November 20, 2017

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Up to the Challenge: Neal Shusterman’s Journey to the National Book Award

Neal Shusterman with his son Brendan. Photography by Zach Cordner

Neal Shusterman with his son Brendan.
Photography by Zach Cordner

Accepting the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature in November at the Cipriani Wall Street ballroom in Manhattan, Neal Shusterman thanked everyone who had supported him throughout his career. A career is “shaped by so many people,” the author noted, “people who help you, who believe in you.” Challenger Deep (HarperCollins, 2015), one of Shusterman’s 30 novels to date, is the story of Caden Bosch, a teenager who, as he begins spiraling into a psychotic episode, imagines himself on a ship bound for the Marianas Trench, the deepest spot in the ocean. As the ship gets closer and closer to its destination, both Caden and readers find themselves in a plot and a place that takes on frightening dimensions when they no longer know whom to trust.

Lyrical, layered, and profoundly moving, Shusterman’s novel was inspired by his son Brendan’s experience with mental illness, and it is dedicated to the doctor who the author credits with saving his son’s life. Before leaving the stage at the award ceremony, the author asked his son to join him. As the room broke out in applause, he put his arm around Brendan’s shoulder and told him, this book “is yours as much as it is mine.”

First, Neal, congratulations on the National Book Award. What has your life been like since the announcement?
It has been a crazy whirlwind of epic proportions. The recognition the book has received, especially because it’s such a personal book, is really wonderful. It’s the culmination of an entire career.

1601_Shusterman-PQ2You published Edison’s Alley in February of 2015, Challenger Deep in April, won the National Book Award in November, and just this week the film rights to Challenger Deep were acquired. Your short story collection UnBound is due out in hours, Hawking’s Hallway in February 2016, and the film version of Unwind is slated for production in the spring of 2016. Is this going to be a typical year for Neal Shusterman going forward?
It’s been a very good year. I feel like I’m surfing this wave that just keeps on rolling.

I’m curious to know when you began to think of yourself as a writer. There’s a story floating around that you wrote to E.B. White at age eight asking for a sequel to Charlotte’s Web and offering to collaborate with him on it.
It’s true. [Laughs] His wife wrote a wonderful letter back, saying that her husband was having eye trouble and that he had asked her to respond. She thanked me for my letter and told me that her husband felt Charlotte’s Web was complete and did not need a sequel. I still have that letter.

So you already identified as a writer at that age?
I was interested in all creative activities early on. I liked acting, writing, and composing music. At one point I wanted to be a rock star. But in ninth grade I had an English teacher who challenged me to write a story a month for extra credit—that’s when I began identifying as a writer. I became known as the kid who writes—and I liked that.

So I continued to write. In college at UC Irvine I wrote a humor column for the school paper that became very popular. It was written in a New York voice similar to that of my character Antsy in The Schwa Was Here, Antsy Does Time, and Ship Out of Luck.

Brooklyn snark?
Yes. [Laughs] After four years of writing that college column, I felt maybe I could write in the real world.

1601-Shusterman-ChallengerDeep_CVAnd here you are now, the winner of the National Book Award. You’ve talked about your son Brendan’s diagnosis of schizoaffective disorder. At what point did Challenger Deep emerge as novel, and was it a conscious effort to address Brendan’s experience?
I had the idea for a book titled Challenger Deep—without a story in mind—for a long time. Actually, it all began with Brendan, his fascination with the ocean, and his second grade report on the Marianas Trench. We learned that Challenger Deep is the deepest place in the trench, 6.8 miles down. I always thought that would be a cool name for a book but didn’t have a story to go with it.

Brendan began having difficulties when he was a teenager, starting with anxiety that quickly evolved into delusions, paranoia, and hallucinations. Ultimately he had to be hospitalized. At one point he said to me, “Dad, it feels like I’m at the bottom of the ocean screaming at the top of my lungs and nobody can hear me.” That’s when I realized what Challenger Deep had to be about, but I didn’t know if I would ever write it because we were really struggling as a family to understand and help our son.

Later, with time and medication, some fantastic doctors, and his own indomitable will, Brendan reached a place where the illness was under control. When he was thriving, I asked him if he thought it would be OK if I wrote a book that addressed mental illness.

Was incorporating his artwork into the book always your thought?
When I sat down to write the book, I began by looking at Brendan’s art, created while he was in the worst place. When his mind was really fractured and he couldn’t tell the difference between what was real and what wasn’t, his way of communicating was through drawings. Some were of sea creatures, others were much more abstract. These drawings became the inspiration for the fantasy sequences in the book.

The structure of the novel incorporates Caden Bosch’s two realities—his life at home and school and his journey on a ship bound for the Marianas Trench—and the two mirror each other in almost every detail. Then there are other voices. How did you arrive at the book’s structure?
I had to soul search and figure out what I felt needed to be said, what was missing in literature about mental illness. I decided I wanted to show the interface between reality and delusion—where and how they crossed until they started to flow freely into one another.

There are four different voices in the book. There’s Caden in the real world. There’s Caden on the ship. Then there are little vignettes and asides—observations about life that Caden makes.

While writing, I didn’t want to constrain myself. Because the book is so odd structurally, I felt that I would just write as it came to me and then try to figure out how it would fit together later. Eventually I color-coded the different voices, then pieced them together like a puzzle. I had no idea whether or not the story worked until I submitted it to my editor.

1601_Shusteramn-NealDid Brendan offer any input?
I did ask Brendan to read the first draft and to give suggestions. That was very important to me. I didn’t want this story happening without his input. I wanted to make sure he was comfortable with it.

Did he ever express that he wasn’t?
He never did. He was very excited about the novel from the beginning.

Clearly compassion is a theme in your books. Has that been intentional?
I think it’s just a reflection of the things that I think about. I want my characters to be real, I want to understand them, I want to care about them. Compassionate characters endear you to them. In Challenger Deep, I wanted Caden to look at others who are going through the same thing that he was going through and to help them; compassion empowers him and gives him a sense of self worth. Without it, we don’t grow as human beings.

In your National Book Award acceptance speech, you spoke about your hope for Challenger Deep. Could you share those thoughts with our readers?
One of the problems with mental illness is that people don’t talk about it. One in three American families face it in one form or another. I’m hoping that the book will help remove the stigma from mental illness and open up a dialogue—allow us to talk about it in more open terms, and to take away the sense of shame associated with it. Once we do that, it will help us address the issue. It will be easier for people to have a sense of pride in who they are, and to understand that mental illness is an illness, and that it is not a stain on them.

You are known for addressing some thought-provoking topics in your books. Yesterday on the subway, I sat down next to a high school student who was reading UnDivided (S. & S., 2014), one of the novels in your chilling “Unwind” dystology that deals with subjects ranging from abortion to transplant technology.
Really?

Yes, a huge fan. I asked him, “If you could ask the author one question, what would it be?” Without skipping a beat, he answered, “Where does he get his ideas?” Given that you have written sci-fi, fantasy, realistic fiction, humor, screenplays, and more, your output does beg that question.
I have no idea! They just come—and never when I want them to—but usually they arrive in the form of something that’s troubling me. Many times I don’t know if an idea will ever fit into a story, but then it connects with something I see or hear, and I think it might be an interesting way to express a feeling, or a struggle.

1601_Shusterman-PQ1

A confluence of ideas, then.
Yes. Unwind was like that. I wanted to tell a story of how sometimes in a society decisions are made out of convenience, how sometimes we let terrible things happen because it’s easier to look the other way.

Your books appeal to tweens and teens who want to be entertained, to connect deeply with characters, and to ponder some big questions. What are your challenges writing for this age group?
That’s a good question. I don’t want to speak down to my audience or give them simplistic answers. What I want to do is pose the hard questions, questions we all grapple with. The difference is adolescents are grappling with these questions for the very first time. So I want to present them in interesting ways, and in ways that challenge them to think.

It demonstrates a real respect for your fans as readers.
People tend to look at teenagers and imagine it’s all about texting and video games. Teens are thinking about many things. If you put something out there, something meaty, they’ll dig into it.

In my books, I tend to give characters impossible choices, because we’re often faced with impossible choices in life. Young adults respond to gray areas because so much of life is ultimately a gray area. Let’s see how these characters choose, how they maintain their integrity, and how they grow from making difficult choices.

But, you don’t provide your readers with easy or definitive answers.
I don’t give answers, I ask questions.

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Daryl Grabarek About Daryl Grabarek

Daryl Grabarek dgrabarek@mediasourceinc.com is the editor of School Library Journal's monthly enewsletter, Curriculum Connections, and its online column Touch and Go. Before coming to SLJ, she held librarian positions in private, school, public, and college libraries. Her dream is to manage a collection on a remote island in the South Pacific.

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