Terry Trueman won a 2001 Printz Honor for his debut novel, Stuck in Neutral, which is about a highly intelligent boy with cerebral palsy named Shawn McDaniel and Shawn’s father’s attempts to grapple with the fact that he knows nothing about what is going on in his son’s mind. As he states in the author’s note to Stuck in Neutral, this situation closely mirrors Trueman’s own life. Trueman is also the author of the acclaimed Inside Out, No Right Turn, and 7 Days at the Hot Corner. He returned to the story of Shawn McDaniel in a companion novel called Cruise Control and now has written a full-fledged sequel: Life Happens Next, which just came out on August 21. Trueman was kind enough to answer some of my questions about his work by email.
In the acknowledgements section to Cruise Control, you mention that a sequel to Stuck in Neutral would have “ruined the ending” — but now you’re writing one. What changed?
Well, it doesn’t matter much if an ending is ruined if no one is reading the book anymore. And while Stuck in Neutral has continued to sell reasonably well, it definitely dropped off some in recent years with the rush away from realistic fiction. Also, I feel that Life Happens Next, the sequel, extends and expands Shawn’s story in good ways and will help bring audience back to Stuck in Neutral rather than “ruin” anything. It was actually my editor Antonia Markiet’s admonition that I couldn’t write a sequel and I hope it shows some level of the respect I had and still have for her that I waited 12 years to try it.
Does writing a sequel to such a beloved and highly awarded book pose different challenges than writing other books? And did winning a Printz Honor for your first teen novel affect your later writing?
Well, I certainly felt pressure NOT to harm the first book, not to do damage to what the story accomplishes with and for readers. I think Life Happens Next truly expands and adds to the mission of Stuck in Neutral by giving us more of Shawn, his life, personality and attitudes as he is growing. Winning the Printz Honor with my first novel, well, you have to remember that this was in only the second year of the Printz Awards. I think no one knew for sure how big or not big they’d become. I’m very proud and happy to have been lucky and blessed enough to have been a recipient of the honor. I was 52 years old when Stuck in Neutral was published, so I had far less time to try and get up to speed building a career. The Printz Honor gave me a massive boost. So yes, there has been a lot of pressure, but I feel that Life Happens Next lives up to Stuck in Neutral, I hope my readers feel that way too.
Obviously, you have quite a bit of personal knowledge about cerebral palsy, but you’ve also written about schizophrenia. What kind of research do you do before writing about these illnesses, or for that matter, any topic you don’t know about?
I have degrees in both writing (BA and MFA) and Applied Psychology (MS), which is not to say that I know it all, but I do have a background in these areas. Also, having a son with a profound developmental disability and losing a much beloved stepson to mental illness, these aren’t “research” issues, they are survival issues. Of course these days, with Google and other search engines one can find everything you need to know to be an “expert” on just about anything in five minutes LOL. I’m exaggerating of course, but it is easier to do research now than it used to be and I did a lot of research online for Hurricane, a story set in Honduras during Hurricane Mitch. But my stories come from personal experiences and after all, I write fiction usually from the point of view of a 15 or 16 year old protagonist in present tense time, so I needn’t get every factual detail perfectly right.
After I read Stuck in Neutral, I noticed that many readers on Goodreads.com had very negative responses based on what I see as a pretty gross misreading of the book — namely that you were in some sense trying to justify Syd’s (possible) decision to kill Shawn. Do you have any response to this type of reading of the book?
“Many readers” really? Hmmm, I wasn’t aware of that. I’ve gotten maybe 50,000 letters/emails/questions and comments during live presentations about the book over the last dozen years and only a tiny percentage have been negative. All works of art are put out there and some people get them one way and other people get them another way. I don’t have much to say to people who “get” that kind of negative stuff out of the story. I think the vast majority of the people who read the book understand more or less what I was trying to say thematically and etc. That Shawn’s death would have been a tragedy, but that his father, as much as we love there always being a “bad guy” in a story, wasn’t a bad guy at all — just a father trapped in a situation and not really having the equipment to deal with it in a healthy way. Syd, Shawn’s dad, spends a lot of time trying to rationalize and explain why ending a loved one’s suffering might be the right thing to do, but the central irony of the story is that it would be wrong and tragic … how can anybody miss that? LOL
Well, it seemed like a lot to me, but maybe I was being overly protective of a novel I loved. Maybe I can re-direct the question a little. I’ve read interviews and essays of authors who come down on both sides of this question: do you feel protective towards your novels and the way they are interpreted? Or do you let them loose into the world to be interpreted as they will?
Well, first off thanks for loving Stuck in Neutral, I only hope you enjoy Life Happens Next as well. I’d have to say I lean strongly towards the latter attitude of letting my books out into the world to rise or fall on their own. A writer really ought to say the most important things he/she has to say in the work itself. It’s a bit upsetting when a reader attributes to me motivations and intentions that were not in my head or heart at all. But everyone has the right to their own opinion and one of the worst mistakes any artist can make is to try and please everyone. It can’t be done.
I believe that all of your books have been published for the young adult market. How did you get into writing for teens? Do you see yourself primarily writing for teens or for a more general audience?
When I was trying to break into writing for a livelihood, I’d been a poet for about 30 years and that’s NOT a good way to earn any money. Terry Davis and Chris Crutcher were both guys making a living by writing and each wrote books marketed for teens and YA, Terry had been at it since the earl 80’s Crutch almost as long — they helped me find people in that part of publishing who might like my work, like George Nicholson who became my agent. I don’t write for teens, I write for smart readers.
Do you read other contemporary (or not so contemporary) YA authors? Anyone you feel especially challenges you as a writer?
I consider one of the great blessings of my life to have been able to meet an entire generation, actually more like a couple of generations, of great writers. Laurie Halse Anderson, Walter Dean Myers, [Robert] Lipsyte, [Kenneth] Oppel, [Alex] Flinn, so many talented, kind, generous, and good people. The vast majority of these authors I count as friends. Naturally, I’m a bit biased towards their work but truthfully, I read a lot. I have close to a thousand signed copies of author’s books — I treasure them.
Well, that’s the start of a list of my favorite YA authors! Interesting that you mention Crutcher and Myers in particular: I associate the three of you together as writing books at the intersection of what we used to call “problem novels” and sports books. Do you have a particular interest in sports or see it as especially useful thematically? Or is it just a perennial high school topic?
Despite never being real good at any sports, except maybe running when I was older, I’ve always loved them. Don’t get me carrying-on in sports metaphors or it can get ugly fast LOL. I do think that sports are a tremendous place for showing character and that fans will stick with a story longer if it has an exciting sports plot in play; in Cruise Control the protagonist, Paul McDaniel, is playing in a State Championship basketball game; in 7 Days at the Hot Corner, Scott, the protagonist, is playing for a city league championship but more importantly an almost impossible undefeated season. These plot devices hook boys and what I’m really trying to say about courage, tolerance, friendship, etc. seeps in from the edges.
What types of books did you read and love as a teenager?
I didn’t read anything other than comics and Mad magazine of my own free will until I was about 17 years old. I read, but most of the stuff in school seemed incredibly boring to me. The first books I read that I really enjoyed, the books that turned me on to reading for the rest of my life were the Ian Fleming James Bond books: a bit of sex and a bit of violence and a guy who, in my imagination, looked quite a lot like me. LOL. I share this “late start” story with audiences of kids all the time because I know, from my own experience, that one can become a reader at different, even relatively later ages. One of my favorite kind of emails to get, still, is one from a teacher or librarian who says that one of my books has lit up a kid’s interest in reading — I always feel like that’s one of my favorite gifts I can ever give.
With Life Happens Next already out, are you already working on something new, and if so, do you mind sharing with our readers what that might be?
I’ve been working on a number of projects. And although this will sound like sucking up, I really do count on librarians and teachers for their support, as do most authors whose work is marketed to teens and young adults. I published a book with Xlibris titled Sheehan: Heartbreak and Redemption, which was prohibitively expensive and which I’ve revised significantly and at some point hope to release as an inexpensive e-book titled Sheehan and Shawn. This book tells the back story behind Stuck in Neutral and my real life son Sheehan, who inspired the McDaniel family novels. I also have a number of novels, with teenaged protagonists, that for one reason or another didn’t seem worth publishing for big New York houses like HarperCollins, but which are works I like a lot, worked hard at and that I hope to help find their way out there. I’m still very willing to work with big publishers, but if I can’t find homes for my stories that I like I’m looking for other ways to get them out there, which you can always find out more about by visits to my webpage or checking out my Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn etc sites. So, yes, I’m definitely still writing and enjoying it and I don’t intend to ever stop.
On behalf of myself and all the readers of The Hub, thank you so much for speaking with us. Good luck with the future projects!
— Mark Flowers, currently rereading Red Spikes by Margo Lanagan