Since 1994, Connecticut author Tony Abbott has published more than 70 books for young readers. These include standalone hardcover novels Kringle, Firegirl and The Postcard, as well as a handful of paperback series, among them The Secrets of Droon, which has sold more than 10 million copies through Scholastic’s trade, school book club and book fair channels. His new paperback series with Scholastic, The Haunting of Derek Stone, debuts with City of the Dead, followed by Bayou Dogs. The 34th Droon installment is also due, In the City of Dreams.
When did you first realize you wanted to write for children?
I know this sounds corny, but I didn’t really think about writing for children until I first started reading books to my oldest daughter, who is now almost 23. Reading to her when she was young, I realized that the children’s book industry was very different than it was when I was growing up in the 1950s and ’60s. I discovered writing I never knew existed—books by James Marshall, William Steig, William Joyce. At that point, I’d been writing for a long time. I’d published poetry in journals and had written book reviews for magazines and newspapers, and had written a little fiction. But I really loved the books I was reading to my daughter and they made me want to write children’s books.
So how did you tackle that task?
I went to as many conferences as I could, and learned a lot from editors and writers there. And I took some writing classes, including a particularly useful one taught by Patricia Reilly Giff at her son’s bookstore, The Dinosaur’s Paw, in Fairfield, Conn. It took me several years, but I finally worked up a story and wrote a manuscript that I sent out to some publishers. One contacted me right away: David Gale, who was then at HarperTrophy. He accepted my book, which became Danger Guys.
You’ve called Danger Guys “the cornerstone” of your career. In what way?
This book really opened up doors for me in many ways. I had lots and lots of ideas for books and wanted to be a prolific writer, and it was this book that let me know that I really could write books—and get them published. It was a great boost to my writing ego. And it led me to get an agent, George Nicholson, who was at HarperCollins when Danger Guys came out in 1994, before he moved to the other side of the counter and became an agent at Sterling Lord.
Danger Guys and its sequels are adventure stories. What made you turn to fantasy?
When I was growing up I didn’t read a lot of fantasy. But then in high school, I did become interested in some fantasy, including Tales from the Arabian Nights. I loved the Eastern, genie, magic-carpet sort of fantasy. And after I published the Weird Zone, a science fiction comedy series, with Scholastic, I began talking to my editor, Craig Walker [who passed away in 2007 after more than 20 years at Scholastic], about other projects, and he suggested I try fantasy. So I wrote a fantasy, which turned out to be for older readers. Craig wisely advised that I take it down to a second- or third-grade level, so I rewrote it. And that became the first Secrets of Droon book.
Were you surprised by the success of that and the subsequent novels in the series?
Yes, it is all kind of amazing to me. The series just took off. The first books came out at around the same time as the first Harry Potter novel, and there was certainly an upsweep of interest in fantasy around then. And now the Droon universe has become so enormous—there are 50 or so characters and more than 40 settings—that there are lots of possibilities for more stories. In fact, I just finished the 40th book.
What sparked the idea for your new series?
Three or four years ago, Craig suggested I write another fantasy series, but at the time there was some concern that fantasy was leveling out and that a new series might be a problem to sell. So I went back to the drawing board and had this idea for a ghost story. I tweaked it a little, and then a lot, and finally it became the first novel about Derek Stone. It’s a story set in the deep South, about a boy who is haunted in several different ways—not only by ghosts, but by his own past.
How is this series a departure from your earlier writing?
With these stories, I explore the spooky side of life, which I love doing. Over the course of the series I create scenes that seem normal, but one little element will throw it off and make the scene horrifying. This is new and different for me. And the Louisiana setting, with the bayous and southern plantations, gives me the space to explore the southern gothic tradition. I love to give each of these book’s settings a character, a personality that becomes part of the story.
How many books will the series entail?
At this point there are four scheduled. I’m writing the fourth book now, and the story arc I started with more or less comes to a close in this book. But I may well take the series further. Derek is one character I don’t want to leave behind just yet. His world is so spooky and dark that he can use as many friends as he can get.
Will you continue to balance series writing with your more realistic standalone novels?
As much as I love writing fantasy and ghost stories, there is a special place in my heart for realistic fiction. It lets me use a different part of my writing brain. I have four or five novels that I want to write and I’ve started several—I have maybe 30 pages of one, maybe 50 pages of another. I never have a shortage of ideas, so I guess I’m blessed—or cursed.
Cursed? Do story ideas keep you up at night?
No, luckily they don’t. I know Stephen King has said that at a certain time of day, he puts a paperweight on whatever story he’s writing and walks away, leaving it behind for the day. I’m also able to do that. At five or six o’clock, I can say, “Okay, that’s it, I’m done for the day.” I close up shop and let my mind recharge overnight.
Given your lengthy list of published books, that seems to be a successful strategy.
Yes, it does seem to work for me. And that way I am blessed.
The Haunting of Derek Stone: City of the Dead by Tony Abbott. Scholastic, $4.99 paper ISBN 978-0-545-03429-6