Roughly two minutes after taking the stage at Reves Recital Hall on the campus of Hendrix College in February 2019, author and Little Rock resident Trenton Lee Stewart had a confession for the audience.
“Two things that I never thought that I would do,” he said into the spotlight. “One, the first and most relevant to you, I never thought that I would read from a middle-grade adventure novel to a room full of adults. But that is what is going to happen tonight.” If the audience was at all disappointed to hear that he wouldn’t be reading from his suite of tone poems, Stewart joked, he’d give them a moment to slip out shame-free, making a show of shuffling his papers and ducking below the lectern to take a swig of bottled water.
“The other thing that I never thought that I would do was return to the ‘Mysterious Benedict Society’ series,” he said, referring to the hit book series that had earned him international acclaim and a then-in-the-works television adaptation, which has since premiered on Disney Plus. “And yet, I finally did that.”
Before he started reading from the latest installment in the series, the then-unpublished “The Mysterious Benedict Society and the Riddle of Ages,” Stewart again addressed the disparity between the present audience and the audience for whom he’d written the book. He told them that he was going to read to them as if he were reading a bedtime story to his own children. He explained that he’d be doing voices, and that “there is no cool way to read a children’s book to a roomful of adults — you understand that, I hope … You can’t be cool while this happens.” For that reason, he urged them to channel their inner 11- or 12-year-old. (“Or if you are 11 or 12 years old, to be yourself.”)
Then, he started. And as he did so, reading from his seventh young adult adventure novel about the brilliant children of the “Society,” a “sequel to the three-quel and the prequel,” any need for caveats about the book’s intended audience were rendered moot, swallowed by the power of pure story.
“In a city called Stonetown, on a quiet street of spacious old houses and gracious old trees, a young man named Reynie Muldoon Perumal, was contemplating a door …”
Trenton Lee Stewart’s writing career can be understood as two nearly equal halves: pre-Benedict and post-Benedict.
For the better part of 15 years after graduating from Hendrix with an English degree in ’92, Stewart worked a long string of odd jobs, the expected sort of menial work that a writer takes when he’s striving to make it as a writer. Nightside hotel clerk. Night caretaker at a men’s group home. VHS store delivery driver. These jobs allowed him to focus on literary fiction work, leaving his focus — and often his daylight hours — for writing, as he first earned his MFA at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop and then wrote and wrote and wrote.
The cleft between the two halves eventually arrived in 2004. Faced with what he would later describe as “a number of small quotidian pressures,” he found himself wondering if, after spending so much of his adult life trying to make it as a writer, it might not be better to pursue a career path that looked more like a career. Law, for instance. Maybe medicine. He told himself that he’d still find time to write, but he knew that it meant dealing with difficult decisions about how he was going to spend his time and energy.
And then, within a six-week span in 2005, he got word that two books he’d written had been sold. First, there was “Flood Summer,” a serious piece of fiction that had been years in the works, sprung from two previously abandoned novels, one of which had morphed from an even earlier short story. And then there was the book he’d written for fun while working at a library in Cincinnati: “The Mysterious Benedict Society.”
It was a far different sort of book than Stewart had been trying to write, one that didn’t fit the mold of literary fiction. Still, as much as he’d written it for children — specifically, his own two young children — he’d also written it for his own enjoyment. He’d allowed himself to do whatever he wanted to do. To incorporate the sorts of riddles and puzzles and mazes with secret solutions that filled his daydreams. To be as funny as he was in conversation, telling jokes for both kids and adults alike. And he did all of this by channeling what he describes as a “sort of transmogrified voice from my childhood … a more performative version of myself as a writer than I had previously sort of engaged.” It was also, probably, British in lineage, descended from the likes of Tolkien and C.S. Lewis with a dash of Encyclopedia Brown.
What then happened is that Benedict Society became “the thing.” When his agent shopped it around to editors, they asked whether he’d planned for it to be a series (he’d privately mused how the story could arc over two books — and with two books, you might as well make it a trilogy). He signed with Little Brown for a two-book deal, started revising the first while he wrote the second and planned the third. He began traveling, before and after the book was published, meeting people all across the country — readers, librarians, booksellers — attending readings and signings at festivals and schools. And eventually, as a prequel and sequel were added to the mix, the universe of the Benedict Society grew larger by magnitudes.
And while this might seem like a departure, it was really a return to an original form.
This is because, in another sense, those two aforementioned halves of Stewart’s career can be understood as being not halves at all. Because while they might seem to have been two disparate hemispheres — half an apple and half an orange, incomparable, sutured together — they are really part of the same thing, not a pivot or a U-turn, but an extension of two specific moments from his childhood.
The first is when he was very young, around 3 years old. That was around the time, Stewart says, when he’d started “thinking.” This meant closing his eyes, and shushing any family members who dared to disturb him as stories took shape in his imagination. These were what he now describes as “Narnia knockoff fantasies,” tales of sorcery and swords in which the young Stewart cast himself as protagonist.
The second was when he was 11 or 12, when he made a promise to himself that he wouldn’t forget about the way he saw things or the way he thought about things. He believed that, despite being a child, he had an adult perspective on things, and that this had gone unacknowledged in the interactions he had with adults.
Those two experiences cultivated an already innate ability to connect with kids and to tap into what it’s like to be one. Which is precisely what he did when he sat down to write Benedict Society: “It was really almost exclusively an enterprise in essentially emotional memory,” he said. “I was trying to go through a wormhole and write the kind of book that I would have loved the most.”
Over time, however, as his own children approached the ages of his characters, he didn’t have to rely so exclusively on his recollections of the past. He’s noted in other interviews that his son’s tantrums as a toddler figured prominently into the tantrums thrown by Constance. (“Well, if I’m trying to paint a picture of a tiger, it’s great to have a tiger nearby.”) But as they grew older, they also lent those characters an essential element: the tension between genius and emotional age, the way in which children can astound with their unexpected quasi-adult commentaries at one moment and be in hysterics the next.
“You know, a big part of these stories is the fact that these kids are brilliant and they’re super sophisticated beyond their years in a lot of ways — but they’re still dealing, emotionally, as children with their environment,” Stewart said. “And that’s the disconnect between, you know, dealing irrationally with the world around you because you can’t help it — because of your age or various other factors in the brain or whatever. That tension between that and your more cool, dispassionate, intellectual assessment of events seemed very much a part of a lot of kids’ lives. And I saw that with [my son] Elliot and tried in some ways to let that inform what I wrote.”
Ultimately, that seems to be a large part of why the books have such a resonance with readers, young and old. Because even though they deal with sometimes outlandish situations, at heart they grapple with universal principles — placing the children in situations where the ultimate test is making the right, moral decision.
Precisely 29 minutes and 41 seconds after he started, Trenton Lee Stewart, standing in the spotlight at Reves Recital Hall, finished reading the first chapter of “The Mysterious Benedict Society and the Riddle of Ages.”
“… And just like that,” he said, flipping the last page in a stack of papers, “the Society was reconvened. Thank you.”
At that moment, the audience erupted into a hearty applause. Nearly seven months later, the book would be published. Not long after that, as the world began to shut down and public events such as this one became a distant memory, the television show based on Stewart’s book began to take shape, allowing writers and actors a chance to do the voices of his work. But for the moment, there was applause and time for questions.
From the darkness a man-shaped silhouette broke away from the crowd-shaped silhouette and the voice of Tyrone Jaeger, a Hendrix English professor then in his early 50s, came over the speakers. After asking Stewart if he wouldn’t mind taking some questions, Jaeger said, “My inner 11-year-old is right on the surface.”
“I can see it,” Stewart said.