A Chat with Cynthia Voigt

The award-winning author talks about her new mystery for kids

Oct 16, 2013 | By TFK Kid Reporter Raymond Baartmans

TFK Kid Reporter Raymond Baartmans meets with author Cynthia Voigt in Portland, Oregon.

Author Cynthia Voigt’s latest novel, Mister Max: The Book of Lost Things, introduces readers to 12-year-old Max Starling, whose show-business parents love adventure. Max sets out to find his mother and father after they mysteriously disappear. The book is the first in a planned trilogy about Max.

Voigt based Max in part on her first grandson—named Max, of course! The author currently lives in Maine and loves to teach as well as write. She has published several other novels and won a Newbery award for her book Dicey's Song.

TFK Kid Reporter Raymond Baartmans met Voigt while she was visiting Portland, Oregon. He had a chance to ask her some questions about her latest work.

TFK:

What inspired you to write Mister Max: The Book of Lost Things?

CYNTHIA VOIGT:

My first grandchild was born. He’s named Max and I started calling him Mister Max. Then I decided that it was time for me to write a mystery. Mysteries test the muscles in my writing that are weak, so every now and then I write a mystery to see what I can do with those muscles. I decided I would write a mystery featuring Mister Max. Have you ever read an adventure book called The Scarlet Pimpernel? It takes place during the French Revolution. There is this British lord and he puts on several disguises and rescues French aristocrats from the guillotine, and I love that story. So I just put that into my Mister Max and scrambled it all up.

TFK:

I noticed a connection between this book and one of your other books, Homecoming. In Mister Max, Max is separated from his parents, and in Homecoming, the mom abandons Dicey and her siblings. Was that intentional? Do you see other connections between the characters in your books?

VOIGT:

Yes and yes. When you are writing books with kids and you want the kids to be the heroes, you have to get rid of the parents. The first problem for the person writing a story like that is to get rid of them in a way that doesn't seem like “you're inconvenient, go away.” So that's a real similarity between the two books—kids facing challenges and solving problems on their own. In all of my books I try to encourage kids, as well as grown-ups, to see that while they might be weaker than some powerful people, as most of us are, they can take care of themselves.

TFK:

What was your biggest challenge in writing Mister Max: The Book of Lost Things?

VOIGT:

Coming up with the plot. With a mystery, I always have to plan it out in a rough outline. All the details need to be worked out. Everybody in the story has to have a reason for doing things.

TFK:

My favorite character in this book is Max. Do you have any favorite characters in this book? Who is your favorite character out of all your books?

VOIGT:

I can't pick favorites. I even like the unlikable characters and the ones that are not good.

TFK:

Is there a certain way you come up with characters and storylines?

VOIGT:

In soccer, sometimes you've got a plan and you're running on the field, but then someone else moves one way and then your plan has to change. Making characters is a lot like that. I had my main character, Max, and he needed a grandmother. What kind of person was she going to be? Well, if Max was going to be a certain way, how would she be? Should she be a possessive grandmother or should she be an enabling grandmother? And it went back and forth for a while. It depends on what the story needs. So it’s very much like a soccer game. And sometimes, you score a goal.

TFK:

What books and authors have inspired you throughout your career?

VOIGT:

I love to read. There is always William Shakespeare, who blows the rest of us out of the water. There is also this book called The Mouse and His Child. It’s by the same author who wrote the books about Frances the Badger. But I don't want to do what other writers have done. They just give me a vision of how something can be done, if it’s done well.

TFK:

What can Mister Max fans look forward to in book 2?

VOIGT:

I'm not going to tell! More of the same stuff and some different stuff. A good story, I hope!

TFK:

What made you want to become an author?

VOIGT:

When I was in ninth grade, I had a teacher who assigned us to write a chapter just beyond the end of a book. I wrote the next chapter for a book called Idols of the King, and I wrote this long poem. I felt pretty good about it, and the teacher thought it was pretty good. The school had a graduation newspaper coming out, and they wanted to put my poem in that newspaper. My parents were proud of me, my sister was jealous of me. I thought this was great. I thought, if you're a writer you can do exactly what you want to do and everyone thinks you are wonderful. So I decided that's what I wanted to be. But it wasn't the only thing I loved. The first day I walked into a classroom I was very happy. I love teaching. It’s the only thing that's as interesting as writing.

TFK:

What is your proudest accomplishment as an author?

VOIGT:

Every now and then I get a letter from somebody that says, “I just want you to know that when I was a kid, reading one of your books and getting to know your characters made it easier for me, got me through a bad patch, or helped me become someone I wanted to be.”

TFK:

Do you have any advice for young writers?

VOIGT:

The more you do it, the better you will get. Your job is to figure out where your best work comes from. And that's true in anything—soccer, life.

TFK:

What do you hope kids will get out of reading Mister Max?

VOIGT:

I try not to think about it that way. If I think about that, I am in danger of putting in little moral bits like, “do this,” or “you should do that.” Books ask questions, and I would like the readers of my books to ask a lot of questions, like “What would I do in this situation?” and “What do I think of what this character chose to do?”