Author Interview: Andrew Smith
Four times a year, the Reading Tub publishes the Wash Rag, our newsletter. The Author Showcase feature introduces our visitors and subscribers to writers and books they might not otherwise know about. In previous years, we just offered links to the interviews. This year, we’re going to publish each interview individually. Enjoy!
Try as he might to keep his identity off the jacket flaps of his books – and to use crazy content on his blogs to remain elusive – Andrew Smith is becoming a household name. As father, teacher, and now award-winning author, Andrew has a passion for reading.
Drawing on his own love of reading and his experience as a journalist, Andrew is creating books that teens (and their parents) want to read. His first novel, Ghost Medicine received lots of accolades from reviewers, and was named one of the ALA’s Best Books for Young Adults 2009. It has been nominated for the SCBWI Golden Kite Award, and the California Book Award.
Spend a bit of time with Andrew ( as I did at Book Expo America 2008) and you will quickly see that he is just as excited (maybe even more excited) talking about boys and reading as he is promoting his own books. From his view at the front of the classroom (and looking at what his high-school son is reading), he knows that we are forfeiting a golden opportunity to engage boys as readers.
RT: Congratulations! Ghost Medicine, your first novel, not only has gotten rave reviews from the industry, but was just named one of the ALA’s Best Books for Young Adults 2009, and is nominated for the SCBWI Golden Kite Award, the California Book Award. Plus, your new book in the path of falling objects (September 2009) is already getting advance praise. How does it feel to have landed on Cloud 2009?
Andrew: It feels dizzying. Just this week, Ghost Medicine received a terrific review from VOYA (Voice of Youth Advocates); and a 5Q rating, too, which is incredibly flattering. I am so grateful and honored by the reception my books have received; and most of what I’ve experienced has been nothing like I imagined it would be. This is all much more difficult and challenging than I had ever imagined, but, then again, I tend to be pretty hard on myself at times. The most awesome part for me is seeing Ghost Medicine on the ALA list alongside such great titles and authors. I’ve had the opportunity to meet some of my author heroes, too… highly forgettable handshakes for them, I’m sure.
RT: In a recent blog post you described being confronted by a reader who was incredibly frustrated by the vague setting (location, time period) of Ghost Medicine. You also talk about your purposeful vagueness in the discussion notes you’ve created for teachers to use in their classrooms. Do you think an undefined setting affects a reader’s ability to connect to a story?
Andrew: No. Well, not necessarily, at least. I think that in many ways the ambiguous time and place for the setting of Ghost Medicine may actually draw readers into the tale in a more personal way. There are always going to be very concrete readers who want all the details filled in, and I can appreciate that, but many books even have characters that go unnamed (I’ll mention one below). In Ghost Medicine, the setting almost acts as a character. It is presented in painstaking detail, but it isn’t named. The funny thing is that I will often ask readers where they think the story takes place, and they almost always tell me that it sounds like a place they once lived or where they grew up. That’s quite a connection, if you ask me.
RT: During classroom workshops at two high schools this past summer (2008), you talked with students (all boys) about fear, one of the themes in Ghost Medicine. In blogging about it, you also say that you talked about your own fear of getting over “other people reading my stuff.” Has that fear evolved as “your stuff” is now an award-winning book?
Andrew: It is difficult for me to let my work go and have other people read it. It’s not about praise or liking it – I can’t imagine a situation where a writer would expect everyone to love their work – I think it’s more about making yourself vulnerable.
I am a reclusive person who prefers anonymity. Having worked as a journalist when I was younger was easy for me because news reporting allows no connection to the voice from the other side of the page. I didn’t enjoy news and copy writing, so I always worked on my fiction; that is the kind of writing I felt the greatest connection to. But writing fiction makes me feel vulnerable, exposed. I still get anxious at people reading my “stuff.” Sometimes, when I’m in an especially bad mood, I’ll swear to myself that I’m never going to show anyone what I’m working on ever again…that if I didn’t care about letting people read it, then I’d know I was being honest, and not trying to write to a market, if that makes sense. My wife didn’t even get to read Ghost Medicine until after the galleys came out, and my son has been bugging me to let him read in the path of falling objects; but that’s not going to happen until it’s published.
RT: As you just mentioned, anonymity suits you. You work very hard to keep your “real life” off of the jacket flaps and Internet, so I was tickled when I found this nugget: “I am disappointed when I read a novel that tells a captivating story, but there is no change apparent in the characters at the end.” Who are the characters from your own reading that have been the most memorable for you?
Andrew: To be honest, I wish the biography portion of my jacket flap were blank. My editor insisted I come up with something, so I suggested: Andrew Smith lives in California, where he wrote this book. Ultimately, I was coerced into agreeing to the cryptic and vague blurb about me. And…ugh! The bio on the flap of in the path of falling objects is, like, a sentence or two longer. An epic! And, yes…on the Internet, everything I say about myself on my blog is so over-the-top and exaggerated. Really, I don’t see how some people take me seriously.
But, yes, I need to feel that characters in books undergo changes through the course of a story. If they’re the same people at the end as they are at the beginning of their story, to me, I’ve just wasted my investment into reading the work. Personally, I have a hard time letting my characters go, and I get this most intense, devastating postpartum depression whenever I type the final words on any novel (I’m working on my fifth).
Some of the more memorable characters from my reading, off the top of my head, are the kid (unnamed character) and Judge Holden from Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian; Edgar from Brady Udall’s The Miracle Life of Edgar Mint; of course, Huckleberry Finn; Pip from Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick; and Arkady Renko from Martin Cruz Smith’s novels. A fairly eclectic crew, I’d say.
RT: You described the summer workshops as part of “specially-created all-boy literacy classes aimed at making boys better readers and writers.” Reaching boys and engaging them as readers is a big topic. You are also a teacher, with front-line experience on the subject. What are your thoughts on ways to engage boys in reading? How important is writing to their development as readers.
Andrew: Reading and writing are entirely dependent on one another as skills. So, getting boys to read will also get them to be better writers. We know that data shows us boys’ literacy skills have been declining. We have actually been impairing their abilities in schools, and there are some things we can do to reverse this course. I do not subscribe to the myth that the decline in male literacy is due to the introduction of video games and computers. There were just as many time-sucking distractions to boys when I was a kid, but I knew a lot of boys who loved to read and dreamed of growing up and becoming writers. Believe me, I could talk about this topic all day long. It’s something I feel very strongly about.
I am a big fan of Jon Scieszka’s Guys Read movement. In fact, I’m piloting a Guys Read Group at my school. I think boys need freedom of choice in their reading. They also need peer and adult role models. I know this may sound harsh, but our schools have really turned literacy curriculum into something that’s not at all boy-friendly. Boys can do much better in a segregated, mildly competitive (as opposed to cooperative) setting when processing language arts. There are so many outstanding book choices out there for boys. It’s difficult sometimes to understand the rationale behind the content and curriculum design in many language arts programs. My son, who’s 14, will be reading The Awakening by Kate Chopin in school next year. Believe me, no boys were consulted in that assigned text. Nothing against that novel, but it’s basically about the repression of women at the end of the nineteenth century. Not really something a high school boy is going to feel very connected to. At least not my kid.
RT: Both Ghost Medicine and in the path of falling objects are being released hardcover and as audio books. Who do you see as the biggest audience for audio books (commuting adults, teens, etc). Do you have a way of determining how successful have the audio books been when compared to traditional hardcovers?
Andrew: I have actually heard from a number of people who have purchased the audio version of my book. It seems most of them are adults who listen to the book while they’re busy doing something else. But I’ve made many personal donations of my audio books to special-needs programs all across the country, too.
I’ve never been able to listen to the audio version of Ghost Medicine. I had the opportunity to sit in the studio during a recording session and really enjoyed the experience. I think the crew at Listening Library and the actor, Mike Chamberlain, were outstanding. The funny thing is that from time to time, Jessica Kaye, the director, would stop Mike and turn to me and ask, “Is that how you want it to sound?” I would just shrug and say, “I don’t know.” Because I never imagined the words actually sounding like anything. To me, they were just letters on a page.
As far as success is concerned – and this is going to sound bad to some writers – I don’t really look at sales numbers at all. I gauge my own success from the feedback and reviews I receive.
RT: What are you most looking forward to with the launch of the new book? Is there anything you’ve learned about promoting Ghost Medicine that you’ll tweak for the new book.
Andrew: For in the path of falling objects I am most looking forward to the reaction it will get from readers. It is quite a thrill ride of a story. There are a lot of people anticipating this book, and now some of them even know who I am. Being a debut author in YA (young adult) is incredibly tough. There are so many amazing authors in this field, so I was an unheard-of nobody and Ghost Medicine was just a title among the thousands of other YA titles published in 2008. So I had to work extra-hard, and I found that the best way to rise toward the surface is to make sure to connect with people. I sent emails to everyone I’d met at conferences, and I reply to every message I receive from readers. Nothing beats positive word-of-mouth. Also, authors who don’t have a strong web presence are overlooking the best way to promote their book. The websites for Ghost Medicine and in the path of falling objects are both nice, but simple. I also blog every day. That was a difficult groove to get into, and sometimes my posts are kind of, um…bizarre, but the daily blogging gets more attention than the websites.
Also, as you mentioned in an earlier question, in the path of falling objects is going to be an audio book, too. I am really looking forward to being in the Listening Library studio again and watching them work on this project. This is a book that is really made for reading aloud…you’ll see why when it comes out.
RT: In doing the research for our interview, I found Letting Boys be Boys, a “book report” about Ghost Medicine. Lisha Cauthen, the reviewer, offers this observation: “It took several pages for me to settle into the rhythm of the book, trust the author to take me where I needed to go.” Her comment about trust is interesting. When you were writing Ghost Medicine did you feel that way about the story as it unfolded?
Andrew: My take on Lisha’s comment about trust is more technical. I think she’s referring to the unconventional structure of my prose. And, yes, I have actually heard from several readers who simply could not get over the fact that the first sentence of the book is 69 words long. So, the prose has a rhythm and feel to it that defies preconceived constraints on how stories must be told. Readers have to trust that and let their brains adjust to a new wavelength, I think. When they do, the story is a pretty nice ride.
As far as my own issues are concerned, I totally trusted the direction of the story while I was writing it. I believed in the characters and the setting, and I knew where I was going. The book practically wrote itself.
RT: Do you use read-alouds in your classroom? If so, what are your top five?
Andrew: My first full-time teaching job was in an alternative program for severely at-risk 14- and 15-year olds. These kids were outcasts, some of them with serious problems. It was a very powerful experience for me to work with them, especially because it was during the time when my son was born. Working with those kids helped me become a good father, I think. One day, I’m going to write about those kids. Anyway, I used to read to them every day. It was their favorite time of the day, and in the course of a couple years we probably got through dozens of novels, anthologies, and plays. Some of the kids’ favorites were The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court by Mark Twain; stories from Eagle or Sun? by Octavio Paz; Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke; and Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury.
Currently, the classes I teach are not read-aloud type environments, but every year during the ALA’s Banned Books Week I fly beneath the radar and read a title from the list to every one of my classes, no matter what. The last couple years, I’ve read Chris Crutcher’s Whale Talk. I’m still waiting for the inevitable irate, “You said what???” from the principal. I’m also working my hardest to get on that list one day, too.
RT: Is there anything else you’d like to add?
Andrew: Just thanks, Terry, for what Reading Tub is doing for kids all over America.
Andrew’s Website and blogs
Ghost Medicine blog