All About Adolescent Literacy

All about adolescent literacy. Resources for parents and educators of kids in grades 4-12.
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Transcript from an interview with

Neal Shusterman

Below is an edited transcript from our interview with Neil Shusterman. The transcript is divided into the following sections:

Meet Antsy

The character of Antsy is my favorite character. He is just a fun, fun character. And his voice sort of came about very naturally. When I first had come up with the idea for The Schwa Was Here, it was really… This was one of those instances where the whole idea sort of came altogether.

I was speaking at a school and a teacher had pointed out that when I was answering questions in the group, that there was one boy who was smack in the middle of my field of vision whose hand was up and I wasn't calling on him. And even when I looked at him, I didn't notice him there just because of the way, you know… He was wearing a shirt that was the same color as the chair and a bunch of other things.

And the idea came to me that I want to write a story about an unnoticeable kid and we were in the school library and he was sitting in front of the big dictionary and I thought, well, this kid is kind of like a schwa — that unnoticeable sound in the English language. And that's where the idea came from.

I remember knowing at that moment, this is going to be my next book. And then when the bell rang at the end of that period, I ran down and started writing. What basically became the first couple of pages, The Schwa Was There, which never happens. You know, it never happens that just the voice just comes right away.

But I sort of instinctively knew that it couldn't be told by the schwa; it had to be told by a kid who was little bit of the opposite of that, who was kind of loud and obnoxious and sort of talked in run-on sentences.

And really it was because of the stream of consciousness that I had when I was first starting to write it. And, you know, that just became the character of Antsy and he was just so much fun to write. And, you know, he was sort of an amalgam of kids that I knew growing up because I grew up in Brooklyn, New York.

This is really… The Schwa Was Here was the first story that took place in the Brooklyn that I remember growing up in. Even though it's a contemporary story, it's basically my childhood Brooklyn. And he was just such a fun character. He would come up with these sort of like questionable wisdom that he would have… That was just a lot of fun.

He would come up with these things. He didn't realize how wise he was about things and he would come up with these things off hand like, you know…“life is like a bad haircut” and he has this whole thing about how life is like a bad haircut and it kind of makes sense, and it's also funny.

And so I never intended to write a sequel to The Schwa Was Here at all because the schwa story is told and then I realized, I can write another story from Antsy's point of view and it can be a completely different story, just Antsy is the storyteller. And I got very excited about that idea.

Antsy this time became the book that it became in sort of a little bit of a backwards way. The first book, the kid that the story was about was the schwa. So I thought, well, what I sort of go with that and use some sort of phonetic symbol and I thought of the umlaut, you know, the two dots over the “u.”

And so I thought, well, okay. There's a kid whose last name is Umlaut. You know, he's Scandinavian and then that made me think of Ingmar Bergman films and these, you know, grandiose, depressing foreign films. And I thought oh, this is a kid who is obsessed with death.

And that sort of evolved into the story and it sort of tied in with the fact that, you know, a student had asked me… Before I was starting to write Antsy Does Time, a student asked me, “How come, you know, both Everlost and Unwind are about death?” And I thought, well, I've dealt with death in these different ways.

What if Antsy is dealing with death? And that I thought was very exciting because after writing Unwind, it was such a serious and heavy and disturbing book. I felt I sort had to take everything and turn around and say, “Okay. I'll write about death again, but I'm going to make it funny.”

And there was a challenge — how can I write a story about death and make it funny? I just loved the challenge of doing things like that, so that was the goal in writing Antsy.

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Inspired by a librarian, a teacher, and Jaws

I had been a big reader from the time I was in elementary school…it didn't start that way. When I was in third grade, I was really the slowest reader in my class, but it was my elementary school librarian that sort of took me under her wing and taught me a love of reading.

And I always loved stories. I loved reading the stories and when I read a story, I remember thinking to myself…like when I read Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, I remember thinking to myself, Roald Dahl created this out of nowhere. He created this wonderful fantasy world. I want to do that!

And when I saw movies that I enjoyed, read books that I enjoyed, my response was rather then wanting to read something just like it, I wanted to be able to do that myself. And so that had always been a part of what I wanted to do was be a storyteller in one way or another.

I really became interested in being a writer when I was in high school. I had a great 9th grade English teacher who really inspired me to write. I had written a story between 8th and 9th grade — during that summer. I was inspired by the movie Jaws, which came out during that summer.

And I decided I wanted to be just like Steven Spielberg or Peter Benchley, you know, who wrote the book. And so I wrote a story about this seashore town that was being attacked by giant sandworms and lobsters that would crawl up through your toilet in the middle of the night and eat you up alive.

And I gave it to my 9th grade English teacher the first day of 9th grade. And she sent the story off to the principal and the principal entered it in the district short story contest. It didn't win, but my English teacher challenged me to write a story a month for extra credit for that entire school year. And so I did and each month I would turn in that story and by the end of 9th grade, I really felt like a writer and I haven't stopped writing ever since.

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Living up to the challenge

It's an entirely different kind of mindset for each genre that you write and for each type of writing that you do. Writing a screenplay is very different from writing a novel. When I was in college, I had a professor who had challenged me to write in different genres because at the time, I had been writing a lot of short stories — all of them fantasy and science fiction and twilight zone types of stories.

And he said, “If you want to be a writer, you have to stop writing that and try to explore other things because that's how you grow.” And so he said to me, “What type of story would you least like to write?” And I thought, “I don't know…a romance.” And so he said, “Okay. Your next assignment is to write a romance, but one that you would read.”

And so I did and I kind of enjoyed it and then he challenged me to write a Western, and he basically challenged me to do — write in all different genres and I discovered that I enjoyed that and I found that I was becoming a better writer because I was no longer leaning on these fantasy and science fiction stories, sort of as a crutch.

I had to actually develop real characters and strong characters. And so I've really taken that through my entire career. I don't like writing the same thing over and over again. I mean sure, I'll enjoy writing a science fiction story or a fantasy story, but I'll also enjoy writing a realistic fiction story or something that's quirky and humorous like Antsy Does Time and The Schwa Was Here. So I'm always trying to grow as a writer and I think the best way to grow is to try all different kinds of things.

Now writing screenplays and scripts for television… When I was first starting to build my career, I figured, well, if I'm writing a little bit of everything, then I'll be able to sort of have a lot of opportunities and whichever doors of opportunity open first, those are the ones that I'll go through.

And It just so happens that writing scripts and selling my first young adult novel, basically came within the same couple of months. And so I developed this simultaneous career writing scripts and writing the books. And every once in awhile, I have the wonderful opportunity of being able to adapt my own books to a script, which is kind of interesting because I have to be really harsh on myself.

And lots of times, I will just really just re-invent the entire book while writing the script. Sometimes the producers will come to me and they'll say, “No, we want it more like the book,” when they were worried that being the author I was just going to be too attached to the book. No, well, I have to stand back and just really separate myself from the original work and try to re-envision it as a film or a TV show because they are such completely different mediums.

Working in both mediums — film and writing books — has been a challenge, but you know what? That's what I like. I like challenges. I have a very difficult time doing something that's not challenging. I get bored. You know, kids will always ask me, “Is writing boring?”

And I say, “Well if it's boring, if you're doing the same thing over and over again and you're not challenging yourself.” What excites me is trying to do something I've never done before…trying to take a story that looks like it might not be able to work and figuring out how to make it work.

A good example of that would be Downsiders. One of the things that excited me about Downsiders was when I came up with this idea of the civilization — a tribal civilization — living beneath the streets of New York City. And I thought of that and I said, “Is there a way to do that and make it believable?”

Now there was a challenge because now I had to create this fantasy, but not just create the fantasy; create a fantasy that you could come so close to believing, you knew couldn't possibly be real, but yet in the back of your mind, you always wonder, could that be?

And one of my best compliments that ever came to me over that book was from my editor, Stephanie Lorie. And after the book was published she said to me, “Now, because of you, every time I walk past the subway grate in New York, I have to look down.”

And that was a great compliment because it means that I made it just real enough that there's that, you know, that part of your mind that knows no reason — that will always wonder. So I love challenges and I love trying to do things that will really bring me to the next level as a writer.

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Teen voice

One of the great things about being an author for young adults is that students will read the books and it'll start discussions in classrooms, even between themselves. You know, I've gotten e-mails from students who say, “I've just read Unwind and I've, you know, put it up on my blog and all my friends are reading it now.” And It's sort of that word of mouth.

The books can be read for fun and they can also be read in class. I mean, I want to write things that are literary, but at the same time, I want them to be appealing on a commercial level as well and just really reach kids and not be something, you know, that's literary and it's out there and that has that, you know, sort of distance from their lives.

So it's always great when I hear back from kids as well as teachers, talking about how they use the books in the classroom, and how they're telling their friends about the books. I'll have these wonderful experiences when I'm speaking at schools, where kids will come up to me and say, “You know, I never liked reading until I read Full Tilt.”

Or, “Now that I've read Unwind, I want to read all of your books,” and then, you know, “I'd never finished a book before.” So it makes me feel as if I'm doing something that is worthwhile and that's a very good feeling.

One of the things that people will ask me a lot is how I get that voice and how I write, and it sounds like teenagers of today. And the answer to that is, I really don't know. I think maybe it's because I still sometimes feel like a teenager inside and I'm writing from the, you know, the inner teen within me.

I have teenage kids — my sons are 19 and 17 and my daughters are nine and 11 — so I have a wide demographic of kids in the household. And so I guess that really does help and my kids really do help me with the books. My sons, who are, you know, old enough to really read the books, will read the first draft, even before it goes off to the editor.

They'll read the draft. They might read a chapter at a time as I'm working on it and they'll give me their comments and suggestions. And I take their comments and suggestions very seriously because, I mean, they're the demographic. And they are not afraid to honestly tell me what they think.

And now my older daughter, who's 11, is now reading the books and so she's giving me comments, too. So I'm really pleased to be able to include my kids in that whole creative process.

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Choosing a favorite

What question do I always get asked that I'm tired of answering? “Where do I get my ideas?” and “What's my favorite book?” Because those two questions, there's no simple answer to. You know, when I'm writing the books, I'm passionate about all of them when I write them. I mean I find that if I'm not passionate about a book, I can't write it.

And so when you're done with a book, that passion doesn't leave; I still love that book just as much. So each book I love in a different way and if I start to talk about one of my books as a favorite book, it'll automatically make me start thinking about another book.

Oh, but I love Unwind because I think it's the best written of all the books. Oh, but Full Tilt. Full Tilt is just the most exciting and I had the most fun writing that. Oh, but The Schwa Was Here was so funny and I was cracking myself up when I was writing that book. And it ends up, I can't pick a favorite.

The ideas will pop in when I least expect it. The one thing that I do know is that if I sit down to try to come up with an idea, that's when I won't get any. So I just sort of have to be aware of when the ideas are there and when I find something that really excites me to latch onto and to remember it.

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Screaming to be told

I think that people think that the idea is the most important part of writing. In reality, the idea is just one kernel of the entire thing, I mean, there has to be not just a story to tell, but a reason to tell it. There has to be something about that story that just is screaming to be told.

There has to be something about it that connects with you and something that you know will connect it to the readers. So there's really a lot involved. There's many times I'll have an idea for a story that I'll be noodling around for years and years and years until there's something that about it, that just connects.

And I realize, oh, this is the story that I have to tell next because it is so, it is so timely and sort of it… it is something that's really in my heart at this time. So there's quite a lot that goes into actually writing a book … more then just the idea. I tend to have more ideas then I have time to write.

It takes me many months to write a book. During that time, I'm going to have other ideas. The ones that get my attention are the ones that are screaming to be told. And not every one is screaming to be told or ideas that I have that I think are great ideas that I'll probably never write, just because it's just not…it's not knocking at that door.

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My novel Unwind is a story about this future…futuristic society where abortion is illegal, but parents can choose to terminate their children between the ages of 13 and 18 — basically their teenage years. And why they can rationalize doing that is that these kids aren't being killed… They're being what I call “unwound,” which is, they're being used for their body parts.

One-hundred percent of their body needs to be used in transplants, so technically they're not dead because 100 percent of their body is alive but divided among hundreds of different people. Now I got the idea for this when I was watching the news and there was a news report about transplants and transplant technology.

And one of the doctors said that within our lifetimes, they are going to be able to use 100 percent of a person and that made me think, well if 100 percent of you was alive, are you alive or are you dead? And I thought that was just a great, great way of dealing with the whole issue of what does it mean to be alive?

And sort of take that whole argument about issues like abortion or end of life issues and sort of take it out of the politics and look at it from a whole new perspective. And that's what excited me about it because it was a way of dealing with these issues in a completely different way and just really make you think about it. You know, regardless of what your position on the issue is and I didn't want to take a side, I wanted to be as neutral as possible so that people on all sides of these issues could look at it and appreciate it.

Do I think it's possible for a future to be that way? I certainly hope not. I think it is a warning of what could happen if things are left to go to extremes. If two sides on this issue or any issue, start fighting so bitterly that it's no longer about the issue, but it's about how much one side hates the other…

Because ultimately, a lot of these issues that are dividing the nation are less and less about what the actual issue is and more and more about how the two sides hate each other. And one of the points that I wanted to make in Unwind was, that's where the problem is.

Because people — if we're talking about the issue of abortion — people who are pro-life and pro-choice will read Unwind and if they're facing each other — and this actually happened — where there was a pro-life person and a pro-choice person. And they would not talk about the issue. They were very dogmatic about their positions on that issue, but they'd both read Unwind and they were talking about it openly and were in agreement about things.

And I thought that was really interesting, that when it's taken out of the realm of everybody's preconceived notions about what they believe in and has taken it to a different place, there could be conversation, there can be dialogue. And that's really very exciting for me to see that a book can do that.

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Future of the book

Everybody is trying to figure out what the future of the book is — in terms of the printed book — whether it's going to be all digital and people are going to continue reading in the same manner that they read now. No one has an answer. No one really knows what the future is going to hold with regards to that.

I like to believe that people will always want stories told, will always want stories that they can make their own and really unlike a film or television or something that comes at you from the outside, a book is something that comes from the inside. I mean on the page there are just these symbols. It's your mind that is putting together those symbols into words and putting together those words into ideas.

So a book is something that's created up from the inside out. And I think people will always hunger for a personal experience like that and that's my hope — whether or not it will be that way, no one knows because the world is changing so quickly.

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Decisions, life and death

To kids, I would like to say, read. If you think you don't like reading…that just means you haven't found the right book yet. It might not be one of my books; it could be you know any author that you connect with, but there is always a book out there for you. So if you think you don't like reading, all that means is that you haven't found the right one yet.

To teachers, I would like to say thank you for being passionate about what you do and for bringing those books to students and taking their passion and passing it on to the students. I can't tell you how many times kids will come up to me and say, “You know, my teacher told me that I have to read this book and so I read it and I loved it.” It's really the passion of teachers that sort of infuses that community of kids who are reading these books.

And to parents, I like to say as a parent myself, I take writing very, very seriously. I want to be a responsible author. I don't want to put anything out there that is negative in anyway. Even the stories that go to dark places, it's always going there for a point, there's a reason.

I consider it my goal to illuminate the world in anyway that I can — to make people think, to make kids think. I think writing for teenagers is one of the most important kinds of writing that there is because this is the time in your life when you're making all of those decisions about who you're going to be for the rest of your life.

All the more reasons to put things out there that will make them think and give them perspective, because one of the most important things that we can have in life is perspective because when we have perspective, then the decisions that we make are informed decisions. So I take that responsibility very seriously with everything that I write — regardless of the genre, regardless of the style.

Why do I keep writing about death? I don't know. It's profound…death is profound, I like writing about profound things! I tried to write on different subjects and I try to address different things in the stories. One of the things that a student recently said to me, which I thought was very insightful, was that I always seem to write about kids who are on the outside and unseen in some way.

And she pointed out the Shadow Club… These kids are second best at what they do and they're always sort of lost in the shadow of someone who's the best, never lost. These kids are literally invisible and unseen and can't interact with the living world. And, of course, in The Schwa Was Here, he is functionally invisible.

Where he's so unnoticeable he might as well be invisible. And I thought well, that's really interesting. I had never noticed that before and there is sort of that theme that runs through, you know, a number of the books. I don't know… I think it'll all come out in analysis somewhere.

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Excerpt from Antsy Does Time

Hi, I'm Neal Shusterman and I'm going to be reading today from Antsy Does Time, my most recent novel. Antsy Does Time is a companion book to The Schwa Was Here and in this story, the character of Antsy, who's this sort of fast-talking kid from Brooklyn, has a situation where he has a friend of his who he finds out is dying.

I wanted to write about this because I had written a couple of books that dealt with the issue of life and death. Unwind dealt with it very seriously. Everlost was a fantasy and it dealt with the issue about these kids trapped in-between life and death in sort of a whimsical, fantastical kind of way.

I thought it would be interesting to approach the same issue from sort of a humorous, quirky perspective and so that was the challenge when I started writing Antsy Does Time. In the chapter that I'm going to read, which is chapter two, Antsy has just found out that his friend, Gunner, is dying and only has six months left to live. And so, this is sort of Antsy's take on the whole concept of dying and death…

The idea of dying never appealed to me much. Even when I was kid watching The Adventures of Roadkill Raccoon in Daring Headlights, I always found it suspicious the way Roadkill got flattened at the end of each cartoon and yet was back for more in the next episode. It didn't mesh with any reality I knew.

According to the way I was raised, there were really just a few possibilities of what happens to you in the hereafter. Option one, it turns out you're less of a miserable person then you thought you were and you go to heaven.

Option two, you're not quite the wonderful person you thought you were and you go to the other place that people these days spell with double hockey sticks, which by the way, doesn't make much sense because that's the only sport they can't play down there unless they're skating on boiling water instead of ice, but it ain't going to happen because all the walk on water types'll be up in heaven.

I did a report on heaven for Sunday school once, so I know all about it. In heaven, you're with your dead relatives. It's always sunny and everyone's got nice views; no one's looking at a disgusting landfill or anything.

got to tell you though…if I've got to spend eternity with all my relatives, everybody hugging and walking with God and stuff, I'll go crazy. It sounds like my cousin Gina's wedding before people got drunk. I hope God doesn't mind me saying so, but it all sounds very hockey stick-ish to me.

As for the place down under, the girl who did her report on it got all her information from horror movies. So, aside from really good special effects, her version is highly suspect. Supposedly, there are like nine levels and each one is worse then the last. Imagine a barbeque where you're sizzling on the grill, but it's not accidental like my dad last summer.

And the thing about it is… you cook like one of them Costco roasts that's somehow thicker then an entire cow, so no matter how long you sit there, you're still rare in the middle for all eternity. My mother, who I'm sure gives advice to God since she gives it to everyone else, says the fire talk is just to scare people.

In reality, it's cold and lonely. Eternal boredom, which sounds right because that's worse then the roasting version. At least when you're burning, you've got something to occupy your mind. There is a third version called purgatory, which is a kinder, gentler version of the place down under.

Purgatory is God's version of a timeout — temporary flames of woe. I find this idea most appealing, although to be honest, it all bugs me a little. I mean… God loves us and is supposed to be the perfect parent right? So what if a parent came up to their kid and said, “I love you, but I'm going to have to punish you by roasting you over flames of woe and it's really going to hurt.” Social services would not look kindly upon this and we could all end up in foster care.

I figure hell and purgatory are like those parental threats. You know, like “tease your sister one more time and I swear I'll kill you.” Or… “commit one more moral sin and so help me I will roast you over eternal flames, young man.” Call me weird, but I find that comforting. It means that God really does love us; he's just ticked off.

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