We interviewed author Neal Shusterman before his BookPeople event for THE TOLL on December 5th! Check it out below…
Interview by: Liri and Ava
Kicking off with a few ice-breakers:
Q: What is your favorite food?
A: I have so many favorite foods, I love Thai food.
Q: Sweet or savory?
Q: Homebody or traveler?
A: Traveler definitely.
Q: Takeout or homemade?
Q: Pen, pencil, or computer?
A: Pen, I write with a fountain pen.
Q: Do you have any writing habits or must do’s?
A: Well, whenever I start a new book I buy a new fountain pen and I always get a brand new notebook. And I like to go to places that I haven’t been before, new and interesting places I like to write out in the world I don’t like to sit in a room and write.
Q: What are who inspires you to write? Where does your inspiration come from?
A: I’m inspired by the fans, seeing the enthusiasm that readers have for the books and people tell me things like, “Challenger Deep saved my life” or, “I never liked reading until I read Scythe.” That just makes me want to read more. Inspiration comes from the world around me, comes from things that I think about, things that concern me, what’s going on in the world, issues that I don’t have answers to but I want to pose questions about.
Q: What books are you working on right now?
A: I have a new book coming out in September, very excited about it, I’ve been working on it for four years in between the Arc of a Scythe books. I actually started it and then had to put it down and then in between each book I had to kind of try to fit it in so it’s been a long time in the making. It’s called Game Changer, and I just finished the first draft a month ago, and we already have a deal in the works with Netflix to do it as a TV series. So, very exciting. I’m working on another book with my son Jarrod and I’m also working on a middle grade book probably for a little bit younger kids with Eric Elfman, who I co-wrote Tesla’s Attic with. And so those are some of the projects I’m working on now.
Q: Are you planning to write any short stories about the Arc of a Scythe series?
A: I haven’t thought of anything beyond the end of where the story ends now and I haven’t really got done very much in terms of what happened in that interim between before the last chapter. What I’m going to do is I’m going to be writing a short story collection. I did that with Unwind where after I was done with the series, I wrote a collection of stories of all the things that I wanted to see, some things that happened after the end of the books, some origin stories, some stories just within the world that had nothing to do with any of the characters. And so I’m going to be doing the same thing with Scythe because I want to see Scythe Curie and Scythe Faraday’s romance, I want to see the Gleanings that made Scythe Curie famous, stuff like that. I have a whole story worked out for Goddard, which you get a part of in The Toll, I want to see that whole thing unfold. And I want to see some things that happened on the ships and maybe things that happened after they reached their destinations. So there’s a lot of possibilities for stories there.
Q: How do you plan out your books, and how you think of your plot points?
A: I plan out the whole book, kind of loosely and I always know that it’s never going to go the way that I expected it to go, that once the characters come to life they take over the story and they take it in new directions. And they’re smarter than me, they have more interesting adventures going on than I’ve had going on. And so the story changes as I am writing it.
Q: How does your first draft differ from your final draft?
A: The final drafts are much better, there’s many times when you’re working on the early drafts that you can’t see the forest for the trees, you’re so in the middle of it that you can’t see simple problems or simple mistakes. A lot of it has to do with things that either happened too quickly or things that happened too slowly, things that feel unmotivated to the characters, and my editor will say, “I don’t get why the character would do this here, you have to give us a reason why the character would would feel this way” and when my editor points that out, of course it’s obvious, but I couldn’t see it because I was in the middle of it. Just fine-tuning those issues and those problems, there were a lot of sections that were pulled out of The Toll that would have been another 50, 60 pages longer. And so my editor worked with me to figure out what was not necessary in the story. And the biggest section that was pulled out, there’s a whole subplot about Citra’s brother, who was being trained to be a Scythe in her absence because she had become such an iconic figure in the world, they thought by having her brother as a Scythe he could sort of represent her and take her place, but that part of the story didn’t go anywhere, and so in the end we agreed that we could just lift that story out because it really didn’t connect to anything else. Initially I thought he would be the one to be in the room with Faraday to turn the key and then do the thing, but then I realized that had to be Citra, it had to be Citra and Faraday together doing that. And once I had them doing it, there was no place for her brother anymore, and that was actually fairly easy to pull out, but of course it’s going to be in the short story collection because it’s already done, it’s a whole side story that’s already done.
Q: Do you have any characters in these books that you based off of like friends or family?
A: No, I don’t like to do that. Some authors will make characters like that, but I kind of feel that that is unfair to the characters, that the characters should be their own human beings, their own individuals. Unless I’m writing a story that is specifically a story that is that is inspired by a true story, but even then like in Challenger Deep which was inspired by my son Brendan, the character of Caden isn’t Brendan, he’s just going through the same things that my son went through. So even then, I’m creating a new character.
Q: How do you choose character names and Scythe names?
A: I have a long list of Scythe names that I could use when it comes to characters, other than the Scythes I name all my characters after Facebook fans, Citra Terranova and Rowan Damisch were both Facebook fans. What I do is I’ll put out a call on my Facebook fan page, “Who wants to have a character named after them?” and I’ll get a few hundred responses, and then I’ll create a database of names, and I’ll take somebody’s first name and pair it with somebody else’s last name, so I can get to as many people as possible. And so, Rowan Damisch and Citra Terranova were four Facebook fans. Tyger Salazar, was also two fans, all of them, pretty much except for the Scythe names because those Scythe names are named after people in history, but I have a long spreadsheet of all the every time I come across with somebody from history I think, “Oh, they would be a good Scythe someone would choose them as a Scythe”, so I add them to my list.
Q: Did you ever think of any other Scythe name for Citra?
A: Once I chose Anastasia that was it. That’s how I remember it. It’s possible that I had other ideas in there, but that one stuck and I don’t remember if there were any others before this one. And it was for a reason that she chose Anastasia, because Anastasia died, and sure, they have the Disney movie and everybody has all these stories about Anastasia, but the truth is they found remains, I mean she died with all the Romanovs and the whole idea that, had she lived she could have changed things, she could have been the one who redeems the family and changes the world, but she was never given the chance and so Citra related to that.
Q: What are some cool things you found out while researching the places Citra and Rowan traveled to during the time they had to run away?
A: Every place they went to I did a lot of research on and I tried to be as accurate as possible. The Kwajalein Atoll I was constantly looking at that map trying to figure out how far things were away, could a boat get from here to there in a certain amount of time? Just trying to figure out the logistics of it so it would all be legitimate, and one of the really cool thing was I made up the nursery rhyme, about the Land of Nod, it goes “Let’s all forsake/ the Land of Wake/ and break for the Land of Nod”, because the Land of Nod in the nursery rhyme is sleep. I knew that I wanted to use Kwajalein because when I was a kid my father almost got assigned there because there was a military base there, where they were testing rockets and he was an engineer, and so we almost went to live there for two years. I always wondered what my life would have been like had we gone to the Marshall Islands so I thought, “This would be a great place, this is the blind spot, this is the one place in the world that the Thunderhead can’t see.” And so when I looked it up on a map I found out that it was due South of Wake Island, after I had already made up the nursery rhyme, which just was like wow!
Q: How does the Thunderhead consider people “Unsavory”?
A: It has to do with how many transgressions you make, how many things you do that the Thunderhead considers wrong, and I’m sure it has, just like computers today, it has an algorithm that calculates it. And some people do it on purpose, some people do it and realize that they didn’t want to do that, and the Thunderhead always gives them an opportunity to purge that from the record. So the idea is that every decision that the Thunderhead makes and every way that Thunderhead works is right, it always makes the right decision. So that is kind of this axiomatic statement that is, you know, Thunderhead right, period. If the Thunderhead did it, then it was the right thing to do. And that’s how I approached the Thunderhead.
Q: By this algorithm of the Thunderhead, would you consider humanity in the present unsavory?
A: No, not any more than anybody else. I would think that there would be probably the same amount of people who the Thunderhead considers unsavory now as it did in the book. I think just because bad behavior doesn’t necessarily make you unsavory unless it is chronic bad behavior.
Q: What’s your favorite novel?
A: Oh, there’s a bunch of them. A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving, Winter’s Tale by Mark Helprin, Ender’s Game, and anything by Kurt Vonnegut.
Q: What do you like about these books?
A: You know, each one is a little different, I mean, Kurt Vonnegut just bends my mind. I just love the way he’s taken science fiction to a new level. His books are literature, and yet they all have a science fiction twist to them. And when it comes to John Irving, the characters that he creates are just so memorable you don’t want to leave them behind. And I didn’t mention The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, I love those books, they always made me laugh out loud, they still make me laugh out loud.
Q: If you could do something differently as a child or a teenager to become a better writer as an adult, what would you do?
A: I did a lot of reading so I can’t say I would read more because, I would like, read everything. But I would probably have read a little bit more out of my comfort zone, reading things that I might not normally have gravitated to. I did that in college because I had a professor who told me that I should do that but it would have been great if I did that when I was younger.