ALL FOUR KIDS: An Interview with Laura Marx Fitzgerald, Author of UNDER THE EGG

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Today we’re talking with OneFourKidLit author Laura Marx Fitzgerald, whose middle grade mystery UNDER THE EGG releases today! If you are a fan of Chasing Vermeer or From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, then UNDER THE EGG is the book for you.

18060008ABOUT UNDER THE EGG:

Only two people know about the masterpiece hidden in the Tenpenny home—and one of them is dead.

The other is Theodora Tenpenny. Theo is responsible for tending the family’s two-hundred-year-old town house, caring for a flock of unwieldy chickens, and supporting her fragile mother, all on her grandfather’s legacy of $463. So, when Theo discovers a painting in the house that looks like a priceless masterpiece, she should be happy about it. But Theo’s late grandfather was a security guard at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and if the painting is as valuable as she thinks it is, then her grandfather wasn’t who she thought he was.

With the help of some unusual new friends, Theo’s search for answers takes her all over Manhattan and introduces her to a side of the city—and her grandfather—that she never knew. To solve the mystery, she’ll have to abandon her hard-won self-reliance and build a community, one serendipitous friendship at a time.

Amazon / IndieBound / Barnes and Noble / Books-a-Million / Powell’s

SPOILER ALERT: If you like to read your mysteries without any hints to what lies ahead, then bookmark this page and go read UNDER THE EGG right now, then come back to Laura’s interview when you’re done. We’ll wait for you.

JCB: Congratulations on your debut, Laura! How did you come up with the idea for UNDER THE EGG? 

LMF: I had an idea to write an art history mystery—with time travel! Fortunately an editor friend talked me out of the time travel, but gave me some middle-grade fiction to read for ideas.

Around this time I was watching Antiques Roadshow and thinking about what made it so compelling. Yes, there’s always that final moment where you see dollar signs in the owner’s eyes. But I saw too how excited people were about the path the object had taken to their living rooms. People were so proud to tell how their grandfather had met FDR, or how their aunt always hid this painting in her boudoir, or how they themselves haggled this rug down to a nickel. The story wasn’t just in the object’s creation—it was in the personal history each item held for the owner.

At the same time, I was reading a fantastic book by Edward Dolnick called The Forger’s Spell, when these three lines jumped out at me:

The easiest test of an old master—and the one test almost certain to be carried out—is to dab the surface with rubbing alcohol. In a genuinely old painting, the surface will be hard, and the alcohol will have no effect. If the painting is new, the alcohol will dissolve a bit of paint, and the tester’s cotton swab will come up smudged with color.

I wondered: what if someone intentionally painted over a valuable painting, with the plan to later remove the top layer? All those Antiques Roadshow questions came back to me—who made it, and how did it get here?—and UNDER THE EGG was born.

JCB: UNDER THE EGG incorporates so much cool history, ie. the Monuments Men, in such an interesting way. I’m assuming writing this novel involved a lot of research. How did you go about doing your research? Did the writing come first or the research?

LMF: For me, the research always comes first! If I’m interested in a topic, I start out by reading everything I can find on it. For UNDER THE EGG, I read books and watched documentaries on (spoiler alert!) art theft, art forgery, Raphael and the Italian Renaissance in general, looting in World War II, the Monuments Men, paint chemistry, the history of Greenwich Village, urban homesteading, pickling, and recycled art. (Thank you, Brooklyn Public Library, and your generous check-out policies!) I also made multiple trips to the Met and the Center for Jewish History to consult their archives.

Throughout the research process, I picked up bits and bobs of details I found interesting. Once I had a story in mind, the trick was weaving them together.

By the way, many sources are linked on my website for readers who want to know the true stories behind the book. Go to: http://www.lauramarxfitzgerald.com/#!resources/c14j5

JCB: Was it difficult figuring out what facts to weave into the story and what to leave out?

LMF: The writing process is a (and I cringe as I write this) chess game. With each decision you make, you gain and lose others.  So there were many, many fun ideas I had to leave aside.  For example, inspired by that great book The Forger’s Spell, I had an early idea that Jack was forging paintings with the help of his friend Sal’s brick pizza oven. (Read The Forger’s Spell to find out how it would have worked.) But once I decided Jack was a thief and not a forger, that idea got ejected. Maybe you’ll see it in another novel!

JCB: Beyond the history woven throughout UNDER THE EGG, it is rich with so much more–memorable characters, the budding friendship of Theo and Bodhi, the details of big city life, the attention to how Theo lives. Was it difficult juggling all these elements as you drafted the novel? Did you see them all as a part of the story from the beginning, or did some evolve in later drafts?

LMF: The final draft changed little from the first (except Madame Dumont was first called Miss Wickens; her path to New York changed quite a bit). I was always trying to tell a mystery-within-a-contemporary-story, like one of my favorite books, Possession by A.S.Byatt. In that book, two graduate students slowly uncover the hidden love between two Victorian poets, with clues found both in historic documents and the authors’ poems themselves. As the mystery unfolds, the grad students fall in love, and this “front story” is every bit as compelling as the historic backdrop.

In UNDER THE EGG, Theo and Bodhi are my love story, without the romantic interest. The way I see it, their relationship propels the investigation forward, even for readers who may not be terribly interested in art. And their differences, which make for a crackling, opposites-attract friendship, are also crucial to the investigation. Bodhi is the tech-savvy sleuth who gets jazzed by every new gizmo on the market, while Theo is the one who reads, reflects, and looks deeply. Both approaches are necessary to solve the mystery.

Their relationship—and their travels around the city—are what keep the story alive and moving.  Otherwise it would just be the story of a girl at the library on Google. In other words, my life.

JCB: We share two of the same favorite middle grade books: The Westing Game and From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. What other middle-grade books have influenced you as a writer?

LMF: I absolutely loved (and still love) contemporary classics like Anastasia Krupnik, Harriet the Spy, and When You Reach Me, as well as historical fiction like the Little House series, All-of-a-Kind Family, and The Borrowers.

Although I only discovered it in the last few years, and although it’s technically literary fiction, there is one other book was hugely influential in writing UNDER THE EGG. I’m talking about True Grit, long cast as a John Wayne-Western in most minds, but really a fantastic YA story with the most unique narrative voice I’ve ever encountered. Heroic, irascible Mattie Ross was an important model for Theo, and I’d love to see more middle-grade and YA readers discover her.

JCB: What are you working on now?

LMF: Another art history mystery. This one involves a group of kids working to solve an art heist and uncovering a much darker crime.

JCB: As this community is fearless, we’d like to know something you are afraid of and something you are not afraid of?

LMF: I’m proud to say that I am not at all afraid of snakes. But I am very, very, very afraid of spiders.

Thank you for the interview, Laura! And congratulations again on UNDER THE EGG!

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ABOUT LAURA MARX FITZGERALD:

In writing UNDER THE EGGLaura Marx Fitzgerald drew on her study of art history at Harvard and Cambridge Universities. Though she grew up Down South, today she lives in Brooklyn with her husband and two kids (and a dog, if the two kids keep begging).

Jennifer BertmanJennifer Chambliss Bertman is the author of the forthcoming middle-grade mystery, BOOK SCAVENGER (Christy Ottaviano Books/Henry Holt/Macmillan, 2015). BOOK SCAVENGER launches a contemporary mystery series that involves cipher-cracking, book-hunting, and a search for treasure through the streets of San Francisco. Jennifer earned her MFA in Creative Writing from Saint Mary’s College, Moraga, CA, and is represented by Ammi-Joan Paquette of EMLA.
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