I want to welcome Jon and Pamela Voelkel, authors of Middleworld, to the Bibliophile Support Group! Thank you for stopping by on your blog tour!
Thanks for inviting us!
First off - for those who haven't yet heard about your book, how would you describe Middleworld?
It’s a fast-paced and funny adventure set in the jungles of the ancient Maya, but it’s also a tale of teenage angst and finding your place in the world. The main characters are Max Murphy, a 14-year old city kid from Boston, and Lola, a Maya girl of about the same age. Against a background of haunted temples, raging underground rivers, and the ever-present frisson of human sacrifice, Max and Lola must work together to solve a terrible mystery - and, quite possibly, save the world from the ancient Maya Lords of Death.
Now, I personally loved Middleworld (as anyone can see if they read my review here: http://bibliophilesupportgroup.blogspot.com/2010/06/middleworld.html)! Clearly I'm not alone - Al Roker picked Middleworld for his Book Club for Kids and you were invited onto the Today Show! What was that like?
We still can’t quite believe it, it feels like a dream now. Hair and make-up was fun, and there was a ton of food in the green room – but, of course, we were too nervous to eat anything. They don’t tell you the book club questions ahead of time, so we had to be ready for anything. When we got to the studio, they were still dismantling the set from the previous item. It all happens in a heartbeat...old set down, new set up, meet Al Roker (who exuded calm in all the chaos)... 5,4,3,2,1... you’re on! It went by in a flash, the fastest five minutes of our lives!
As a 22 (almost 23) year old, I still thoroughly enjoyed Middleworld and was swept up into its adventure and humor. Did you write it specifically for the middlegrade level, or did you have in mind enticing an older audience as well?
We are so glad to hear you say that, because we definitely had older readers in mind. We’ve always enjoyed reading with our kids at bedtime, and one of our motivations for writing the Jaguar Stones series was the difficulty of finding middlegrade books that are fun for parents AND children.
From what I've seen and read, you two seem to be quite the devoted researchers! I know that Jon grew up in a lot of these regions, but what was it like for you Pamela? Do you guys have a fun, crazy story you'd like to tell?
Well, the first thing you should know is that Jon declared he was never going back to the jungle. But I said I couldn’t write about something I’d never experienced, so our first research trip (to Belize) was my idea. I promised him we’d stay in nice hotels and it would be nothing like his childhood. But the funny thing was that he loved it! Instantly! He felt right at home and knew the names of a lot of the bugs and the trees and so on. Our youngest child was two at most, so I was worried she’d get eaten by jaguars, or something. But it turned out to be one of our best vacations ever. Since then, we’ve been back to Belize, and we’ve also made several trips to Mexico and Guatemala. There’s nothing like frogs croaking in the bathroom and howler monkeys roaring on the roof to promote family bonding! I’m always planning the next trip in my head. I would never have gone to these places if it wasn’t for the books. I’m scared of everything, heights, water, caves, snakes, you name it - but I have to be brave in front of the children, so I think it’s very character building. And there is nothing in the world like the feeling of walking into the plaza of some remote site and feeling like you are the first person alive today to discover it.
Did anything in particular inspire you to write Middleworld?
The setting and the idea of a city boy trying to survive in the jungle was inspired by Jon’s childhood. The character of Lola came out of a bedtime story he used to tell the children, called The Monkey Girl. She lived on a pyramid, her best friends were monkeys and every night she would outwit some different bad guys.
The descriptions of the jungle and culture are so vivid in the novel. How much of that would you say is an accurate, versus fictional, portrayal of Belize?
Of all the Maya countries, we based our fictional country of San Xavier on Belize because English is its official language, which simplifies everything. The descriptions of the landscape and wildlife are accurate, especially the cenotes and the underground rivers. The five pyramids of the Monkey River are each based on a different real-life Maya site, though not all in Belize. The Maya village where Lola grew up is probably more Guatemalan in character. Also, real-life Belize is an incredible melting-pot of cultures – Maya, Mestizo, Creole, Garifuna and Mennonite.
How is it writing as a pair? Who does what? Are there ever disagreements about characters or plot?
It’s actually a lot of fun to be working on these books together. It means that, instead of the characters only living in my head, they live in Jon’s head as well. That makes them seem real, almost like family members. We used to pass the manuscript back and forth between us, one draft at a time, but now Pamela does most of the writing and Jon does most of the illustrating. We still plot everything out together and I think the male/female balance of action/emotion works out well. But, yes, we argue constantly about what should happen next at any given time. The good thing is that the answer is always the same: it must be true to character and it must be unexpected.
Which character from Middleworld would you say you are most like? Jon? Pamela?
Jon chooses Max because they’re both city boys at heart and were horrified to find themselves living in the jungle. Like Max, Jon was very materialistic when he was younger and (he says) quite badly behaved. Max plays drums and Jon plays guitar, but they both dreamed of being rock stars.
Pamela has a hard time choosing, but eventually settles on Lady Coco. I identify with her maternal nature, although I hope I’m not as bossy. I used to work in advertising and while it’s not quite as sexist as ancient Maya society, I can understand many of Lady Coco’s frustrations. I’m also a party person and I like baking. But I want to make it very clear that I have never had problems with flatulence.
LOL! Moving on... Some of the later scenes in Middleworld were pretty creepy! Can we expect more of that in Book 2?
Absolutely! We think Book 2 is even faster and creepier and more exciting than Book 1! It hits the ground running and has even more twists and turns than the secret stairway down to King Pakal’s tomb in Palenque. But it also has lots of humor. That’s important because young readers tell us that the humor balances out the scary bits, and lets them catch their breath, and makes the book suitable for a wider range of ages.
I found Max's housekeeper and the seemingly prophetic videogame she bought him quite intriguing - will we be seeing a reappearance of her?
Our lips are sealed. But – yes.
Awesome! Can you give us any info on Book 2 of the Jaguar Stones trilogy? Such as its title and/or when it'll be coming out?
The second Jaguar Stones book is called The End of the World Club and it’s out on 28th December 2010. I can also tell you that it takes Max and Lola to Spain on the trail of the conquistadors, it has a wedding, a funeral, a fire - and the craziest concert in the history of rock n roll!
While we're eagerly waiting for the next Jaguar Stones novel - do you have any books you'd recommend to help keep our adventure-hungry minds occupied?
For real-life adventure, try The Lost City of Z by David Grann, or 1491 by Charles C. Mann, or The Conquest of New Spain by Bernal Diaz. We assume you’ve read everything by Rick Riordan, so maybe the The Hungry City Chronicles by Philip Reeve. And you could always revisit some classics like Heart of Darkness, Journey to the Centre of the Earth, Moonfleet, and Treasure Island.
I'd like to say a big THANK YOU to you both for visiting the Bibliophile Support Group - I really enjoyed Middleworld and look forward to finding out what you have in store for Max and Lola next!!!
(That’s “thank you” in Yucatek Mayan.)