Lincoln Peirce Talks with Roger

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In a sequel to Max & the Midknights, Lincoln Peirce’s Max & the Midknights: Battle of the Bodkins provides Max and her trusty companions with a truly spooky threat (think Jordan Peele’s Us) to the kingdom they restored in the first book, Byjovia. Yes, that gave me pause too, but go with it.

Roger Sutton: The thing I love most about the Max & the Midknights books is there is such an improvisational quality to the narratives. Something unexpected happens; something unexpected happens again. But you don’t ever feel jerked around — it feels very natural. How do you create that spontaneity? Do you know the twists and turns as you go?

LP: I think it’s a function of the way I write these books, which is: I make them up as I go along. I submit the chapters to Phoebe Yeh, my editor, one at a time, and I honestly don’t necessarily know earlier in the book where I’ll end up later. It’s a little bit stressful at times [Ed. note: for Phoebe too, I’m guessing!], but I find that I’m really energized by it. I do try to make sure that each twist has a certain logic to it. By the time I’m three-quarters of the way through, I usually have a good idea of the end. But I like not necessarily knowing my path between Point A and Point J.

RS: Did you ever find yourself thinking Uh-oh, I’ve hit a dead end, and you have to go back?

LP: I never get too far down the road, and I’m grateful for that, because as you know, when you write books that are part of a series, there’s a certain timeframe you’re working in, and you don’t have the luxury of making the major misstep that would necessitate going back and doing major rewrites. On a couple of occasions, yeah, I’d get a few pages in and think This is not really necessary for the story. It may be an interesting side note, but when I boil down the story to its elements, is this really going to make it better? And if the answer is no, then I move on. Something that supports me is my background as a comic strip creator. In a comic strip there’s a certain improvisational quality, too. Charles Schulz believed you’re essentially telling the same jokes over and over again, but trying to keep it fresh every day. I find that translates well, for me, into writing books. It’s a space I’m comfortable in.

RS: In writing a comic strip, how far ahead does a person generally work? In this case, you’re sending Phoebe the chapters one at a time, but they’re all going to come together before the public sees it. But with a comic strip, you’re what, a month ahead?

LP: I can be more ahead than that because Big Nate is not a topical comic strip. I don’t have to work close to deadline in order to comment on actual current events. I’m more like two and a half months ahead of my publication dates. I have, at times, been as far as six months ahead.

RS: That must be nice.

LP: I long for those days.

RS: I get my book reviews done two days in advance and I feel like I’ve earned a vacation. When you’re dealing with a small slice of time in each story, does it make it easier to establish a rhythm going forward? Even though you don’t know what Big Nate or the Midknights are going to be doing fifty pages, or fifty strips, down the line, you get the confidence that they’re going someplace useful.

LP: Absolutely. I agree with that 100 percent. You used the word rhythm, which I love. I use that word all the time, because like almost everyone of my generation, I grew up loving Peanuts. For most of Peanuts’s run, it was a standard four-panel comic strip. I grew up reading those strips, and the rhythm of those four panels got hard-wired into me. When I do the books, it’s a different sort of rhythm, but I still feel like it’s an essential part. It’s not about the number of panels, but it’s about the decisions I make. What’s going to be in an illustration? What’s in a speech bubble versus being laid out in a paragraph?

RS: That was my next question. I don’t even know what we call this book. It’s not a graphic novel. It’s not a comic strip. Whatever the hell it is — I think the improvisational quality that I admire about the story I also see in that bouncing between pictures and text. How do you know where a joke is going to land? How do you know what to convey — you have speech balloons, you have pictures, and you have narrative text. How do you divvy that up?

LP: I have tried, Roger, many times to find a way to explain it, and I’m not sure I’ve ever arrived at an explanation that satisfies me, but again I go back to the rhythm. When I’m working, I’m constantly rereading what I’ve written. I’m saying it in my head, and there are some lines, some words, some phrases, that I think, That clearly needs to be in a speech bubble and not in quotes in a line of text. Although I can’t really explain why, it seems obvious to me in the moment. I’m also aware that I’m writing for an audience who presumably would prefer to see funny things depicted visually as opposed to just having them explained. It’s a lot funnier for a nine-year-old reader to see someone get hit in the face with a pie than it is to read about it. Some decisions are easy ones, and others are a little more — I guess they just defy easy explanation. I feel them, is the best way I can put it.

RS: And it’s all one creative stream? As you’re actually writing, are you making those divisions among form?

LP: Yeah. I write them out in little sketchbooks, little Moleskines. I make notations, or I draw speech bubbles — I don’t actually draw any pictures at the early stages, I just focus on the writing, and I’ll make an indication that this is going to be inside a panel, this is going to be a paragraph. I’m thinking about those divisions right from the start.

RS: What do you call this form?

LP: I call them hybrids. In bookstores, mine are inevitably in the graphic novel section, and I’m happy to be in that company. There’s such a variety — there can be a book that’s an illustrated novel, but the art is perhaps on the cartoony side. And then there are others, like Raina Telgemeier’s books, which are clearly classic graphic novels. One day I would like to do a straight graphic novel to see what it’s like, but I do feel like I’ve pitched my tent in my own little place where I’m kind of in the middle.

RS: Are you ever tempted to go the other way and do a picture book?

LP: I’ve done a couple of Little Big Nate projects, where Nate is just a toddler — those are twelve-page picture books. I was proud of them, but I didn’t necessarily enjoy the process as much as I thought I would. I think it had to do with wanting there to be more variety and more of the twists and turns in the story. It didn’t scratch my itch the way a comic strip does, and it didn’t scratch my itch the way a novel does. It’s something I wasn’t thoroughly accustomed to, and I’m happy to have tried it, but I don’t think I’m going to revisit that any time soon.

RS: You mentioned nine-year-olds as your audience, so let’s take that as a sweet spot. What was nine-year-old Lincoln reading? What was the mix involved there?

LP: By age nine, I had discovered what is now one of my favorite series of that era — the Great Brain books by John D. Fitzgerald. I was probably just out of my Matt Christopher phase, those sports books.

RS: He still writes. Dead for years, but he still publishes books.

LP: I had read some of the all-time greats by then — Charlotte’s Web, the classics. I think I was about nine when I read Old Yeller, a book that was foundational for me. And I read a lot of comic books. I was fascinated with newspaper comics always. Those Peanuts reprint books, at that time, only cost around fifty cents each, a lot of bang for your buck.

RS: Yeah, those always went with us on car trips, I remember. The children would pass them among ourselves.

LP: Exactly.

RS: One thing that you have to do in a novel — hybrids, as they are, are still novels — is create characters for whom we have empathy. When I started the first Midknights book, I thought It’s going to be like Monty Python; I don’t think I can stand it, because I hate that kind of humor. But then I really came to care about these kids, so I had an emotional investment in it. And at the same time, you had to give me a story with a beginning, a middle, and end, which a comic strip doesn’t have to do.

LP: I disagree. A comic strip does have to. I think about that in comics all the time. Comics are small stories, but I see them as very real stories with a beginning, middle, and end. Not just in terms of a daily strip, which is a story made very small, but in terms of story arcs that might play out over the course of a week or two. But I know what you mean, in terms of there being a clear difference between the two formats.

RS: You have a lot of elements and levels of humor that you have to keep going at once. Do you think that’s just part of your gift as a writer, or is it something you have to work on? Do you have to look at that balance as you go, or does it come out naturally?

LP: That’s a good question — I haven’t really thought too much about it. You mentioned empathy earlier, and I believe that’s a key component. Something I do think about a lot with the comic strips is the balancing act that comes with creating a character who behaves in ways that in the real world are not necessarily appealing — they might be outrageous — and yet your job is to make this character empathetic and likable and identifiable. As far as the books go, foundationally, when I started to introduce the characters in the first Midknights book, empathy was definitely something that was at the forefront, because I wanted it to be clear that these young people were traveling paths that they did not necessarily want to be on. And to do it in a lighthearted way, a comedic way, because I wanted the book to be funny. But the characters have this struggle to define Who am I going to be and what do I want to do with my life? in a time when a kid did not necessarily have much agency at all, or any, in terms of choosing a path. So right at the start, Max is clear: Max is a troubadour who doesn’t want to be a troubadour. And then we meet Kevyn…

RS: First we find out Max is a girl, though. We think he’s a boy who doesn’t want to be a troubadour.

LP: Correct. That was a big part of it for me.

RS: Fooled me!

LP: But I didn’t want the books to be so much about the fact that Max was a girl — I didn’t want that to be the subject of the books. In a way, I wanted Max’s gender to end up being essentially irrelevant. I also wanted to subvert expectations, because I knew that up to that point in my working life, I was known for making very boy-centric stories.

RS: That’s exactly what I thought I was reading when I started the first Max book.

LP: That’s good, Roger! That’s what I was going for. I left no Easter eggs, no hints, either on the cover or in the first fifty pages, to suggest that Max isn’t a boy. I knew my typical nine-year-old reader would assume Max was a boy. I’m not really interested in the idea that there are “girl books” and “boy books” or any of that stuff — I don’t really believe in all that. I just thought it would be fun and an interesting challenge for me to have the point of entry into this story be one thing, and then fifty pages in, have the reader realize, “This is not what I thought was going to happen."

RS: Right. It’s interesting you picked fifty pages in to have that happen, because everything’s in motion, readers are already sucked in, and then we have this revelation — but there’s still tons to get accomplished before the story can end.

LP: Correct. Thank you, Roger. I couldn’t have said it better myself.

RS: There was a book about thirty years ago — it won the Carnegie Medal in Britain — called The Turbulent Term of Tyke Tiler, which was about this awful kid at school, who is getting in scrapes left and right and causing trouble and mischief, and it’s very entertaining, and it’s only on the last page you find out you’ve been reading about a girl all along. It’s brilliant.

LP: That's fascinating.

RS: Here, it was woven into the story. It wasn’t the whole point of the thing. It wasn’t a girl-power story either.

LP: Exactly. It’s clear early on that when Max learns girls aren’t allowed to be knights, it’s a surprise to her. It’s not as if she has been trudging through her life up to that point, “Ugh, I’m a girl.” She’s been trudging through her life up to that point, “Ugh, I’m a troubadour."

RS: How do you keep going? I don’t want to give anything away, but we’re left in the second volume with another discovery about Max that I assume you’ll pick up in the third book. How do you stop this kind of series from becoming, “and here are more adventures of the Midknights”?

LP: In this case, there are only going to be three volumes in the series. There are no plans to go to Max book seven. I think that’s helpful. I wrote the first one thinking it was going to be a one-off, and it would have worked perfectly well if it was. But I found that I just really enjoyed the character, and felt that there was a lot more I could do with Max and with these stories, but within reason. I did eight of the Big Nate novels, and I’m happy and proud of all of them, but by the time I got to the seventh and the eighth, I was on fumes. I was thinking, I don’t want to repeat myself. We’ve all watched the TV show or the book series where you get to the later ones and your heart sort of sinks a little bit and you think, I wish they had stopped after season five. Three is going to be a really good number for the Max series. I’m almost done writing the third one now, and it feels good. It feels like there’s a really logical endpoint to this. I’m happy with it. I don’t know if you have an example that springs to mind, Roger [Ed. note: Schitt’s Creek], but the one that springs to mind for me is the crushing disappointment I felt when I read Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory was such a formative book for me, just a magical, magical book. I remember hearing, probably through my mother, who worked in the elementary school library, that there was going to be another Charlie book, and I was just over the moon. And then reading it, I felt like the air went out of the balloon.

RS: In Gypsy, the musical, Mama Rose says to the young Gypsy Rose Lee that the key to being a good stripper is to “make 'em beg for more, and then don't give it to them!" In the case of a book, when there isn’t a sequel that you can run to, you have to take the story into your head. And that stays with you. There’s no disappointment possible.

LP: That’s interesting. Getting back to the comic strips, there’s the classic comic strip by Al Capp, Li’l Abner. For twenty, twenty-five years, one of the running themes was Daisy Mae going after Li’l Abner, trying to get him to marry her. Finally, in 1952, Al Capp caved, and they were married. And almost immediately he realized I’ve made a horrible mistake, but he couldn’t undo it. For the rest of his life, he said, I wish I had not done that. So yeah, that whole don’t give them what they want thing is a fascinating dynamic in terms of storytelling.

RS: You'll have one last chance with the third book to leave us wanting more.

LP: I hope I can.


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Roger Sutton
Roger Sutton
Roger Sutton has been the editor in chief of The Horn Book, Inc, since 1996. He was previously editor of The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books and a children's and young adult librarian. He received his M.A. in library science from the University of Chicago in 1982 and a B.A. from Pitzer College in 1978. Follow him on Twitter: @RogerReads.

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