Ten years after a day of surfing with Bill Nye the Science Guy, West Tisbury resident Gregory Mone entered into a deal to co-author a series of books for children with Nye. The first of these books, “Jack and the Geniuses at the Bottom of the World,” was published in April (Amulet). Geared toward kids in grades 3 to 7, the book can be described as a science adventure story. The main characters are 12-year-old Jack, who was raised in foster homes, and his two foster siblings, both of whom are science geeks, in the best way. The three kids now live independently, and meet up with Dr. Hank Witherspoon, a character loosely modeled on Nye. They end up with Dr. Witherspoon in Antarctica, where they discover that one of Witherspoon’s colleagues is missing. For the record, Antarctica is a terrible place to go missing.
Mone, who is known as a science writer, and has written books for children and adults, moved to the Vineyard with his wife Nika and their three children two years ago. He is currently at work on the third book in the “Jack and the Geniuses” series, and will be part of a panel about writing middle-grade fiction at “Islanders Write” on August 14.
Kate Feiffer recently sat down with Mone to discuss his new book. Here are edited excerpts from their conversation.
Kate Feiffer: How did you connect with Bill Nye?
Gregory Mone: I met him when I was in L.A., about 10 years ago, reporting a story for Popular Science. I went to a cafe, and [Bill Nye] was sitting across the way, so I introduced myself, and we started talking. Somehow or another we got onto the subject of surfing. He said he was learning how to surf. I had just made plans with a friend of mine to surf the next day, and so I invited him. I figured he’d never come, but he showed up, and we went surfing together.
KF: So how did you become writing buddies in addition to surfing buddies?
GM: I started out writing for Popular Science, and a few years after that, I started writing kids’ books, these adventure novels. So I kind of had my nonfiction in one bucket and my kids’ books in another bucket. When Bill started looking for someone to work with, I saw it as a great opportunity to kind of mix those two worlds together.
KF: How does the collaboration work?
GM: We just started throwing ideas around. I’ve worked with other people before, and it doesn’t always go well, working with another writer. Usually I like to be in control of the ideas, but it’s funny, every time I suggested something that Bill disagreed with, at first I got mad, and then I thought about his suggestion, and I ended up liking his better. I was thinking of setting the book in the Arctic and he said, “No, no, we’ve got to do it down in Antarctica, down in the South Pole, at the research station there.” And you know, you always like your idea better at first, but then I thought about it and it was totally the right decision. It’s a way better setting. It’s a really kind of a funny, weird, exciting place. When I write a novel, I like to take the reader somewhere interesting. I think it’s more fun for me to write, and I think it’s more fun for the reader to be taken somewhere really cool.
KF: I loved the three main characters: the book’s narrator, his 12-year-old foster sister Ava, and 15-year-old foster brother Matt. They are precocious, inventive, quirky, and funny. Where did the inspiration for the kids come from?
GM: The inspiration for the kids came from real kids that I’ve written about for magazines. I wrote this column for Popular Science called “You Built What?” and it was about people building very strange stuff, and every so often it would be focused on a kid. It would be a 17-year-old kid or a 15-year-old kid who built something you would think a kid could never build, a submarine, a nuclear reactor, crazy stuff. When I was talking to Bill about it, I said we’ve got to have kids like this, and he jumped on it. But nothing they do is impossible. That was really important. That was one of [Bill’s] rules.
KF: How did you get started writing for children?
GM: I started out writing for adults, and I couldn’t figure out how to write my second book. At the time I was spending a lot of time with my nieces and nephews, because I didn’t have kids yet, and I would set up treasure hunts for them, and one of them said, “Uncle G, you should write a pirate’s story,” and so here I was, totally stuck with my writing, and they throw out this idea to write a pirate’s story.
KF: Amazing. You ran with it and it got published.
GM: My agent sent it out, and it got rejected everywhere. I refocused on science writing, and I wrote this book, it’s nonfiction but it’s kind of weird nonfiction. It’s called “The Truth about Santa: Wormholes, Robots, and What Really Happens on Christmas Eve.” I try to explain how Santa would do everything using technology, so time travel, wormholes, and all this stuff. I had gotten a new agent, he sent that out, and right away I got offers, and the book is going forward. Then in the middle of all that, the other agent calls back and says, “Surprisingly, Scholastic wants to buy the pirate book.” So a year later, someone found it and read it and liked it.
KF: It’s lucky for us and our children that they did!