though he knows it’s extremely dangerous?
On the front end, I’m not sure Clayton would have raised his hand for such a dangerous assignment. For that matter, most of us wouldn’t position ourselves at the forefront of any risky, much less life-threatening, endeavor. But imagine something many of us are afraid of, like a venomous spider or snake—Clayton hates spiders, BTW— and then imagine someone we love comfortably sleeping when suddenly, we notice a brown recluse marching toward them. I’m pretty sure 99.99% of us would find a way to deal with that spider so that it doesn’t hurt our loved one, right?
Well, that’s it. In AT YOUR SERVICE, Clayton’s not going to volunteer to sit next to a crazy person with a gun UNTIL he hears that the bad guy is “starting to seriously kidnap—or murder” people. It’s not an accident that he chooses that moment to stand and move toward the conversation his grandmother is having with the captain. This is when his sense of responsibility begins to kick in. And when he realizes that the president of the United States wouldn’t have called him if it weren’t an urgent situation, he literally and figuratively steps up. “Maybe I should try to help,” he says to his grandmother. Sure, he’s not fully confident he can do the job, but he’s going to try.
It’s the people who “step up” and do their best, despite feeling unprepared and scared out of their wits, who are the true heroes of our world.
That is so true, and it’s one of the things I admire most about Clayton. I also love all the gadgets you describe during Clayton’s adventures. Which one was Clayton’s favorite?
Clayton’s favorite gadgets are probably the ones he hasn’t been allowed or trained to use yet! If he had to choose one, though, it would be the top-secret miniature drone that looks like a fighter jet.
By the way, everything in the book has a basis in reality. A few years ago I toured a school that combined Nanoscience and Nanoengineering. By looking at insects, etc. at the nano level, scientists are able to develop stronger and more flexible materials for everything from helicopter parts to medical tools to protective fabrics. That tour inspired a few gadgets in the AT YOUR SERVICE story. Technology is only getting better, and I hope Clayton will continue to find creative ways to use many more Special Service gadgets throughout his career.
I wondered how you came up with so many cool gadgets! I can’t wait to see the creative ways Clayton uses amazing new gadgets in the future.
Clayton has to make so many hard choices. What advice would he give to others facing difficult decisions?
Clayton does make some difficult choices! Mostly, he must decide to continue forward when the easiest and safest thing to do would be to stay still, or even hide. If he knows the right thing, then he feels that he really doesn’t have a choice; he simply must act despite his fear.
So I’m guessing that if Clayton’s best friend, Toby, was facing a difficult decision, Clayton would assure him that it’s okay to be scared when things are tough and seem impossible. But he’d also say that if Toby knows what the right thing is, take a deep breath and do that right thing, even if his heart is racing at Mach 10 speed.
It’s awesome how you mixed so much humor into spy novels. How did you get the right balance of humor and tension?
That’s a very good question and my first reaction is to say that I don’t know! But after a little thought I’d say that in my opinion, no matter how dire a situation is, there’s always a funny way of looking at it.
I don’t write to tell jokes or be funny. Other authors do a much better job of straight humor than I ever could. However, Clayton is a full human being, and as a human being, he is unique in the way he looks at the world, just like any of us. He could do without school and studying, and loves his friends and lacrosse, and really, really hates the fact that he likes a girl he doesn’t want to like. He misses his parents, and his grandfather. And though he loves his grandmother, she drives him a little crazy sometimes.
In life there are just a zillion ways of looking at these situations and when I’m following Clayton throughout his day he sometimes surprises me–and I try to let him. In the end, humor is about sharing a laugh. Clayton shares his humor with me, and I (usually) get the joke because I know him pretty well. My hope is that as a reader gets to know him, too, they become part of our fun.
How does Clayton think playing lacrosse helped prepare him for Special Service work?
It’s not just lacrosse that prepared him for his work with the Special Service, it’s the people who loved him throughout his life and mentored him along the way, who truly prepared him, especially his grandfather. If Clayton were to answer this question, he’d say that nobody “trained” him, but because his relationships were strong, he learned lessons as he grew up that he would always remember and could apply to all sorts of things. Like lacrosse, or his work for the Special Service, or even his math homework (if he ever chooses to take it that far!).
For instance, I’ve always loved to cook, and I started out in the kitchen beside my grandmother. I could never describe, beyond the basics – like, “My grandmother taught me to make tiropitas,”—what she told me exactly. But over the years, when I find myself struggling with something in the kitchen, her words, and even the way she used her hands to show me a technique, will suddenly come back to me. This is a gift that one generation passes to the next, and I think it’s one of the most important ways to learn. And this is the gift Clayton’s family has given him.
What a great way to describe it! Clayton’s family definitely gave him a lot of gifts, and I love seeing how each of those gifts help him on his secret service assignments.
Do you have any tips to share about writing a spy series?
Yes! Don’t “set out” to write a spy series, or a series of any sort. Set out to write your one book; the book that must be written by you. For me, the storyline is only one aspect of my books: Clayton helps rescue a mom and her daughter from kidnappers; Clayton goes undercover to protect POTUS’s only son. And yes, these are the nuts and bolts of his adventures. To me, however, the good stuff is the blood running through the pages, or the heart. It’s Clayton’s relationships, and the way he cares about his family, friends, and the reason he feels so strongly about his duty, and whether he’s willing to learn along the way, or not! It’s his sense of humor and his kindness, and the way he can get so exasperated with himself, all in the midst of mayhem.
So, before starting to think “series,” we need to write a manuscript told through the lens of our characters’ point of view, using their vision, thoughts, feelings, experiences, and deepest hopes. We must give them free rein to reveal themselves in their own story, and in their own way. And many revisions later, when that book is done, and we know it’s done, that’s when it’s time to take on the next book.
After reading both of Clayton’s adventures, I’m hooked! I can’t wait to see what this spunky, resourceful spy does in the future. What’s next for Clayton?
I am fleshing out a third CLAYTON story, but it’s not set-in-Stone, so to speak.
I envision a series where every one of Clayton’s assignments will be unique and will have the backdrop of a different theme. For instance, AT YOUR SERVICE explored a family theme and in FACING OFF, I explored politics. For the third, hmmm. I’ll just say this: Clayton continues to surprise me with every page I write, but there might be a tiny clue about his next job at the very end of FACING OFF.
I hope it’s set-in-Stone soon! 🙂 Thank you again for stopping by the Mixed-Up Files to share Clayton with us—and so much great advice. Congrats on having your second Clayton book released. I hope to read many more of his spy adventures in the future.
You can find Ena Jones on her website and Twitter. Check out her latest Kirkus review. Here’s her discussion guide with common core standards.
TWO lucky winners will receive a signed copy of both CLAYTON STONE, AT YOUR SERVICE and CLAYTON STONE, FACING OFF. If a teacher or media specialist wins, Ena would be happy to send up to 30 AT YOUR SERVICE bookmarks, too.
When the President calls asking him to help catch a kidnapper, thirteen-year-old Clayton’s life is hijacked into the family business his grandmother has worked hard to keep him out of – the secret agent business. Follow Clayton as he navigates the dangerous world of covert operations all while trying to act as if life is normal with his friends and lacrosse teammates at Masters Academy.
Now that Clayton has proven himself, the president calls on him once again, this time to protect his own son, Kyle, who has been identified as a potential target. Within hours Clayton is a student at the prestigious Sydney Brown School with a new name, new history, new hair, and new eye-color. Join Clayton as he navigates the strange world of politics and intrigue at his new school, all while sticking close to a presidential kid who wants nothing to do with him, and playing for SB’s lacrosse team which is preparing to face-off against his real home team: Masters Academy.
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Mindy Alyse Weiss writes humorous middle grade novels with heart and quirky picture books. She’s constantly inspired by her two daughters, an adventurous Bullmasador adopted from The Humane Society, and an adorable Beagle/Pointer mix who was rescued from the Everglades. Visit Mindy’s Twitter, Facebook, or blog to read more about her writing life, conference experiences, and writing tips.
What a great interview! These sound like fabulous stories, and I’m looking forward to meeting Clayton and getting to know him better! You’ve also given me some much-needed inspiration as an aspiring middle-grades author (I’ve been working for about 18 months on my current story, and it’s a character I can’t wait to introduce to the world — I feel like he and Clayton could be good buddies if they lived in the same story world).
Thanks so much, Amy! I know exactly what you mean about wanting to introduce a character to the world. I wish you much luck with your middle grade!
Thanks for a great post. Can’t wait to meet you at the SCBWI conference!
I look forward to seeing you there, Cindy! Thanks so much for posting!
What a great interview Ena and Mindy!!
Thanks so much, Sharon! Will you be at the conference in Charlotte next month?
I can’t wait to share this with my class!
Thanks, Brooke! It’s lovely to hear that adults like Clayton, but what really makes my day is when I hear about children getting to know him!
Clayton sounds like a great character. The kind of character I love to share with students.
You know, Heidi, I wanted to create a character that kids (boys and girls) would like hanging around, but also one that moms and dads wouldn’t mind, either. I hope your students DO like him!
Thanks so much, everyone! Mindy made this interview a great experience with her fun questions.
Lynne, I’m glad you enjoyed it! And Ev, I hope you like FACING OFF – it’s a little different because of the school setting, so I’ll be interested to know your thoughts. And I agree, Greg. Some of us never fully grow up and that might be why we love middle-grade fiction so much!
Thanks for commenting!
This is a series kids would enjoy… even big kids like me. Thanks for the in-depth interview. Clayton’s journey to the bookshelf took a long time, but I’m sure it made the story better.
You’re welcome, Ev and Lynne. Thank you both for stopping by the Mixed-Up Files to read Ena’s interview. 🙂
Great interview, Ena and Mindy, thank you!
Ena, I loved getting to read your responses to these questions! It’s fascinating to hear more of the back story for this fun series. I enjoyed the first Clayton book immensely and am really looking forward to this new one. Thank you, Mindy, for hosting this interview.