Interview with Neal Shusterman
Neal Shusterman is a New York Times bestselling author many times over whose books include the Unwind, Challenger Deep and Arc of a Scythe series. One of the most well-known names in the young adult genre, he has also written screenplays for film and television, for shows such as Goosebumps and Animorphs.
Neal wrote his latest young adult thriller Dry with his son, Jarrod. The Shustermans have recently finished writing the screenplay for the film adaptation of Dry, which was optioned by Paramount in a six-studio bidding war.
Neal was in Australia for the Sydney Writers’ Festival, and when he popped over to NZ for a couple of days, I caught up with him at the Wellington Children’s bookshop.
When you were 16 you moved from Brooklyn NY to Mexico City and spent the last two years of high school there. Can you tell me about that?
Having an international experience changes your life, opens your eyes. It makes you less provincial, makes you a citizen of the world. I didn’t know any Spanish when I went to Mexico City – I’d spent four years of high school studying French, had no idea I’d end up in Mexico! But I was semi-fluent in Spanish by the end of my last two years of high school. And then I went from Mexico to California: because of that international experience, I felt I could go anywhere.
You had a ninth grade English teacher who changed your life –. What did she do that made the difference?
I think, she believed in me. I had to do extra assignments to get the grades I needed, but it was more than that. She made me feel special: by the end of ninth grade, I knew I really wanted to be a writer. I felt like I was a writer.
You wrote Dry with your son Jarrod. How did that work? Did it feel strange, after so long writing novels alone, to write with someone?
I’ve actually collaborated a lot in my writing, in the entertainment industry, so it wasn’t that strange for me. Collaborations can be great – or really difficult, it depends on a lot of factors. But Jarrod is a good writer, and very professional. The whole thing was a fantastic father-son bonding experience. People ask me: did you fight? The answer is: never! It was a golden experience. So good, we’re going to do it again – we’re writing another novel together. But I can’t tell you anything about that yet – it’s still in the early stages!
When did Jarrod start writing? Do you think that he would have been a writer, if his dad hadn’t already trailblazed that path?
Jarrod’s 27, and his ambition is to be a film director. He’s been working a lot in the entertainment industry, doing his own stuff. He’s been busy making his own successes – writing a book was just one more thing to add.
You’ve been phenomenally successful – had a book deal within a year of leaving college, and were hired to write a movie script. Do you think that still happens for young writers?
Hm… I think it still does happen. People say to me “Oh, you were an overnight success!” That’s how they see it, they think it was so easy. But it wasn’t. I worked hard all though high school and college. I had two completed novels that didn’t sell, countless short stories that I sent off which either didn’t sell or didn’t win. So when my third book did get picked up, it wasn’t really an “overnight success” – it was the result of a lot of hard work. I had to do a lot of writing before I was good enough to get published.
What advice would you give to a young person, say in ninth grade, who knows they want to be a writer?
My advice would be: keep doing it. If you know it’s what you want – then persevere.
Tell me about Dry. Where did the idea come from? How real do you think that scenario is?
In California, we are constantly dealing with drought, and the possibility of the state running out of water is frighteningly close. That got us thinking about what could happen if millions of people were struggling to survive without water.
And then while we were writing it, when we were about halfway through the book, we started hearing about a critical water shortage in Cape Town, and that the city was approaching the point where water would be shut off to residents. In Cape Town, it was called ‘Day Zero,’ and in Dry we call it the ‘Tap-Out,’ but the parallels are creepy.
And the parallels persisted. As the book’s pub date approached, Dry became more and more relevant every day. Cape Town wasn’t alone. São Paulo, Beijing, Moscow, and even Mexico City have all got huge problems with their water supply.
When we wrote Dry, we knew it was timely, but we didn’t realize how timely it would be. We don’t give answers: I never give answers. My books are about raising questions, and provoking deeper thinking about those questions. In fact there are no easy answers to the questions we raise. The issue is too huge and complex. But if it encourages young people to think more deeply about the issues we face, then that’s incredibly important.
Where do you get the ideas for your characters? I loved the character of Henry, the slightly sociopathic, manipulative business boy. Where did that idea come from?
We loved writing Henry! We had this idea – we called him the “future corrupt politician.” You know, he’s smooth-talking, articulate, plausible, charismatic. I mean, even Alyssa starts to believe in him. And then, it turns out he’s completely self-serving, and because he puts his own self-interest first, his actions almost destroy them all.
We had this idea for a fortune 500 company future CEO, incipient politician type, and decided Jarrod could go away and have a crack at trying to find his voice. We worked this way a lot – one of us would go off, write a few chapters in a character’s voice, come back and we’d go through together and see if it worked. Jarrod decided to write Henry in this oddly formal, presentational style – and he totally nailed it! Henry’s funny – but also slightly sociopathic, and creepy. After that, we fought over who would write his chapters, and split it between us.
And then at the end, you find out he’s so young – only fourteen or something. So then that’s even more frightening: if he’s that smooth and plausible now, what’s he going to be like at seventeen? Twenty four?...
You have the reputation of being a great public speaker. How do you go about talking to kids about your work?
I don’t talk down to kids, or at them. I talk with them. I always begin by opening with questions, not leaving it to the end like most speakers. You always get questions that lead into the kinds of things you would talk about anyway, like “where do you get your ideas from?” By opening up to questions, it turns the talk into a conversation. The kids own it more: they’re invested, they’re involved. Like I said, I don’t give answers. My books are about raising questions, and there are no easy answers. Don’t underestimate young people. They can think deeply. And they can make a difference.
By Brin Murray
Refreshingly Different Samoan Paranormal Romance - When Water Burns Telesa: Book Two By Lani Wendt-Young
This is the second volume in the Telesa sage, and I hadn’t read the first, which I thought might be a problem. As it turned out I didn’t need to worry: the author skillfully laid enough groundwork so that a new reader was oriented as to what has already happened, and I never once felt lost.
I’m not a big fan of paranormal romance usually (probably my least favourite YA genre)– but once I got into this one, it blew me away! Which is a huge tribute to the quality of the writing, and in particular the highly engaging characters.
The story is set in Samoa, which works brilliantly: the language, the culture, the customs, the legends – whether real or cleverly invented - all lend freshness and authenticity. The lush vegetation, steaming heat, brilliant flowers, teeming clear seas and conservative customs, are all brought vividly to life.
Leila is a Telesa, a fire goddess of ancient legend, but grew up in her father’s affluent American family so until recently had no idea of her heritage or gifts. She has already clashed with her mother – now dead – and her mother’s sister, who is now a powerful and embittered enemy. The Telesa form Covenants, like witches’ covens: groups of gifted individuals who demand powerful oaths of loyalty. Leila is on the outside; plus, horrifically, the Covenants always sacrifice male offspring. Twins are commonplace – but male Telesa are forbidden.
Enter normal school days – Fa'afafine (male raised as female) cross-dressing Simone with a talent for fashion shows – the rugby-playing va’a paddling super-hunk Daniel, who has some unsuspected secrets of his own – and an unexpected newcomer from Hawaii, whose horrific scarring and dark background gradually reveal yet another complex and powerful protagonist.
It did take me a little while to get into this one – I would have liked Leila to listen to her lawyer, and be a bit less shallow-seeming at the start – but things soon started to move along, and she became real and more empathetic the moment she got involved in the women’s refuge. That was a very strong point of the story: for all the beauty of the place, the author didn’t shirk taking on some major issues in Samoa, like family violence, and masculine expectations. Leila is refreshingly strong when faced with Daniel’s need to “protect” her, and, although hurt, can see that his fragile male ego just needs to get over it if they are to have a future together. Quite unusual in romantic YA, and powerful stuff.
This is a gripping read, which well repays sticking with the story after a slightly slow start. Highly recommended.
Lani Wendt Young is a Samoan-Maori writer and blogger, and the 2018 ACP Pacific Laureate. Her blog Sleepless in Samoa has an international following, and she is know for writing about feminism, religion, climate justice and LGBTI/ Fa'afafine in Oceania. She is an advocate for survivors of child sexual abuse and has written at length about family violence in Samoa: a strong and committed background, which shines through in her writing without being overwhelming.
Daama is the werestoat, a slightly sociopathic, self-absorbed, wildly egotistical descendant of the Wind-God. She is divine, powerfully magical, feeds off praise, and frequently declares herself to be the greatest mother in the universe. Unfortunately, as her son Harsu knows, this is pretty well the opposite of the truth.
As the greatest mother, Daama declares herself worthy of only perfect children. Poor Harsu to not perfect. His face is marred by smallpox scars. While happy to use Harsu as a kind of slave, Daama is ashamed to own him as a son. She steals children, first babies whom she is forced to return by fellow God-like relatives, and then boys, and then girls. As her relatives would not be too happy at her child-stealing, she goes on the run, using a magical gateway that takes them all through time and space.
Her first choice is Zamuna, for his prettiness, but then when he is not admired sufficiently by the villagers (and he grizzles quite a lot) she tires of him and kidnaps Ragnar the Viking boy instead. Then, when Ragnar is too wild and rebellious, she moves on to a girl child Blanche, from the time of Cromwell, who it turns out talks too much. The less than perfect children are kept captive and sedated by magic, in large jars.
Harsu sticks around despite being given an early opportunity to escape by his relatives. At first he is hopeful that his mother will forgive him his imperfections and embrace him as her son. Later, he stays as her helper and sometime confidante because he wants to help the stolen children, and is afraid for them.
Then they arrive in New Zealand, modern times, and Daama plots a new abduction of a lively and talkative neighbour girl called Megan, who shows some interest in Harsu. The two youngsters start to bond. Harsu is determined to prevent Megan being the next stolen child, but Daama has a plan: at the next new moon, she will reward Harsu for his labour and loyalty by turning him into a stoat, so he will be forever perfect and unscarred.
But what Daama doesn’t know, is that while Harsu has been slaving at her command, he has also been watching and learning her magic…
This is a highly imaginative and beautifully written read, sprinkled with dry humour. The strength of the story is probably the disturbing portrait of a the flawed mother, Daama, and how Harsu gradually learns to survive her warped parenting. Harsu is initially desperate for her approval, no matter how cruel and unjust her rejection, and only gradually comes to realize that she will never change. In the end, it is up to him to stop her abductions and appalling treatment of the stolen children.
This darker side to the story – reminiscent of Hansel and Gretel, with its grim take on the parent-child relationship – is touched on quite lightly; but taken together with the slow pace at which the drama unfolds, the story is a fairly sophisticated read. The story is billed as being for middle readers, but I suspect many younger children would find the pace a little slow, and the bad mother rather disturbing.
Barbara Else is a playwright and fiction writer, and has also worked as a literary agent, editor and fiction consultant. She won the Victoria University Writer’s Fellowship in 1999, and was made a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit for services to literature in 2005.
Barbara has edited several collections of writing for children, and was awarded the Margaret Mahy Medal in 2016 in recognition of her services to children's literature.
Stray by Rachael Craw
Book two in the Spark series sees Evie return with hot Jamie and best friend Kitty, only now Evie’s twin brother Aiden is in trouble. He’s been identified as a Stray, and no one will listen to Evie when she pleads her case that he’s been ‘deactivated’: she gave him her blood when he was terribly injured, and it reacted with his in such a way that it changed him, dramatically.
Evie is taken by Affinity, the Project in charge of trying to clean up the mess the genetic experiment left behind all those years ago, and a new and quite horrific character enters the story. The Proxy is a kind of activator of telepathic abilities, and can enhance the abilities of others as well as being a powerful, even devastating interrogation tool herself. A ghostly pale girl with bleached skin and silver irises, she spends most of her life in a tank where she is milked of her insights, powers and melanin. She is both pitiful – what a disgusting life she has been forced to lead from childhood – but also frightening, because of her malevolence and power.
Kitty is a great character, no soft victim type but a warm, witty and brave friend with her head screwed on (and a far greater capacity for faith, trust and loyalty than Jamie, it seems – I preferred her to him, by the end!!) Kitty is my favourite person in the series, and I loved the way she was able not only to forgive Aiden but also respond to him as a person.
The ending of this book wasn’t one I was hoping for (no spoilers), and there are still a lot of issues unresolved – major family upheavals not worked through or properly acknowledged, people in comas etc. So… roll on book three!
Spark By Rachael Craw - Yay! Smart, readable, heaps of fun - and by fellow Nelsonian
This is science fiction well and intelligently written, with solid internal consistency (written as former science nerd, this science is not shoddy! Phew - love it. It's imaginative - stretches the bounds - but stays just-plausible and internally consistent).
Evie is changing: she’s growing taller, more beautiful, stronger, bigger-boobed – like some kind of superwoman. Oops – it’s because she is! She’s got modified genes, due to a secret experiment that went wrong a couple of generations back, and now the different progeny tend to activate on exposure to each other in different ways. Some become Strays – evil assassins – and others Shields – protectors of the innocent – and some Sparks – innocent subject of the assassin’s obsession. Evie is a Shield, activated by her very own best friend Kitty, who turns out to be a Spark. So Evie’s job is to protect Kitty. But then of course it turns out there is a shadowy organisation in the background of all this mayhem, Affinity, and they’re very sinister and controlling. Evie’s life is no longer her own.
The plot thickens: Kitty’s twin brother Jamie, another Shield, is super-hot and has a history with Evie. Different kinds of sparks begin to fizz. Then all the familial relationships turn out to be far more complex than Evie understood – twins figure large (always a favourite plot device of mine!) And who is the assassin Stray after Kitty?
This is very well-written and a lot of fun to read. If I had to quibble, I would wish that Evie didn’t swoon quite so much – but that is explained by her super-charged developmental phase, so she should grow out of it. And what a gorgeous cover!
Great choice for curling up in an armchair on a rainy afternoon – whizzed through it and looking forward to book two!
Deeply affecting story of conjoined twins Grace and Tippy, told through Grace’s point of view in beautifully constructed free verse. No poet I – but the short lines and poetical layout, worked perfectly to emphasize and clarify. No excessive metaphor or flowery over-writing, quite the opposite. This is a sensitive, empathetic and deeply insightful portrait of two young women joined since birth; and though Grace can be often irritated by the incessant company of her more outspoken, tempestuous, even bitchy twin, ultimately she cannot imagine life alone. The unthinking cruelty of others – such as people who think it’s okay just to film them on the subway, like exhibits without personhood or dignity – is much outweighed by the two unexpected friends the twins make when going to school for the first time. Jon and Yasmeen are also both outcasts in their own way, for different reasons, but the friendship they offer is honest and judgment-free. Grace falls in love, knowing very well that this is the one thing Tippy and she had determined they could never do. Their story is for a while one of unexpected happiness, despite the financial difficulties at home caused by their huge medical insurance and father’s unemployment, amongst other problems.
But then, having beaten the odds against their survival since they were two years old, Grace and Tippy catch the flu, with terrible repercussions and an impossible decision follows.
This is a profoundly emotional and powerful read, but also one which genuinely challenges our beliefs about ourselves. Would I be a Yasmeen, or the embarrassed girl by the lockers trying not to get too close and accidentally touch? Would I have seen Grace and Tippy truly, as individuals with individual identities – or as scarily freakish and people to avoid? It is a real achievement to allow us to see the world as Grace, a gentle, beautiful, sensitive and deeply loving person, who happens to be also a conjoined twin.
Great writing, and a book which needs to be read.
The Gilded Wolves (weirdly disconnected title - no wolves in book?) by Roshani Chokshi
I put off reading this for a while for some reason – but in fact, I thoroughly enjoyed this smart, engaging Victorian fantasy.
It’s set in 1889 Paris, not the 1889 Paris we all know (ha ha) – this one is a fantastical world, with four Houses of an international order, the Order of Babel. Each House historically has its own matriarch (or patriarch), except that one house has fallen – the Fallen House – and is no more; and the heir of another – the House of Vanth – was found to be not the true heir during some magic test of rings 10 years ago. That failed heir is Severin, convinced that the test was fixed and that he must reclaim his birthright. In the meantime he manages to be very wealthy, owns a Paris hotel, and has gathered a diverse band of accomplices who help in his trade of “acquisitions,” commonly known as theft, robbery or heists.
Some aspects of this world are dealt with rather sketchily: the background is that the biblical Tower of Babel fragmented and the fragments scattered, providing the foundation of civilizations, but the reader doesn’t get a clear sense of how the Houses arose or even of the current members, apart from the misfit patriarch Hypnos who joins the band. The forging magic which certain members of the Houses possess – who has it, how, do they receive training, what does it do??? Some of that stuff is there but it’s very fleeting and we don’t really see it. Similarly, the bad guys – to do with the Fallen House – are not really given enough presence, motivation or background to seem deeply sinister or scary. I found myself wondering why Severin didn’t join forces with the Fallen House, as they’d both been kicked out of the Order.
The story has a number of very strong points. The Paris Exposition at the time was a celebration of empire and racial supremacy: the novel counterpoints that brilliantly, partly through its highly diverse characters and partly through its explicit discussions and references (one character is a mixed-race filipino historian) as to how history is rewritten and cultures erased through colonization. The characters’ diversity is not limited to their racial identities – although that is intrinsic to the plot: is that why Severin was denied his birthright? The brilliant Zofia is on the autistic spectrum, Hypnos is queer, Enrique pan… so, diversity in various ways.
The writing is often sumptuous and poetic, and paints gorgeous sensuous scenes. The puzzles and problems, and the interweaving of this magical world with ancient civilizations, mythologies and religions, are very cleverly done. The characters are extremely engaging for the most part. Two things slightly bothered me at the end: A reveal about Tristan – why? I could have done without that (and why did the bad guy target him anyway? I didn’t understand the reason). Plus Severin seemed to undergo a personality transplant for the last couple of scenes and turned into a dick. If I’m going to be super-picky, too – interesting that Severin and his buds are wealthy. Racism and oppression are in reality tied very closely to wealth acquisition: the general status of the oppressed is that they are poor, and have to work long hours in cruddy jobs just to eat. They don’t potter around experimenting in laboratories and greenhouses, or perusing historical texts in libraries. Only the oppressors have time for that kind of thing. So the racism here is stand-alone, not tied to economic exploitation as is the case in the real world.
But apart from that – if you like smart fantasy with healthy multicultural themes, very engaging characters and a fast-moving story, then you should give this one a go. Definitely a cut above, sophisticated YA.
This was nearly a DNF for me. Ultimately I’m glad I stuck with it, but it was definitely not the sort of writing I find appealing.
It’s basically the story of the massacre of the Palestinians of Lydda, now Lod, in 1948. Once the narrator gets to that, the narrative becomes powerful and horrific – somewhat diluted still by his endless circuitry and waffle. The long first part of the novel is about the narrator, Adam Dannoun, having a kind of identity crisis as he’s told his parentage is not what he believed. This is told as a story within a story, by some academic first person maundering on about his not-an-affair with a beautiful young Korean student, amongst other things, and how he came into possession of Adam’s notebooks. I suppose Adam’s search for identity is kind of a mirror or symbol of the crisis in identity that displaced refugees experience, as the heart of the story is around dispossession, and losing your place in the world. As well as genocide. Certain themes are revisited: love, silence, words… over and over again. Repetition is not a crime in this kind of stream of consciousness narrative (though I’m sure it’s not really SOC at all, but carefully constructed): maybe repetition is meant to emphasize.
The finding of notebooks device, and frequent (again, repetitive) references to an old myth or fairy tale of a lover in a coffer, again seem to go round and round. The prose is often poetic, and probably more poetic still in the original, but this kind of waffle I find self-indulgent. I think the impact of the atrocity – the tale he has to tell - would be infinitely more powerful without this endless self-obsessed burbling (though admittedly that is often a feature of lauded literary works I don’t like), which ultimately wraps around and dulls the sharp blade of truth and horror within.
I’m being a plebian/philistine here – but it would be better at half the length. Then, if he wants to talk about words and silence and his many fathers, he could write a short poem or two. And as for the Korean student – did-he-didn’t-he have an affair?– leave her out altogether. And the notebooks device – story within a story. He doesn’t return to it, and as far as I can see it’s entirely redundant.
But for all those many caveats, an important, heartbreaking story that needs to be told.
I remember this title from years back caused quite a stir when Loewen challenged various myths embedded in standard text books, and how the accepted attitude ennobles the heroic founding father figure type and ignores or belittles any other culture’s contribution to America’s unquestioned greatness.
This is an American book about American history textbooks, so it is less directly relevant to an outsider (I’m not an American) but it is still fascinating reading. Much of Loewen’s debunking is around figures such as Columbus (what a piece of work he was) and the early founders of the constitution. He takes on the injustices and near genocide wreaked on Native Americans north and south, the way slavery is skated over in traditional school texts, the neglect of the civil rights movement, America’s unconstitutional involvement overseas, and the myth of the American dream – “work hard and you will get on in America” – when in fact America possesses, interestingly, one of the least socially and fiscally mobile populations in the western world. So basically, Loewen addresses social class – a near-unmentionable in traditional texts, which choose to perceive America as a classless society with opportunity open to all.
I think this is an incredibly valuable book, despite elements of repetition and maybe a slightly too obvious liberal white guilt itchy feel. I see Loewen mentions time and again that school boards will not accept non-traditional texts: there is a kind of censorship (or maybe propaganda) which decides that young minds should only be fed carefully edited facts to encourage them to believe their country is great.
The trouble is, how does this translate for poor white kids, or black kids who know it isn’t true? They must be poor because their parents didn’t work hard enough, or are undeserving in some way. So if they believe this version of reality, they must feel shame for their parents and their families.
I suspect most of them don’t believe it, but they don’t know what they should believe, either. They are most likely confused, maybe angry – and maybe disengaged. They will certainly be uninformed.
This book is an attempt to address that lack of/misinformation.
If I would like to see one addition, it would be a bigger section on the class system and the effect of trickle down economics. Loewen describes the enormous and fast growing disparity in wealth between haves and have-nots – the gap between rich and poor – but doesn’t mention Reaganism and Milton Friedman, whose economic policies have become widely accepted across the western world. The catastrophic failure of these policies, which we are being very slow to recognize mainstream, is surely a significant factor in the growth of poverty and inequity. They are part of history too.
Wedding Night by Sophie Kinsella
I’ve read some Sophie Kinsella in the past and thought this would offer a fun, lightweight, heartwarming read.
I still read it quickly in the way that you do when you’re fully hooked on the story, but despite that I didn’t enjoy it as much as I thought I would. There were some funny moments, especially earlier on. Sophie does have a knack for witty dialogue and humour.
Essentially the reason it didn’t quite resonate as it should was that the basic premise was a fail, for a couple of reasons.
First, Fliss takes it on herself to wreck little sister Lottie’s rushed rebound marriage by orchestrating non-consummation on her wedding night. Even putting aside issues such as: Fliss has no right; Lottie is a 33 year old adult woman; if she wants a baby, who is Fliss to stop her at this age and stage of her life?…
The main problem was that the non-consummation orchestrations just aren’t funny. They’re too implausible to be amusing: I couldn’t suspend disbelief to that degree, or even close (and I believe in Harry Potter). The telly tubbies, the single beds, the peanut oil, the airport toilet – it just seemed silly, and not very interesting. More cringe than laugh. Rather like those old unfunny farces where people run in and out of doors mistaking identities because they have wigs on, and the like. There’s a reason farces are no longer popular.
Also it becomes clear quite early on that Ben is dimwitted and shallow and unpleasant despite hot bod, so why does Lottie persist in trying to shag him anyway?
Even when Lottie finally realizes she really loves Richard and doesn’t like Ben and they’re going to split up straight away, she still wants to shag Ben just the once. “We deserve this.” Really? It seems deeply unlikely character-wise (who wants to shag a guy who they know is dim, selfish and all over some other woman? Not Lottie, unless she has the lowest self-esteem out there.) It’s a plot device to bring in another round of consummation-obstruction orchestrations, and as they weren’t funny the first time round they’ve definitely overstayed their welcome by now.
Which all sounds highly critical, and is – but partly I’m annoyed because I like Sophie Kinsella, and her writing is lovely: intelligent, warm-hearted, humorous. So I had high expectations. Counterpoint to criticisms: intriguing idea – the rebound marriage, droll moments and flashes of wit, and strong characters. Yes, Lottie’s an immature (likeable) idiot and Fliss is a micro-managing control freak (best interests at heart etc). So they both have issues, but of course that’s what makes them interesting. They’re both engaging in different ways – I rooted for them, and I liked the ending (yay!). I just wanted the story to be better, and funnier.
Also - will still rush out and read the next one that comes along, so slight disappointment not enough to put me off Kinsella. We all have off days.
What Works And Why?
We read to escape, enjoy, engage, and find out more about our world. So reading is great - but what makes a great read? A page dedicated to short analyses of how writers engage readers.