Welcome to 5 Questions, our recurring interview series where we reach out to puzzle constructors, game designers, writers, filmmakers, musicians, artists, and puzzle enthusiasts from all walks of life!
It’s all about exploring the vast and intriguing puzzle community by talking to those who make puzzles and those who enjoy them! (Click here to check out previous editions of 5 Questions!)
And I’m excited to welcome Elizabeth Singer Hunt as our latest 5 Questions interviewee!
Elizabeth Singer Hunt is the author behind the globe-spanning Jack Stalwart books, a young adult series featuring a nine-year-old secret agent, with over two million books sold to her credit! She’s recently expanded into the world of puzzles with the publication of the Secret Agent Training Manual, a terrific introductory guide to codecracking and concealment.
Anagrams, ciphers, scytales, and encoding with other letters, numbers, or symbols are all explained with easy-to-understand instructions and plenty of examples. She even provides sample encryptions to crack, letting readers practice their newfound skills and techniques, giving young readers the chance to become their own Jack Stalwart-style secret agents!
Elizabeth was gracious enough to take some time out to talk to us, so without further ado, let’s get to the interview!
5 Questions for Elizabeth Singer Hunt
1. What inspired the adventures of Jack Stalwart?
As a young girl, I struggled to read. It wasn’t so much that reading was a problem for me. I couldn’t find any books that I identified with. I grew up in a small town in Louisiana, and spent most of my weekends fishing, crabbing, playing with frogs and tossing around footballs. Basically, I was a tomboy. It was difficult to find books that I could relate to since most of the ‘girl’ books were about friendship issues, horses and fairies.
At around that same time, Raiders of the Lost Ark opened in theatres. That movie introduced me to archaeology and adventure, and showed me that there was a world outside of Louisiana. As a southern girl, I had no idea that places like ‘Nepal’ and ‘Peru’ even existed!
When I was in my late twenties, I decided to take a crack at writing a children’s book series. I drew upon my childhood experiences and inspirations to create the series’ main character, nine-year-old Jack Stalwart. Jack moonlights as a junior secret agent for the Global Protection Force, or GPF. In every book, he’s sent on a mission to an exotic locale in order to protect one of the world’s most precious treasures.
Millions of children around the world have fallen in love with Jack, largely because they identify with him and want to be like him. He’s like a pint-size Indiana Jones, sprinkled with a bit of James Bond and written for the nine-year-old ‘reluctant reader’ me.
Did they, in turn, inspire the Secret Agent Training Manual, or was that meant to be a standalone creation?
Over the years, I have received thousands of emails from children asking how they can become a secret agent like Jack. So I thought it would be fun to create a series that introduced them to basic secret agent/spy skills. Code-breaking seemed a natural place to start! The first book in the series is called How to Make and Break Top Secret Messages. Subsequent books will discuss basic spy craft and the history of intelligence gathering.
2. Are you a puzzle fan yourself, or did your aptitude with encryption and codebreaking puzzles come out of your research and work as a writer?
A little bit of both! I have always had an affinity and aptitude for word puzzles. My favorite game growing up was Boggle and to this day, I am the family Boggle Champion! Recently, my children and I discovered Bananagrams.
It’s right up my alley, since it relies on the ability to quickly arrange and re-arrange letter tiles into words. That being said, I didn’t know too much about the world of cryptography (except for some of the basics) until I began researching for this book.
Do you have a favorite method of encryption or one that didn’t make it into the SATM?
I am fascinated by all of the methods of encryption featured in the book because each has its use depending upon the situation. I suppose my favorite is the ‘cipher’ because it’s ever-changing and difficult for the average person to solve without a key.
3. Let’s talk a little bit about your writing process, since composing a novel is a puzzle in itself. Do you start with characters, plot, certain scenes in your head already? How do you approach the process of writing a book?
Good question! It depends upon the type of book that I am writing.
For my (fiction) Jack Stalwart chapter book series, I have a fairly unorthodox way of writing. I establish the setting, mission and villain and then I start writing! Everything is free-flowing, and little is planned. I love movies and am extremely influenced by film, so in a way I am writing as though I am watching a film play out before my eyes.
For the (non-fiction) Secret Agent Training Manual book, things needed to be a lot more structured. Research was done, notes were taken and the book was organized from the most basic cryptographic methods to those that took a bit more time and thought to decode. Most of this book was handwritten, while many of my fiction books are typed onto a computer screen from the get-go.
4. What’s next for Elizabeth Singer Hunt?
I’m excited to say that Costco is planning an exclusive nationwide launch of the Jack Stalwart series in volume form next month, i.e. in April of 2016. That means that children across the country will be able to enjoy the Jack Stalwart series four books at a time in a specially produced keepsake volume.
Besides this news and the launch of the Secret Agent Training Manual book, I’ve also recently published the first book in a new middle grade series called Swamp Mysteries: The Treasure of Jean Lafitte. The series chronicles the adventures of four twelve-year-old friends as they solve paranormal mysteries in the swamps and bayous of Louisiana. It’s a bit like Scooby-Doo with a southern twist.
5. If you could give the readers, writers, and puzzle fans in the audience one piece of advice, what would it be?
As my mother always says, “There’s always a solution to everything. Persevere!”
When I first had the idea for the Jack Stalwart series, I shopped it around to various agents and publishers and they promptly rejected it. I could have felt sorry for myself and given up. But I believed in the idea and in myself. So, I found a solution to the problem. I published it myself, i.e. hired an editor, illustrator, designer and found a local printer to produce the books. I printed thousands of Jack Stalwart books, and sold them personally to as many booksellers as I could find.
After five months of hard work, the series caught the attention of an agent and the head of children’s fiction at Random House UK. (I was living in England at the time). Random House acquired the Jack Stalwart series, and commissioned me to write a total of fourteen books.
The rest as they say is history. Had I listened to the naysayers, Jack Stalwart never would have existed and I never would have had a career as an author. Thankfully, I took my mother’s advice. It’s the same advice that I would give to anyone with a dream. Never give up. Be resourceful, and persevere.
A huge thank you to Elizabeth for her time. Be sure to visit her website for updates on her latest projects. I cannot wait to see what she has in store for us next!
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