Thursday, March 14, 2013

IRC Conference, March 14-16, 2013, Neal Shusterman

Breakfast with Neal Shusterman
Blood Kills Vampires and Good Riddance

7 am came pretty early this morning, but the anticipation of hearing Neal Shusterman speak made the 6:35 shuttle ride and brisk walk worth while. The Lincoln Inn served their "vegetarian" breakfast of orange juice, cheese-covered eggs, browned potatoes and pastries, which were actually pretty tasty. I had been dreading the vegetarian meal I had ordered weeks before, and I was grateful that they had an interesting interpretation of vegetarian.

After breakfast, Shusterman was introduced, and he took the podium.  The authors at this conference amaze me with their audience-friendly manners.  One would figure if you were THAT gifted with words, that perhaps one would just hide behind the word processor, but so many of these authors are just as dynamic in front of an audience as they are in their writing.  Shusterman is one such man.  He explained that this year has been tough for him, being diagnosed with a disease known as TTP, which would not allow him to interact heavily with his audience because he had to maintain his distance.  I was glad that I had met him at the IRA conference last year and got my picture taken with him then because this year we were not able to get close to him.  My heart broke for him as he talked about losing both of his parents this year within four months.  He said that this year has been a year of firsts, and that he was surprised that there were still so many firsts he could have! 

After this Shusterman went on to talk about when he first became a reader and then later a writer.  I was able to connect with him because his educational experience was not roses and butterflies - in fact, he was a highly energetic kid, and was regularly removed from his third grade classroom and into the library.  I believe that if I had been teaching when he was in school, he would have been one of my students, and I would have loved him.  This was the beginning of his reading, and he said that as the year went on (and he went more and more frequently to the library) he read more and more and increasingly challenging material.  Eventually he went on to increase his reading level so much that he received an award for the highest reading achievement by sixth grade. 

Shusterman's writing interest started with poetry in sixth grade, and he was gracious enough to read us a copy of his first poem, which made the audience laugh, as so many of our sixth grade poetry often does.  But it wasn't until he reached ninth grade that he discovered how much he really enjoyed writing.  It was his ninth grade teacher who saw a fire in him and used that to push him.  Shusterman admitted that he was not great with deadlines, and actually called himself a self-sabbotaging overachiever - one who goes above and beyond, ultimately missing the deadline for whatever it was that he was supposed to turn in.  His ninth grade English teacher saw an opportunity and challenged him to write a story a month, due on the first of every month.  If he met this deadline, the story would be used as extra credit (which he desperately needed).  This was just the push he needed to practice meeting those deadlines, and he began to produce stories on a monthly basis.

In college, he met another challenge.  He had a college professor who told him he had to stop writing science fiction.  His professor told Shusterman that he had to write stories in every genre in which he felt most uncomfortable.  So he did.  In the process, he found that he could write in these genres - and his science fiction stories were no longer centered around the science fiction, but around real people with real problems, usually with some science fiction sprinkled in for the Shusterman flaire.

After sharing all of this with his audience, he began the stories of where the inspiration came from for several of his books.  He started with Everlost, which I have not read.  Unwind is the only series I have read by Shusterman.  The books creeped me out so much that I was afraid to read anything else by him.  His stories hit me at my threshold of tolerance for science fiction in their creep-factor, but my intervention kids love them, so I read them.  Shusterman shared with us that he wrote the first few pages of Everlost  and then shelved the book for ten years before 9/11 when he was inspired by the New York skyline and the missing twin towers.  After 9/11, he said, the story began to take shape, and he wrote the Everlost series.

After that, Shusterman shared the inspiration for the Unwind series.  I'm not sure where I had read or heard this, but this morning was not the first I had heard him talk about his inspiration for the books.  A British article about rogue teenagers in England was the first piece of news that made an impression on him.  He recalls, from the article, the implication that these teenagers should just be rounded up and put out of their misery.  The second, completely unrelated, article to which he credits the inspiration of Unwind was an article that reported the American public's preferences during elections.  The article reported that 80% of the country would be swayed one way or another on a particular candidate on the abortion issue alone.  Finally, an article on body part transplants - in particular a face transplant of a woman in France.  It was stated in the article that in a matter of just a few years, 100% of a body would be able to be used in a transplant.  Shusterman's big question, and one that is reflected in his trilogy . . . if 100% of you is alive, does that make you alive or dead?  Unwholly was supposed to be the last book, but it got to be so long that he broke it up and created his current book - due out in October - Unsouled.

All-in-all, the chance to see Neal Shusterman speak this morning was the highlight of my day (although I still had to make a Starbucks run afterward).  To hear him speak of his experiences and inspiration for each of his books, of how he was able to perfect his craft, makes me think that perhaps my writing might still have a chance.  His words also allowed me to take back some key ideas:
  • Find a child's strength and challenge that child individually.
  • Challenge yourself and push yourself outside of your comfort zone to perfect your craft.
  • Use life experiences to inspire your story telling.
  • Start writing.  Stop, if you need to, but come back to it sometime in the future.

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