Friday, July 16, 2010

Author Visit with J&P Voelkel

Middleworld just became an Al Roker book club pick. You can watch a video with the authors and some readers who as great questions here.

I'm excited to host these two awesome authors on the blog today! If you missed my review of Middleworld, you can go here.

(Mostly answered by Pamela Voelkel, because Jon’s frantically busy finishing the illustrations for The Jaguar Stones, Book 2: The End of The World Club.)

What made you choose to write?

PV: I’ve been a writer in advertising my whole working life. I always imagined writing a book, but I could never come up with a plot that interested me enough. I didn’t want to write about the world I knew, even though that’s the advice they always give new authors. Middleworld came out of a bedtime story that Jon used to tell our son. When he had the idea of turning it into a book, I knew that I had found my inspiration.

Where do you write best?

PV: I’m always writing in my head, wherever I am. But for the physical typing, I work at my Mac in the office of our house in Vermont.

How does the writing process work between the two of you?

PV: In the beginning, we used to pass the manuscript back and forth, and take it in turns to write a complete draft. These days we plot the chapters out together, then I do most of the writing and Jon does most of the illustrating.

Sounds like a great partnership. I really enjoyed the book illustrations

How do you get your ideas? Do you use real events in your novels and if so, can you describe one?

PV: The essence of Middleworld is based on Jon’s childhood in Latin America. He had to cross an ant covered log just like Max Murphy does in the book, and he too fell in the river when the ants bit him. Where Max is served spicy soup at a village banquet, Jon was forced to eat a very personal bit of a male goat, freshly cut off and boiled, in the same situation. We’ve also traveled a lot in Central America together and the underground river scene is based on one of our trips. We had to lie flat in the boat in places where the cave roof came down very low, in other places it soared above us like a cathedral. We had a car battery in the boat to power a headlight and the bats were going crazy. There was a human skull embedded in the rock and blind catfish in the water. (But we didn’t shoot any rapids or allow ourselves to be sucked through a drainhole.)

Wow, that must have been some boat ride. What amazing adventures you both have had!

What was the last book you’ve read that you’ve been recommending to everyone?

JV: 2,000 Years of Maya Literature by Dennis Tedlock

PV: The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon. It was sent to me by a bookseller I met at BEA and I can’t put it down!


How do you come up with your titles?

PV: We make endless lists and agonize and email back and forth with our editor.

Can you tell us a little bit about Middleworld?

PV: On one level, it’s a thrilling adventure story set in the jungles of the Maya. On another level, it’s a tale of teenage angst and self-discovery. The hero is a fourteen-year old boy from Boston called Max Murphy. When he gets lost in the rain forest, he has to reassess everything he knows about the world. Helping him to survive is a modern Maya girl called Lola - who has her own identity issues. Against a backdrop of haunted temples, raging underground rivers and the ever-present frisson of human sacrifice, Max and Lola unlock ancient secrets – and try to save the world from the Lords of Death.

How many books will there be in the series?

PV: Three.

Great, I'm excited to find out what happens next.

Have you spent a lot of time in the jungle or at archeological sites?

PV: Jon’s childhood aside, we’ve been down to Central America several times. We’ve tracked howler monkeys in Belize, crossed swinging rope bridges above the forest canopy in Guatemala, and explored ancient cave systems in Mexico. We’ve visited around 30 Maya sites so far, but I still have a long list of places on my wishlist. We take our three children with us, and they help us make friends everywhere we go.

Have you eaten anything disgusting like Max does?

PV: See the answer to question 4 for the worst thing Jon ever ate. He also recoils at the memory of stewed monkey (thrown into a fire and cooked with its fur on), and chicken claw soup. I once had to eat fish eyes and sea slug at a banquet in China. I also ate a lot of snake, but that’s delicious. We regularly eat fried mealworms when we visit schools.

Ugh. That's very brave of you. I'm the pickiest eater in the world.

How much research went into to writing the book?

PV: We read a ton of books about the Maya, both ancient and modern, and related subjects like the Spanish conquest, and biographies of archaeologists. Jon took a course on reading and writing glyphs at Harvard. We try to keep up with archaeological research by attending lectures and conferences. Most important of all, our books are checked by Dr Marc Zender, a Harvard professor and leading Maya expert.

If you're interested in more Mayan history, check out this link on the authors' website. There's tons of info.

What’s your favorite aspect/tradition of the Mayan culture?

JV: I love the Maya glyphs and the way they were able to convey so much emotion, poetry and even humor.

PV: It fascinates me the way kings would try to ally themselves with the gods, and would even rewrite history to present themselves more favorably.

(glyph on the right = Tz’ib - “writing, painting”)

Are there any authors you’d love to meet?

JV/PV: We both agree on the American explorer, diplomat and writer John Lloyd Stephens and his English illustrator, Frederick Catherwood. Together Stephens and Catherwood visited a total of 44 Maya sites in the early nineteenth century and were responsible for firing the reading public’s imagination with their tales of mysterious lost cities in the jungle. Their books, still thrilling today, were called “Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas and Yucatan” and “Incidents of Travel in the Yucatan.”.

Do you have a favorite quote?

PV: We’re very fond of the quote from School Library Journal on the back cover of Middleworld.

Listing of your favorites:


JV: Red Twizzlers

PV: Glee Gum

Pizza topping:

JV: Crawfish tails and mozzarella at Soulshine Pizza in Jackson, Miss.

PV: With a side of crawfish soup and sweet tea.

Genre of books:

JV/PV: Is Maya a genre? We read everything we can about them.

Singer and/or Song

JV: Face Down by The Red Jumpsuit Apparatus

PV: Somewhere Down the Lazy River by Robbie Robertson


JV/PV: La Bodeguilla San Roque in romantic, rain-soaked Santiago de Compostela, Northern Spain – an atmospheric bar with the best jamon serrano and pan con tomate in the world: Puertas de Calakmul in Mexico - fantastic cooking in a glorified shed on the edge of the Calakmul biosphere: The Belvedere in Holland Park, London – it’s where our children learned their table manners; The Norwich Inn, Vermont – our new local.

TV show /Movie

JV: Top Chef

PV: Aguirre, Wrath of God


JV: Blue/White Stripes

PV: The neon blue of a Blue Morpho butterfly or sludgy Shaker blue


JV/PV: Our jungle boots, of course!

Video Game:

JV: Tomb Raider

PV: Guitar Hero

Anything I didn’t ask?

Question: Did the Maya predict that the world will end in 2012.

Answer: No.

Good to know!

Thanks for chatting with me!

1 comment:

Julie said...

Great interview! What an interesting life these two have led. I can't wait to read Middleworld.