Paul Ferrante's T.J. Jackson Mysteries are young adult novels that combine dynamic writing and compelling plots with history, paranormal, and even some romance. In other words, a little bit of everything and something for everyone.
The first in the series, "Last Ghost at Gettysburg" was published early in 2013 and introduced us to T.J. Jackson, his adopted cousin LouAnne, and his friend Bortnicker. The three teens are drawn into the investigation of a murder at Gettysburg involving the ghost of a Confederate soldier. "Spirits of the Pirate House," released September 2013, follows the nascent paranormal investigators down to beautiful Bermuda, where they face another mystery (warning: Ferrante's alluring travel itinerary will leave you hankering for a trip to the island). Coming April 17, the third book, "Roberto's Return," will take the gang to the Baseball Hall of Fame, where they're called in to investigate—what else?—a ghost sighting.
Recently, Ferrante, who also teaches middle school in Westport, spoke with me about the books, his process, how his students have responded to his success, and what comes next for the popular trio.
The setting and plot for "Last Ghost at Gettysburg" was inspired by an episode of the TV show "The Wild, Wild West" and a family trip to Gettysburg. What inspired the setting and plot of "Spirits of the Pirate House"? How did Bermuda, pirates, and spirits come to you?
There are three inspirations for this book that come to mind.
The first was a coffee table-style book, something along the lines of "The Golden Book of Pirates" that featured brief biographies of the major Caribbean buccaneers and wonderful illustrations that made the history come to life. I read this book over and over in elementary school. Then came a reading of Robert Louis Stevenson's "Treasure Island," which captivated me to the point where I ended up including it in my middle school English curriculum for many years. Finally, there was an issue of National Geographic magazine published in the 1960s that chronicled treasure hunter Robert Marx's exploration of the sunken city of Port Royal, Jamaica, which was more or less the pirate capital of the Caribbean until it fell into the sea during an earthquake in 1692.
All of these inspirations led me to become interested in the pirate era and underwater archaeology. To that end, I earned my SCUBA certification so I could go wreck diving. Bermuda's clear waters and hundreds of documented wrecks, some of which I've dived on, made it a natural for my book's setting. The process by which the boys acquire their certification and then make a fantastic archaeological pirate find is the dream of every diver who loves history and adventure. I wanted to create a modern day "Treasure Island," but what I DIDN'T want was a story full of pirate clichés and old standbys like a treasure map.
As with your first book, "Spirits of the Pirate House" combines fun, authentic banter between the teen protagonists with an addictive plot that has a little of everything—mystery, paranormal, romance. How do you get the pacing to work with so many elements? What's your process like?
For every book, I make a list of "non-essential elements" to add the basic frame of the story. One example is the Beatles trivia Bortnicker is always throwing at LouAnne. I go in knowing where I want the story to begin and end, but I might have romantic interludes, for example, in my mind (or list) that I'll sprinkle here and there. Other stuff just comes to me at the spur of the moment. Blending in these events is a challenge. I hope my readers find this seamless and never distracting.
Remember that these are supposed to be real kids with real lives outside of the mystery at hand. To have them talk and act like teens (including their foibles) is essential. None of them, even T.J., is perfect, which I believe adds to their appeal.
"Spirits of the Pirate House" received a rave review from Bermudan media outlet Bernews, which praised you for doing "wonderful job of depicting Bermuda both as it was, and as it is, allowing the island to tell its own story at times as the group's characters roam its darkest corners in search of spirits, fame – and truth." Do you have a connection to the island, or were you able to capture it purely through research?
Although I have a place in Florida, Bermuda is my ultimate island paradise destination. I first visited there while in college (as T.J.'s dad did in the story) and fell in love with its natural, for-the-most-part-unspoiled beauty, as well as its rich history. I also consider the people there among the friendliest in the world, and I've done a lot of traveling. My wife and I spent our honeymoon there (again, like the senior Jackson) and have returned many times, the last few with our daughter Caroline, who shares our appreciation of it. As a result, I pretty much know the island from end to end.
I've been to all the sites mentioned in the book, which becomes a neat travelogue. I can't wait for a reader to tell me he or she traced the kids' movements from the plot like others have done in Gettysburg with "Last Ghost." (Actually, the only place I couldn't work in was the Crystal Caves, which should not be missed). And yes, there really is a "Treasure Beach" where you can snorkel for old bottles and other goodies like the kids did.
However, there was a lot historical research that went into the Bermudian Pirate/Slavery era angles in the plot, because I wanted to get it right. The catchphrase the T.J. Jackson Mysteries series is "Learn the History to Solve the Mystery." What the kids uncover historically reflects my own digging. I'm so proud the Bermudian Bernews reviewer complimented my portrait of the island's culture and history. It was literally a labor of love.
Given that your books are written about and for the age of your students, how has being a successful author impacted your teaching? Do your students enjoy having a famous teacher?
In the classroom I have been able to relate elements of my writing process to my students, especially in the areas of research, editing, and revising, which young teens tend to find tedious. On the positive side, they are somewhat fascinated by the cover art process, a part of the publication game that for a writer can be sometimes frustrating. But although being a published author does give me a measure of "street cred" with them, my students are not by any means blown away or star struck by my modest success. It's hard for anything to faze young teens today. Of course, if any of these stories were to be made into movies, they'd all want to be in the cast!
Writing a series as opposed to a single story, how have the characters and their relationships to each other evolved over the course of the writing? Have they ever done anything that surprised you from book to book?
After three books, I sometimes lose sight of the fact that T.J., Bortnicker, and LouAnne are fictional people, because they are all made up of little bits of the thousands of kids I've taught. It might only be a mannerism or phrase they use, but I've observed a whole lot in 35 years of teaching. It's been a challenge to have them move ahead socially and maturity-wise while holding on to their individual charm. But how could they not change, given the extreme circumstances they experience in their paranormal investigations?
Respecting the timeline has been an ongoing battle for me. When the series began, the boys were graduating from middle school. Well, to keep them "normal," I only have them conducting prolonged investigations during school breaks or summer vacations. Thus, by the end of "Roberto's Return," which occurs in the spring of 2012, the boys are in their sophomore year of high school, and LouAnne is a junior. Like it or not, they are getting older, and their behavior has to reflect this. But there are always elements of surprise and suspense—especially concerning the relationship of T.J. and LouAnne, his cousin by adoption—that I want to extend as long as possible. Because the series is chronological, I know exactly where I want their interpersonal relationships to be at the end of an installment so I can pick them up a few months later and make it believable.
Congratulations on your third book in the series, "Roberto's Return," coming out next month (just a year and a few months after the first!). Can you give us a speak peek at what T.J., LouAnne, and Bornicker get involved in?
"Roberto's Return" brings me back to the subject I've been writing about professionally since 1993: Baseball. Having played myself into my early 50s, I've always been fascinated with the legend and lore of the game. And, in visiting Cooperstown yearly to do some research for my Sports Collectors Digest magazine articles, I've become as comfortable in that area as I was with Gettysburg and Bermuda. So, setting the story in Cooperstown was a no-brainer.
The plot revolves around the materialization of the ghost of Roberto Clemente at the Hall of Fame, for which the kids are called in to investigate. The great Pittsburgh Pirate right fielder is a compelling figure, not only because of his Hall of Fame credentials during a stellar 17 year career, but also for his trailblazing leadership as one of the first Latino stars of the 20th century. And then, of course, there is his mysterious, almost mythical death, on a humanitarian mission to earthquake-ravaged Nicaragua on New Year's Eve in 1972, a plane crash in the Atlantic from which his body was never recovered.
From the kids' experience in investigating—and ultimately meeting—the spirit of this great man, my readers will learn much about one of the most captivating figures in American sports history. Of course, there will also be some twists and turns for T.J. and his friends personally (some of them a bit intense), which will continue to test the strength of their incredible bond. My goal was to combine "A Night in the Museum" with "Field of Dreams." I hope I've accomplished that.
What's next for the gang after book three? Will they keep growing up and onto more adventures?
To tell the truth, I originally looked at the T.J. Jackson Mysteries series as a trilogy. But it's kind of hard to say goodbye to characters you've grown to love. On top of that, my daughter (who wants to direct the screen versions, of course) is more or less demanding at least one more installment, and she's hard to say "no" to. Plus, she gave me a pretty cool idea based on some of our own ghost hunting experiences that I hadn't considered yet. So, the door's still open for a fourth T.J. story.