Monday, May 1, 2017

5 with James Ponti--Author of Framed!

Framed! by James Ponti is the first book in a fun and fast-paced mystery series about two friends Florian and Margaret who solve mysteries using T.O.A.S.T (the Theory of All Small Things). I flew through Framed! and an early copy of book #2 Vanished! and have found myself T.O.A.S.T.-ing ever since.

Today Author James Ponti stopped by to answer my 5 questions.

In Paperback May 2nd

Watch for Vanished! this August
Welcome, James, and thanks for visiting LibLaura5!

Thank you so much, Laura! It’s a real treat for me.

1. First, T.O.A.S.T (the Theory of All Small Things) is how your characters Florian and Margaret solve mysteries--Where did T.O.A.S.T. come frome?

The idea of T.O.A.S.T. is that people lie and deceive in big, overt ways but often overlook smaller details about themselves that are inconsistent with those deceptions. So if you skip the obvious and only add up the details, it can expose otherwise hidden truths.
I think I’ve been on the lookout for clues and little details ever since I read the Encyclopedia Brown books as a kid. But T.O.A.S.T., as it is in the books, is the product of being stuck in airports for my day job as a television producer. I’ve spent way too much time in terminals waiting for flights. One of the ways I pass the time is to study the people around me and try to see what I can figure out about them that they might not realize is evident. It’s not meant in a prying way, but more as a fun mental challenge. But in this game was born the concept for the mystery series.

As to the name T.O.A.S.T., I wish I had some great origin story about eating breakfast, looking at a piece of toast, and having a eureka moment; but it was much more mundane. I’m a big fan of acronyms and thought it would be good if I came up with one for this so that they could discuss it in dialogue. I said to myself, “Theory of All Small Things - TOAST.” It was pretty boring.

As a side note, I do love the name they use for the French editions. My request was that the acronym be something silly or food-related and the translator came up with GRATIN - Guide de Recerche et Analyse de Tout Indice Negligeable. So, in France, it literally is cheesy.

Reading in front of the self-portrait of van Gogh
where Florian first teaches Margaret about TOAST

2. After I read Framed! I found myself starting to use T.O.A.S.T. 
Do you use T.O.A.S.T.?

I use T.O.A.S.T. all the time, although now it’s usually a case of me looking for ways that Florian and Margaret can use it in the books. That is the hardest part of writing these mysteries because they use it all the time and I want to make the examples varied and different.

What I love, and was completely unexpected, is that I’ve had people tell me that their kids use it. Stuart Gibbs, who writes the Spy School books, is a friend and wrote a blurb for Framed! so he got it early and the next time we talked he said his kids were playing T.O.A.S.T. all the time.

With Marcie in St. Paul, Minnesota
Near the hometown of Liblaura5!

3. Florian and Margaret are such wonderful characters and great friends. Is there any of them that came from you or those in your life?

For me the entire series is about Florian and Margaret’s friendship. The foundation of that friendship is that Margaret sees in Florian all that is special that everyone else, including Florian, overlooked. She understands him better than anyone ever has. And while Margaret is more socially skilled and a star athlete, she has zero interest in being popular, which she sees as superficial. She is about substance and Florian sees in her the far more important characteristics that make her amazing. I think that’s the same dynamic of the relationship I have with my wife who I met in college nearly thirty years ago. So that’s probably a big part of the inspiration.

As to their individual character traits, Florian borrows pretty heavily from my son and me. Awkward on the surface, but a friend for life. Clever, but sometimes too clever for his own good. While Margaret is a mix of what I imagine my wife was like in middle school combined with the confidence, athleticism, and intelligence I see as a hallmark of the current generation of girls.

4. Washington D.C. is almost its own character in your books. What was your process for creating such a rich setting?

I LOVE Washington, D.C. I have ever since I was a kid and have taken countless trips there. I also feel like the city belongs to all of the people, so it’s relatable to readers everywhere. As a writer of kid mysteries, however, Washington is a treasure trove.

There is an endless stream of international characters who pass through the city. There are oddities, such as the law that makes embassy grounds a foreign country. There is a superb mass transit system, which allows my characters access to the entire city without having to call their parents for a ride. And, perhaps best of all, there are so many iconic cultural institutions that provide settings that are both practical and meaningful. So I get to set the mystery in Framed! around the National Gallery of Art among masterpieces of French Impressionism. And I get to set book 2, Vanished!, at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, which brings along its own history and symbolism.

The Romanian embassy while I visited researching Framed! There was someone working at the entrance. When I asked if I could peek in, they were not happy about it. Maybe they knew the Romanians weren't the heroes in this story.

As to the process, I’m a firm believer in research and try to be thorough. The characters in the book go to Alice Deal Middle School, which is in fact a real school in Washington. I work in conjunction with the school and try to go there once a year so the kids feel ownership in the books. They tell me about their lives and show me around the school so I can get that part right.

The entrance to Alice Deal Middle School where Florian and Margaret are students

I also travel around the city looking for settings and talking to people at these various institutions. For example, the Kennedy Center gave me a behind the scenes tour as I was writing Vanished! This not only helped me create a more vivid setting but it also sparked plot points for the mystery.

Backstage at the Kennedy Center for Performing Arts during my research trip for Vanished!

5. Sharing the books we love is a way we share about ourselves and connect with each other. What is one book that has been important in your life?

I think the one book that has been most important in my life was From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E.L. Konigsburg. I was quite the reluctant reader as a kid, but for some reason this book slipped through the cracks and captured my imagination. I loved the adventure and the fact that the settings were real and these traits have been part of both series that I’ve written. It’s so ingrained in my writing DNA that I’m sure it had something to do with the museum elements of Framed!

Interestingly, when my first book, Dead City, was published I wanted to send a copy to E.L. Konigsburg to tell her that I would never have written it if it hadn’t been for her. Much to my surprise, I learned that she lived in my hometown of Atlantic Beach, Florida and had been there throughout my entire childhood.

Thanks, James! 
I'm am excited to hear that book 3 of the series is already in the works!

Visit James Ponti's Website:

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