On the eve of the publication of Rick Yancey's second book about his extraordinary ordinary hero, Alfred Kropp: The Seal of Solomon (Bloomsbury), PW caught up with the author at his home in Gainesville, Fla., where he now writes fulltime after giving up the career he chronicled in his first book, the bestselling memoir Confessions of a Tax Collector: One Man's Tour of Duty Inside the IRS.
In the dedication for your latest Alfred Kropp book, you thank your sons who "awakened the slumbering boy" in you. Tell us about that.
I got a very late start at fatherhood. I'm a late bloomer in general. It took me seven years to get through four years of college. I was five years away from 40 before I had a family and I had never been around kids much at all. All of a sudden, I was around three boys all the time. [Yancey has two stepsons, Jonathan, 21, and Joshua, 16, and a 10-year-old son, Jacob, with his wife, Sandy.] I was really thrilled about the way I could let go and be a little boy again.
Are the boys big fans of Alfred?
All three of them are and they are full of suggestions for what Alfred should do next, some of which I just can't use.
But you have more Alfred Kropp books coming. You never know—there may be a place for all those suggestions yet.
True. Everything about this book is accidental. It started out as a story about a detective. I love detective stories—Sherlock Holmes, of course, but Robert B. Parker's Spenser character, too. I thought, 'Let me try my hand at that.' So I had a character, but I didn't have a plot. Then this mysterious guy shows up in the story, and he needs help getting an object. I was totally surprised that this object turned out to be a sword, and even more surprised that the sword turned out to be Excalibur. So I gave the manuscript to my agent and he couldn't sell it. I had two genres slammed together—a detective story with a fantasy element—and nobody knew how to make it work from a marketing point of view. I was really depressed. A few months later, my agent said, 'I have an idea. What if you make your detective a kid who's in this same predicament?' Initially, I was very reluctant. It had been so long since I was 15, I didn't think I could make the voice authentic. I put it off for a couple of months, but I loved the story, so eventually I tried it and, lo and behold, it sold.
Will all of Alfred's adventures feature an ancient artifact?
That's the idea, to have this MacGuffin that everybody's after, but it's challenging to keep coming up with something original.
Well, you certainly succeeded with Seal of Solomon. Frankly, I can't think of many other middle-grade novels whose plots can be traced to ancient Jewish apocryphal writings.
Right! It's cool to find some legend or myth that hasn't already been covered to death. I didn't want to do the Holy Grail. I thought about the Spear of Destiny; that's an actual artifact — the sharp staff that was used on Jesus. Hitler got very excited about this spear tip. It was supposedly in a museum in Austria and the legend was that whoever had it was unconquerable, but there was a movie Constantine, about it, starring Keanu Reeves, so I ruled that out as already done.
So how did you come up with the Seal of Solomon?
Surfing the net. And, as you know, the seal is not a seal but a ring, and I worried about the comparison to The Lord of the Rings, too. I mean, there are so many similarities between these two rings that Tolkien must have known about Solomon's ring.
Doesn't Alfred even say something like, "I think I saw this movie," when he first hears about Solomon's ring?
He says, 'Have you paged Elijah Wood?' I thought because that movie was so popular so many kids would make the comparison so I addressed it up front.
Do you have any training as a screenwriter because your books, and I mean this in the best way possible, read a lot like screenplays.
No, what I mean is that each chapter reads like a scene, and the dialogue reads like the way movie characters talk.
That's good to hear. Ever since I was young, 14 or 15, I wondered if you could write a book that combined the visceral thrill of watching a movie with the total immersion you feel when you're inside a good book. And I had some success as a screenwriter before I began writing books. I had a screenplay in the early 1990s which won a prize at the Austin Film Festival, and I was a finalist for a Nicholl Fellowship, which is awarded to screenwriters by the MPA [The Academy of Motion Picture Arts]. So I understand the format, I understand the three-act structure, and I wanted, with Alfred, for readers to have that visceral experience. Bu I also wanted them to forget they were reading. One of the joys of a really good book is that you're so into the world of the book, you forget what you're looking at is words on a page.
Speaking of movies, what's happening with Alfred Kropp, the film?
Well, Warner Bros. picked up the rights in pre-publication. The producer is Akiva Goldman. It's gone through a couple of drafts and, last I heard, they were looking for a director.
Is this your first experience with big-time Hollywood?
It is. Tax Collector was optioned for a series with F/X but it never happened. I guess they ran into a problem trying to figure out why someone would tune in to watch a show about a guy who works for the IRS.
So you had to keep your new day job. How is Alfred's third adventure coming along?
I'm about a third done. I don't outline so I'm always turning down blind alleys. I didn't realize this time that I was in a blind alley until I was 60 pages in. So, it's more time-consuming to write this way, but if I outline I get bored or feel like I'm straitjacketed. I have to stumble upon what's going to work and then work backwards.
Does this book feature another ancient artifact?
It does. The title is The Thirteenth Skull, but if you Google "skull of doom," you'll find some very interesting material.
Is something good going to happen to Alfred? In Seal of Solomon, I really felt much more acutely how much he's suffering from the loss of his mother.
I realized after the first book that I had really given short shrift to Alfred's mother's death. That would be a really devastating event for a teenage boy. And since [in Seal of Solomon], I was writing about demons, I had to think about what Alfred's demons were. The obvious answer was that he's not only completely alone, he was old enough when his mother died to remember everything about her—how she looked, how she smelled, the things she did.
That makes me feel even sadder. Please tell me there's going to be some sort of happy ending.
Well, in the third book, there's a better developed love interest. And he gets a better guardian.