Easy Writer

Author Trent Stewart builds best-selling book series

By Mary Ruth Marotte '95

When you hang out with someone who has published New York Times best-selling books, there is a little pressure to step up your game.

Trent [Trent Stewart '92] is that friend of mine. You know he is smarter and more clever than you are, and you are good with that because he inspires you to kick it into a higher gear.

Trent is one bright guy. He resembles pretty closely in curiosity and intellect Reynie Muldoon, the young protagonist of his The Mysterious Benedict Society series. Some tribal custom in the remotest region of Africa? Trent can tell you. And he is a natural storyteller. In fact, in a recent glowing review in The Horn Book (prominent reviewer of children's literature), Trent was referred to as a "Master Storyteller," which is the way that I'll refer to him from now on because he really loves to be put on a pedestal.

There is nothing Master Storyteller likes more than to be the center of attention. I'm only kidding. In fact, Trent has the great talent of turning the conversation back to you, to your life, to your interests, making you feel like you are more interesting than he is (You probably aren't).

Recently Trent realized I didn't know the difference between a rifle and a shotgun, so instead of offering me a tedious description of each (knowing he would lose me), he told me a story that delineated the difference in a way that kept my attention. Given my interest in guns, that was quite a feat. When not educating those of us ignorant to gun construction, he is busy writing stories of his own, something he does very, very well.

Trent has published five novels, his first the beautifully evocative Flood Summer, set in Arkansas in and around Hot Springs where Trent grew up, and four books in The Mysterious Benedict Society series.

Flood Summer is regional literature at its best and even includes Hendrix in its narrative as a place where his protagonist, Abe, spends a bit of time before life intervenes and sends him on a journey that includes some joy and some reckoning. The ending of Flood Summer is as subtle and perfect as any ending that I know in American literature.

Of course, Trent has garnered national and international acclaim for his award-winning The Mysterious Benedict Society, a series for young readers that is classic story-telling in the manner of C.S. Lewis. These books feature the adventures of four children – Reynie Muldoon, Sticky Washington, Kate Wetherall, and Constance Contraire, a parent-less team of geniuses charged with saving the world time and again by using their considerable individual strengths, but also by working as a team to thwart nefarious villainy.

My older kids have been fans for years, and just recently I finished reading the first book of the series aloud to my youngest son. It was quite a treat, and the experience reminded me why this book was awarded the prestigious E.B. White Read Aloud Award – it is as patiently descriptive and touching as it is suspenseful and clever. And I'm quite sure that after defining for my son all of the unfamiliar words that Trent includes in the narrative, my almost-8-year-old is prepared for the verbal portion of the SAT exam.

Trent also collaborated on a puzzle book associated with the series and just returned from a national tour promoting his latest in the series, a "prequel," if you will, called The Extraordinary Education of Nicholas Benedict, a novel that gives us the history of the beloved Mr. Benedict, leader of the Mysterious Benedict Society and friend to all orphans and vulnerable children. I was wholly absorbed in this one, making my own children orphan-like and vulnerable as I batted them away, telling them to leave me alone for the duration of my reading.

Often I think about how lucky we are to have Trent in Arkansas to inspire our young readers and writers. He is a fixture at the Arkansas Literary Festival, each year packing the house with kids who are charmed within minutes of hearing him talk about their favorite characters and scenes from the MBS series, and he has visited too many schools to name here.

Last year I took advantage of my knowledge of Trent's fondness for Shakespeare by asking him to join the Board of Arkansas Shakespeare Theatre, an invitation he willingly and graciously accepted. For years now he has helped this fledgling organization, writing original pieces for our annual fundraisers and donating innumerable signed copies of his books for auction. I half-joked with him before our last fundraiser that we should auction him off as our live auction item.

Most recently, for the "Shakespeare in the South" episode of the NPR show "Tales from the South," Trent managed to weave together a story about basketball, high school romance, and Shakespeare. And he did it brilliantly. No surprise.

Trent says that stories were always a part of his life, that his mother cultivated his interest in telling stories by telling her own and also by playing elaborate games that involved imagination and fancy. He wrote his own stories from an early age and entered Hendrix as an English major intent on becoming a writer.

At Hendrix he forged a close relationship with Jack Butler, the then-writer-in-residence and author of award-winning books himself. Trent says of Butler: "He encouraged me to think of myself as a writer and not a student-writer," advice Trent took seriously, for shortly after leaving Hendrix, he was admitted into the prestigious Iowa Writer's Workshop.

From there Trent moved to Cincinnati, Ohio, when his wife, Sarah Beth Estes '92, a sociology professor, was offered a tenure-track appointment at the University of Cincinnati. After several years in Ohio working at the library, raising kids, and reading and writing as much as possible, Trent sold both Flood Summer and the first The Mysterious Benedict Society book in the same six-week period.

Trent and Sarah Beth decided to move back to Little Rock in 2006 with their boys, Elliot and Fletcher, to be closer to family, and Sarah Beth took a job as a professor in the sociology department at UALR.

While Trent could ride the success of his books into the sunset, he is not one to rest on his laurels. He is currently working on two separate ideas for children's novels and has recently completed a new short story intended for an adult audience.

Trent has won numerous awards as a children's author, and his adult fiction has been likewise lauded, landing in some of the most prestigious literary journals in the country, including The New England Review, Shenandoah, The Georgia Review, The Virginia Quarterly Review, and The Chattahoochee Review.

To read Trent's short fiction is to realize profoundly the versatility of his writing. These stories demonstrate Trent's acute observational capabilities, so in tune is he with how people interact with their natural habitats, how our surroundings, in fact, often inspire our actions, thoughts, and beliefs.

Trent has already won the Porter Prize and the Booker Worthen Prize, the two most prominent awards given to Arkansas writers. I have no doubt that more awards are in his future for the words that are dancing around in his head right now. He will string them together in a way that will capture the world's attention again. That is what Master Storytellers do, after all.

Dr. Mary Ruth Wilson Marotte '95 is a member of the English faculty at the University of Central Arkansas and Executive Director of the Arkansas Shakespeare Festival.