A few weeks ago I reviewed J&P Voelkel’s The Jaguar Stones, Book One: Middleworld. I absolutely loved it and can’t wait to booktalk it this fall. In the meantime, I was thrilled when presented with the opportunity to interview Jon and Pamela, the husband and wife team behind the book. There are very few books out there about Mesoamerica, and even fewer for teens and tweens. I can’t wait to get this one in the hands of my readers. I also can’t wait to share with them the fascinating interview below.
Hello! Welcome to the blog and thank you for taking the time to answer my questions. As a huge fan of Meso-American culture, I was thrilled to read MIDDLEWORLD. I became interested in Mesoamerica when I began studying monarch butterflies and I share as much as I can with my students each year. How did you become interested in the Mayans?
First of all, we’re honored to meet another Mesoamerican fan! It’s an exciting time to be studying the Maya, because the archaeologists are making new discoveries all the time. There are still thousands of sites to be excavated in Central America, so we always hope that one of the students we meet on our school visits will decide to become an archaeologist and make the biggest Maya discovery of all time! As to how we became interested, Jon grew up in Latin America and remembers his first visit to some ruins, when he was eight or nine. I went to school in England where Mesoamerica was never mentioned, so I knew nothing about the Maya until we started on the book. In fact, when Jon wrote the first draft, the pyramids were just a cool background to a jungle adventure story. I think we both had a vague idea that the Maya had died out centuries ago. As we began to research the book and realize the depth of our ignorance, we wanted to learn more and more about this fascinating civilization. We were also inspired by a chance meeting with a group of Maya teenagers at a site in Guatemala. They were so excited that children in North America would be reading about their culture, we realized that we owed it to them to get the facts right.
How did you research the mythology and culture in the book? How long did it take you to draft the first book, including research?
First of all we read every book we could lay our hands on. Then we realized that a lot of the books were out of date and read the new crop of books. A big breakthrough came when Jon did a course at Harvard on reading and writing Maya glyphs. Through that he met a very cool professor named Dr Marc Zender who agreed to check all our facts for us. In all, Book 1 probably took about four years to write. We must have written twenty drafts. Since we began, we’ve made several trips down to Belize, Guatemala and Mexico, where we’ve talked to contemporary Maya people, canoed underground rivers, tracked howler monkeys, explored cave systems and visited about 30 Maya sites – so far!
Was the research difficult? I know that when I look for mythology and information to share with my students, it can be difficult to find sources of information. When I do find it, it tends to be in Spanish or a Mesoamerican language. Do you speak Spanish or any of the Mesoamerican languages?
As we’re sure you’ve found in your own research, what makes it difficult is that there’s so much misinformation about the Maya. The archaeologists have only been able to read the Maya glyphs with any accuracy for the last 30 years – which means that much of what was written before is guesswork and often completely wrong. The internet is also abuzz with nonsense. Because the Maya were shrouded in mystery for so long, it seems like people have felt free to project their own perspectives onto them. The only way we’ve found to be sure of using current information is to connect with the archaeologists who are working in the field right now. We attend lectures and seminars to hear the latest news before it’s published. A great source of information is the annual Maya at the Playa conference in Florida. And yes, Jon grew up speaking Spanish, so that’s extremely helpful – particularly on our travels in Central America. Incidentally, we’ve put much of what we’ve learned on a cross-curricular lesson plan CD – free to teachers from www.jaguarstones.com
What’s it like to write as a duo?
Good question! We used to take it in turns to each write a draft, but these days Pamela does most of the writing and Jon does most of the illustrating. The best thing about working together (and probably the worst thing for our kids) is that we can discuss the plot seven days a week. We both know the characters so well, they’re like members of the family. Where other writers have to argue with the voices in their own heads, I get to argue with a real, live person! Sometimes the arguments get quite heated, but we never settle until we’ve agreed on an outcome we can both believe in one hundred per cent. I think working as a duo makes the book more exciting because we try to surprise each other by inserting more and more twists and turns into the plot. I would also say that Jon is more action-oriented while I worry more about the characters’ feelings, so it’s a good balance.
Via Twitter, I saw that you were at ALA this year. What was the best part of being there?
ALA was amazing, a booklover’s dream. To be surrounded by piles of books and people talking about books was heaven. Two memorable events were signing our books at the Egmont booth and going out for a huge Mexican dinner with a dozen delightful librarians. But the best thing of all was that our 13-year-old daughter got to meet her favorite author, Laurie Halse Anderson. LHA sat right down on the floor and chatted with her like an old friend. It was a life-changing moment.
What is your favorite snack to eat while you are writing?
Pamela eats sweet potato chips; Jon drinks soda and crunches on the ice.
That does sound delicious. And like Jon, I love to crunch the ice after drinking my Pepsi. Thanks again for stopping by and I can’t wait to read the next book in the series!