Incredibly Exciting and a Little Bit Daunting: Interviewing James Ponti
James Ponti is a former screenwriter turned middle-grade author, whose work includes the City Spies series, the Dead City series, and the Framed! series. He is very good at creating fabulous plots involving globetrotting, mystery-solving, and/or zombie-killing adventures, but balances that with an emphasis on realistic characters. This comes from the fact that Ponti was a reluctant reader growing up, and he wants his books to appeal to other young readers that feel reading is torture. “The goal from the beginning has always been to write books that would’ve appealed to twelve-year-old me,” he said. “The hope is that if I do that, they will appeal to current reluctant readers. Here are two things I do, and one thing I don’t, with that in mind:
- Blend genres. I think this helps engage by keeping the story moving and often in unpredictable ways. I feel most comfortable writing stories that include a mixture of adventure, humor, mystery, family, and heart. If I can balance these, I know I’m off to a good start.
- No matter how fantastic the plot is – secret agents, mysteries, zombies – I try to make sure that the characters are completely real and relatable. Brooklyn can hack a computer, but she still struggles at school and has insecurities. No matter what heroics Paris achieves, he’s still a nerd and embraces that. I think the reader, especially the reluctant one, needs that in order to connect to the story.
- Don’t simplify plots. I don’t think simple is appealing. And I don’t think you appeal to young readers by writing down to them. I lean in on complex plots, but try to write them with enough context so that they’re not confusing or difficult to follow. That difference may seem like semantics, but to me it’s a vital distinction.”
So, it’s clear that James Ponti is really good with the written word. But since he used to be a screenwriter, we asked him how he would feel about his work being portrayed other mediums (graphic novels, movies, TV shows, etc.). “I’m all in favor of ALL OF THESE!” he said. “At the moment, though, I’m really thinking about how City Spies might work as a graphic novel. I’d love to take advantage of the globetrotting nature of the books and see the visuals of backdrops like Venice, Beijing, San Francisco, and Paris. The architecture alone would be amazing. I also think rather than simply adapting the plots of the existing novels, it would be great if the graphic novels showed different stories, perhaps their spy training or some of the missions that they talk about but as of now happen off the page. Also, I’d love a graphic novel that retold the origin stories of how each of them joined the team.”
With all their different strengths, weaknesses, and team dynamics, we wondered what would happen if Ponti put characters from his different series in competition against each other. “If I did face them off, I don’t think it would be a battle so much as a race to see who would be the first to solve a mystery,” he told us. “In its conceptual stage, City Spies actually began as a possible plot for the third Framed! book. So, I think the most natural competition would have Florian and Margaret working on a case for the FBI that overlapped one that the City Spies were working on for MI6. Eventually, I would hope they would work together. It would be great to see Florian and Kat working side by side.” He also added that he is “in the editing process for City Spies 5, which visits Washington DC (the setting for the Framed! books) and New York (the setting for the Dead City books). Despite this, I resisted the urge to have them bump into characters from those franchises. But I thought about it. A lot.”
If you or your students are fans of Ponti’s work, get excited, because there are multiple adventures coming in the future. “Starting in 2024, I’m going to alternate series and write two books a year,” he told us. “City Spies will now be joined by the Sherlock Society, a new mystery series set in Florida, which brings me back to my childhood growing up in a small beach town. It features a brother and sister whose grandfather used to be an investigative newspaper reporter. They enlist their friends to start solving the cases he couldn’t crack decades earlier.
I find the opportunity incredibly exciting and a little bit daunting, which I think the perfect blend of emotions. (After all, it’s how I make my characters feel all the time.)”