Stuart Gibbs, WHALE DONE

Stuart Gibbs, WHALE DONE

Zibby interviews New York Times bestselling children’s author Stuart Gibbs about Whale Done, the eighth book in the iconic FunJungle series. Stuart describes his love of animals, his job at a zoo studying capybaras, and his decision to write about an exploding whale in Malibu. He also talks about his popular Spy School series and (accidentally) reveals where the next book will take place! Finally, he talks about writing as an escape, which helped after his wife’s passing, and reveals he spends a lot of time in the worlds he has imagined and put on paper.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Stuart. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss everything, your amazing body of work, Whale Done, and everything else.

Stuart Gibbs: Thank you so much for having me here. It’s a pleasure. I love everything you’ve been doing lately. I’ve been a big fan of the podcast and all. Even though I’m not a mom, I feel like I can listen.

Zibby: It is okay.

Stuart: It’s not exclusive, right?

Zibby: It is not exclusive. I was just saying I’m a mom, but anyone’s welcome to listen. This is a particularly meaningful episode for two reasons. One, because Sarah Mlynowski is the person who told me to do this podcast to begin with, and she is our mutual friend. That’s wonderful. She’s connected me to you. Also, your books have filled my home. My kids have loved your books so much. I can’t even find the cover to this. I’m holding up Spy School: Project X. She takes the covers off and does God knows what to her books. It’s just really exciting.

Stuart: It’s very nice to hear. Yes, Sarah being a mutual friend who has shepherded so many people’s careers, she’s the go-to. You say, what should I do about this? What should I do about this? She knows how. She’s full of advice. I would say almost every bit of it is very good.

Zibby: That’s true. She does. She has such a good sense of everything.

Stuart: I’m very pleased. Please say hi to your kids for me and say thank you for reading.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh, I will. My daughter wanted to be on it, but obviously, she’s at school. I’ll show her this afterwards. Whale Done, let’s talk about that first. Why this book? Where’d it come from?

Stuart: The whole Fun Jungle series really came from the fact that I was always fascinated with animals. When I was in college, I was actually studying field biology, which led me to work at a zoo. While I was at the zoo studying capybaras, the world largest rodent, I got to go behind the scenes a lot. I started talking to zookeepers. I started talking to biologists. I started to think, wow, a zoo is just such a great place to set a story of some sort. I played with the different kinds of stories I could tell at a zoo over the years and one day hit on this idea of doing a mystery series that takes place at a zoo. That allowed me to combine my love of animals and my love of writing. One of the things about this series is that — I get a lot of suggestions from readers about, what animal should I do next? There’s been a huge surge — a lot of sloth fans recently, a lot of penguin fans. Penguin is pretty obscure. Somehow, kids are very into them. Usually, I really can’t take those suggestions, but so many kids are writing me saying, you should do whales.

I love whales. I started to do some research into whales. I had this idea about a mystery involving a dead whale that’s washed up on the beach. I thought, how can a human actually kill a whale? Then when I started doing research, I found, sadly, even though the whale’s the largest creature that’s ever lived, there’s so many ways that humans can kill them. It actually seemed like a good mystery to do. I had to make a little bit of change because the series really happens in — most of these happen in Texas, but there’s not really that many whales off the coast of Texas in the Gulf of Mexico. I live in Southern California. This is the first time I’ve ever set a book in Southern California because we actually have a very healthy whale population off of Southern California. I moved the story over here and had to come up with a reason that Teddy ends up in Malibu, in fact.

Zibby: Nobody needs a reason to end up in Malibu. It’s always a good idea.

Stuart: I know. It’s always good to go there, except maybe on that day when there’s a big dead whale washed up on the beach. Malibu is this great place where there’s all these public beaches, and then right next to them is some of the most exclusive real estate in the entire world. In California, everybody’s allowed access to the beach, so you can go walk in front of these people’s mansions. I thought, if I’m going to have a dead whale wash up on the beach and then explode, actually, what better place to do it than in front of the most expensive real estate in America.

Zibby: Why not? Yes. What made you start writing for kids to begin with?

Stuart: I had really always thought that I was going to write for adults. I tried to get books published from the time I really was a kid. I guess I was writing for kids then, but I really thought I was going to write for adults. I was working in the film business. Because I couldn’t get a book published, I found I could actually write movies and get paid to do that. At one point, I thought, I want to explore that idea of writing a book again. I was put in touch with an agent named Jennifer Joel. The very first conversation we ever had, Jennifer called me up and said, had I ever thought about writing for kids? That world, it was kind of — people were doing it. Harry Potter had come out. Percy Jackson had just come out. Diary of a Wimpy Kid had just come out. There weren’t that many people writing for kids, and particularly, writing stuff that the publishers thought boys would be interested in. I was kind of in the right place at the right time to do that. Until Jen said this to me, I really had not thought about it. The moment she said, “Do you have any ideas that would work for kids?” I was like, “Oh, my gosh, yes, I do.” In fact, the Fun Jungle series, I really thought was going to be for adults. I thought that my lead was going to be one of the vets at the zoo who realized that something had been murdered, and then he investigated without permission. I thought, no, actually, an animal murder is a great crime for a kid to investigate because the police are not going to think it’s a crime. The kid can call the police and say, somebody murdered the hippo at the zoo. The police are probably not going to take him seriously.

Zibby: Wow. Jen Joel, that is so funny. I met Jen Joel — after college, I joined the New York Public Library Young Lions Association. She was on that committee also. I got to know her then. Then over the years, I always would send her whatever book I was working on. She would politely be like, “No, I don’t think so.” We stayed in touch for a long time. Then she ended up being my dad’s agent on his book. He’s like, “You know this girl, Jen Joel?”

Stuart: She is a force. Based on that conversation, she has been my agent now for fifteen years. I am devoted to her.

Zibby: That’s so nice. She’s awesome. Also, your Spy School series is massively successful. I was reading in this one how you take little bits and pieces of your life, like when you were in DC underground in the subways, and then you just take it and use it twenty years later or whatever. You’re just constantly collecting little tidbits and scenes that you can then scatter about as they come to your consciousness again.

Stuart: Life is just sort of this giant research trip. I don’t know if everybody works this way. You just don’t know when something is going to be useful. The more of the world you can explore, the more things you can learn about, the better. I have kids write me. All the time, kids are like, how do you have so many ideas? I’m like, because I’ve just been around so much longer than you have. You’re eight. You haven’t seen very much. If you’re traveling someplace and you say, let’s go explore over here, maybe that finds a place in a story at some point. Maybe it doesn’t. Hopefully, it’s an interesting experience no matter what.

Zibby: I like that little anecdote that you took your friend, who had MS, in a wheelchair, and so you had to go look at different parts of the station.

Stuart: It was just a weird thing that she and I were — it was a coincidence we happened to be on the same train. Then she had MS, so she, to get off the train, had to go through this whole subterranean part of Union Station in Washington, DC. I came along to help with this and saw this whole part of the station that most people don’t see unless they’ve got MS or maybe something else. It was a weird thing. Then, right, twenty years later, I’m writing something, and I thought, hey, I need my characters to get onto a train, but I don’t want them to go the normal route that the passengers get on. I can send them this other way.

Zibby: That’s so funny. You take the Spy School series through all these things, from camp to skiing to everywhere. How do you pick? Do you have the whole series lined up of the ten next places you’re going to do it? How does this whole process work for you?

Stuart: I haven’t thought it out that far. I’ve thought a couple books ahead. I’m thinking, what do I want to do with my characters next? Then often, the plot sort of comes from what I want the characters to do next. Then maybe the location comes after that. It is all a bit fluid. The newest Spy School, Spy School 11, which is coming soon, I was playing around with different ideas. Then I happened to go up to Alaska and thought, this is the perfect place for this book. I think I just did a reveal there, where Spy School 11 takes place.

Zibby: You heard it here first. Breaking news. Publishers Weekly. No.

Stuart: I was in Alaska. It seemed like a great place to tell the character’s story I wanted to tell. Then based on the fact that it was Alaska, that ended up driving a lot of the plot anyhow. I’d been thinking for a long time Alaska would be a great place for a Spy School story. I had that idea. Then I went to Alaska. Then it worked out. There’s no one way that it happens.

Zibby: So interesting. Now I realize, of course, I made the same mistake that I did with my daughter when I — it’s not Project X, then? Is it then Project 10, or is it still Project X?

Stuart: No, it’s absolutely Project X. That just was the tenth book. That was my clever little thing. It was Project X, but if you know your roman numerals, it is also Project 10.

Zibby: Do they even teach that anymore, roman numerals? I’m going to have to ask my kids if any of them have learned it.

Stuart: I feel like they pick them up somewhere.

Zibby: They pick them up at the Super Bowl.

Stuart: Yes, exactly. That’s why it’s so important. If anything in our lives should have roman numerals in it, it’s the Super Bowl. Everybody goes, what one is this?

Zibby: That’s so funny. Gets it out to the masses, I guess. You have eleven coming. That’s already probably done.

Stuart: Spy School 11 is ninety-eight percent done, something like that. I just turned in a draft the other day. It’s really close to done.

Zibby: That’s exciting. When you get up in the morning, what is your schedule? How much time are you writing versus editing versus doing book marketing and all that stuff? When you’re in a book, how long can you go at a stretch just writing?

Stuart: Oh, boy. Ideally, I’m writing all day, or editing, but that marketing sort of creeps in. There’s all sorts of things that crop up. I think, this is what I’m going to do today. Then something happens. You say, oh, gosh, I have to do this. Not to take away from the fact that I enjoy these conversations.

Zibby: We don’t have to talk much longer. You can get back to writing in a minute.

Stuart: No, no, no, let’s keep going. We’re here. The bread and butter is, write the book. My whole idea is to try and get excited about what I’m going to do every day. I don’t think it’s unusual to say the hardest thing to do is to get started every day. That’s pretty common. I take a walk. I actually walk my daughter to school with the dog. Then we keep going, the dog and I, to work on ideas together. The dog has very few ideas, except for, squirrels are awful. I’m walking. I’m thinking and saying, okay, here’s what the plan for today is. Then I come back. You don’t know what kind of writing day you’re going to have, ever. You just sit down. Hopefully, it’s a good writing day and you get a lot done. Some days, you might be like, I didn’t get that much done. Hopefully, you got something good every day. It’s kind of a nine-to-five-like schedule.

Zibby: How do you separate — not that any of us are good at this in any particular way. When you have your own stuff going on in life and then you have to be joyous and fun and playful and creative on the page — I know you’ve gone through so much with losing your wife. I’m so, so sorry about that. Then you have to boot up the computer and get back to whales spouting. How do you go do that?

Stuart: I wasn’t sure myself. After my wife died, I was like, am I going to be able to write again? I don’t know. Then after three weeks, I realized I wanted to write again. Writing, in a sense, was an escape. I go to these other places and get to play around. My real life was, I’ll talk to the insurance company or sit on hold with the insurance company for three hours. The idea of saying I could go off into this world that I’ve created and hang out with these characters that I created and get to blow up a whale or something like that was actually an escape. There is a strange thing about writing. At some point, I just realized I’ve spent so much time at FunJungle or at spy school that it really does seem to exist in my head. I can walk around FunJungle. I know the whole place. I know what the front gates look like. I know if I walk through the front grates, there’s a souvenir store just to the left. Hippo River is straight ahead. There’s a point where you’re like, okay, is this a delusion? I’m pretty sure all authors are creating these worlds in their head. As much as we try to describe that world to our readers, we’ve got this vision of it that, it’s only ours. At some point, I was like, have I spent more time at FunJungle than I have at our local zoo? Certainly. Maybe I’ve spent years there. Maybe I spent more time there than I spend at my kids’ schools or things like that. There is this nice thing about creating this world and getting to go visit a lot. There’s probably a bunch of psychologists going, oh, my goodness.

Zibby: I was thinking about that. Not just for you. I spend my day talking to people who do this. I get it. I’m writing a novel now too. What is it about this form of escape, this imaginative coping mechanism, if you will? I found that most — not most, but many authors share an anxiety disorder, which is why I feel like I connect with every author. I’m like, oh, I thought it was me. Turns out it’s this thing that I have that everybody else has who likes to write. I don’t know. It is a good question. Who else escapes in this way? Artists with a painting.

Stuart: Children do, which is the interesting thing. Children have these make-believe worlds. They make up stories all the time. I do think sometimes as an author, in theory, you just don’t lose that. You keep saying, I’m going to make up a world. I’m going to make up this story. There are lots of people who — we’re friends with authors. They’re all doing the same thing. I guess there are people that it sort of fades away in them. They think, I’m going to go be a lawyer. I don’t know. As authors, our job is to kind of keep that sense of imagination that we had as children.

Zibby: I’ve kind of taken it one step further with a lot of the authors where I feel like all the characters are so real that I’ve started wanting to introduce them. Do you know what I mean? Oh, my gosh, that woman in that book, she needs to have coffee with that character in that book. Once, I tried to put two authors together. I was like, would you write something where — they were like, no. It would be so cool if one of your characters ended up in one of Sarah’s, in Whatever After or Upside-Down Magic, and they cross, like in Roblox. You know how everybody meets up? Where is the Roblox of books?

Stuart: It sounds like a great — Sarah and I, we’re very good friends with a writer named James Ponti, who also writes these wonderful mysteries for kids and has a book called City Spies. James and I are constantly having kids come to us and saying, why don’t you crossover City Spies and Spy School? Then we have to say to them, look, we are great friends. We would hate doing it. It’s so much work for us to crossover our books. The kids are just like, what? How could you possibly say no to that? This is the best idea ever. You guys are friends. You’d have so much fun. It’s my process, his process. I don’t know his characters. His characters are so fully formed in his head. Mine are so fully formed. Would it be fun to have them meet? Absolutely, yes, if I could have a party where they could hang out. Then Sarah’s characters and all my friends’ characters, everybody’s characters could all come to this party. That would be awesome. I think that would have to happen in all of our heads, which is odd.

Zibby: It would have to be a writers’ room. It would have to be a collaborative around the table like you were writing a TV show. They figured out how to do it. You’ve done that.

Stuart: I’m not saying it’ll never happen. I think the kids think of it as, oh, it’s half the work. James writes half of it. You write half of it. Then it’s a book. You say, actually, no, it’s probably fifty percent more work because we’d have to work all this out and bat it back and forth and be constantly arguing about, how does this scene work? or something like that. Honestly, having even developed some shows for television, I was constantly terrified of having to be in the writers’ room because I was like, oh, my god, I’m going to have to collaborate with people. I’m so set in my ways about, this is how I write. I just do this. I don’t talk to anybody while I’m writing. I don’t have to interact with people. I just do this. The actual writing part is frightening to me.

Zibby: This is totally fascinating.

Stuart: I’m just unburdening all this stuff.

Zibby: I still am trying to think of — you could do it where the other author wouldn’t even be involved. You would just put in one of his characters into your book. Then he would reciprocate in another book. Then you’d double your market share.

Stuart: That’s not bad. It’d be a bit of a little release there to say, okay, I’m going to trust you to handle this character, which would be difficult, but I’m sure James could pull it off.

Zibby: Interesting. Maybe it’s like the life rights of the character. You’d have to do some sort of contract. Oh, my gosh, I’m sorry I’m on such a tangent.

Stuart: Now you’ve got it out there. I’m like, well, maybe. Maybe it could work. There are all these kids now going, I told you, I told you.

Zibby: This is for the kids. Advice for aspiring authors?

Stuart: The first part, of course, write as much as you can. It’s practice. If you want to be a professional athlete, you don’t just show up on the baseball field one day and say, I want to be a pro athlete. You got to practice. Writing is practice, which means that if you write something and it does not get published, that was not a waste of your time. You were practicing. Trust me, I wrote plenty of things that didn’t get published. Then I would say, obviously, reading is important. I think a lot of the time, especially young kids, they’re not sure where the line is between plagiarism and homage. I think it’s important to know that if you read something and you really like it, if you really try to emulate that, that’s totally fine because nobody has the same style. I was fascinated with writers like Douglas Adams, who did Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy; and Carl Hiaasen, who wrote these great comic crime novels that often had environmental issues; and Michael Crichton, who wrote these wonderful stories that combined science and adventure. I was trying to emulate Adams’s humor and Hiaasen’s plotting and Crichton’s way that he brings science into his stories, but my style was not the same as any of theirs. You’re allowed to do that. Taking somebody’s characters and world is fan fiction. You can’t run off and publish that. Can you try and write a story where you try and follow the style of the author that you really like? I can still reread Ellen Raskin’s The Westing Game, which is the greatest, not just maybe middle-grade mystery ever written, but possibly one of the greatest mysteries ever written. I still reread that book and study how she plotted that out and learn from her.

Zibby: Very smart. Awesome. I love it. Thank you. This was great. I can let you go back to your bread and butter.

Stuart: I feel terrible now. I feel like I made it sound like this was a burden, but this is not a burden.

Zibby: I am just playing. I’m playing. It’s fine. I totally understand. Thank you for taking the time out of the day.

Stuart: Thank you for having me.

Zibby: At least it’s early enough that you can still have a whole workday.

Stuart: Yes, off to work. Now I’m thinking we could just talk all day. Then I’ll just work tomorrow.

Zibby: Sounds good. I’ll ignore my work too.

Stuart: You have such a busy week. My gosh.

Zibby: I know. It’s crazy. It’s fun. This was a highlight. It’s always so nice to just connect with somebody one on one. It’s great. I love it so much.

Stuart: Can I ask you a question? You have all your books organized by color.

Zibby: I do.

Stuart: Do you actually remember the book by the cover color? My wife, at one point, did organize all of them like that, and I could never find anything ever again.

Zibby: I really like doing it that way. I think about everything in color. That’s how my brain works. It’s a lot easier for me. With all my galleys and stuff, I have them by month. I would fail the memory game. I am not good with spatial relations at all. I can’t look at a pile and remember anything. They’re all mixed up. If I took all my galleys, even, which I’m not going to do, then I could find — I’m like, Sam is a black cover. Then I would be like, oh, it’s right there. It’s just easier for me.

Stuart: It looks really good.

Zibby: Thank you.

Stuart: There were so many times when I would be saying, “I have to go find this book.” My wife would say, “Do you know what color it is?” I’d be like, “No, I have no idea what color any book –” I don’t even know my own, really.

Zibby: It works for me. I guess the question is, are you going to organize your books in any way? This is the fastest way versus alphabetizing. What other way are you going to organize your books at home? By genre? That would take forever.

Stuart: That’s how I do it, though. I do it by genre.

Zibby: Is it?

Stuart: Yes.

Zibby: Do you really?

Stuart: Yes, because that’s how I can remember. It just gets me to the right area. All the mysteries are here. They’re this general area. Then I can find the book. I apparently don’t think in terms of color at all.

Zibby: I think that would take me so long. I’d be like, well, it’s a thriller, but it’s also — maybe it should be over — I think I would get in my head too much with the genre. Anyway, whatever. To each his own.

Stuart: I’m fascinated by it. I am looking at it saying, man, that looks great.

Zibby: Thank you. It makes me very happy. Give it a shot. You could always put them back.

Stuart: I actually, at one point, had — somebody was in my house to look at — I left the house while some painting was done. She reorganized my library while I was gone. I came back. The library looked great. I was livid. I had to call this person. I knew she was going to be thinking I was going to call and say, “You reorganized the library. It looks fantastic.” I called her. I was like, “What were you thinking? You can’t reorganize somebody’s library without asking their permission.” She was like, “I didn’t realize there was any organization at all.” There was a biography section that she had just — I was like, “You didn’t notice that all the books in one section were Einstein, Darwin, Cleopatra? You did not even look at the titles of the books while you were organizing them?” She was like, “No, I did not.” I was like, “Had you ever opened a book in your life? Do you know how books work? They tell you what the book is on the cover of the book.” Now I’m just unburdening so much.

Zibby: That’s okay. Never try it again. Forget I said anything.

Stuart: Never try it again. No. Genre for me.

Zibby: Genre, I might try that. We’ll see. Take care. Bye, Stuart.

Stuart Gibbs, WHALE DONE

WHALE DONE by Stuart Gibbs

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