Wednesday, March 22, 2023

Q&A with M.M. Downing and S.J. Waugh






M.M. Downing and S.J. Waugh are the authors of the new middle grade historical novel The Adventures of the Flash Gang, Episode One: Exploding Experiment. Downing lives in New Jersey and Waugh lives in Connecticut.


Q: What inspired you to write The Adventures of the Flash Gang, and how did you create your characters Lewis and Pearl?


A: We are drawn to gritty settings, plucky orphans, big circumstances, and of course elements that touch the heart. The Flash Gang came to life as we mused about what life was like during the Great Depression, what it would be like to survive penniless on the streets of a city that swirled in smog.


Lewis came to us first – we wanted a hero that boys and girls could root for, one who was brave and resourceful, and who didn’t let his deficiencies defeat him. And then Pearl stormed in—in all her pink tulle—nearly fully formed. Her dreaminess counterbalances Lewis’s practicality, and we loved how larger than life she was.


Q: The novel is set in Pittsburgh in the 1930s--how important is setting to you in your writing?


A: Time and place influences everything we write, both together and separately, and we love creating settings through the senses.


In the Flash Gang, Pittsburgh is a main character with its steep ridges, rickety hillside staircases and belching steel plants, its three rivers and many bridges. And of course, the smog—thick and cloying and darkening the noon hours.


We consciously chose a place and time that seemed underrepresented in children’s fiction and this setting unlocked so much for us in terms of storytelling. Neither of us is from Pittsburgh, but we found ourselves in its thrall.


Q: How did you research the book, and did you learn anything that especially surprised you?


A: It started with a 1930s map of Pittsburgh. More old maps followed—of Schenley Park, Troy Hill, and Herr’s Island—and we spent hours poring over them, discovering where our story would take place.


We devoured books and blogs, old newspapers and newsreels about the Great Depression, about how steel is made, about fascism in America and the rise of Nazi sympathizers.


What surprised us is how timely our story is. This moment in history is being depicted in numerous other forms of art. There are podcasts, plays, documentaries, and films currently exploring the same themes as our book.


Sadly, support against the Nazi regime and willingness to join World War II was not universal. There were many, many movements that fought our involvement in Europe and those that even wanted to bring a Nazi form of government to the United States. We felt a responsibility to tell this story to young readers – it is history that is essential to understand.


Q: The writer J.R. Potter said of the book, “Delightfully Dickensian in spirit. Period events are woven seamlessly into this rollicking tale of friendship and fortitude.” What do you think of that description?


A: Oh, this made us smile for days. Can you imagine a better description, and by a more inventive author? We were consciously trying to write a tale of orphans in a dirty urban setting so for somebody like J.R. Potter to acknowledge that in his quote…We were beyond thrilled.


Q: This is the first in a trilogy--can you tell us what's next?


A: While Pearl and Lewis derail the steel baron’s evil plan in episode one, a man such as J.J. Pickering never gives up. In Episode Two,Treasonous Tycoon (March 2024), the kids uncover the baron’s latest effort to aid the Nazis. It has a far more personal effect on Pearl and Lewis’s lives this time, and was great fun to write.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: We are hard at work on the third Flash Gang adventure. We can’t wait to share it! For updates on Pearl and Lewis and the rest of the gang, we post on Twitter (@Downing_Waugh) and Instagram (@Downing_Waugh) and update news and events on our website ( We love hearing from our readers!


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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