By Cornelia A lot of girls who grew up to write mysteries first got hooked on the genre because they loved reading Nancy Drew as children. Nancy held no interest for me. I figured her friend George was entirely too latent, and Bess was just inane. Nancy's beau whatshisface was, meanwhile, a huge drag and lacking even the most slender iota of testosterone. Not to mention that Nancy herself had That Girl hair: I was more about Harriet the Spy, first, and James Bond shortly thereafter. In my Harriet phase, I wanted friends named Sport and Janie and The Boy with the Purple Socks. I wanted to live on the Upper East Side of Manhattan... ...instead of boring old and entirely un-ironic Carmel, California. I kept a spy notebook to fulfill my creative writing requirement in fourth grade at Carmel River School
. The notebook is long gone, but I remember writing that Chris Cryns seldom washed his hair, and that another boy "has less personality than a crinkle-cut french fry."
Luckily, unlike Harriet, I never had the misfortune of my classmates perusing the contents of my notebook, or having the slightest inkling of my opinions about them, so I emerged relatively unscathed from the experience. The year I was twelve, I overheard my mom saying that my father had always liked James Bond books. I subsequently collected all of Ian Fleming's work in paperback, one volume at a time, at garage sales around town--staring with Casino Royale...
...and working my way up through The Man with the Golden Gun.
When I was in sixth grade, my first year at Carmel Middle School, I was told that the following year the school would be starting up an honors language arts class, to be taught by one Dr. Brazell. She called us into her classroom and explained that the class would be funded by a new gifted children's initiative in the state of California, and that before the class was actually organized, she would be traveling to an international symposium on the education of gifted children, and that each of us had a budget of twenty dollars...
... to do some sort of multi-media project which she'd carry with her to display alongside those of other kids from around the world. This was to take place, we were told, at the United Nations in New York City.
She had a list of suggested projects for us to consider... we could record a cassette tape of music, write poetry, build models, make our own film strips, etc., etc.
I went to Longs Drugstore and bought a small black three-ring binder measuring roughly four by six inches, a ream of tiny paper to fit inside it, and a pile of odds and ends--including a nailfile, a small roll of string, and a pair of Dr. Scholl's foam rubber insoles.
I then talked my friend Stephanie Kaku out of a pair of old sneakers, and cut holes inside the existing insoles so that I could tuck the bits and pieces into the shoes, underneath the Dr. Scholl's padding.
Thus equipped, I proceeded to write my first ever stand-alone thriller--Call Me Stringbean
, the diary of a child spy. Imagine if you will the following smippets of text in my sixth-grade cursive handwriting, complete with circles dotting each I:
The man who drove us out to Paradise Island on the launch looked familiar. He only had one arm. Suddenly, there appeared in my mind a picture of the bloody arm after the explosion on Centre Island!
"Sierra Charlie Alpha Lima Delta India Sierra, we request that you phone Mr. William Welsch at 372-6814, room 18-D, it is urgent! Over and out!"
"Then we climb down the trellis (classic Alex, positively classic!) and then we walk down to the dock, take the dinghy, and row out to the cave. We can both only carry 15 kilos at a time, so I'll take the heroine pile, and you take the cornstarch pile." Brilliant plan, Alex, But I want to take the heroine pile. Ah well, I'm getting paid for this, and he isn't.
Alex led us to the 'secret library' and we set fire to it and ran outside. Unfortunately, we were seen!
My protagonist was a twelve-year-old spy named Margaret Welsch, AKA
Stringbean. She lived in Manhattan, and had started to work with her CIA-agent father at the age of seven. The bad guys were named Roscoe and Omar. With the equipment hidden in her spy sneakers, Stringbean successfully breaks up a criminal conspiracy to smuggle heroin through Nassau, in the Bahamas.
Dr. Brazell took the notebook and sneakers with her to the U.N. Upon her return, she had another meeting with all the kids to tell us how it went. At the end of the meeting she turned to me and said, "Cornelia, most of the other teachers really liked your project, except for the Soviet delegation. They wanted to know if we brainwash all
of our students to believe so fervently in the CIA."
I'm waiting to hear back about the editorial verdict on the next book I'd like to write, a novel based on the life of a real-life World War II spy chick whom think is basically the coolest person that ever lived. In the words of my mother, who often perkily misquotes Arlo Guthrie, "It all comes around on the guitar...."
I just hope I don't freak out any Soviets this time...
...or maybe I do. What did you guys read and write as kids?