One Thing Leads to Another: An Interview with Andrew Smith

Check out previous interviews in the One Thing Leads to Another series here.

My mind is still reeling from Grasshopper Jungle (which I read weeks and weeks ago…will its hold on me ever wane I wonder?) so I want to take a moment to talk about some of the disparate thoughts that have connected themselves in my head.

When I think about Andrew Smith, I think about the guys who hung out in the library at the private Catholic school where I was librarian before my daughter was born: my TA, the members of the anime club, the boys who ate lunch in my office and talked about books and video games with me.  I wish so much that I had been able to give them Winger or The Marbury Lens or 100 Sideways Miles then, at that time, because those books…they would have loved those books.  (Luckily, social media keeps us all in touch and it doesn’t matter that they’re all in college now because they’re awesome and we still talk about books.)  I think about my friend Walter and how I pushed other books aside to read Grasshopper Jungle because he raved about it and because I trust his judgement implicitly, and how his wise comments about books offer more than just literary insight, and how he gave me by far the best parenting advice I ever received.  Thinking about my daughter and Walter’s advice and my hopes for her future brings to mind a man, someone connected to the school, who changed the course of my life, and how much I wish I could sit him down with Grasshopper Jungle and A.S. King’s Glory O’Brien’s History of the Future, and ask him to reevaluate.  That’s another connection; I read those two books back to back and they are inextricably linked in my brain now and I doubt I’ll ever recover (at least I hope not!)

And more than anything, thinking about Andrew Smith and his books–all his books–makes me think about my brother, who grew up with seven sisters, and our fascinating, infuriating, wonderful, complicated conversations about representation and cultural expectations.  My brother is so awesome.  And you know what else is awesome?  That a book about identity and history and connections and giant insects who eat people’s heads can tease out so many essential connections, creating a through-line that feels genuine and illuminating to me.  And that’s just one book.

Thank you so much Andrew, for writing honest books and giving honest answers.  Reading them was (and is) a very good idea.

Always Something There to Remind Me

andrew smithPlease describe your teenage self.

As a teen, I was pretty much a loner. I had a few close friends, I suppose, but being so much younger than my classmates in high school was a social obstacle that was difficult to overcome. I read a lot, but came into reading later in high school. And I wrote all the time.

What did you want to be when you grew up?  Why?

I knew I wanted to be a writer, but I still don’t know if I can say why. It was just something that I felt like I had to do. Jobs and employment—a means of simply making money—never really mattered to me at all, and I never once thought I would make a job out of writing until I was challenged by a friend into giving it a go.

What were your high school years like?

I attended high school in Southern California. I also played soccer when I was in high school (don’t hold that against me). I will say that I don’t really have any significant or inspiring adult influences in my background, but one time when I wrote a short story for an English teacher, she gave me an F on it because she said there was no way that a kid my age could ever write a story like that, so, therefore it must have been plagiarized. That made an impact on me. Also, I still remember the story. Oh boy! It was terrible!

What were some of your passions during that time?

Well, like I said, I played soccer and tennis when I was in high school. I also did track and field one year for my father, who was a track coach. I hated track. My dad forced me to do it. I had a brother who was quite older than I was, so I grew up listening to bands like the Who, Beatles, Rolling Stones, Jimi Hendrix, and the Doors. And, as far as reading tastes went, when I had money to spend on books, I would buy the thickest paperbacks I could get my hands on because I wanted to get as many pages for my money as possible. So I actually did read Moby Dick, and books like Jude the Obscure and The Idiot when I was a teen.

Would you be willing to share a difficult teen experience or challenge that you feel shaped the adult you became?

Terrible things happened to me when I was a teen. Nobody wants to hear about that stuff.

What about a positive experience or accomplishment that had an impact on your adult self?

One year I received Honorable Mention in the Scholastic Writing Awards competition for a one-act play I wrote. It was in blank verse. Oh boy! It was terrible!

What advice, if any, would you give your teen self?  Would your teen self have listened?

My teen self has told me to never talk to him, and I’m fine with that.

Do you have any regrets about your teen years?  Anything left undone or anything that might have been better left undone? 

It was a lot easier to get into significant amounts of trouble when I was a teen as compared to today’s teens. I believe my generation—the generation that gave us ozone depletion—also used up just about the entire world’s supply of fun. Sorry kids. I take full responsibility for everything.

What, if anything, do you miss most about that time?

Oh good lord, nothing. Are you kidding me? I’m a grown up. Seriously, what sane grownup would ever miss that?

Every Day I Write the Book

ghost medicinegrasshopper jungle I think it’s fair to say that many of your books end in ways that defy reader expectations, that turn the story on its head, provide a new perspective, or are unexpected in a myriad of other ways.  After your first novel Ghost Medicine was published you said you’d written a “a few different endings”but one of them was so difficult “that I just couldn’t do it, and had to make the ending happier.”  What about your other books?  Are there alternate endings to the Marbury books, Winger, Grasshopper Jungle, or 100 Sideways Miles floating around in your brain?  Do you generally know the end of the story in advance or do you write to find out?  How do you decide which ending is “right” for that particular book?

The endings of my books usually make me aware they’ve arrived, as opposed to me working them out. So, with the exception of Ghost Medicine (and I haven’t thought about that other “even more devastating” ending in a long time), I would have to say that all of my other books kind of wrote themselves to their conclusions. I often don’t know where they will take me. But I will admit that I really wanted there to be real cannibal alien angels in 100 Sideways Miles. I’ve always been fascinated with cannibalism. Go figure.

winger stickCan we talk about boys? One of the few elements all your books have in common is a male character who struggles with the labels and expectations of family, peers, and society.  You’ve noted that “the pressure we put on our sons” to “fit perfectly into the constraints of society’s’boy box’” is immense, and causes immeasurable harm, and you’ve also said that you found many of the books your son was exposed to lacking in their depiction of “REAL boys who have to deal with difficulties, who make mistakes, and who sometimes fail.”  Could you talk a little about how expectations can damage young men, and about the repercussions of that damage?  Do you think this particular literary shortcoming fits into the broader, ongoing discussion of the need for diversity in YA?

I think that boys frequently repress themselves because of all the pressure put on them to conform to a standardized definition of what boys should be. Boys have been told an awful lot of things about what they should be like non-readers, for example, or readers of only certain types of books, and when I see a boy reading one of Marie Lu’s novels, or Gayle Forman’s (and believe me, I have), and I talk to them about those books, I often see this tremendous sense of relief come over them that 1) I think it’s cool they’re reading, and 2) I’m not going to genderize their tastes. As far as diversity is concerned, yes, I do hope we all appreciate that the idea of diversity is all-inclusive and that the push to diversify books is very valuable. On the other hand, honest diversification requires honest and knowledgeable handling of some very critical details in order to avoid tokenism or stereotyping. In other words, there are some things I don’t think I can honestly write about without coming off as forced or ignorant, and I’d be very afraid of offending any subgroup in our society, with the possible exception of book banners.

sideways falling objects“Everything is connected,” you’ve said, “our past to our present, urinal factories and Catholic saints, war and sexual confusion,”and you’ve noted that all your books have an “overriding theme of how things connect to each other,” despite their obvious differences.  Would you be willing to connect the dots for us between you, your writing, your audience, and the change you think could happen if people were truly conscious of the myriad ways in which everything connects?

First of all, let me address the issue of me, my writing, and my audience. That’s an easy connection because where one ends and the others begin are really indistinct. When I write, I don’t imagine an audience because I write to please myself as a reader. That’s not to discount my readership, but I think there’s a vast difference between “audience” and “readership.” My readership happens to enjoy, I suppose, the same stuff my audience does. Can you hear me clapping for myself? Well, you’re hallucinating, then, and you might want to get that checked. Now, when people start becoming more sensitive to the interconnectedness of everything, I suppose we’ll stop doing such abhorrent things like waging wars that kill our children and destroying our environment, and so on.

marburypassenger“To avoid any component of the human experience in literature which examines essential adolescent reality is to shortchange readers and weaken oneself as a writer” you’ve said, though at the same time you’ve described how devastated you were by charges that your writing was inappropriate for young people.  “I take those kinds of things really, really personally. It made me sick, as a matter of fact.”  Your unflinching examination of the adolescent experience conveys an understanding, respect, and acceptance that I think teens often find in short supply.  Could you talk about the importance of honesty when it comes to writing for (or working with) teens, why authentic representation is critical, and why “there’s nothing wrong with you” is such a powerful and important message?

I have a couple things to say about this. First of all, I’m often asked (and it’s always a question coming from boys) if I feel uncomfortable or embarrassed writing about the things that I write about. And I always tell them no, and if there’s anything they want to talk about or ask me about, let’s talk. I’m not afraid of the words. The other thing I’d like to say (because I think this may be where you’re going) is that I think you can’t possibly have an honest portrayal of male adolescence that doesn’t include the significant current of sexuality. Sorry, it can’t be done unless you’re writing about non-human, inanimate, asexual males. And I know kids who define themselves as asexual, but that designation in itself says something about sexuality. So I like to examine that compelling force in all the various directions it can pull or push my characters.

Just Can’t Get Enough

Question from James Dashner:  Something that’s really, really great about your books so far is that they feel so distinct from each other. No one will ever peg you as a certain type of storyteller. That’s not easy. Is that just natural or is there a distinct, concerted effort to make that happen? Let us in on your secret!

I think this is both natural and something of a concerted effort on my part, James. It’s natural because I am easily bored, and turned of by regurgitations of the flavor of the moment, so I force myself to write about things that are different from anything else I know or have done. And yes, it is definitely not easy.

Andrew has contributed a question for the next author in the series, Garth Nix. Watch for an interview with him coming soon!

 

Andrew Smith is the award-winning author of several Young Adult novels, including the critically acclaimed Winger (Starred reviews in Publishers Weekly, Kirkus, Booklist, and Shelf Awareness, an Amazon “Best of the Year,” and a 2014 ALA Top 10 Best Fiction for Young Adults) and The Marbury Lens (a 2011 YALSA Best Fiction for Young Adults, and Starred reviews and Best of the Year in both Publishers Weekly and Booklist). He is a native-born Californian who spent most of his formative years traveling the world. His university studies focused on Political Science, Journalism, and Literature. He has published numerous short stories and articles. Grasshopper Jungle, a starred novel by Kirkus, Publishers Weekly, School Library Journal, and Shelf Awareness, is his seventh novel. 100 Sideways Miles, his eighth, was named a 2014 finalist for the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature and has received Starred reviews from Kirkus, Publishers Weekly, Booklist, and School Library Journal. The Alex Crow (March 2015) is forthcoming.  He lives in Southern California.

You can find Andrew at his website, blog, and Facebook page, or follow him on Instagram and Twitter.

–Julie Bartel, currently reading Scott Westerfeld’s Afterworlds and re-reading A Night in the Lonesome October by Roger Zelazny