If becoming a writer wasn't technically a lifelong ambition for Matthew Kirby, it's pretty close. As a third-grader, Kirby was faced with (and bored by) the prospect of a "tell me what you did over the summer" writing assignment. So he took matters into his own hands. "I turned to the teacher and said, ‘Is it all right if I make it up?' To her credit she said, ‘Sure, go ahead.' "

That foray into fiction was the first step in a journey that resulted in the publication of The Clockwork Three, a middle-grade novel published by Scholastic Press. Set in an unnamed American city in an era of automatons and seemingly magical violins, Kirby's historical fantasy moves among the stories of three children—Giuseppe, Frederick, and Hannah—as their lives intertwine and they uncover secrets about themselves, their families, and their city. In a starred review, PW called it a "riveting historical fantasy."

The Clockwork Three nods toward Kirby's love of history (he was a history major as an undergraduate at Utah State University, before going on to earn graduate degrees in child psychology) as well as the books that he read as a child—by authors whose work he calls "touchstones" in his life: J.R.R. Tolkien, Elizabeth George Speare, Natalie Babbitt, and Ursula K. Le Guin. "My parents gave me the Earthsea trilogy for Christmas one year," says Kirby. "When I read A Wizard of Earthsea it blew my mind. I knew I wanted to do what Miss Le Guin was doing. One of the greatest moments of my journey thus far was being able to send her a copy of my book."

Kirby, whose father served in the Navy, was born in Utah but grew up all over the U.S.; he now lives in suburban Salt Lake City with his wife of 10 years, Azure, and works full-time as a school psychologist. Kirby credits his wife for pushing him to pursue writing. "She knew I had this passion and this dream. She's the one who encouraged me to go for it. She makes sure my writing time is mine. It can be a challenge to juggle two full-time jobs." Kirby writes for two hours every evening during the week, more on the weekends, and much more during summer vacation, when he spends "six to eight hours a day" writing.

While Kirby initially tried his hand at writing for adults ("mostly short fiction"), in recent years he's turned his attention to children's books. "I realized the books I really loved reading were books for younger readers," he says. "And the ideas I was getting were better suited for a younger audience." He enrolled in a local writers' workshop, where he met his future agent, Stephen Fraser of the Jennifer DeChiara Literary Agency.

Kirby and Fraser worked on The Clockwork Three for "about two years," Kirby says, getting it ready for submission. It was time well spent: upon sending the manuscript out, they had a pre-emptive offer within a week from Scholastic senior editor Lisa Sandell. "We work really well together," the author says of Sandell, calling theirs a relationship of "trust and mutual respect." After nabbing The Clockwork Three, Scholastic (in a separate deal) signed up two additional books from Kirby: a novel about Vikings due in fall 2011, and a third book scheduled for fall 2012.

So far, Kirby says he's gratified by the various aspects of having his first novel out in the world—from meeting librarians and booksellers at ALA and SCIBA conferences to seeing kids walking down the hallways of his school with a copy of his book, having checked it out from the school library. The biggest surprise? Getting his first piece of fan mail—a letter from a child that "indicated that the book inspired [the sender] to want to be a writer." For someone who got his first nudge toward becoming a writer at a very young age, it's hard to imagine a better response.