Wednesday, February 8, 2023

Q&A with James Ponti


Photo by Elena Seibert Photography



James Ponti is the author of the new middle grade novel City Spies: City of the Dead, the latest in his City Spies series. A former TV writer and producer, he lives in Orlando, Florida.


Q: This is the fourth in your City Spies series--what inspired City of the Dead?


A: With me, it’s rare that there’s a singular inspiration. My process usually involves elements that I want to use and trying to figure out how they fit together.


I wanted to set the mystery in Egypt and open with the team pulling off a heist. The first connection was the British Museum. It holds tons of Egyptian artifacts and there’s great debate about whether the UK government should return them. I knew that would provide fertile storytelling ideas, but I still needed a deeper connection. 


Next, I tried to figure out how to break into the museum, which led me to Bonfire Night. Every year on Nov. 5, there are raucous celebrations throughout the UK that celebrate the capture of Guy Fawkes, who tried to blow up Parliament in 1605. I thought the noise from one of these celebrations might mask the break-in. It turns out that King Tut Day is celebrated on Nov. 4. The fact that they were a day apart was the second connection. 


Finally, Guy Fawkes has become a symbol for computer hackers. I decided to begin the book with a cyberattack timed to coincide with celebrations marking Tut and Fawkes, which gave me a very modern crime blended with an ancient setting. Once I had those ingredients, it was time to start cooking. 


Q: Do you think your characters have changed from the first book to this new one?


A: I think it’s the nature of all teenagers to change as they try to find and understand themselves. But I also think that change is often about chiseling away at what’s obscuring who they truly are. That’s what I’m striving to do with the characters in my books.


There are five kids on the City Spies team and the biggest challenge I have as a writer is making sure that each gets the proper amount of attention in every book. While I’m not much of an outliner with regard to plot, I do map out their character arcs before I start writing. Hopefully, this has led to characters who continue to grow and develop as they move from book to book. I want them to change while still staying consistent. 


Q: Did you need to do any research to write City of the Dead, and if so, did you learn anything that especially intrigued you?


A: I did a lot of research about ancient Egypt, all of which was fascinating. I interviewed Dr. Kara Cooney, a leading Egyptologist, and she said that when you stand in front of the Great Pyramid, you feel very small, which is exactly what the pharaohs wanted. That got me thinking a lot about intent. Then I began to read about the present-day search for more tombs in the Valley of the Kings and that intrigued me and became a key element of the plot. 


Q: Do you usually know how your novels will end before you start writing them, or do you make many changes along the way?


A: In the epic battle of plotter vs. pantser, I fall directly in the middle with the plantser crowd. I tend to outline the first quarter or third of a book before I get started and then figure out the rest as I go.


I liken it to a cross country road trip from New York to Los Angeles. I know where we’re staying the first few nights, but try to leave the rest of the trip open for exploration. That said, we’re going to Los Angeles and having that ultimate destination is important.


The same is true with a book. I need to know where I’m headed before I write. I think this is especially true because of the mystery elements of the stories. I have to know the solution, if I really want to layer in the clues properly. 


Q: What are you working on now?


A: A week ago, I turned in the first draft of City Spies 5, which was a huge relief. Now, I’m taking two weeks off of writing to go on a book tour with City Spies City of the Dead. As soon as I get back from that, I dive back into writing the first book in a new series that’s set to debut at the end of Summer 2024. 


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: My new series is called the Sherlock Society, which is set in and around Miami. Starting next year, I’ll have two books a year come out, which should be great fun. (And extremely tiring.) Thanks for the great questions!


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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