Varian Johnson (who was co-valedictorian, with his twin brother, of his high school class, thank you very much) enjoys two careers: as an author and an engineer. It’s not surprising, then, that his new book The Great Greene Heist (Scholastic, 12–16 years) is so meticulously — almost mathematically — plotted. But it’s not all by-the-numbers, not by a long shot. Johnson cites the Ocean’s Eleven films and the movie Sneakers, along with The Westing Game, as inspirations for his hugely entertaining (and refreshingly diverse) caper about middle-school con-man-with-a-heart-of-gold Jackson Greene, election tampering, and getting the girl — that is, if she doesn’t get you first.
1. Are you more of a Jackson Greene or a Charlie de la Cruz? (Or, god forbid, a Keith Sinclair?)
VJ: As much as I wish I were a Jackson Greene, I’m probably more like Charlie. I’m a twin, and my brother was president of most of the high school and college organizations we were involved in. I was more likely to be treasurer or another role not in the spotlight. I always fancied myself as the guy behind the scenes making it all happen — turning someone’s vision into reality. Plus, I was never as cool as Jackson. (But neither was my brother.)
VJ: Oh, I love Robert Redford! Sneakers combines everything I adore about heist movies — techy, nerdy outcasts; twisted plots; a mix of high-tech and low-tech solutions; and a touch of romance. Robert Redford somehow pulled off the right balance of sophistication and dishevelment. Plus, James Horner and Branford Marsalis collaborated on a killer soundtrack. All that is a hard combination to beat.
3. How on earth did you keep all those cons straight? And have them fit so perfectly together? Can we see your spreadsheet?
VJ: Keeping the cons straight took a lot of time and energy. I didn’t maintain a spreadsheet; instead I kept a huge text file that outlined all of the cons and characters, along with a calendar that marked when each person or object of interest was introduced. I used Scrivener to write the novel, which allowed me to easily group scenes by day, color-code the points of view of each scene, and tweak the chronology.
The ending was the hardest part to write. Similar to Ocean’s Eleven, I wanted the grand finale to occur over a short amount of time, with everyone in the same location. I finally came up with the idea of the Fall Formal, which in turn fueled Jackson and Gaby’s story. It was very much a cyclical process.
4. Were you one of those kids who figured out the solution to The Westing Game? Is that how your brain works?
VJ: I first read The Westing Game when I was very young, and I can’t remember if I figured out the solution then. What really stuck with me was Turtle Wexler and two of her more memorable traits — her long braid and her habit of kicking people in the shins. When I came up with Jackson Greene, I wanted him to have a few “trademarks” as well, which led to his tie (skewed slightly to the left) and notebook.
In general, I love puzzles. I’m a civil engineer, and for the first ten years of my career I designed bridges. Everything we designed was a puzzle: how to fit the safest structure into the smallest footprint with the least cost in the fastest time. I think my brain has always been wired like that.
5. How did you get your characters’ voices just right? Do you spend a lot of time around teenagers?
VJ: I don’t spend as much time around teens as I used to. As far as getting the voices right, I just tried to make the characters as believable and distinct as possible. It helped that some of them are tech geeks — that apple didn’t fall far from the tree.
From the July 2014 issue of Notes from the Horn Book.