Editor's Note: Recently, Stone Soup blogger Thee Sim Ling reached out to us to ask if she could arrange an interview with one of her favorite authors, James Ponti. Luckily, the bestselling author of the City Spies series generously agreed! Below is their conversation, where they discuss writing about different cultures, literary influences, favorite characters, and more.
Thee Sim Ling: I read that a vacation in Europe first inspired you to write this series on juvenile secret agents. How did that tiny idea develop into City Spies?
James Ponti: My wife and I went to visit our son who was studying in England for the year. We went to London and Paris and had the best time. Everything about the cities was exciting and it made me want to write an international story with kids from around the world. I also wanted to set it in great cities on different continents. The first part I came up with was give the spies code names based on the cities they were from and it just grew from that. The first thing I figure out when I write them is what cities will be in this story.
TSL: What authors or books have had the greatest influence on your writing, especially for this book?
JP: When I was growing up, my favorite book was From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E. L. Konigsburg. That book as well as her others has always influenced my writing. I also loved Donald J. Sobol’s Encyclopedia Brown books. Currently there are many great spy and mystery writers who influence me. A good friend of mine is Stuart Gibbs, whose Spy School books are hugely popular. Stuart’s been very inspirational for me.
TSL: In every single one of your books, you are able to create dynamic characters with distinct personalities, making them so real that they almost seem to leap off the page. Not only that, but you also are able to have them interact with each other in an authentic way. This is really crucial for your stories, which often require characters to work together as a team. What’s your secret?
JP: First of all, that is so incredibly nice of you to say. Even though the plots of my books are on the unbelievable side (zombie hunters, a 12-year old consultant for the FBI, and a team of teen and tween MI6 agents), it is my main goal for the characters to be totally believable and for their relationships to feel like the relationships of the readers. I think without that the stories don’t work. I also try to give them a mixture of strengths and weaknesses, insecurities and confidences.
TSL: You always seem to choose the best names for your stories. (Omega, T.O.A.S.T., Mother etc.) How do you come up with them?
JP: I really wish there was an answer for this. Sometimes names come easy – both Omega and T.O.A.S.T. are examples of things that came instantly. With T.O.A.S.T. that was crucial. If Florian and Margaret did everything they do in the books exactly the same way, but didn’t have a name for the skill they developed, I think the books would be only half as popular. Having something to lock onto is important. Unfortunately, many times titles and names take forever and there’s no set pattern to developing them. You just have to keep trying until something sounds right.
TSL: Of the five city spies, who is your personal favorite: Sara (Brooklyn), Solomon (Paris), João (Rio), Amita (Kat), or Olivia (Sydney)? Why?
JP: I do not have a favorite. I think if I did, they would suffer on the page because I’d give better stuff to my favorite. As it is now, I find myself saying things like, “Rio didn’t get enough, let’s come up with something good for him.” I will say that it started with Brooklyn, because that’s where the story started and I had a vision of her first, but the others quickly developed. Instead a favorite character, I have favorite character traits to write. For example, I love to write the moments where Kat displays her incredible reasoning or the parts that really showcase Sydney’s sense of humor.
TSL: How similar or different was writing City Spies, set all across the world, compared to writing Dead City, set in New York City, and Framed!, set in Washington D.C.?
JP: I do a ton of research with regard to setting for all of my books. I think it’s such an important part to make the story come to life. For Dead City and Framed! this was easy because I’ve been to New York and Washington so many times that I could give you a tour and you’d think I had lived there are one time or another. For City Spies this is much more a challenge. I’ve been to all the places in the first two books except for one (there are a couple chapters in book 2 set in Oxford and I’ve not been there yet, so I had to talk to people who went to college there), but as I start writing book 3 I am going to have to branch out and that’s coming to make it harder, but also more fun in a way. The really upsetting part is that Covid has made travel so difficult I can’t go do in person research.
TSL: I have noticed that as you were born in Italy, you often feature your Italian culture in your books. The narrators in your first two trilogies both have Italian heritage. Why is your Italian heritage very important to you in your books?
JP: I don’t think it’s important for them to have Italian heritage, although I like that. I do, however, think it’s essential for them to have heritage of some type. It’s easy for me to write Italian because that’s my experience and also because Italian food is so well known. There’s nobody Italian in City Spies so I’m getting to learn about different cultures more. That’s really fun, but it’s also tricky. I want to make sure that I celebrate cultures properly and respectfully.
TSL: You often write about people from different countries and cultures around the world, such as Rwanda, Brazil and China. How do you ensure that you give a fair portrayal of each character in your books? (Including bad guys and zombies.)
JP: This is so important. I want to celebrate and represent these cultures, but I also want to be respectful of them and make sure that I don’t tell stories that aren’t mine to tell. I do lots of research and interview people whenever I can. For example, I got in a cab in Baltimore and the driver was from Nepal. I told him about Kat and we spent the whole trip talking about Nepal and what he missed about it while he was living far away from it.
TSL: What was your writing process for this book like?
JP: Even though I’ve written eight novels and am working on my ninth, I don’t have a set process. That’s always changing. Usually, I will work out the basic idea and discuss that with my editor so that we can talk about strengths and weaknesses. I outline some but not completely and jump in and start writing. I usually end up writing and re-writing the first part about a dozen times trying to find the voice and rhythm. Then, when I think I have that down, I’ll send the first fifty or so pages to my editor to make sure she agrees. After that I just work my way through it. I usually write in order and can’t move on to one chapter until I’ve fully completed the last. After about six months, I have a draft and I send that in and we rework it until we’re happy.
TSL: City Spies has many different types of scenes, some action-packed, others touching. Which type of scene do you like to write the most?
JP: I do not have a favorite, I really love doing them all. I care so much about the characters that I worry about them when they’re in danger and they break my heart in the touching scenes. But in each book there are hopefully seven or eight “moments.” These are big a-has when they figure something out or when the plot makes a sudden and surprising turn. Those are by far my favorite scenes to write. Last week someone told me that when they reached the end of Dead City they gasped and it made my day.
TSL: Finally, what advice do you have for aspiring young writers like me?
JP: You are already off to such an amazing start. These questions are better than any questions I’ve ever been asked. I mean it. I say that because they are so well thought out and look not just at the plot of the books, but at the meanings and causes. That means you are reading with attention to detail and being a great reader is a great start to being a great writing. I was a TERRIBLE READER. I was so slow (and still kind of am) and resented it so much that I hardly read growing up. That is my one regret and I think a weakness in my writing. So, reading a lot of varied material is a great start.
When you actually start to write, there are some things you should remember. First of all, only write stories that matter to you. That doesn’t mean they have to be important, there are many funny, silly stories that still matter to me. But your care and concern will show through on the page. Next, develop real characters with good traits and bad. Characters who you can relate to. And have these characters make decisions that have consequences. That can be joining a spy team, deciding to investigate a stolen painting, or rescuing their friend from a zombie. But it can also be so many other things.
Finally, and maybe most importantly, write in a voice that’s similar to how you talk. So many people try to use big fancy words and it breaks the magic of the story. Imagine that you and I are sitting at a table eating a pizza (or something you like better than pizza). And as we eat, you’re telling me this amazing story full of twists and turns. Just tell it to me on the page. And if it helps, eat pizza while you’re writing it.
Thank you to James Ponti for agreeing to the interview, and to Thee for thinking of such insightful questions!