Author Interview: Heather Vogel Frederick on Spy Mice

Spy Mice: The Black Paw by Heather Vogel Frederick, illustrated by Sally Wern Comport (Simon & Schuster, 2005). From the catalog copy: ” At the Spy Museum, creatures of all sizes are stirring twenty-four hours a day. Join skateboarding Private Eye Glory Mouse and double-o-detective a.k.a. Oz Levinson in an undercover tail. It’s mice vs. rats. Kids vs. bullies. Good vs. evil. And all the power lies in one paw.” Ages 9-up. Read an excerpt. See also Spy Mice: For Your Paws Only (Simon & Schuster, 2005).

What was your inspiration for creating this series?

Would you believe leather pants?

I’m serious! I grew up in the ‘60s and ‘70s, which was the heydey of “Spy-Fi” TV. I spent most of my childhood either with my nose in a book or glued to such shows as “Mission: Impossible,” “Get Smart,” and “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.” And then of course there were all the James Bond movies.

The gadgets, the intrigue, the glamour – I was completely hooked. I wanted desperately to be a spy when I grew up (instead I became the next best thing: a writer). I wanted to be Agent 99, Maxwell Smart’s sidekick. I wanted to be the girl from U.N.C.L.E. More than anything, though, I wanted to be Emma Peel of “The Avengers.” She was beautiful, she was brainy, and best of all, she wore extremely cool black leather pants in which she kicked some serious spy butt. All of which geeky preteen suburban me was not and didn’t!

Technically, my sisters and I weren’t allowed to watch the show because my mother deemed those leather pants far too racy for her impressionable daughters. I managed to sneak and watch it anyway, though, which was fortunate because those pants obviously made an indelible impression. Here I am, many decades later, writing espionage fiction for children.

What was the timeline between spark and publication, and what were the major events along the way?

The initial spark for the series was a news item I read a few years ago that mentioned a new museum being built in Washington, D. C. – The International Spy Museum. Bingo! Lightbulb moment. I instantly knew I had to set a book there, a la From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler.

I ran the idea by my agent, Barry Goldblatt, who was instantly as enthusiastic as I was, despite the fact that I had no plot, no characters at this point, just a setting. The idea incubated for several months, and then the words “Spy Mice” floated into thought one day, and that was that. I was off and running.

I am most fortunate in having a brilliant and amazingly supportive editor, Alyssa Eisner at Simon & Schuster. She was as crazy about the idea as I was, and thanks to her efforts, the first book (“The Black Paw”) sold pretty much on the strength of the title alone.

They requested a quick turnaround for it, though – six months – which was a bit daunting. The books I had written prior to this were research-intensive historical fiction. The Voyage of Patience Goodspeed and its sequel, The Education of Patience Goodspeed both take place on a whaling ship during Victorian times, with settings ranging from Nantucket to Maui, and each took over a year to write.

Spy Mice was a completely different ballgame. I didn’t have that kind of luxury in terms of time. But I soon discovered that aside from “location scouting” – visiting the story’s setting to get the details just right – and brushing up on some espionage terminology, the research was minimal. Mostly it was just me and my imagination. So that helped streamline the process.

Location scouting took me to Washington in the fall of 2003, where I spent a week exploring the Spy Museum and the city. It was a memorable trip – I got stranded there during Hurricane Isabelle! For the second book (“For Your Paws Only”), I brought my husband and our teenage sons along to New York City. We spent last Thanksgiving in Times Square, researching the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. As they say, a tough job, but someone has to do it… This whole thing has just been a blast, and quite surreal for someone whose travels up until now have mostly consisted of camping. Christmas found us in London, which will be the setting for the third book (“Goldwhiskers”). I just finished writing it, and it’s slated for a Summer 2006 release.

What were the challenges (literary, research, psychological, and logistical) in bringing it to life?

Cyn, this whole project has been such fun from the very first moment that I hardly dare call anything a “challenge.” Mostly I just sit at my desk, or in my armchair where I write, and laugh!

Aside from having to pick up my writing pace, there were two hurdles worth noting, however. First, as I mentioned before, was finding a plot. I had the setting, I had the title, but what the heck was going to happen? To be honest, I never plot my stories ahead of time. I just sit down to work each day and tell myself a story. Keeps me interested! I do make notes of things I think might be fun to have happen, but I think it’s fair to say that my books are largely character-driven. For me, the writing process is a very organic one. I noodle around, and as the characters come into focus, so does the plot. And that’s what happened here. There’s an old story about a boy from the Carolinas who was an extraordinary woodcarver. He was especially adept at carving dogs. When asked once what his secret was, he shrugged and said, “I just whittle away all the bits that don’t look like dog.” I think that’s what I do as a writer – I have an overall impression of what the story should be, and I just keep whittling away at it until it emerges.

The other hurdle was switching gears from the voice I had adopted for the Patience Goodspeed books – that of a young Victorian lady – to the sharper, snappier present-day personas of fifth-grade loser Oz Levinson and secret agent mouse Morning Glory Goldenleaf. Oh, and the Spy Mice Agency’s arch-enemy, of course, megalomani-rat Roquefort Dupont. The books alternate story lines and POV’s between that of humans, mice, and rats.

Additionally, there was a brief, initial struggle in giving myself permission to just cut loose. You know – how wild and improbable can I get here? How many inside jokes can I shoehorn in for my own amusement, and that of parents and other adult readers? How much fun can one writer have? (Answer: A lot!) I’ve spent some time reviewing the Bond movies and ‘60s TV shows that I loved as a kid, and was struck by how delightfully far-fetched many of their plots and gags were. (Maxwell Smart’s shoe phone comes to mind here.) By the way, I recently discovered that the “Get Smart” series was co-produced by Mel Brooks. No wonder it was such an inspired spoof, for pete’s sake! I see the Spy Mice books as a bit of an homage to all of this – 007, the Spy-Fi shows I watched growing up, my own clandestine childhood ambition to be a secret agent, an ambition that Oz, my main human character, shares.

In the end, none of this was necessarily easy – writing is never easy – but the process was and continues to be truly a delight. I think most writers would agree that there are some stories we struggle with, and some that are gifts. Spy Mice has been a gift.

What kind of reception has the series received?

It’s early days, of course, what with the second book debuting just this week (October 1st). But the response has been most gratifying. Loads of enthusiasm from readers and booksellers, and a number of lovely reviews.

The first two titles were auctioned to Puffin in Britain ( UK has the British book jacket for “The Black Paw” up already, if you want to take a peek). Germany and Italy are also on board, and there’s interest from other countries as well, along with some nibbles from the film industry. It’s all very exciting. And to think it started with a pair of leather pants!

Cynsational Notes

Getting to Know Heather Vogel Frederick by Barb Odanaka from SCBWI.

Cynsational News & Links

Slippery Slopes and Proliferating Prizes by author/editor Marc Aronson from The Horn Book, May/June 2000. “A critique of identity-based awards, such as the Coretta Scott King and Pura Belpre Awards.”

Awards that Stand on Solid Ground by author/editor Andrea Davis Pinkney from The Horn Book, May/June 2001. A response to Marc’s article immediately above.