“The conceit behind Shusterman’s latest is truly unique. While it exhibits the author’s usual storytelling aplomb, it also manages to delve into more serious and timely subject matter, such as racism, sexism, and homophobia. Despite these heavy topics, the story still moves at a lively pace and, thanks to a zany sci-fi twist, manages to pack in a few laughs as well.” —Booklist
Neal Shusterman is the New York Times best-selling author of over thirty novels for children, teens, and adults. He won the 2015 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature for Challenger Deep. But you might also know him as the creator of the bestselling series Arc of a Scythe. Today, Shusterman is releasing his explosive new YA novel Game Changer (Quill Tree Books), which is currently in development with Netflix. Dead Darlings is thrilled he chose to talk with us on his pub day!
The first question comes from my daughter, who is a huge fan of Scythe. Game Changer tackles quite a few gargantuan social issues, such as sports concussions, sexism, racism and homophobia. How did you figure out how to entertain readers without coming across as preachy?
That’s always a challenge. I think it comes down to creating believable characters, and putting them in impossible situations, through which they must navigate. I try to make their choices and decisions—even the bad ones—feel real. I also try never to pose easy answers to tough questions—and all the questions I like to pose are tough ones. I’m more about understanding the question than I am proposing the answer, because I don’t know the answers—that’s why I’m writing the book!
Like so many of your works, Game Changer takes us to different worlds. After getting concussed in a football game, your protagonist, Ash, finds himself traveling through alternate universes, experiencing society through a different lens in each. How did you go about creating so many alternate realities in this particular story?
I took a look at various different points of view I wanted Ash, the main character, to view the world through, and picked the ones I felt would work best for the story, and the character. Clearly, I couldn’t have him tackle every social issue, but I didn’t want to limit him to just one, either. I could have chosen a single issue to dive into deeply, but there are plenty of other authors doing that, and doing it well. I also realized that if I chose a single focus, the book might not draw in the kinds of kids who need to read it.
Again, you tackle so many different timely issues. Can you share a bit about the kind of research you did do before you started writing?
Research usually comes while I’m writing it—because I’m never sure what I need to know until I get there. It’s one of the reasons why the book took over four years to write. With each “jump” to a new reality, I needed to start the whole world-building process over, with brainstorming, research, and speaking to people who’s lives and personal experiences can help inform what I’m writing about. Then after I’m done, I run it past more people to make sure it’s as authentic as it can be.
Was there anything about writing the book that surprised you, or turned out completely different from when you’d started?
I’m always surprised by the revelations the characters reach. It’s always like writing an essay, but not understanding your own hypothesis until you’ve completed it. Only by taking the characters through the story do I understand what I’ve been exploring. And what I tend to realize is that I’ve only touched the tip. Each thing I, and the characters learn, is a doorway to realizing how much they/I don’t know. That’s why it’s more about the questions than the answers for me—because the answers are always so much bigger than the questions might appear.
Your books are so creative and so original. But have there been writers who have influenced you?
Every author I appreciated along the way imprints on you one way or another. From Douglas Adams to Kurt Vonnegut to Stephen King to John Irving, and more. The books that really impress me are the ones that make me think “Wow, I wish I could have thought of that,” or “How did the author make me feel that way.” I never want to aspire to write something like an author or book I admire—instead I aspire to make my readers experience what I experienced in the best books that I’ve read.
With Game Changer breaking so much new ground. I’m sure fans are wondering what’s next for you?
I’m working on lots of stuff. There’s A Holocaust-themed graphic novel entitled Courage to Dream. I just saw the final artwork on it by artist Andrés Vera Martinez, and it’s spectacular! I’m also working with my son Jarrod, (with whom I co-wrote DRY), on a new novel that tackles the opioid crisis in a unique way—from the point of view of the drugs themselves. That one’s called Roxy. I’m also finalizing a new middle-grade humorous sci-fi book, co-written with Eric Elfman, with whom I wrote the Accelerati Trilogy. I’m also writing a short story collection in the world of Scythe—and co-writing the pilot episode of the Game Changer TV series, which is set up at Netflix—so with any luck it will be in production by the end of the year!
Neal Shusterman is the New York Times best-selling author of over thirty novels for children, teens, and adults. He won the 2015 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature for Challenger Deep. His is novel, Scythe, was a 2017 Michael L. Printz Honor book, and is in development with Universal Studios as a feature film. His novel, Unwind, has become part of the literary canon in many school districts across the country, and has won more than thirty domestic and international awards. He co-wrote his most recent novel, Dry, with his son Jarrod, and in addition to being on numerous award lists, the book is currently in development with Paramount Pictures.
Shusterman has also received awards from organizations such as the International Reading Association, and the American Library Association, and has garnered a myriad of state and local awards across the country. His talents range from film directing to writing music and stage plays to public speaking. He’s even tried his hand at creating games. Shusterman lives in Jacksonville, Florida, but spends much of his time traveling the world speaking and signing books for readers.