Delia from BookPeople’s Teen Press Corps got a chance to catch up with YA author Neal Shusterman, who will be at this year’s Texas Teen Book Festival, October 23-24. Learn more about his world-building, the inspiration behind ROXY, writing advice, and more! And don’t forget to order your copy from BookPeople! Signed bookplates come with every order, while supplies last!
Delia: Most of your books are for young adults, but they often deal with very mature themes (for example, mental illness or death). What do you say to those that think these topics should be reserved for adult literature?
Neal Shusterman: Shielding kids from real-world issues does nothing but leave them ill-equipped for dealing with the world. Tough subjects must be introduced with care and a sense of responsibility, though. It’s like teaching kids to swim. You don’t hide the deep end of the pool and pretend it doesn’t exist, you help them develop their skills so they can navigate the deep end on their own.
D: A lot of your books also touch on some of today’s political issues. For example, your newest book, Roxy, deals with the opioid crisis. How do you decide what political (or problems) are most important to write about?
NS: The problems that keep me awake at night are the ones I feel driven to write about. It’s not a matter of picking the issue-of-the-week, it’s choosing subjects that are burning to be addressed. Many times I try to deal with the issue behind the issue. I also like to try to look at the world from unique perspectives—such as Jarrod and I did in Roxy. The opioid crisis, as seen from the point of view of the drugs themselves—who exist in an eternal, and deadly party in the sky like the Greek gods.
D: Your books (I’m thinking of the Arc of Scythe series in particular) always have very well thought out world-building. Do you have any strategies that you use to help you flesh out these complex alternative realities?
NS: I think the most important thing in world-building is that your world make sense, and that it’s internally consistent. Many times it’s a process of asking myself questions about the world, and the answers lead to more questions. For instance, Scythe: A world where no one dies naturally. Q) So does that mean people can’t die from accidents? A) No, anyone who dies in an accident is repaired and brought back. Q) But what if they want to die? A) In a perfect world no one would want to, so there must be ways of controlling brain chemistry so no one ever wants to die. Q) But if people can be brought back, would there be more thrill-seeking behavior, since death is not a consequence? A) Yeah – like maybe teenagers hurl themselves off of buildings for fun.
Q) Is there a trendy name for that? A) How about… “splatting?”
And after asking hundreds upon hundreds of questions, the world grows!
“The problems that keep me awake at night are the ones I feel driven to write about. It’s not a matter of picking the issue-of-the-week, it’s choosing subjects that are burning to be addressed.”
D: Do you find that pieces of yourself or your own life ever make their way into your books? If so, in what ways?
NS: Always! Things that I’m feeling, or questioning. Interactions that I’ve had, or events that actually happened. Challenger Deep is full of tons of things that actually happened. In SCYTHE the compassion that Scythe Faraday shows to the people whose lives he takes is a direct reflection of the end-of-life care that my mother had to go through. Everything always comes back to real life in one way or another.
D: Do you think that some of the things that you make up for your books could ever come to pass? (for example: the drought from Dry or the end of natural death in Scythe?)
NS: Absolutely, for better or for worse. A lot of the social behavior (such as the raids on Costco) that Jarrod and I wrote about in Dry, were mirrored during the pandemic—and every single day I see articles about how the water supply on the west coast is running dangerously low. And, with regards to Scythe, yes, there’s no question that, unless we destroy ourselves first, we’re going to see the end of natural death—and not in hundreds of years, but likely within our lifetimes. The question is, once it happens, how do we deal with it? How do we keep the world sustainable if people can live forever?
D: How do you get started writing a new book? Since all of your books are pretty different, do you ever find it difficult to switch into a new character’s headspace when starting writing on a new book?
NS: It usually takes several days to switch gears and get into the zone on a new project. Once I’m engaged, I can work on a few projects at once. Sometimes music can help me switch gears. I have playlists for every project that provide me a shortcut to getting into the zone. But there are times when I just can’t get into the head of a character, or can’t get into my own head deeply enough to write. On those days I’ll work on logistics, or revisions, or social media. So if you catch me spending a lot of time on social media, you’ll know I’m not feeling very creative that day!
D: What were you like as a teen? How have you changed?
NS: A hard question to answer because I don’t feel all that different. But then, I think all adults still harbor that teenager inside. We just have learned how to hide it better. I mean – every time I go to a big conference event with hundreds of people, I still feel like I’ve just walked into the high school dance. If you’ve ever been at those book party events, you’ll notice the authors will cluster together. It’s not because they’re aloof or stand-offish, it’s because they’ve reverted back to their awkward teenaged selves, and are clinging on to the people they know, so as not to be left standing in the corner alone!
D: As an aspiring teen writer, I was wondering: what advice do you have to young people considering pursuing writing?
NS: Write, write, and write some more. The more you work at it the better you get. Also develop your skill at rewriting, because it’s the most important part of the writing process. If you want to be a writer, you also have to be a reader—and read out of your comfort zone. Become well-rounded as a reader. And persevere. There will be A LOT of rejection along the way, and that’s a good thing, because it pushes you to hone your skills. You have to develop a thick skin against rejection, and keep forging ahead!
Look out for Neal Shusterman at TTBF this weekend! You can order his upcoming novel, ROXY, from BookPeople and get a bookplate signed by the author!