Alan Gratz was born and raised in Knoxville, Tennessee. After a carefree but humid childhood, he attended the University of Tennessee, where he earned a College Scholars degree with a specialization in creative writing and later a Master’s degree in English education. In addition to writing plays, magazine articles, and a few episodes of A&E’s City Confidential, Alan has taught catapult building to middle schoolers, written more than 6,000 radio commercials, and lectured as a Czech university. Currently, Alan lives with his wife Wendi and daughter Jo in the high country of western North Carolina, where he enjoys reading, eating pizza, and, perhaps not too surprisingly, watching baseball.
Tell us about your newest book, Something Wicked.
Something Wicked is Shakespeare’s Macbeth recast as a contemporary young adult murder mystery set at a Scottish Highland Festival in East Tennessee. It’s the second book in a series of mysteries featuring teenage detective Horatio Wilkes, who is modeled after gumshoes like Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe and Rex Stout’s Archie Goodwin. In Something Wicked, Horatio has to help his friend Mac, and Mac’s girlfriend Beth, out of a little trouble…
I love Horatio Wilkes because he opens Shakespeare to a whole new audience: adolescent males. What did you think of Shakespeare as a teenager?
I read Julius Caesar, Romeo and Juliet, and Henry IV for English in high school. I also saw a few plays in production then–A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Twelfth Night, The Tempest, Hamlet. So by the time I hit college I had a healthy appreciation for what I had read and seen, which might make me an unusual teen. 🙂
I was also interested in playwriting–which I’ve done as a professional writer–so I had more than a passing interest in Shakespeare even then. I remember too buying for myself one of those terrible leather-bound omnibus editions of Shakespeare’s collected works that chain bookstores sell up front in their remainder section. You know, “The Complete Works of William Shakespeare” for $9.95! And of course there’s no commentary, no textual footnotes, and all the plays are printed in like six point type. But I bought the thing, and I read it. Not all of it, but I picked out plays that sounded interesting and actually cracked that massive thing open and read it.
Then in college I signed up for two Shakespeare courses, a Tragedies class and a Comedies class–taken in separate semesters, thankfully–and really began to understand the nuances of the plays I had read or seen on my own without annotation. I guess I was becoming a fan, and the college courses sealed it for me.
Why do you write for young people?
Because it’s fun! That’s really a big part of it. Anything goes now in fiction for kids–particularly in young adult fiction–so everything is fair game. I also like that books for younger readers are plot heavy. Things HAPPEN. There is, of course, always a need for a bit of reflection, but books for young readers aren’t full of a lot of philosophizing and poetic musings. Again, there’s room for philosophy and poetry, but not at the expense of plot.
When I wrote my first book for young readers, Samurai Shortstop, I made a pledge to myself to make sure something happened in each and every scene to move the story forward. That sounds silly–of course every scene should move the story forward!–but that’s not always the case with books for adults.
I often tell people who are aspiring writers for kids that no child ever picked up a book because of the great review it got in The New York Times Review of Books, or ever said, “Well, nothing much has happened in the first 200 pages of this book, but I think I’ll give it another hundred pages and see if it picks up.” Kids demand stories where the action comes early and often. As a reader, I sympathize, so as a writer I challenge myself to write those kind of books.
What prepared you to write for teenagers?
I’ve worked as a teacher of both high school and middle school English, and certainly those interactions with teenagers helped. I also remember my middle school and high school days vividly, so it’s easy for me to tap into those memories and draw them out on the page.
I also read a lot of young adult and middle grade novels, and those I don’t read I at least am aware of to know why they appeal to kids. I was at a writers conference lately where I gave a talk on writing for young readers. As a test, I read aloud a list of books and their authors, and asked my audience to raise their hands if they had even HEARD of the book. I read out six or seven titles, and most times less than half of the room raised their hands to say they had heard of the books. I then revealed where I had pulled these titles from: they were the current week’s New York Times bestsellers for children.
Had I read all of them? Of course not. Nor did I expect my audience to have read them all. But I think the point was well taken–to write for kids, you have to at least be AWARE of what kids are reading. I routinely go down to my local big box store and prowl the kid shelves, one book at a time, to understand what kinds of books are selling at that moment.
What fiction most influenced your childhood, and what effect did those stories have on your writing?
I must confess, I was not a voracious reader of novels as a boy. I was more likely to be found outside–exploring the countryside around my home, building forts, having wars with the other boys on the street, replaying scenes from our favorite movies, or playing any of the numerous backyard sports that six or so participants allowed.
When I did read, it was usually a “classic” like 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Robinson Crusoe, or Treasure Island, placed in my hands because it was both interesting to me and “worthy” of my reading time.
Today, of course, I understand that there was a world of books out there I would have enjoyed reading as a kid, but for one reason or another I didn’t find them them. I suppose now I’m making up for lost time. 🙂 But I really did enjoy those classics I read as a kid, and now, of course, I’m finding ways to pastiche them or reinvent them in my own way.
The book I’m working on right now is called “Nemo,” and is the story of Captain Nemo as a young adult, before he because the misanthropic “science-pirate” we all know from 20,000 Leagues and Mysterious Island…
What are a few of your all-time favorite books?
The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster, Feed by M.T. Anderson, The Long Goodbye by Raymond Chandler, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon, the mysteries of Rex Stout, the Jeeves and Wooster short stories of P.G. Wodehouse, Deathbird Stories by Harlan Ellison, American Gods by Neil Gaiman, and just about any comic by Mike Mignola. I better stop there.
There are other books that had great meaning for me at particular moments in my life and thus will always have a special place in my heart, but I often find that those books don’t mean nearly as much to me when reread years later–much like songs.
What’s the best advice you’ve heard on writing for teenagers?
Remember to always make sure the story is the *kid’s* story. That sounds basic, like, “Of course my story is the kid’s story! She’s the main character!” But it’s actually harder than it sounds. Just because you have a teen protagonist doesn’t mean the story is ABOUT that teenager. Sure, she saves the world–great!–but what’s HER story? How does saving the world do something for her? What did she need or want at the beginning of the story that she has now?
I read a great piece of advice about writing mysteries that I think is relevant here. The line was something like, “The most important thing in a mystery isn’t what effect the detective has on the mystery, but what effect the mystery has on the detective.” The same is true for the teenage novel. A good story is essential, but what effect does it have on your protagonist? THAT’S your story.
One of the “innings”–one of the sections in my forthcoming middle grade novel The Brooklyn Nine–had a middle grade protagonist trying to fix the rift between his father and his grandmother. I rewrote this story over and over and over again, trying to get it right, and each time my editor sent it back and said no, it’s still not working.
It wasn’t until she pointed out to me that this story wasn’t the boy’s story–it was his father’s story and his grandmother’s story–that I realized why the piece wasn’t working. And it never WAS going to work, because the story would always belong to the adults in the piece. Eventually I had to just chuck the whole idea and start over, instead telling a story about the boy dealing with a bully at school. Finally that story was his.
Often, readers lose interest in a retelling because they already know who lives happily ever after, but you twist things until we see with fresh eyes. Conversely, readers unfamiliar with Shakespeare will never guess they’re enjoying a dead white guy’s plot. How did you balance allusion and originality?
When I set out to write an updated version of Hamlet with Something Rotten, I wanted to make sure that the book had a lot of allusions to the original, but still worked on its own as an independent story. In other words, my goal was to write a book that would be a great read even if you’d never heard of Hamlet, but also have lots of in-jokes and deeper meanings if you knew the play.
Sometimes that meant cutting scenes from the play that I liked (like the one where Hamlet comes up on Claude while he’s praying and debates killing him right there and then) because they just didn’t work for my contemporary story. At the same time, I new I had to go beyond a pastiche of Hamlet and make the story my own. For me, that moment in Something Rotten is well-defined.
In Hamlet, the play really shifts, I think, when Hamlet kills Polonius in his mother’s bedroom. Until now, he has been afraid to act. Now he acts–foolishly and rashly and ineffectively, it turns out–but that alerts Claudius to the real threat his nephew poses, and from there on out things get really dangerous, and the bodies start piling up. I parallel that scene in my own book, but since HORATIO is the hero of Something Rotten, not the Hamlet character, this is the point where Horatio steps in and takes charge. Up until that point, he’s been happy to play Hamilton’s little game, but when somebody gets shot in the chest with a shotgun, playtime is over.
From that point on in the book I still parallel Hamlet, but the OUTCOME is going to be slightly different. we still have a version of the Ophelia drowning scene, and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern meeting their ends, and a duel between Laertes and Hamlet, but each of these leads my characters in new directions, and allows my hero to prevent the body count that so famously occurs at the end of the play.
What aspect of writing is the most difficult for you to conquer? How do you overcome it?
I love thinking up new ideas. What I dislike is the preparation it takes to get ready to write those ideas. It’s just that I’m impatient. As soon as I get an idea, I want to jump right in and start writing. That’s what I used to do, before I sold my first novel, but inevitably I would stumble somewhere around the middle of the book. My good idea would have played itself out, and I wouldn’t know where to go next.
It wasn’t until I got the idea for Samurai Shortstop and realized I could never write a historical novel without first putting in a lot of research and then outlining the book to put that research to good use that I learned how to avoid that writer’s block in the middle of a book.
Now I make sure I am PREPARED to be creative, that I know exactly WHAT happens every step of the way, and that my only worry when I actually sit down to write is figuring out HOW to tell this story. It’s a formula that has worked on every novel I’ve been able to sell, and now I’ll never go back to writing by the seat of my pants again. But that means I have to wait while I put in that pre-writing work, and I HATE waiting…
Here’s my idea of the patron saint of Freshman English: hands students Something Rotten, takes class to see a live production of Hamlet (I mean, they’ll drive two hours to a football game–why must Shakespeare be rented?!), then goes over the script in class. Have you gotten feedback from teachers who use your novels in the classroom?
I like your vision of sainthood! Alas, I don’t have any reports yet of Something Rotten being used in class with Hamlet. That may be due to the fact that Rotten has only been in hardback until now, and won’t be out in paperback until January of 2009. I hope that it will start to see some classroom use then.
When I taught eighth grade English, we did Romeo and Juliet–and as pre-reading activities I exposed my kids to West Side Story and to YA adaptations like Gordon Korman’s Son of the Mob so my students could understand the story first before we dove into reading the play.
The biggest obstacle for my students was never the story–once they heard the story, they totally understood it. What they had trouble handling was the language, and it was always my feeling that they shouldn’t have to be puzzling out what’s being said AND what’s going on at the same time.
So I certainly hope Rotten and Wicked are used in classrooms with Hamlet and Macbeth, and that teachers will let me know how they worked! I have reader’s guides for both books on my web site as resources for teachers.
If you could choose to have one strength of another writer, what would it be and from whom?
Well, Superman is a journalist, right? So I’ll take super strength. 🙂
When do you know you’ve got the finished product and it’s your best effort?
This is a tough one. Editors are so essential in this part of the process, I think, because it is SO easy to lose perspective on one’s own work, particularly after you’ve been immersed in it for months and have read and re-read and re-read a particular section dozens of times over. That other pair of critical eyes is so important.
And then there are often many other readers too. My wife Wendi is one of my primary readers, and always very honest with me–sometimes to the point where I don’t feel like speaking to her again for a few days. Then I realize she’s right, and I get to work.
On the editorial side, I now have an editor, a copy editor, and sometimes assistant editors and publishers weighing in. All that input is great, and helps you take critical stock of your work. Before I had an editor, I put Samurai Shortstop in front of as many non-biased readers as I could to get feedback, and when I had edited it and edited it and edited it until I was so sick of it I couldn’t stand to look at it any more, that’s when I sent it in. 🙂
Your current work in progress is …
Nemo! For a long time I wanted to rewrite 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea as I’ve done with Something Rotten and Something Wicked, update it and retell it with modern storytelling techniques, but I never could make the idea work. Then I struck on the idea of telling Nemo’s story BEFORE he becomes Captain Nemo.
In Mysterious Island, Jules Verne’s sequel to 20,000 Leagues, a dying Nemo tells us about his life growing up as an Indian prince fighting the British Raj, and asks us not to judge him too harshly for his actions. I take that page and a half of backstory he gives and flesh it out into a novel, telling the story of Prince Dakkar as he challenges British rule in his homeland and eventually becomes the terrorist of the high seas we meet again in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.
I’m very excited about the book, and in the thick of writing the first draft right now. Beyond that, I have a planned third book in the Shakespeare series in the outline stage–Something Foolish, based on A Midsummer Night’s Dream–and a proposal for a high school fashion camp novel on my agent’s desk. (I’m mad for Project Runway, my not-so-hidden vice.)
Do you have a dream, something you’d love to achieve with your writing?
I want to be popular. (That sounds so high school, doesn’t it!?) Seriously though, I want kids all over the country, all over the world, to read and love my books. That’s the goal. I’d love to have a bestseller for the professional boons that go along with that, but mostly I’d love to have a bestseller because that would mean that thousands of young readers were enjoying my books.