This week, I had the pleasure of sitting down with Refe to talk about his debut middle grade novel, Frances And The Monster. I quickly discovered he’s as charming and delightful as his new book.
Lisa: Tell us about FRANCES AND THE MONSTER.
Refe: Eleven-year-old Frances Stenzel comes from a long line of esteemed scientists and dreams of making a name for herself.
When her parents leave her home yet again, this time in the charge of an infuriatingly clever robot named Hobbes, she decides she’s done waiting. She sneaks down to the laboratory and enters her father’s off-limits workshop, determined to prove her scientific mettle.
Instead, she accidentally awakens her great-grandfather’s secret and most terrible invention—an enormous monster who breaks out of the manor and disappears into the city below.
With her pet chimp, Fritz, and a reluctant Hobbes by her side, Frances sets off to find the monster and stop it before it destroys the city—and her future—along with it.
Lisa: How did you come up with this fantastic story?
Refe: FRANCES AND THE MONSTER began as an idea for a short film that I planned to shoot using stop-motion animation. I loved the idea of a letting a kid loose in a laboratory, where she could channel the frustration I think we all experienced at that age, when our minds have begun to develop beyond the limits of our current freedoms.
The idea stuck with me for years, eventually growing into the full-length novel it is today. It’s still incredible to think it’s out in the world for kids to read.
Lisa: How do you develop your plot and characters?
Refe: I tend to create my characters on the page. Sometimes a scene or a line of dialogue will bubble up in my mind and I’ll start writing. I try not to worry about where that moment will fit in the larger story. It’s a great way to get a sense of who my characters are and the kinds of situations that might challenge them and force them to make the choices that will shape their journey.
Most of those experiments don’t end up in the finished book, but bits and pieces often do, or other moments those pages inspire.
I don’t like to get too boxed into a plot until I’ve had some time to explore the story. Even once the major beats are planned, I try to stay open to surprises.
Lisa: What part of the book did you have the hardest time writing?
Refe: I think I rewrote the first chapter more than two dozen times! Those first few pages are so important for orienting the reader in the world of the story and setting them off in the right direction. There’s a lot of new information and characters and scenery to juggle, but it can’t feel like that’s what’s happening when you read it.
The worst part is, I’m doing the exact same thing on book two, which I hope to wrap up by the end of this month!
Lisa: What part of the book was the most fun to write?
Refe: I loved writing dialogue between Frances, Hobbes, and Luca. Hobbes was a character who came into the story fully formed (which is ironic, if you know what happens to him in the book…) and he remained consistent throughout the entire process. Once Luca appeared, it was so easy to play the three of them off each other.
Lisa: How much of your real-life experiences play a role in the stories you tell?
Refe: I don’t tend to write very autobiographically. Mostly, the bits of my life that end up in my stories are more like impressions of how I felt in certain situations. Vibes, maybe. I do have a story in the works that is based on my experiences in middle school and high school that I’m very excited about, but that project is still a ways off.
Lisa: What books did you like to read when you were a kid?
Refe: I liked books with intelligent protagonists, especially when those protagonists were pitted against nefarious adults. Adults make the perfect bad guys because their motives and morality can seem so grey to kids. They’re unwitting agents of a cynical world, intent on squeezing the freedom and hopefulness of childhood out of us before we’re ready. It’s a fun dynamic to play with, especially in fantasy stories.
Lisa: What advice would you give a new writer?
Refe: Write your ideas down! You never know where the spark for your next project might come from. I recommend keeping an idea journal—a physical one, ideally. It’s fun to flip back through the pages and revisit old ideas. Some you might have already forgotten were in there.
Beyond that, just keep writing. Completing a novel feels utterly impossible until the moment you type THE END for the first time. After that, the process really does open up, and the next book doesn’t seem like such a steep hill to climb.
Lisa: What are you hoping readers will take away from FRANCES AND THE MONSTER?
Refe: I hope readers will see themselves in Frances and Luca. I want them to come away from the story feeling more confident in themselves, more open to making friends and building trust, even in the unlikeliest of places.
Most of all, I hope they enjoy the story.
Lisa: What are you working on now?
Refe: I am about 3 weeks away from turning in the final draft of a sequel to FRANCES AND THE MONSTER! I’ll be sharing more about it soon, but I can tell you that Frances sees her world expand in a big way in this next book. That’s something she’s wanted for a long time—but that doesn’t mean it will happen in the way she expects…
Lisa: What advice would you give 12-year-old Refe?
Refe: I’d tell him to SLOW DOWN. I was always in such a rush to grow up. There’s a unique quality to those middle school years. Nothing is set in stone. Your trajectory isn’t fixed. Anything can happen. I’d tell him/myself to be present in every experience, even the ones that feel lousy in the moment, and don’t be in such a hurry to reach the next one. Frances starts to learn this lesson, I think, so maybe 12-year-old Refe could too.
Lisa: Thank you so much for stopping by our spooky little corner of the world. It was a pleasure chatting with you!
To learn more about Refe Tuma please visit his Linktree.