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This article is written by a student writer from the Her Campus at Hofstra chapter.

Welcome to my Author Spotlight blog series where readers can get the inside scoop on a new book release. For my first spotlight, I had the privilege of interviewing comedian writers James S. Murray and Carsen Smith about their new children’s series “Area 51 Interns: Alien Summer.”

James Murray is well known for his work on the famous television show “Impractical Jokers.” Already an international bestselling author, Murray has co-written his previous books with Darren Wearmouth. “Area 51 Interns: Alien Summer” will be the first time he’s co-authored with a fellow comedy writer.

Being her debut, Carsen Smith is a comedy writer and producer. Currently working on “Impractical Jokers,” she’s also the co-founder of the Goose Lodge which is an underground comedy club in Brooklyn.

“Area 51 Interns: Alien Summer” takes place the summer before Viv Harlow and her friends go to different high schools. Harlow’s determined to make the most of her summer with her friends even if her mom has the cool job of working at Area 51. After landing an internship where her mom works, her plans start to spiral. An alarm sounds, warning the escape of a race of aliens at the secret base leaving Viv, Charlotte, Ray and Elijah to save the day and maybe even Area 51.

What inspired you to write “Area 51 Interns: Alien Summer”?

Carsen Smith (CS): James and I were talking one day about all the craziness of middle school field trips, and we got to thinking, ‘what would a field trip to Area 51 be like?’ Eventually, that morphed into the idea of ‘Take Your Kids to Work Day’ at Area 51, and the entire story just kind of sprouted out from there.

James Murray (JM): “Area 51 Interns” is a middle-grade kids’ book. That being said, adults will love it too; it’s hysterically funny. Many of my books are adult fiction, thriller, mystery, sci-fi [and] horror but so many of our “Impractical Jokers” fanbase are children from like eight years old and up. They’d watch the show with their parents. I was like ‘I should write a book series for kids too’ and that’s what lead to “Area 51 Interns.”

The other co-author you’ve worked with is Darren Wearmouth. What was the process like working with your new co-author for this series?

JM: I’ve known [Carsen Smith] for many years. She’s an excellent writer; she’s a comedian as well. She was my employee for my company for years. In that time, we had created TV shows, pitched TV shows, and ran scripts together. Along the way, she was instrumental in pitching and developing [thrillers]. We then decided to write a series together, too, and she’s really funny. The idea came really quickly, and it was a lot of fun to write together. We’ve known each other for so long that we rift off each other’s ideas.  

How does it feel to be a published author working with another successful author? How do you think it shaped your writing as a debut author?

CS: It’s great! I had previously worked with James on his earlier trilogy, so I knew his writing style very well, which made it easy for us to collaborate. I think the two of us being friends outside of work also helped. It’s a really wonderful relationship, and I’m excited to see what’s next!

As a budding author in the pandemic, what tips or advice would you give to other authors who want to publish in a post-pandemic world?

CS: I can only speak for myself, of course, but this new “work-from-home” world we find ourselves living in has greatly helped with my ability to write. The hours I save on commuting, now I get to dedicate them to writing whatever project has my attention on any particular day.

What made you decide to pair up with Murr for this novel instead of writing it by yourself?

CS: Murr and I had already been working together for years before this book, so it was kind of a natural decision for us to start writing together. We trust each other’s creative instincts, and I think we both instantly felt drawn to this idea in a way that made the writing process very smooth and organic.

Did your writing process change since both of you had to write the novel remotely?

CS: We’d have Zoom calls to go over story outlines instead of in-person, which was a big adjustment for us. As far as writing the actual manuscript, both James and I were pretty good about sending chapters back and forward for feedback, so that wasn’t too bad.

JM: I think I was used to [writing remotely] already. Most of the writing process is pretty much solidary already. During the pandemic, I had written two other thrillers with my co-author Darren while remote. I was already really accustomed to it. The biggest thing is the first week or two, you have to just figure out all the characters, the plot and the point of view for each chapter. Once you have that outline, you follow it along and the book kind of writes itself. [Carsen] wrote a chapter; I wrote a chapter. We rewrite each other’s works and build the book from scratch to its finished manuscript. It was kind of seamless. We’d go off on our own to write and then come back together and trade work and build it from there.

How does your experience as a comedian intertwine with your experience as an author?

CS: I think they’re incredibly intertwined. Being a comedian relies on the foundation of a setup and a punchline, a subversion of expectations. It’s the exact same components that make for excellent storytelling but [are] distilled into a hyper-concentrated formula.

JM: I think it’s flip sides of the same coin. Even in the horrors and thrillers I write, one could argue that what we do on “Impractical Jokers” is a kind of horror. I think [Smith and his] background in comedy really helps us come up with good dramatic scenes and thrilling kinds of aspects of the novel. The book is funny as hell; I think the kids will really love it. The characters are super relatable, and there is a lot of learning what they’re capable of achieving together as friends and as individuals.

What was the process of writing this book like for you? Were there any obstacles or was it pretty much smooth sailing?

CS: Considering this was my first published book, I learned a lot about the review and editing process alongside our wonderful team at Penguin Random House. There’s a lot more that goes into making a book become a reality beyond just writing it. I wouldn’t say that it was an obstacle, but certainly a learning experience.

JM: The biggest obstacle is planning ahead. This is a three-book series; it’s not a trilogy but it’s three continuous series with the same characters so all the groundwork in book one will have to continue in books two and three. That forward planning of characters, plot and locations and everything we build in book one has to carry in books two and three. Any time you have to write multiple book series, it’s harder than writing one stand-alone book.  When you’re writing a multiple book series, it’s a lot harder fundamentally because you have to make sure you do your homework up front so there [are] no holes for books two and three.

Every novel an author writes has some piece of them inside the work. Would you say this concept applies to you? How does this subject matter relate to you as an adult now?

CS: As a kid (and even now), I was always fascinated by mysteries, conspiracy theories and urban legends. Viv and her friends throughout the series are constantly curious about Area 51 and all the secrets that are stored there. That never-ending eagerness to learn is definitely something I see in myself, and hope comes across in the book, too.

JM: At its core, the story takes place [on] the last day of school in eighth grade when these four best friends realize they’re going to different high schools in September. I remember it vividly that summer between eighth grade to ninth grade I felt like I was going to lose all my best friends because we were all splitting up. It definitely affected our friendship, and I’m friends with them today, but not like I was and that’s really stressful for kids at that age. We met our characters at that moment. When they land the internship and go adventure after adventure, it’s like the memories of a lifetime. At the end of the day, when September comes and they go to different schools, their friendship will remain no matter what because of the lifetime of experiences and adventures they had this one very special summer. I think it’s a very universal moment in time for all of us growing up. Of course, I was obsessed with sci-fi, adventure and thrillers growing up so that’s where the Area 51 angle comes in. Book one is about aliens, book two is about mythical creatures like Big Foot and Chupacabra, and book three is about time travel. Everything you’re obsessed with growing up will be in “Area 51 Interns.”

You already seem to have the series made out. What are you hoping to see more in the development after?

JM: We’re developing it into a live-action children’s TV show. The idea is that we do twenty, thirty [or] forty of these books. Every six months, another one comes out like R.L. Stine does “Goosebumps” [or] “Fear Street.” [For] every episode of the TV show, it will be a new adventure.  

What are some of your fondest and craziest middle school summer memories? I’m sure it’s nothing compared to what Viv’s looks like.

CS: Growing up in Florida, a lot of my summers were spent camping on the riverbanks and hanging out in the springs and swamps. My friends and I used to spend entire afternoons following wildlife around and trying to get pictures of things like manatees, alligators and black bears. Looking back on it now, probably not the safest hobby but we always kept a healthy distance!

JM: I grew up in a different time [in] the eighties and nineties. There were no cell phones and at 2:30 p.m., we leave school and your mom or dad said you had to be home by dark. I think it was a really magical time to grow up. All of the adventures started after school. We used to do good nature adventures like place manhunt in the forest, go on hiking adventures [and] ride our bikes across Staten Island. When we got older, we used to have crazy adventures like we’d climb the gas tanks that were shut down out on Staten Island, which you can’t really do. We stole a tennis court net to try to catch bats. We hung the tennis court net between trees on this deserted part of Staten Island to try to catch vampires. It was good-hearted [and] good-natured fun adventures which you can’t do anymore because we’re attached to our phones, you have to be home at a certain time [and] you have location-tracking. Back then, it was just pure imagination fun, so I think this [book] is kind of a throwback to the free-spirited adventures from when you were a kid. 

This book series seems to focus on friendship themes while your previous books focus more on the murder mystery thriller aspect. Can we expect to see the full spectrum of your writing in this series?

JM: I think all of our books, no matter what the category is, are immensely readable. Cliffhanger endings, exciting fast-paced writing style [and] very punchy active strong verb choices [makes you] want to keep reading. That’s across the border with every book you write. This is what has the injection of comedy. The other books have comedic moments but aren’t comedies. That you’ll see the full spectrum of our writing style in “Area 51.”

What do you hope the younger audience will take away from this book series?

CS: First and foremost, I want to get across that having an interest in science, math and technology is incredibly cool. I went on to major in biological sciences in college, and it was one of the best decisions I ever made. Second, I hope our readers will see their own real-life friendships reflected back through our four lead characters. Both James and I are lucky to have fantastic friends, and we wanted loyalty and fun to come through in every chapter.

JM: Vivian is the leader of her whole friend group. She’s super outgoing and ambitious; she’s super smart and a lot of the story is told from her point of view. Over the book series, she realizes she might be much more powerful than she ever thought possible. She’s far more powerful and stronger than she realizes, and she has it within her to overcome anything. That’s really the lesson of the whole book series.

What advice would you give to your former middle school self in addition to the middle schoolers who will read “Alien Summer”?

CS: Be yourself. I remember being that age and it felt like my entire life hinged on whether or not I was popular or what my classmates thought of me. And I was an introvert, too, so it was hard for me to put myself out there. But ultimately, the only person you have to impress is you! It doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks. I think that’s a lesson Viv especially must learn over the course of the series.

JM: It takes a lot longer to succeed than you think. Stick with it; do what you love, and you’ll never work a day in your life. Believe that you can achieve your dreams because it’s all possible.

What were some of your favorite books when you were in middle school? Did any of them influence “Alien Summer”?

CS: I read everything when I was young. A lot of R.L. Stine’s “Goosebumps,” the “Magic Tree Houseseries [and] “A Series of Unfortunate Events.” And then when I got to middle school, the “Twilight” books and the “Hunger Games” series were all very popular. As much as people make fun of them now, I think those certainly had a big influence on me and my interest in dramatic fiction. There are a few subtle parallels to both in “Alien Summer” that a keen reader might be able to spot!

JM: I was a sucker for all the “Goosebumps” books. When I was a kid, I used to collect them. I loved Scholastic day at school when all the books would arrive. That was so much fun. As I got older, I jumped into sci-fi like when “Jurassic Park” came out from Michael Crichton [when] I was maybe in freshman year of high school. I was obsessed with it, and then I got obsessed with all the Michael Crichton books. “Goosebumps” was my favorite for sure.

What was it like writing middle school characters as an adult? Did your perspective affect writing for this audience?

CS: I have such vivid memories of being a middle schooler that I think it came pretty naturally for me. No matter where you live or who you are or even how old you are, we all have these shared human experiences like crushes, fear of the future, etc. that are universal, so it made tapping back into them relatively easy.

JM: I thought it was super easy. I think the guys and I from “Impractical Jokers,” we met when we were this age. We met when we were the same age as all of these characters. So much of life is still about my best friends from high school. I feel like I’m still mentally that age because so much of our life is fun and laughing for a living. It’s fun [to write] no matter the age.

Have there been any books that helped you as a writer or changed the way you write?

CS: None that particularly come to mind. The vast majority of what I read is fiction, so I think the effects they have on the way I write are a bit more subconscious than a “how to write x” style of book.

JM: I don’t know if there have been books that have changed the way I write. There are TV shows or movies that have changed the way I write for sure. I feel like the TV show “24” is just so watchable and the dialogue is just great. I think that and movies just influence the way I write for sure [by] seeing how and keeping the audience engaged and making it impossible for them to turn away. That’s probably the biggest influence on my writing.  

Were there any aspects of your book like a character or scene that really put you outside your comfort zone as a writer?

CS: Without giving too much away, probably the scenes near the end where Viv learns something important about her past. We had to dial back the humor a bit and get more serious, so that was an interesting challenge.

JM: Probably not for “Area 51 Interns” because that was easy [since] I can connect with the characters and the plot that I’m obsessed with. These really terrifying scenes [really stick with you] but I think it’s all part of the same imagination because it will affect you one way or another. It’s just writing stuff that affects you in some way.

What character would you relate to most in your novel and why?

CS: If you met me at twelve years old, I’d probably come across a lot like Viv. But internally, I always felt like Charlotte. I’d constantly be making wisecracks and jokes in my mind, even if I wasn’t saying them out loud!

JM: My favorite character is Ray. He’s the comedic side character of the whole book, and he has all of the whackiest adventures. He’s got a heart of gold [and] he’s that kind of character that acts before he thinks. He’s hysterically funny; I like that guy. I was the goofy sidekick in middle school and high school.

What are some of your current reads or books on your to-be-read list? Any new releases you’re looking forward to?

CS: I can’t wait for the third installment of Tomi Adeyemi’s “Legacy of Orïsha”series. As far as the adult side, I just got a copy of Emily St. John Mandel’s “Station Eleven,” which I’m looking forward to reading considering how relevant the subject matter is.

JM: I’m reading Brad Meltzer’s new book “The Lightning Rod.” It’s a sequel to “The Escape Artist” which is awesome. It’s a mystery thriller that will keep me guessing until the very end. Brad Meltzer is a dear friend, and I’m very excited to finish it. [Another one is] the “Starless Crown” by James Rollins [which] I’m very excited to read as well. He’s one of my favorite authors in the world; he writes great action-packed thrillers [and] exciting adventures.

What can readers look forward to for “Alien Summer”?

CS: If you want an action-packed, out-of-this-world, sci-fi adventure, this is the book for you. There are so many things to discover about this fictionalized world of Area 51 and we hope to continue writing more books about Viv and her friends.

JM: You’re going to fall in love with the characters. You’re going to laugh your butts off at the whacky adventures they get into. You’re going to absolutely want to read books two and three just to see where it all goes.

For more information on James Murray’s other novels, you can visit his website. To learn more about Carsen Smith, feel free to visit her website. “Area 51 Interns: Alien Summer” is already available for purchase on websites such as Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

Thank you, Carsen Smith and James Murray, for answering my questions about their new release. I’d also like to thank Sabrina Josephson and Elena Stokes from Wunderkind PR, and Nicole Vazquez, who put me in contact with Smith and Murr. Without them, this interview wouldn’t have been possible, and I wouldn’t have been able to have this incredible opportunity.

Sabrina Blandon is an American Literature major at NYU's CAS. Her Author Spotlight series features reputable writers such as Xiran Jay Zhao and James Murray, as she hopes to add onto the list.