I’m pleased to turn my blog over today to Jeffrey Westhoff, author of a wonderful new YA spy novel, The Boy Who Knew Too Much, coming on June 1, in paperback and e-book editions from Intrigue Publishing. You can connect with Jeffrey at all the usual places, on facebook https://www.facebook.com/authorJeffreyWesthoff, and on twitter @JeffreyWesthoff or @Knew_Too_Much. Jeffrey blogs at http://culturespy.tumblr.com/. And his website is http://www.jeffreywesthoff.com/. Anyway, time for that later; here’s Jeffrey’s guest post.
When I gathered the confidence to pitch my teenage spy novel to agents and publishers, this is the spiel I used:
“The Boy Who Knew Too Much” is an action-charged YA adventure that blends the sweep of “Treasure Island” with the thrills of James Bond.
While on a school trip to Europe, Milwaukee teenager Brian Parker wants just a taste of the glamor and excitement of his favorite spy novels. Brian gets way more than a taste, though, when he stumbles across a wounded spy in a Lucerne alley.
The man’s dying words catapult Brian into a desperate chase across the continent. America’s latest super weapon is at stake, and everyone from a rogue CIA officer to a sadistic criminal mastermind is after it – and Brian. New enemies emerge at every turn, but Brian also finds a welcome ally, a beautiful French girl who loves the Ramones and is handy with a blast of pepper spray.
Brian faces a deadly path, but reading all those spy novels has taught him a few tricks of the trade. And they just might save his life.
The plot lends itself toward several shorthand descriptions. One is “It’s a teenage Six Days of the Condor” (or Three Days of the Condor if, like most people, you are more familiar with the movie). Another is “It’s a modern Treasure Island with spies instead of pirates.”
Then comes the quickie description that The Boy Who Knew Too Much is about a teenage James Bond fanatic who stumbles into a real-life spy story. I have to veer away from the James Bond talk immediately, though, because Brian Parker is not a James Bond fan. He has never heard of James Bond. For various reasons, I decided my book would take place in a world exactly like our own except that there is no character called James Bond. The fictional superspy my hero idolizes, and the one who assumes the cultural significance of 007, is Foster Blake – a name I invented in high school the first time I thought about writing a spy novel. (You can learn more about the Foster Blake backstory at http://www.jeffreywesthoff.com).
BIRTH OF A BOOK
It embarrasses me to tell people how long it took me to finish the book, so I don’t. But I do remember the moment the book was born, and I think it makes a good story that I hope to tell at future book signings. When I was still working full-time at a newspaper I had the idea to write a feature story about teenage spies, such as Alex Rider and Charlie Higson’s Young James Bond. The article fizzled out, but while I was working on it I attended an appearance by my novelist friend Laura Caldwell at Read Between the Lynes bookstore in Woodstock, Ill. I asked Laura if she knew anyone writing a teenage spy novel.
She misunderstood me and asked, “You’re writing a teenage spy novel?”
I said no I wasn’t, and she replied, “You should!”
And I said, “You’re right, I should!”
It’s a long drive home from Woodstock to Palatine, the suburb where I live, and during that drive I pondered what sort of teenage spy novel I should write. No point in trying to write a teen version of James Bond. Anthony Horowitz had already done that with Alex Rider and he did a pretty damned good job of it. If I went that route, the best I could hope for was to create the teenage Napoleon Solo.
The big problem was finding a way to involve a teenager in an espionage plot. Other authors have solved that problem with stories of spies in training. There are at least four series featuring spy high schools and one featuring a spy orphanage, but that concept seemed silly to me and, besides, I wanted to write something that hadn’t been written yet.
HITCHCOCK, REDFORD AND ME
Then it occurred to that no one had done the Hitchcock thing with a teenage spy story, to take an ordinary kid and shove him into a spy caper against his will. The title The Boy Who Knew Too Much popped into my head, and I was rolling!
OK, but how could the average teenager survive in the rough world of international espionage? My mind jumped to a scene from Three Days of the Condor. You may recall that Robert Redford’s character made his living reading spy novels and analyzing them for the CIA. Redford finds himself hunted after his co-workers are killed and he soon outwits a hit man sent to finish the job. The scene I remembered concerned a group of CIA honchos in a boardroom fretting about Redford’s escape. A woman asks how a lowly analyst knew how to turn the tables on an assassin. The big boss, played by the ever-authoritative John Houseman, replies simply: “He reads.”
That was it! My hero would be a kid who can hold his own in a spy story because he’s an espionage buff who has read dozens upon dozens of spy novels. And did I know anyone like that?
In high school!
I was definitely getting excited about the book now! While I was still driving home, I had another memory that would shape the book. When I was 16 I went on a school-sponsored trip to Europe. While I was crossing a bridge in Lucerne I walked past a dull-looking man in a hat and raincoat and I was shaken with the absolute certainty the man was a spy. Don’t ask me why. I just knew it. “What if,” I asked myself while driving home that night, “I came across that man five minutes later and he was dying in an alleyway, killed by an enemy spy?” Boom — chapter one!
By the time I got home that night I had a title, a concept, a main character and my first chapter. I wish I could say the rest of the book came as swiftly, but it did not. The research took longer than I expected, and periods of self-doubt and lethargy interrupted the writing and revisions. But I did finish, and then I had to sell it. Gulp!
For many years I have attended a mystery writers’ conference in Rosemont, Ill., called Love Is Murder. At the 2014 conference I screwed my courage to the sticking place and signed up for pitch-a-thon or pitch-a-palooza or whatever they call it. This is sort of like speed dating where you are given four minutes to sell your book to agents or publishers. As an introvert, I dreaded the process. But I used my spiel it went well.
One of the publishers accepting pitches was Intrigue Publishing, an outfit out of Maryland. A few months later, after I received my first round of rejection emails and letters from agents, Intrigue offered to buy The Boy Who Knew Too Much. I was wearing my favorite James Bond T-shirt that day. I made a trip down to the basement that morning to take it out of winter storage. Maybe my fashion sense knew something fateful was in the air.
So here it is, almost exactly a year later and The Boy Who Knew Too Much is rushing toward its June 1 publication date. It’s an exciting time, but a nerve-wracking one, too. I’ve never sold a book before. I hope I do it successfully, because I believe my book is something special. I have written the novel I wish existed when I was 13 or 14 (not that I minded those Ian Fleming books I devoured at the time). The Boy Who Knew Too Much is a grand adventure with excitement and romance. Brian Parker is a hero you can root for from the first page. He faces some truly scary villains, and finds a wonderful girl, Larissa. In their different ways, the villains and Larissa change Brian’s outlook on life.
The Boy Who Knew Too Much may carry the YA tag, but I suspect middle-age James Bond fans will enjoy it as well. After all, it was written by one.