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.
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!
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.
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.