Mysteries in middle school
Rebecca Stead, the Newbery-winning author of When You Reach Me, has written another heartfelt and funny novel set in New York City. In Liar & Spy, an awkward seventh grader, Georges, moves to a new apartment building and is recruited to join the Spy Club, run by a mysterious boy named Safer. Along with his little sister, Candy, Safer shows Georges that everything in life is not as it seems.
In a Q&A with BookPage, Stead shares the top qualities in a spy—and tells us if lying is ever okay.
Were you nervous about living up to high expectations for your work after you won the Newbery? How did you prepare yourself for writing again?
The bitter truth is that writing always makes me nervous, because to write well I have to expose my innermost self while simultaneously trying to entertain people. It’s a little like dancing in public, without music. Newbery attention makes it harder only because more people are watching.
And I don’t ever prepare myself to write. I have no writing routine. What I do is walk around feeling frustrated that I am not writing, and that frustration builds until finally I start writing. Reading something wonderful is usually what allows me to begin. Something that opens me up and makes me think “oh, what the heck. I may as well go for it.”
Which character do you most identify with in Liar & Spy?
Probably Candy. She is a watcher. And she feels responsible for the people she loves. But if you ask me again tomorrow, I might have a different answer.
What are the most useful qualities in a spy?
An observant personality, the ability to work alone and a good sense of direction. The sense of direction would be my downfall.
Is it ever okay to tell a lie?
Yes. To be kind, for instance, or to save your life. But I believe that most people probably lie for lesser reasons, almost every day.
Have you ever been tempted to spy on someone or ever caught a glimpse of someone surreptitiously?
Not deliberately. But I live in New York City, where there are a lot of lit windows at night.
A spy needs to have an observant personality, the ability to work alone and a good sense of direction.
When you start writing a book, do you know how it will end? There are twists and turns in your novel, but they feel so natural once the reader figures out what’s going on.
I know very little at the beginning. I have a sense of what I want to get at, but few clear ideas about how I’m going to get there. I write slowly. I don’t think about plot because when I think about plot my mind goes blank and I feel desperate. Instead I think about which characters attract my interest, because where there is interest, there is potential for emotion, and where there is emotion, there is plot. Sometimes I just stop writing for a while, and wait for ideas to bubble up. That’s nerve-wracking. And most people would say it’s the wrong way to go about it.
You have a lot of fun with words and messages in this book, from Georges’ notes with Scrabble tiles to wacky fortune cookie fortunes. Does this interest extend to your real life?
Well, I don’t have the patience for Scrabble, most days. I like Bananagrams. My notes are boring and practical. But I love thinking about why things are the way they are, and how they might be different. I guess you could say that I love to question the premise, especially when I’m writing.
When you were in middle school, where did you sit in the cafeteria? Like Georges, did you ever have to remind yourself to look at the big picture and realize that social awkwardness will (hopefully) pass?
I can’t even remember what my middle-school cafeteria looked like. We mostly went out for lunch. But middle school was the only time in my life when I was regularly called names—names that had to do with how I looked, or what I wore, or who my friends were. I remember the feeling of walking down the hall and not knowing when some verbal or physical jab might be thrown at me. But I was lucky—I had one good friend. So I was always basically okay.
Safer and Candy are allowed to name themselves. If your parents had let you name yourself, what would you have chosen?
Probably something awful. I don’t have a middle name, and when I was little I used to try to think of good ones. For a while I decided my middle name was Mario, pronounced ma-REE-oh. And when I was about six, my middle name was Amanda, because I was trying desperately to please a girl named Amanda. I remember eating Chap-Stik when she asked me to. Apparently I would do anything for her.
What’s the last book you read that you really want to recommend to someone else?
The Orphan Master’s Son, by Adam Johnson. It’s a beautifully written, amazing (and fictional) story about one man’s life in North Korea. World-building at its best.
Read a review of Liar & Spy.