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
What Works And Why?
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