Meet the Author

James Preller

James Preller

James Preller is the author of numerous books, including the acclaimed novels The Fall, Bystander, and Six Innings, and the Scary Tales and Jigsaw Jones series. He travels throughout the country visiting classrooms and book festivals. He lives in Delmar, New York, with his wife and their children.

Q&A

Where do you look for inspiration for each of your Jigsaw Jones mysteries?

I begin with my own life. It’s funny, because at this point I can relate to both Jigsaw and his father. I’ve lived both those roles. Growing up, I was the youngest of seven children. When it came time to write this series, it felt natural to make Jigsaw the youngest in a large family. I also regularly visit classrooms as a sort of invisible guest, just to observe. I watch, I listen, I take notes in my composition notebook. In that sense, the work of a writer is similar to that of a detective. I feel like a big sponge, soaking up whatever I can.

Have you ever had to solve a real-life mystery?

As a kid, I was more of a spy than a detective. I snooped around. For example, I used to have a toy—a kind of telescope that allowed me to see around corners. I loved that thing! I gave Jigsaw a similar device in The Case of the Bicycle Bandit. He uses it to solve the mystery.

Did you ever read mystery stories as a kid? Did you have any favorite books or series?

Oh, I’ve read a lot of mysteries. I read Encyclopedia Brown and the Hardy Boys. But I have to admit—and I’m probably not supposed to say this—I surely learned by watching television. There were many variations on the detective show that were popular during my childhood: Mannix, Columbo, The Scooby-Doo Show, Murder, She Wrote, The Rockford Files, Hawaii Five-0, Dragnet, and more. And of course there was Batman, the caped crusader, who used his detective skills to catch the bad guys. As an adult who still reads children’s books (sometimes), I especially admire Nate the Great. In the world of adult detectives, I’m extremely partial to Raymond Chandler. He’s funny and he’s a great writer, too. As a reader, I jump around between all kinds of books: nonfiction, biography, sports, contemporary literature, science fiction, horror. I’m a mess! But I do consistently return to the mystery/thriller genre because I find the stories fast and entertaining.

Do you have any advice for young aspiring writers?

I think all of us should try to find those things that make us happy, that give us pleasure, that get our hearts pumping. It doesn’t mean that we should just eat ice cream all day. It means, I think, to follow your enthusiasms. If you want to write, then write—and write about things that are interesting to you. Topics or situations that make you laugh, or feel afraid, or shed a tear. Good writing is always connected to strong feelings. And, of course, all writers are readers. You have to read, widely and deeply. That’s how you learn to write—by reading.

What’s one of your favorite Jigsaw/Mila moments, as partners in solving crime?

I’m most proud of their friendship. They are fiercely loyal to each other. Mila “gets” Jigsaw. She understands him, accepts him, and supports him. Likewise, Jigsaw trusts and respects Mila. I sometimes think of Jigsaw as the spirit, and Mila as the brains. Together they make a great team. Plus, they are funny together, probably because they know each other so well.

How do you come up with your characters’ names in the Jigsaw universe?

Sometimes I’ll be on a school visit and will sign books for students. I’ll hear a name and something might appeal to me about it. I’ll jot a note to myself. Other times I’ll take names from former players for the New York Mets. If a character has a specific ethnicity—Korean or Mexican or Italian, for example—I might Google “popular Korean names” to see what comes up. A side note: I try to avoid names that end with the letter S, like James, because I dislike how the possessive looks on the page: James’s book, James’s snake. It’s correct to use the two S’s, but it bugs me.

There’s always a mystery to solve in a Jigsaw Jones book, but also plenty of humor! What do you think is the importance of humor in your books?

Everybody likes to laugh. In general, I’ve learned not to “try” to be funny. Not to force it. I just have to trust that humor will naturally bubble up to the surface, as long as I’m open to the possibility. But when I try too hard to be funny, it often falls flat. To me, Jigsaw is a funny guy in a quiet way, and I hope that comes through when you read the books. He looks at the world and just has to shake his head and laugh. Doesn’t everybody?

What do you like about writing mysteries?

One great thing about mysteries is the detective encounters a variety of characters. And there are new characters in every story. That keeps the series fresh for me as a writer, and it opens up possibilities for characters that are hysterical, or scary, or quirky, or whatever. There’s a constant parade of new people, and it’s always entertaining to see how Jigsaw reacts to each one. The other aspect of mysteries that I love is that a good mystery will keep readers turning the page. The mystery is the engine that moves the car forward. It’s the plot, which is not typically my sharpest tool.

What’s your favorite piece of fan mail you have received for the series?

I’ve been told by many, many people that they are my #1 fan. I’d like to get them all in a giant wrestling ring and see who comes out on top. I’m probably most satisfied when I hear from that kid who previously thought of himself as a nonreader. When someone says, “I never finished a whole book before.” That brings me a lot of pleasure. Because I love books. Books have been a constant in my life—I’m always reading a book. And sure, books are good for you, and they will make you smart, and all that good stuff. But most of all, books have been a source of great happiness in my life. They make me happy, and alive, and interested in the world. I want everyone to have that same experience.

What do you want readers to remember about the Jigsaw Jones series?

I guess that’s up to each reader. I don’t write a book and think, “Oh, I want readers to learn this important lesson.” With Jigsaw, my hope is that readers enjoy the books, laugh a little, think a little. And then move on to the next book. Not necessarily my books. I mostly want them to be readers, and to find their own path to the library. If Jigsaw Jones can play a small role in that, then I’m absolutely thrilled.

Meet the Illustrator

R. W. Alley

R.W.Alley

First thing to know is that I'm an only child. I think that explains a lot. It certainly explains how important stories were to me growing up. My parents thought I should be a lawyer. I had other plans. I didn't go to art school (remember the lawyer part), but I knew I wanted to tell stories with both words AND pictures. So, I started out writing my own stories and pestering publishers. It worked! My parents were shocked.

Since then, I have gone on to illustrate and/or write well over one hundred books. For the last almost-twenty years, I have illustrated the Paddington Bear picture books. I have also collaborated with my charming wife and clever author, Zoë B. Alley, on several wonderful books in a gigantic comic book format. Recently we have both worked with novelist Garth Stein to bring his The Art of Racing in the Rain dog Enzo to picture books and I have begun writing my own books about the fantastical adventures of four siblings, Gretchen, Clark, Mitchell, and Annabell, in a series of four books.

We live in Barrington, Rhode Island, a very small town in the smallest state. We're very much looking forward to meeting you all and talking about telling stories and making pictures.

Q&A

What was one of your favorite scenes that you’ve illustrated for the Jigsaw Jones series?

Having taken a bit of a break from illustrating a full Jigsaw text, it was great fun to be back on the case. A consistently fun thing to picture is Jigsaw’s treehouse/office, especially when it’s crowded with clients. I’ve tried to be consistent from book to book, yet I do wonder exactly how the office is stuck securely in the tree. When things seem most at risk, a few new branches do sprout out to balance the planks.

How do you come up with your illustrations for all the different characters of the series?

In naming his characters, Mr. Preller is very good at suggesting a wide variety of ethnic backgrounds for each, which is always a happy thing and a great starting place. Then, the personality and interests of each character, their hair, body-type, nose (very important), and fashion sense get stirred into the mix.

Have you ever had to solve a real-life mystery?

One night, I was pretty sure that the deepest, darkest closet in the spare room was haunted. Just after midnight, just as I was falling asleep, I heard very faintly “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” coming from down the hall. I got up. It stopped. “Must have been a dream.” Back in bed, and again I heard it. Now, I really got up. It stopped, of course, but I kept on down the hall and there it was again. The closet. Why is it always the closet without the light? Carefully, I opened the door. Crash! A bunch of old boots, books, and puzzles fell from the top shelf. Plus an old music box that had been tossed up there because the winding thing was stuck—the spring was frozen and the box wouldn’t play. I guess the spring must have finally sprung. Unfortunately, when it hit the floor, everything in the box sprang out with a gigantic boing. That box would never play again. The odd thing was, I’m sure the music box used to play “Ring Around the Rosie.” Hmmm.

Did you ever read mystery stories as a kid? Did you have any favorite books or series?

I think every good story has an element of mystery in it that keeps the reader going. But in the more classic sense, I used to read the Hardy Boys series and the Tintin series of comic books.

Where do you find inspiration for your illustrations?

My visual inspiration comes from looking. What is that person wearing? How does that nose fit onto that face? Look at how that dog is licking up the ice cream that just fell out of my ice-cream cone. Drat.

Do you have any advice for young aspiring artists?

Draw, draw, and draw some more. Draw what you see and draw what you imagine. Don’t worry about being perfect. Try different drawing tools—they will change how you draw. Keep a notebook so you don’t lose your ideas.

Why did you decide to illustrate for children’s books?

I always liked telling stories with pictures and I always liked books. Reading words did not come easily for me. But reading pictures did. That’s why my favorite writing format is the comic panel. The Tintin books and Raymond Briggs’s books are very nice examples of what I keep in mind when I’m working up my own stories.

What has been the best part of being an illustrator?

Two big things, really. One, I get to work at home. This is great because I get a steady stream of inspiration from my wife and children and I don’t have to wear shoes. And two, I get to do something new every day. No story or picture is the same as the one that came before. There’s always something new to learn and always a new way to present a story.

What would your readers be most surprised to learn about you?

In third grade, I was a clown—makeup and everything—on a local after-school TV show for a few episodes. But even so, some clowns still creep me out a bit.