Wednesday, June 5, 2013



He can sing. He can dance. He acts, plays guitar, ‘talks story', draws, surfs, makes every hat look debonair, and his wife bakes the tastiest chocolate chip cookies on the planet.

Oh, and did I mention he’s also the author of 25+ hilarious books for kids, including the Edgar-nominated CHET GECKO mystery series? And that he recently made the jump from penning these seriously funny young middle grade books to a novel for older middle grade readers?

His name is Hale. Bruce Hale.  And PLAYING WITH FIRE, the first book in his School for S.P.I.E.S. series, debuts this month from Disney/Hyperion.

I managed to snag a few moments with Bruce in between plane flights and school visits (he’s a dynamic, much-in-demand speaker) to glean more Top Secret info from his impressive dossier...

Your previous novels in the CHET GECKO series topped out at 120-150 pages; PLAYING WITH FIRE is a whopping 306! What challenges did you experience writing a series of longer, more complex novels? And how did you overcome these challenges?

It was the hardest writing I've ever done.  Not only was it four times as long (on the computer, anyway) as my longest CHET GECKO book, but it featured actual people with real human emotions. Very unfamiliar territory for me.

My first challenge was finding the character and his voice. In early drafts, he was rather passive, and the POV was too omniscient. Luckily, I was able to get some great feedback from my agent and from writer friends [Robin LaFevers and (ahem) Lee Wardlaw], and I decided on a different approach. Not knowing anything about the world of foster kids (the book's hero is one), I interviewed people in that system, including a former foster child. This helped to lightly anchor my story in reality and find the hero's emotional center.

Once I found the heart of the character, and the voice for telling the story, the next challenge was subplots.  How many was too many?  How many did I need for this story? That took a bit of tweaking and revision, but it eventually worked out. The final challenge was striking the balance between honest emotion and humor. My editor, Stephanie Lurie, really helped with this.
What kind of research did you do for PLAYING WITH FIRE? 

This was actually my first experience researching a book, as all my others were pure fantasy.  I read books on spy trade-craft, interviewed a security consultant and computer expert, and as I've mentioned, talked to lots of folks in the foster care world. Also, I researched British and Australian slang, and drew on the help of friends from those countries (and Japan) for getting the language right.

Tell us a little bit about your writing process.

Like many writers, I suppose, mine involves a fair bit of farting around before I settle into a story.  As I first start mulling it over, I jot down plot ideas whenever they occur to me on random scraps of paper and Post-its. At some point, this becomes a Word document of rough ideas. Then, after procrastinating as long as humanly possible, I take a big pad of paper and some colored pens and begin serious brainstorming, working those ideas into a rough outline.  I find I need to leave a few sections of the plot out, so I can discover them while writing.  I try to write the first draft as fast and sloppily as possible, just to get the shape of the story down. Then, it's revision, revision, revision -- until the story is good enough for me to show other humans without feeling embarrassed.

How do you create your characters?
They spring from various touchstones.  In PLAYING WITH FIRE, for example, I based the character of Hantai Annie Wong on a yoga teacher of mine from Hawaii.  I took her gruffness, her fractured English, and her big heart, and then put that into a spymaster with scary skills.  CHET GECKO, on the other hand, is just me with green skin and a tail, cross-pollinated with Phillip Marlowe.

What did you learn about yourself while writing PLAYING WITH FIRE?
I learned that I can actually write a story with emotion, not just funny stuff. And I learned that I enjoy having the longer form to play with sometimes.  (I still enjoy the brevity of picture books, too.)  It's so rewarding to stretch artistically.

You’re known as being a ‘seriously funny’ writer. Steve Martin, another seriously funny guy, once said:  “…a lot of people come to me and they say, Steve, how can you be so funny? There's a secret to it, it's no big deal. Before I go out [on stage], I put a slice of bologna in each of my shoes. So when I'm on stage, I feel funny." So Bruce, how can YOU be so funny?
When I write, I wear Scooby Doo underwear.  Works every time.  (To tell the truth, I don't really know.  "Funny" is just how I see the world.)

What does your sense of humor say about you and your philosophy of life?
That telling the truth is the funniest joke there is, and that fun is one of the key ingredients for a life well lived.

Your website bio mentions you were raised by wolves. If this is true, how did you get your spy experience? 

My wolfie parents were very understanding. Like many parents, they let me watch a lot of TV and movies (James Bond, Get Smart, Man from U.N.C.L.E., etc.), and that's where I got my first exposure. Of course, it was tricky getting electricity in the wolf den, but we managed.

What kids books are you reading now?

I just finished a wonderful book by Robin LaFevers, DARK TRIUMPH, that really knocked me out. And I recently enjoyed THE BOOK THIEF on audiobook, which was a terrific read/listen. On my to-read pile are IN A GLASS GRIMMLY, by Adam Gidwitz and the latest in Cinda Chima's HEIR series.

What was the best fan letter you ever received?

It was one I got from a high-school junior. He thanked me for the CHET GECKO series, which was the only thing he would read in 5th grade, and he said his enjoyment of Chet paved the way for his later reading stories like MERCHANT OF VENICE and OF MICE AND MEN. I love helping kids enjoy reading as much as I do, and you can't ask for a better thank-you than the one I got from him.

Thank you, Bruce!  

To learn more about Bruce Hale, visit his website:


  1. This is a fun interview! Congrats, Bruce.

  2. Great interview. Bruce is the best. I went to a conference with him once and he was so helpful and very funny. Then I helped sponsor him visiting my daughter's school. He was so great with the kids. Good luck the new book, Bruce.

  3. This is great. I really like the quote about truth and humor. Excellent!

  4. I agree with Natalie. Bruce was recently one of the faculty at the Oregon SCBWI conference. He was witty, articulate, and personable; all in all, a great teacher and a funny guy. I'm looking forward to reading PLAYING WITH FIRE. Thanks for the great interview, Lee.

  5. You're welcome! (Sorry about the weird fonts. I have no idea what I did wrong...)

  6. Great interview! I've been lucky enough to hear Bruce speak at SCBWI. He's a character and a big personality.


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