Gordon Korman, Prolific—and Lifelong—Author, Balances Absurdity and Heart

Gordon Korman, author of more than 80 books for middle grade and young adult readers, published his very first novel at the age of 14—and has been writing ever since.
Gordon Korman is the author of more than 80 books for middle grade and young adult readers, including Swindle, Schooled, Ungifted, Masterminds, and several installments in the "39 Clues" series. Born in Montreal, Canada, and raised in the Toronto area, Korman published his first novel at age 14 and he's been writing ever since. gk 1976 signing (3)

Portrait of the author as a young man; age 14, circa 1976.

Who were you as a middle grade reader? I was in fourth grade when Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing came out, and that book was huge for me—I guess I’d never considered that there might be stories about me out there. It sparked a love of the middle grade novel that continues to this day. As a kid, I devoured books by Beverly Cleary, Judy Blume, Bertrand R. Brinley, and John Dennis Fitzgerald. You frequently put your characters in situations that are improbable or absurd. Why are these unlikely scenarios so appealing to middle graders? One of the key differences between middle graders and adults is that kids are much better at willing the suspension of disbelief. As a result of this, the walls between the genres are less absolute. As long as you’re true to the rules of the world you’ve built, tweens will accept clones of criminal masterminds as easily as the ungifted kid hiding out in the gifted academy, or the gamer who is so engrossed in his Xbox that he has no idea his house is filling up with smoke. To adults, these seem like entirely different levels of buy-in. But as long as the characters act like real kids, readers will stay right with you—if you’ve got a good story to tell. How do you balance humor with serious issues in your novels? Early in my career, I think I tried too hard when it came to humor. What I’ve learned over the years is that being honest with kids is more important than knocking their socks off or creating a knee-slapper. And, to my astonishment, a lot of the humor that comes organically when I let myself just tell the story turns out to be funnier than the most hyper-inventive, over-the-top, Rube Goldberg–style plotting. Gordon Korman_headshot2013_credit Owen Kassimir

Gordon Korman. Photo credit Owen Kassimir.

Your books from the 1980s still circulate well in my library, and you’ve got a large number of backlist titles coming out in repackaged versions. There’s even Bruno & Boots: Go Jump in the Pool, a 2016 adaptation of your first novel, This Can’t Be Happening at MacDonald Hall. How have you managed to make your work so timeless? I’ve always believed that childhood is kind of timeless. Sure, the original Bruno and Boots never had cell phones, and my early characters didn’t surf the Internet. But the essence of being a tween or teen hasn’t really changed that much. Today the kid who didn’t get invited to the cool party may find out about it sooner, because he can see the pictures on Instagram. But the feeling of being on the outside looking in isn’t that different than it was 30 years ago. The amount of work you produce is incredible. What does your work day look like, after your caretakers unshackle you and allow you five minutes for nutrition and personal hygiene? I more or less “nine-to-five” it, not out of any great love for that timetable, but because it’s just easier to be on the same schedule as my wife and kids. That said, even though I work all day, I’d guesstimate that 80 percent of what I write every day comes from the same two or two and a half hours. The problem is it’s impossible to predict when those super-productive hours are going to come, so I’ve got no choice but to put in full days. I love your parade of T-shirts from different schools on your blog. You do a lot of Skype and personal visits. What do you hope students get from these, aside from the thrill of the brush with celebrity? What do you take away? (Aside from cool T-shirts?) No title

Korman's first novel, written while he was a high school student, originally published in 1976.

I did my first classroom visit a couple of months after my first book was published, when I was 14. So I’m a school appearance guy from way back. I love the energy I get from the kids, and obviously, it’s invaluable research. You hear what gets the big laugh, the introspective chuckle, the “You think that’s funny? That makes one of us…” As for the kids, there are a lot of opinions as to why these kinds of visits are so successful—that they make authors “real” or offer a literacy equivalent of something special, like athletics or the science fair. But I like to think of it as a celebration of creativity. I’m an only child, and the way I kept myself entertained was by making stuff up. And now here I am, 40 years later, still doing the same thing. I think the kids I see at school visits really connect with that. Judging from the books you have blurbed, you’re still keeping in touch with what other people are writing. Who are some of your current favorite books or authors? Jack Gantos and Jerry Spinelli are my contemporary middle grade titans, but I don’t like to box myself in. I’m a Harry Potter fan. Michael Chabon astounds me. And never underestimate Douglas Adams's The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. You have written so many different types of books. Is there a genre you would not try? Are there any illustrators you might like to work with to produce a notebook-style novel or a graphic novel? (Because I would preorder five copies the second this sort of book were announced!) I love trying new genres. For some reason, I’m always at my best as a writer when I’m a little bit scared that I’m not going to be able to pull it off. So bring it on! Horror? Romance? I’ll give it a shot. A graphic novel would be a dream for me, but I think I’d need a genuine love connection with my illustrator. That’s more than a genre switch; it’s an entirely different form of storytelling. How has middle grade literature changed over the years you have been writing it? How might your writing be different if you were starting out in 2017? As much as middle grade has changed since I started, I’m starting to toy with idea that the pendulum might be swinging back a little. It’s not so long ago that our world was all series, all the time, and the writers were in a kind of arms race to see who could ratchet up the stakes just a little bit higher (and I don’t exclude myself from this). Well, we’ve pulled back quite a bit from that. The stand-alone novel is ascendant. And we’re getting back to a point where writers realize that the stakes don’t always have to be life and death for a story to be meaningful. So if I was starting out today, I like to think that my books wouldn’t be that different—except that I’d be in a much different point on the learning curve. Ninety-five Korman_restart_4cc-high-res-cmykpercent of what I know about writing I’ve learned from just doing it. What should we look for from you in the future? What books do you have coming up? Have you ever thought about producing an adult novel for your longtime fans? Or a “historical fiction” book… set in 1978? Ha! I’ll let MacDonald Hall stand as that “historical fiction” for the time being. I do have a couple of new books coming down the pike. Restart (Scholastic, May 2017) asks if a bully can reinvent himself as a different kind of person after an accident leaves him with amnesia. And in 2018, keep an eye out for Supergifted, a companion to Ungifted. As for an adult novel, I always used to believe I’d get around to one eventually, but lately I’ve lost that urge. I love the kids’ book world. I don’t find it restricting at all. There’s really no story I’m dying to tell that I can’t fit into a novel for middle graders or young adults.

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