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The vampire on the bookshelf

Published Aug. 24, 2005

Fantasy, science fiction, action adventure, true stories, teen readers, older readers. No matter the genre or the reader, what's important is great storytelling, says author Neal Shusterman.

"Books worth reading should not be confined to a pigeon hole," says Shusterman. "One of my goals as an author is to shatter people's concept of "genre' and show readers that a book is not defined by a label. One of the most common comments that I get is, "I hate science fiction, but I loved the Dark Side of Nowhere.' I like to think that each of those readers leaves the book with a new appreciation that it's the story, and not the genre, that makes a book enjoyable."

Shusterman, 42, the author of page-turning titles Downsiders, What Daddy Did, Full Tilt and the recently released The Schwa Was Here, shares his thoughts about books, writing and vampires in a recent e-mail interview.

Atkins: On your Web site, you make an interesting connection between writers and vampires. Could you share some of that perspective with us?

Shusterman: I've often thought that writers are a bit like vampires. A vampire will never come into your house unless invited _ and once you invite one in, he'll grab you by the throat and won't let you go. A writer's much the same: feeding on the speed of your heart as it races, feeding on your tears and your sighs, feeding on your turmoil, as well as feeding on your peace. I suppose this is why I write, because I want to affect people, somehow change them for the better.

Atkins: When you and I met recently, you described your latest book, The Schwa Was Here, as the most autobiographical of all your work. How so?

Shusterman: While The Schwa Was Here is a contemporary novel, it takes place in the Brooklyn neighborhood in which I grew up. The characters are composites of kids I knew. And there are even a couple of events taken from my own youth. There's one character _ Ira _ whom I describe as "determined to be Steven Spielberg by the time he's 18." That was me.

Atkins: I'm a big fan of quirkiness in novels, so naturally I thought the Schwa's obsession with paper clips was wonderful. Where did you get the idea for this?

Shusterman: When I'm feeling creatively blocked, I like to go to the beach with a pen and note pad and write. I was stuck at this one point in the story because I had to come up with a hobby that was perfect for a kid like Schwa. I wasn't willing to settle _ it had to be perfect. It had to be, on the surface, the most boring hobby imaginable, but deep down, it had to be incredibly interesting. I must have walked up and down that beach for three or four hours, before it came to me. Paper clips. The Schwa collects paper clips. Boring right? Until he starts listing where each of the paper clips came from. One held together the mission papers of the space shuttle. Another one held together the original lyric sheets of Hey Jude. I remember how excited I got when I thought about it, because a paper clip is an amazing metaphor for this story. The unnoticed thing that holds everything else together!

Atkins: Your books are often praised for being fast paced. I have to admit, though, that as quickly as I'm turning the pages to find out what happens next, I'm constantly hitting the brakes and rereading these great lines you sprinkle throughout your stories. In The Schwa, for example, the main character and narrator, Antsy, is describing Old Man Crawley as someone who as a "kid always saw the glass half empty instead of half full, and had a better relationship with his dog than with the neighborhood kids. In 75 years of living, half empty became bone-dry, solitary became isolated, and one dog became 14." Thank you for writing books that offer teen readers such thought-provoking words.

Shusterman: And thank you for slowing down to read things over again. That particular line came out of something I once heard: When we get older, we don't really change, we just get "more so." So I applied that concept to Old Man Crawley. Writing is always a process of discovery. When I discover a new way of looking at something, or a cool turn of phrase that I never heard before, it's like the literary equivalent of discovering a new move on a basketball court. I get pumped with adrenaline and want to do it again. One of my favorite lines in The Schwa was Here is when Antsy is describing Wendell Tiggor _ who is the quintessential "dumb kid." Antsy says, "Wendell Tiggor is about as intelligent as my mother's meatloaf, if you took out the onions." I have no idea why that always makes me laugh, but it does. Another one is when Antsy creates a quadruple-mixed metaphor when he says, "I flew into some speed bumps that sank my train of thought." Maybe one in a hundred people are going to notice that, but to me it's worth it just for the one who does.

Atkins: The storyteller's voice is so powerful in each of your books. How are you as an adult author able to write with a teen's voice?

Shusterman: I'm still boggled by this concept of "adult." I still feel very connected to the kid I was in middle school and high school. Every single time I shave, I still remember the first time I shaved, like it just happened. I have a son who's 15 who, I fear, is soon going to be older than I. Kids tell me that my characters speak just like real kids, and wonder how I know all the lingo. The funny thing is, I don't use any lingo because it changes so fast. It's all in the rhythm of the speech, the style of the thought patterns.

Atkins: Your books have a high level of intensity. But I wonder what it's like for you as an author to live with that intensity while you're writing these books. What Daddy Did is especially gripping. When you were writing this book, did you have any difficulty shifting between the writing world and your real world?

Shusterman: Writing What Daddy Did was a heart-wrenching experience. It was extremely difficult to put myself in that dark state of mind every day to write the book, but you can't write from a distance, you have to feel what your characters feel. Since it's based on a true story, I felt responsible for the people I was writing about.

Atkins: Some adults believe that books like What Daddy Did, which tells the true story of a family torn apart when the father murders the mother, should not be read by teen readers. How would you respond to these concerns?

Shusterman: My only response is: Read the book. Any time that book has been challenged, the challenge was withdrawn once the person in question actually read the book. That's because the story's not about a father murdering a mother. If that was what the story was about, I would never have been interested in writing it. The story's about the fact that the family chose to forgive him. It's the most powerful story of forgiveness and faith that I had ever heard, and that's why it was worth telling.

Atkins: I'm always fascinated by the different ways authors go about creating their works. What does the Neal Shusterman writing process look like?

Shusterman: A lot of soul-searching, occasional panic, numerous trips to the refrigerator, and procrastination punctuated by moments of sheer exhilaration. When I write, I'm always struggling to find something worth saying. I usually know where a story's going when I begin, but the discoveries made along the way are the truly exciting part. The story discovers its own reason to be in the course of the writing, and when I'm done, I can say to myself "I thunk some good thoughts here." As for the physical process, I write longhand _ mainly because it forces me to do a rewrite when I type it into the computer. I usually go through five or six drafts before I get to my official first draft that goes off to the publisher. Then there are about two more drafts after that.

Author's note: Read more about Neal Shusterman and his books at his Web site,

Holly Atkins teaches seventh-grade language arts at Southside Fundamental Middle School in St. Petersburg.