Sunday, September 16, 2012

Author Alan Gratz Shares His Wisdon--and a Prize!

Hey YA Fusioneers, today we are honored with a visit from award-winning YA and middle-grade author Alan Gratz.'s most recent YA book, STARFLEET ACADEMY: THE ASSASSINATION GAME, came out this summer, and to celebrate we’re doing a special signed “you choose the prize” giveaway.  But before we get to the prizes, let’s meet Alan.

Alan, thanks for taking the time to talk.  I was introduced to your work by Dial editor Liz Waniewski, who couldn’t say enough good things about your books, THE BROOKLYN NINE and SAMURAI SHORTSTOP.  Since then, you’ve added the middle-grade FANTASY BASEBALL to the lineup, but you’re not just a baseball man.  You also wrote two Shakespeare-inspired contemporary YA mysteries, and have just released a YA Starfleet Academy novel.  That’s quite a range of genres, which makes me wonder: Is there a typical inspirational moment or Step One for you?

I'm interested in quite a lot of things—often to the point of distraction, I'm afraid. It's a long-ingrained habit of looking for story ideas in everything and anything. Sometimes I begin with bare-bones, self-generated ideas, like, “What about a Shakespeare play re-written as a young adult detective novel?” Or, “What about a world where characters from famous children's books are all playing in a big baseball tournament?” Other times, I'm reading about something and see a story idea in that, like, “Baseball and samurai existed at the same time for a little while in Japan? I have to write about that!” Once I have that idea, I write it down. If it stays with me, if I can't shake it, I come back to it and I poke it and prod it. I do more research, or I spend more time thinking about it in the shower or on a drive, or talk incessantly about it with my family until they can't stand to hear it anymore. If an idea makes it to that stage, then I begin to actually build characters and a story.

I gather you’re a serious outliner.  Please tell us a little about what you write before you write.

I do outline, in great detail. It all began with Samurai Shortstop. In the two previous novels I had written—neither of which was ever published—I had begun with an idea, brainstormed a rough story, and then sat down to write it. I inevitably ran into land mines along the way—places in the story where I didn't know what happened next—and spent valuable writing time banging my head against the keyboard, trying to figure out what happened next. I muddled my way through those novels. Then I got the idea for Samurai Shortstop, and it wouldn't go away. I wanted to write it, but I had never written anything that involved historical research. I threw myself into the research, and when I was done, I had an inch-thick notebook with research notes. How was I going to turn this into a novel? How was I going to have all this information at my fingertips while I wrote? I'm no genius—I was never going to be able to hold all that information in my head at once. I wrote it down for a reason!

So I came up with the idea of outlining this novel chapter by chapter. This was a basic, “This happens, then this happens, then this happens” kind of outline. One longish paragraph per chapter, one chapter per page in a Word document. Then I went through my research notes, line by line, and every time I came across a note I knew would be useful to the story, I copied and pasted it into that outline, beneath the appropriate chapter blurb. If I ran into a note about how to write a death poem, I moved that to chapter one, where we hear one. A note about what kids ate for lunch? I moved that to the cafeteria scene in chapter seven, and so on. Then when I was ready to write, I opened my outline notebook to page one, and there in front of me was exactly what was supposed to happen in that chapter, and all the historical research notes I needed to make that one chapter come to life.

And then, suddenly, I also discovered I had cured my writer's block. Never again did I sit in front of the computer, trying to think of what happens next. Outlining for the historical research had forced me to put together the entire story before I wrote it. It was a revelation. As writers, I think we often try to do two complicated and very dissimilar things when we sit down to write: figure out WHAT to say, and HOW to say it. By separating those two processes I was able to do both better than ever. I had my breakthrough as a writer, and sold my first book. It won't surprise you to learn that I've followed that model ever since.

What works for me may not work for you, or anyone else. Writing is a very personal business. Some people crave that organization before they begin, others enjoy the sense of discovery, and for them, a first draft IS an outline, and the second draft is where the book really comes into its own. Ellen Raskin, who wrote the wonderful and cleverly-complicated middle grade mystery The Westing Game, was once asked if she had outlined the book in advance to keep up with all the clues and characters. Her response was something like, “God no—if I knew what was going to happen, I'd be too bored to write it.” Me, I'm a flip to the last chapter first to see how it ends kind of reader. She's not. All I'll say is that, if you find yourself abandoning manuscripts half-way through because you can't figure out how to get from point J to point M, give outlining a try. I love it.

Your first Horatio Wilkes mystery, the wonderfully titled, SOMETHING ROTTEN, has a Hamlet-inspired plot, but Denmark isn’t what or where it used to be.  What were some of the unexpected challenges of updating the story to the modern world and another continent?

The biggest challenge was trying to make the actions of the characters from the play believable in a modern setting. You know, if you look at classic works of fiction, we accept the things characters do in them without question, because that's the way Hamlet has always acted for four hundred years. But take those actions out of context, put them on a new, modern character, and sometimes they don't make any sense at all. Or don't work in a modern context. Case in point: the king's reaction to the play within the play in Hamlet. Hamlet suspects his uncle Claudius killed his father. He arranges for some traveling players to put on “The Murder of Gonzago,” which is about a man killing his brother to take his crown. Hamlet plans to watch Claudius's reaction when he sees it. “The play's the thing wherein we'll catch the conscience of the king,” he famously says. Claudius sees the play, gets up white-faced like he's seen a ghost, and runs from the room. Boom. Hamlet knows he has his man.

To update this, I had the idea that Hamilton, my Hamlet character, and his friend Horatio, my detective, go rent The Lion King to watch with the family. The Lion King has lots of Hamlet overtones, if you'll remember, with Mufasa's brother Scar killing him to take over the Pride. So the family watches The Lion King, Uncle Claude sees his own actions in those of Scar, and gets up, white-faced, and runs from the room.

I turned in this draft to my editor, Liz, and she told me this scene wasn't working. Why not? I wanted to know. “Because no real modern day killer is going to get freaked out over The Lion King,” she told me.

She was absolutely right. I had tried to put the actions and reactions of classic characters into a modern setting, and they didn't work. We accept King Claudius's reaction in Hamlet, because that's what King Claudius does. He's done the same thing for 400 years, in every performance. But put him in a modern day setting, and it doesn't fly. So I reworked that scene entirely, losing The Lion King gag altogether. To see how I managed to catch the “conscience of the king” in a more realistic, modern way, you'll just have to read the book. :-)

In the original play, Hamlet is a little self-absorbed for my taste—a problem you solve by retelling the story from Horatio’s point of view.  Please tell us about your version of the last man standing.

Yeah. Hamlet's a whiny wimp. I much preferred his friend Horatio, who was much more down to earth. I based their whole relationship on the famous Hamlet line: “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” Horatio's response to that would be, “No, there aren't.” That's the two characters in a nutshell, if you'll forgive the expression. Hamlet has his head in the clouds. Horatio has his feet squarely on the ground. If it had been Horatio's dad who'd been killed, he would have taken care of this business right away, no philosophizing, no debating, no dawdling. I wanted my main character to be take-charge.

For a certain part of the book, Horatio lets Hamilton run the show. Then, when Hamilton takes a pot-shot at Paul/Polonius, Horatio essentially says, “That's it. My turn.” From that point on, we still follow the events of Hamlet, but it's Horatio's book. He takes control and steers the plot.

I also based Horatio on Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe, my favorite fictional detective. I love his acerbic wit and his dedication to a strict personal moral code. I gave Horatio both of those qualities, which seemed to fit really well with the Horatio character from the play.

As the title suggests, the second Horatio book, SOMETHING WICKED, is a twist on Macbeth.  There’s a strong Scottish influence in our part of the country, including our own Highland Games.  Did you toss a caber for research, or maybe hurl a haggis?

Ha. No. But I did visit a Scottish Highland Festival to do research. Since I already knew the character of Horatio from the first book, I got to walk around “in his shoes,” looking at things through his eyes. In particular, I viewed the Games with his wry attitude. I found a lot of things to poke fun at. :-) I also wanted to be respectful of the Games and the culture as well, and Horatio comes to have a lot of respect for the Scottish traditions on display at the festival. But at first, of course, he sees it with his sarcastic teenage eye.

At Scottish Highland Festivals, they often have genealogy tents to trace your Scottish heritage. I got the idea to see if Horatio had any Scottish blood in him, so I went up to one of the tables and told them my name was Horatio Wilkes. I was super nervous! I'm not a good casual liar, but I also didn't want to get into the fictional aspect of Horatio. I was deathly afraid someone was going to ask to see my driver's license—though why anyone would ask that, I have no idea. The lady behind the table cheerfully connected Wilkes to Wilkie, and then cross-referenced that Scots-Irish name to a list of Septs, which are families who swore fealty to larger clans. She ran her finger down a column, looked up, and told me, “Wilkie is a Sept of the Macduff clan.” If you know Macbeth at all, you'll understand at once why that was an incredibly wonderful coincidence. In Something Rotten, Horatio played the part of the Horatio character. I hadn't yet figured out how Horatio would fit into Macbeth, but right then and there, when she said that, I suddenly understood. From that moment on, I began to see Horatio as the Macduff character, and the story began to fall into place for me.

On a more serious note, Macbeth is a grizzly story.  Did you have a “should I/shouldn’t I” conversation with yourself about a YA version?

Not really. It's “anything goes” in YA today, and I felt that gave me the freedom to put in as much or as little violence as I wanted. I'm naturally uncomfortable with high levels of violence, so I knew I would have an internal sensor for that. Otherwise, I wanted to reflect how bloody and grizzly Macbeth really is. The word “blood” is used again and again in that play, and I made sure I used it a lot too.

Moving on to your newest release, congratulations on STARFLEET ACADEMY: THE ASSASSINATION GAME.  How does it feel to be part of the Star Trek franchise?  No pressure, right?

Right. :-) I'm a huge Trek fan, so this was very exciting for me. True story: about 17 years ago, back before we were married, my then-girlfriend Wendi pretended to be my literary agent so we could submit a Star Trek novel I had written to Pocket Books. We made up a letterhead for her “agency” and everything. Pocket Books didn't go for it and soon after I focused on writing books for young readers, but that submission officially represented my first real attempt to sell a novel.

Cut to a year and a half ago, when I learned that Simon Spotlight was publishing a series of young adult Star Trek novels set in the universe of the recent movie reboot. Trek? YA? That long-lost dream of writing a Star Trek novel wasn't looking so hopeless after all! I got on the phone with my agent, Barry, he got on the phone with the editor of the series at Simon Spotlight, and a month later I had a gig as Star Trek's newest author. I suppose you could say I've come full circle.

Your Trek book is part of the alternate-universe reboot of the original Star Trek.  The core characters were set decades ago, but their alternate-self youthful stories haven’t been told.  How much creative freedom did you have to develop the characters?

Not a ton, to be honest. Yes, there's much that hasn't been told about this point in these new characters' lives, but since they're still making movies with these characters in them, I can't go crazy and make up too much about them. Since the characters are still “in continuity,” so to speak, I have to use what I know about them, and not add too much more. One of my rules, for example, was that Kirk and Spock can never meet. They meet in the movie, at the end of their time at Starfleet Academy, so I can't even have them pass in the hallway without speaking. They could never share a scene together! That's tough, particularly when those two characters are really the core of the old Trek series.

At the same time, I got to introduce the character of Sulu to the YA series, and in doing so I explored his attitude and motivations at the Academy. I was given a lot of room to do that. I also expanded on the relationship between Spock and Uhura introduced in the movie, giving what I thought were really good reasons both of them would end up together.

Star Trek fans are obsessive in both their adoration and fact checking.  What was it like writing for that kind of audience? 

Yeah, that's tough. I was really nervous about that. I know a lot about Trek history, but I'm not a super-fan. There's another level of fan above me, the kind of fans who know the registry numbers for every ship and the names of all the tertiary characters and what all the technobabble means. I relied heavily on published Star Trek technical and historical guides, and I had someone at CBS/Paramount who knows his stuff, who helped edit for that stuff. Still, people on Trek forums have already begun to ask some nitpicky questions. It comes with the territory. Even the show writers get that kind of scrutiny from fans, and what they write is technically canon! But it looks like I got away with not making any egregious Trek errors.

And in keeping with the obsessive fan theme, what is Dragon-Con like?

My family and I go to DragonCon just about every year, and we have a blast. It's a massive geek-culture festival held in Atlanta every year over Labor Day weekend. If it's sci-fi, fantasy, comic book, animated, gaming, or strange/weird and has a fandom, it's represented at DragonCon. We've lately gotten really into costuming, working up grand creations for the Sunday night Masquerade competition. Last year, we won a prize for our renditions of Space Ghost, Brak, and Zorak. This year, I'm building a ten-foot tall Totoro, from the anime movie My Neighbor Totoro. It kind of dominates the whole downstairs right now.

I know the Starfleet book just came out, but can you tell us what’s next?

Next up is something about as different as you can get—a Holocaust narrative. Scholastic approached me to write a novel based on the true story of a man named Jack Gruener, who as a boy survived ten different Nazi concentration camps. He and his wife had written up a brief memoir of his time in the camps, and I took that and expanded it into a novel. The book is called Prisoner B-3087, and it comes out in March of 2013.

Thanks again to Alan for taking the time, and for sharing such great insights into his past and future work.  I hope you got as much out of his lessons as I did.  Be sure to visit his website at for more information, including author appearances and DragonCon pictures.
And now...
Here’s how the giveaway works.  I’ll pick one random winner from among the commenters to this post.  The winner gets to select one signed book from among the three Alan Gratz YA novels discussed here.  That’ s STARFLEET ACADEMY: THE ASSASSINATION GAME, SOMETHING ROTTEN, or SOMETHING WICKED—something for every taste, and remember, it’s signed!

Please comment below to be considered for the drawing. Extra points offered for posting about the contest on Facebook or Twitter (please include mention of this in your comment). Email MUST be included in the comment to be considered. Open to US and Canadian entries only - apologies. Contest closes at midnight EST on 9/22/12.



Jaye Robin Brown said...

Excellent interview! Will retweet about this!

Rita Monette, Writer said...

First of all I must say I love Alan Gratz! I usually write by the seat of my pants, but I more often than not get stuck in the middle. I will have to try your outlining technique, Alan. I will repost this contest on my FB page at!/RitaMonetteBooks and on Twitter @ritamonette. For my prize, if I should be so lucky, I'd like the new Star Trek book. I already have the other two. Good luck to all!

Annie Rachel Cole said...

Really cool interview! Will retweet.

Shelly Cook said...

Excellent advice, Alan! I'm a Star Trek fan, in all incarnations! Having read Samurai Shortstop and Something Rotten, I was absolutely thrilled when I saw that you were writing for a Star Trek book. Still giving me chills: The Borg Queen's scene with Picard...OOOOOOH! Plus, your writing tips are fabulous. Thanks so much for sharing. P.S. If I win, I want the Star Trek book, too!

Alison Lyne said...

After many years of reading way too MANY Star Trek paperbacks and seeing all the movies....I'd sorta left off reading Trek titles. But now I can see I've just gotta have this one. I should have drawn Alan's comic sketch with a Star Trek uniform instead of Superman!
Alison Lyne, illustrator

Miss Knight said...

Fun contest.

I will definitely be tweeting this, because I deserve all the brownie points and positive karma points I can rack up.

Kristin Lenz said...

What a wonderful, in-depth interview, with a fantastic giveaway! Thank you to Kurt and Alan.

AlishaKlapheke said...

Great interview! I don't often pick up mysteries, but you've perked my interest with the whole Highland games idea.

Thanks for sharing, Kurt! It was great to me you at the SCBWI conference.

Kath said...

Mark me down as another Alan Gratz fan. I'm a panster, but Alan's description of his outlining process has piqued my interest. I think it's his "what happens next" routine that finally got to me. Such a simple phrase to run on.

Stina Lindenblatt said...

Ha! We have the same writing process. I can never figure out how some people can write a first draft without pre-planning. But it works for them.

Great interview!