Revenge of the Grown-Up Nerds

Derek Benz and J.S. Lewis might be just another couple of writers cashing in on the Harry Potter craze with their new young adult novel, The Revenge of the Shadow King. But unlike most post-Harry fantasy writers, the Phoenix authors have struck a chord with critics and adult readers alike with their story of preteens battling mythical monsters in the "perfectly boring town" of Avalon, Minnesota. The thirtysomething writers paused from their day jobs to chat about post-nerd nerdiness and their memories of Middle Earth.

Robrt Pela: I guess there's a long history of middle-aged people writing books for prepubescents. But why'd you do it?

J.S. Lewis: We're creatures of nostalgia. We've been friends since we were very young, and we used to get together and play Lord of the Rings when we were small.

Pela: So you were nerds.

Lewis: Sort of. We just were into the whole Tolkien and Narnia thing when we were kids. And we'd go out into the woods behind our houses and pretend to be in Middle Earth. And we always knew we'd end up doing a story together. It was a lifelong dream.

Benz: But we thought we'd end up as comic-book writers.

Pela: Sort of grown-up nerds.

Benz: Like Jon said, we're creatures of nostalgia. We have families and day jobs and we balance our checkbooks. But we're still kids. I really believe that most people are still kids, deep down inside. In one small corner of their mind, at least. So it was one of the most natural things to do for us to write our childhood fantasies into a book.

Pela: How does one write a book with someone else? I can barely address an envelope if there's someone in the room with me.

Benz: It helped that Jon and I have been friends since we were born. As long as I've had a memory, he's been there.

Lewis: We'd really been doing it all along, because back when we thought we were going to be comic-book artists, we liked writing backstories for each of the comic-book characters we created. That was the genesis for this project. And because we've been best friends forever, there was a certain trust factor. It's like you do a drawing and you put it on the fridge, and your best friend comes over and messes it up with a Sharpee.

Pela: Exactly. That sounds horrible!

Lewis: You have to check your ego at the door. I would write something, then send it to Jon, and he would do a complete edit. It was almost like a painting; by the time we were done, there were layers and layers of paint on the canvas.

Pela: I enjoyed your book, but the whole young-adult-novel thing says, "Run far away if you're 20 or older!" And please don't tell me you wrote a book anyone can read.

Benz: Well, we knew we were writing for ages 8 to 12, but we really focused on writing the book we wanted to read. We figured we'd let the publishers determine how to market it.

Lewis: We're sort of stuck living in the years between 1984 and 1986. We still listen to the music from back then, and still love the movies and stuff from that time. We wanted to capture those moments from our youth for anyone of any age.

Pela: People are going to say you're just another couple of writers cashing in on the Harry Potter thing.

Lewis: We love Harry Potter, The Lord of the Rings, Narnia -- all those books. They're inspirational. But most of them are set in England or in a pseudo-English setting. We wanted to connect with kids in the heartland -- not one coast or another, but a more Norman Rockwell or Mayberry kind of place that American kids could relate to.

Pela: You took three years to write this book, but only six months to write the sequel. Does that mean the sequel is going to suck?

Lewis: I hope not. I hope it means we're getting better at writing. The first one took a long time because I had two daughters born while we were writing it. Now Derek and I live two doors down from each other, and it's easier to get together to write.

Benz: I'm just glad to see it's out there. I even bought a couple of copies myself the other day -- off eBay! It was really kind of an honor to be on eBay. It's like we've really made it.