Today we welcome New York Times bestselling author Neal Shusterman to the blog. Thunderhead, the follow-up to his stellar, Printz honoree Scythe, hits shelves next week. The series is set in a future world in which death has been eliminated, and the ending of lives turned over to a class known as the Scythes. They’re meant to deal death, or “glean,” with compassion and fairness, but the journey of two apprentice scythes exposes the cracks in the system.
B&N has an exclusive edition of Scythe including chapter-by-chapter commentary from Shusterman, offering up behind the scenes info and delving into the hows and whys of his writing process—making it a must for both fans and writers! In the meantime, we go Behind the Book(s) with the author. Check out these awesome photos from his book-writing adventures—and an interview with Shusterman, conducted by characters from across his bestselling, award-winning novels.
Neal Shusterman: I think the best way to talk about my writing process is to do it through question and answer…and since there’s no one interviewing me, I’ll have my own characters ask me questions. Perhaps the questions they would actually ask if they were real and could talk to me…
CONNOR LASSITER (Unwind): What the hell is wrong with you?
NS: Hi, Connor. Yeah, sorry for all I put you through. My goal when I write is to ask life’s hard questions, and let the characters come up with their own answers, thereby growing in the process. I always trust my characters to solve their dilemmas, because my characters, including you, are pretty smart, whether you think you are or not. I believe in their ability to shine through the most difficult things I throw at them.
NS: Actually, I don’t have a “lair.” I mean, I have a home office, with a view of the mountains, because I think any work space should have a nice view. My workspace has a glass desk, and a exercise-ball chair, and the height of the screen is designed to keep me from slouching. It’s all very ergonomic. But you know what? I don’t ever work there. Ever. It seems the only thing I do at my desk is pay bills and do taxes. I find it really hard to work at home. Even when there’s nothing going on, home is about so many other things than writing, it’s hard to focus, so I get out. I go to Starbucks, I go to the beach, I go to the food court at the mall—anywhere but home. I seem to get most of my best work done, though, when I’m traveling, so I tend to travel a lot, taking writing retreats as often as I can.
SCYTHE GODDARD (Scythe): Yes, do tell us about your travels, so that I might seize your home during your absence.
NS: Uh…right. Here are some pictures of places I’ve written. It’s funny, but whenever I’m in some amazing place, the first thing I do is look around for a place to sit myself down and write. Such as…
The Acropolis in Athens. You’ll notice I use a pad. I don’t compose on the computer for several reasons. 1) If I did, I’d always be in front of a computer. I like my Mac, but if I had to stare at it all the time, I’d start to hate it. 2) I really feel there’s a connection between the brain and the hand holding the pen. I love to watch the words spill out onto the page in ink. Lately I’ve actually been using fountain pens. They make me really feel like a writer. 3) It forces me to have to completely revise it when I type it in. When I handwrite, it’s really just freeform stream of consciousness. It takes clearer form as I’m typing it in.
There’s this fallen fragment of a column between the ruins of the Forum and the Coliseum in Rome. I sat there writing all afternoon, realizing that the piece of marble I was sitting on was a pillar in the Roman Empire two thousand years ago. Talk about feeling a connection to history!
People who know me know that I tend to take a lot of cruises. They are almost always writing retreats. This started many years ago, when I decided I needed to get away to write, so I tried to find a hotel not too far from home that I could afford to stay at for a week. The thing is, I live in Southern California, where everything is expensive, so even Motel 6 was pushing my budget. Then a friend suggested I look into a cruise during the off-season, when fewer people are going and the cruises are ridiculously cheap. It turns out it cost less than a week at Motel 6, plus they gave you food—and check out the view! So now my office is the Ocean. (By the way, from this fragment of writing, can you tell what I was working on during this particular cruise?)
By far, this was my favorite place ever to write: the Sistine Chapel. See, when you take a tour of the Vatican, they make you wait until the end to take you through the Sistine Chapel, then kick you to the curb, where street vendors are selling bobble-head popes. They tell you that you have to move through the chapel quickly, and not stay more than ten minutes. But it’s Italy, so the guards really don’t care. As long as you don’t take pictures, and don’t bother anybody, you can stay as long as you want. There are benches in there, so I plopped myself down and wrote for two whole hours, and anytime I needed inspiration, I just looked up. Then I took this picture and got kicked out.
GREYSON TOLLIVER (Thunderhead): Are you telling me the Swiss Guard marked you as “Unsavory”?
NS: Naah, they just pointed at my phone, and pointed at the exit. I was ready to leave anyway. Funny you should mention the Swiss Guard—I actually imagined the BladeGuard, the elite police force of the scythedom, to be like the Swiss Guard at the Vatican. I also imagined a gathering of politically posturing scythes to be somewhat like the college of cardinals, which is why I called their triannual gathering a “conclave.”
THE CAPTAIN (Challenger Deep) Be you a plotter or a pantser, boy?
NS: A little bit of both. I’ll spend weeks without laying pen to paper, just trying to work the story out in my head. I’ll trick myself into thinking I know the story. But once I start actually writing, the story takes on new directions I never anticipated. That’s because the characters have minds of their own.
SCYTHE CURIE: Minds of our own? Have you considered the implications of that? It would mean we have free will.
NS: I think you do. That’s the reason the stories never go exactly the way I expect them to go—because the characters don’t necessarily want to do what I had planned for them. They often make decisions that foul up the plot, but I have to go with their decisions. I will never force characters to do something they wouldn’t naturally do. The best I can ever do is throw obstacles in their paths, or revelations in their backstories that might influence their decisions.
CADEN BOSCH (Challenger Deep): Do you ever get lost in a story? So lost you think you might never surface again?
NS: All the time. Every book feels like a trench I might not get back from, or a mountain I’ll never be able to climb. That’s kind of intentional. I believe that when it becomes easy, and you feel like you can phone it in, that’s when your writing becomes bad. That’s why I’m always trying to push myself a little bit more with everything that I write.
When a story does start to overwhelm me, I’ll write out the plot on index cards. This image is from one of the Unwind books. There were a lot of point-of-view characters, and I kept jumping back and forth between them. I started to lose track of the story, so I wrote out each character’s arc linearly, using different colors for each character. Then I started to stack them, ordering the scenes the way they would play out in the book. A few other things you might notice in the picture: a huge chessboard. I love chess, and collect chess boards. If I ever visit your school, challenge me to a game of chess. I’ll play you if I have the time. There’s a piano. I don’t really play. Maybe a little. Not well. I always wanted to play piano, so I envy the character Risa, who does. There’s also a clock against the wall that seems to be melting. I got that at the Salvador Dali museum. Dali is one of my favorite artists.
PETULA GRABOWSKI-JONES (Tesla’s Attic): So whose lives do you plan on making unbearably miserable next? And can I watch?
NS: Do you mean what am I working on now? Several different books. While on Tour for Thunderhead, I’ll be working on Dry. It’s about what happens in Southern California when the drought becomes so bad that taps run dry, and there’s no water for 23 million people. The story follows a group of teens over a single crisis week, where people are beginning to kill one another for water. The scary thing is, the scenario isn’t science fiction. It could really happen. Tomorrow. The best thing about the book is that I’m cowriting it with my son, Jarrod, who is a phenomenal writer (see him and me in the pic below). It’s not the first time I’ve worked on a project with a family member. My son Brendan contributed to Challenger Deep through his artwork and his experiences, and I’ve published short stories with both of them. I’m hoping to one day create something with my daughters, too!