Fiona Ingram writes about the kinds of stories that interest her: mystery and adventure. In creating The Chronicles of the Stone series, she draws on her love of literature, art, theatre, history, and travel. She also is helped by two curious boys in her family: her nephews. The teens not only serve as the models for cousins Justin and Adam, they also help her understand what kids want in books: lots of adventure, exotic people and places, some mystery, and no long, drawn-out descriptions.
The Secret of the Sacred Scarab, the first book in the series, delivers on those goals. Ironically, although Fiona had been a journalist for more than 15 years, she had never considered writing children’s literature.
Born in Durban, South Africa, Fiona now lives in Johannesburg. She spent several years in France, earning a masters degree in French-African literature. She also holds bachelors degrees in French and drama, for which she also has an Honours degree. Before becoming a journalist, Fiona worked in community theater. She taught drama and also produced community productions.
Fiona is dedicated to educating kids through reading. That’s why you will find maps, history, and links to more information on her website. Win a copy of The Secret of the Sacred Scarab for your school library! Every four to six weeks, Fiona selects a winner I select once a month or every six weeks. There are no geographic boundaries, and Fiona has donated 25 books so far.
RT: Congratulations on being a finalist the 2009 New Generation Indie Awards for your debut novel, The Secret of the Sacred Scarab. As exciting as it is for you, what do your nephews (the real-life Justin and Adam) think about all this?
Fiona: When they were a bit younger they were terribly excited about being the models for the two main characters. However, now the reasons for excitement have changed. I think they see themselves as South African Daniel Radcliffes, with their schoolmates flocking for autographs. Now that they are a bit older, they tend to act a bit more “cool” about things. But they are definitely very proud to be the heroes of the story.
RT: The Secret of the Sacred Scarab has all of the elements young readers love: lots of action, mystery, and exotic places. It is also chock full of data, too: details about touring Egypt; facts about Ancient Egypt; information about archeology and preserving antiquities; and criminal enterprises, as they relate to Egyptian treasure. Can you tell us more about the research that went into the book? Is it true that there is still a lot of undiscovered treasure?
Fiona: Absolutely! Only 30 percent of ancient Egyptian treasure and artifacts has been uncovered. So when Adam gets excited about the possibility of finding treasure … he is right. The authorities make new discoveries all the time. New tombs are unearthed in places thought completely excavated. The tour we did was extremely educational and amazingly informative. The Egyptian government takes its ancient history and culture very seriously, so all archeological sites are strictly monitored. There is still the problem of antiquities smuggling, so not just anyone can be a guide. Guides are usually university-educated, with proper qualifications in Egyptian history, culture, and archeology. They have to be accredited, so when you are with a tour, an official guide is assigned to your group. For me, ancient Egypt has been a passion since my mother gave me my very own encyclopedia at age 8 — Time-Life Ancient Egypt. (My older brother got Imperial Rome and we shared Classical Greece!)
When I began writing the book I re-researched all the places we visited. There is such a mass of information that it is hard to believe this ancient civilization was so advanced. It is a good thing they were avid record keepers because that is how we know so much about them. Actually, there is so much to learn about Egypt that I included a glossary on the website in the button called The Book. As you move the cursor over the right-hand side of the page, the word Glossary will pop up.
RT: Originally, The Secret of the Sacred Scarab was a short story for your nephews. Ultimately it grew into a book … now it is book one in the Chronicles of the Stone series. Had you ever envisioned writing an adventure series? Can you tell us more about how you came to name the series?
Fiona: I hadn’t ever thought of writing a children’s book, let alone a series! I have written loads of articles of course, but a book? It just “happened!” The series appeared in my mind when I reached the end of Book One and realized that the ancient secrets of the past held so much more mystery. It was as if a “mythology” grew with Book One. There seems to be a core of ancient history that resounds through other ancient cultures. Reading and researching made me realize that I could pick up these threads and weave the original story into something quite wonderful … a quest. The title for the series comes from the ancient Egyptian belief about the BenBen Stone. It is their creation story, and it starts with the belief that a magical stone fell to earth. The symbolism of the Benben stone is recreated in the pyramid shape (the pointed tip or top) and in the obelisks that abound in Egypt. As I write the remaining books I am creating the mythology behind the series. This will be a separate book called The Stone of Fire that traces the path of the Seven Stones of Power before they became lost in the mists of time, waiting for our two young heroes to activate their powers.
RT: Sacred Scarab is somewhat biographical in that you took your two nephews on a trip to Egypt, just as Aunt Isabel took Justin and Adam. Justin and Adam always be traveling with Aunt Isabel in the adventures?
Fiona: No, I have become very clever at getting rid of adults who might interfere with the adventure! I whisk the potential meddlers back home at the first hint of danger. Aunt Isabel is the lynch-pin, because she organizes their trips. In the beginning she was skeptical, but later as the adventure deepens over several stories, she enters wholeheartedly into the quest. It is not the adults’ fault I have to divert their plans, but they are far too sensible and do things by the book. In an adventure, one has to fly by the seat of one’s pants! Luckily our young heroes’ respective parents have decided that travel has broadened the minds and matured the outlook of their offspring. They remain oblivious to any dangers that happen on the young heroes’ adventures.
RT: Before settling into a journalism career, you were actively involved in theater. You taught drama and also produced community theater productions. Could you foresee transforming your novels to a readers’ theater format?
Fiona: I love the theatre and films. That has helped me picture the development of the plot “scene by scene.” I want to create the exact atmosphere Justin and Adam experience, such as being trapped in the abandoned tomb with the giant cobra. The reader should feel each thrilling moment; see the drops of poison on the cobra’s fangs, etc. Theatre is an intense visual feast, and of course the audience has to use their imagination. I really hope the books become films because the environments will lend themselves to amazing visuals.
RT: It would seem that you have plenty of adventures to draw on, given your love of travel, your degrees in drama and French-African literature, and your journalism background. If you had to build a story around one of those topics, which would be the biggest “stretch” for you?
Fiona: This sounds awfully presumptuous but I think I could write an adventure around anything. The biggest stretch would be not having been to a country in which the story is situated. Hopefully I will overcome that by visiting each place. I have some incredible locations lined up, all rich in history and mystery!
RT: On your Authors Den page, you describe yourself as a lifelong bookworm. What kind of books did you like to read as a child? What do you read now?
Fiona: My parents were really poor while the five of us were growing up, so we read what was on the bookshelves. My mother and father both love reading and Mom had kept all her children’s classics. Apart from Time-Life encyclopedias and Greek Myths & Legends for Children, we cut our reading teeth on Rudyard Kipling’s Kim and Jungle Book; The Wind in the Willows, and as many Brothers Grimm and other fairy tales we could devour; all the Enid Blytons, Paul Gallico, and Lucy Fitch Perkins Twins books (an amazing mixture of story, geography, history and drama); The Water Babies, Treasure Island, Little Women, Little Men, Paul Gallico, Anne of Green Gables books, Narnia books … the list is endless. I still have many of my childhood books. As a teenager I read some teen stuff in the school library; in high school I discovered The Lord of the Rings which I read every couple of years or so. University English courses pointed me toward more classics (Austen, Eliot, Bronte sisters, Dickens. etc.) which I also read over and over. I read just about anything, but I usually steer toward history and ancient civilization, archeology, adventure novels (I admit!), and detective or mystery stories. If I had to name the best book in the world for me, it is Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone. It has absolutely all the adventure, detective, history, and amazing literary devices one could imagine.
RT: In her Writer’s in the Sky review, Yvonne Perry described The Secret of the Sacred Scarab as “adventure and history, art and architecture, humor and redemption, travel writing and social studies, and great fun.” Will we find these elements in future titles in the series?
Fiona: I really hope so. I don’t know how I expected the book to turn out and when I read reviews and what other people have discovered in my writing, it comes as a bit of a shock to me. I poured my heart and soul into this first book and when I wrote the scene where Adam is determined to save his kidnapper from sinking into the shifting sand, I would actually end up crying from the sheer ‘tragedy’ of the moment. I also confess I loved writing the chapter where Gran and her two friends devise a way of getting into the British embassy. I would read it over and over and laugh, hoping other people would also think it is funny. Apparently they do … So, yes, I hope my imagination will continue to flourish.
RT: You have said in your biography that writing a children’s book was an “unexpected step.” How would you characterize/compare this type of writing to your work as a journalist?
Fiona: This is so much nicer than writing articles. I can’t wait to run home from my day job and get into the world of mystery and adventure. From the moment I open the document it is as if the real world switches off and all I see, hear, and think is the adventure. I also “write” in my head because new ideas come at any time. I can be thinking about a scene while driving and the next minute the whole thing shapes in my head. I love writing books! Right now I am nearly finished Book Two—The Search for the Stone of Excalibur—and I am up to my ears in 13th century monks, ancient manuscripts, secrets from the past, Scottish castles, ruined chapels, crypts, Dark Ages Britain … and an ancient sword. Could it be the sword of Arthur? And does the hilt contain one of the Stones of Power?
RT: On your website, you have a link where visitors can write to Justin and Adam. What kinds of emails have you gotten? Do their namesakes read the mail?
Fiona: I have had a few tentative emails but am hoping for more. Their namesakes are also a bit coy about replying although speak boldly when asked what they think.
RT: In addition to creating a Chronicles of the Stone website, you also promote Sacred Scarab on a Facebook fan page, via the Children’s Book Wiki, and as a limited preview on Google Books. How valuable/important are the diverse platforms for authors today? Do you find them helpful? Time consuming?
Fiona: Yes, they do take time to monitor and update but are absolutely necessary. I have my information loaded on fourteen sites. Some are simply information directories, others are more user-friendly. It is imperative for writers (especially first-time and self-published) to have a platform. One tends to be taken more seriously. I am self-published through iUniverse and although they did a lot for me, I have done a lot for myself. By being on many sites (but also updating with reviews, interviews etc) the Internet will put you up in cyber space as a name, someone who is important. So, you can gain a solid profile in a short space of time. Many a brilliant writer has languished in obscurity because no one knows about their books. There are sites that also enable one to put up sections of a book, or even a whole book if desired. Reviews are so important. I am happy to announce that a British literary agent is meeting with me about taking the remaining books as a series. That’s based only on the solid reviews I slogged to get. I have written about the marketing and promoting side of things in two articles on my Author’s Den page. Now that’s a site that enables a writer to add many things to enhance his or her platform. All these sites are free so it is easy for a writer to promote him or herself.
RT: Thanks, Fiona, for the great stories and the helpful information. I’m looking forward to Book Two. We’ve enjoyed having you.
Fiona: Thank you for the interview. It’s been fun.