In the wake of such novels as In the Path of Falling Objects, Stick, and The Marbury Lens, Andrew Smith has developed a reputation as a writer who isn’t afraid of portraying evil in its most graphic form, regularly confronting his teenage male protagonists with their worst nightmares before allowing them to achieve some form of resolution. In his hallucinatory new horror fantasy, Passenger, a sequel to The Marbury Lens, that resolution is muted indeed. Bookshelf spoke to Smith by phone from the secluded California ranch where he and his wife raise horses.
Most fantasy and horror writers for children and young adults tend to rein in the horrific a bit, but a few – I’m thinking specifically of you and Rick Yancey – seem to go all out. What do your books gain from the explicit blood and gore?
I have a difficult time with the concept of something being gratuitous. I don’t think that what I write is gratuitous; nothing is thrown in there just for the sake of shock or pushing any kind of imaginary envelope or testing the limits of what’s acceptable. I have a problem with the preposition “for” because I don’t write books for children. I don’t write books for young adults. I really write what I write for me. I write for readers, and those readers are all kinds of different ages, but I like to focus on those essential adolescent experiences because that was such a tremendously important time in my life. Now, as an adult, I can look back objectively at some of the mistakes I made, and some of the mistakes that friends of mine made, and also some of the joy and some of the horror of that time. Again, I’m not really writing for a specific age group, regardless of where the book gets shelved in a bookstore. The most recent studies, after all, show that the majority of young adult titles are being sold to adults who are buying them for themselves.
Both The Marbury Lens and Passenger, specifically, contain a lot of graphic violence. Did your publisher have any problems with that?
No, and because when I wrote The Marbury Lens I was kind of frustrated with the whole miscategorization of young adult literature, I intentionally wrote it as disturbing and dark. I wanted to bring up what I thought were the most frightening things I could imagine in the hope that my editor and publisher would say, “this is too adult” for us to handle as a young adult book – but they didn't. They never batted an eye at any of the contents and actually asked for more. They asked for clarification on things, but they never ever suggested toning anything down, whether it was the language, the content, the ideas, or the arc of action in the book.
The Marbury Lens begins as a realistic novel of child abuse and the overwhelming guilt that can destroy a survivor, and then suddenly shifts into an almost hallucinatory fantasy mode. How did it evolve that way?
The thing about the book is, and I don’t have any problems talking about this, is that in my own life, when I was a kid, I was kidnapped by a complete stranger. I’ve spent my whole life, up into adulthood, trying to deal with that and processing it and thinking about it on a day-to-day of basis. I’d gotten to a point in my life where both of my parents were gone and a lot of people I knew when I was a kid have nothing to do with my life now for various reasons. So, I wanted to write this book about a kidnapping and the way that it kind of got screwed up with Jack and Conner. My intent originally was to make the book kind of like a noir mystery about this kidnapping and then the accident that happens.
While I was writing it I started to have really bizarre dreams about this place called Marbury. I write down my dreams and a lot of the things I dream about become elements in the books that I write. Also, there was this dream I had of a kid named Seth who helped his father dispose of a body. So I put all of those things together and the end product was The Marbury Lens. In writing the story though I never for a moment entertained the possibility that what was happening to Jack wasn’t real. I always wrote, from my perspective, that everything that was happening to him was absolutely real.
Marbury sounds like an innocuous British town of the sort where a boy’s school might be located. How did you come to use that name for the hellish secondary universe of your novels?
I did look up Marbury and there is a town in England of that name, but the name was in my dream. I dreamed about this place and not only was I there, but there were other people from the here and now who were there too, and they were transformed into monsters. Anyway, this became the basis of Marbury. Then I started to do research on quantum reality and multidimensional theories, because I wanted this to make some kind of sense for people who really need to have an architecture to make them feel comfortable about the reality that I’m presenting.
You've also written realistic fiction, such as Stick, about a bullied boy, his older brother, and their abusive parents. Is there anything you feel that you can accomplish in fantasy that you can't accomplish in a realistic novel and vice versa?
No, I don't think that there is, but I think that writing genuinely original fantasy is probably more difficult than writing realistic fiction, which explains why there are so many fantasies out there that are really just the same thing. Genuinely creating a new world is much more difficult than realistic fiction. I tell kids all the time when I visit them to talk about writing that the key to becoming a writer is unplugging from your televisions and your computers and getting out into the world to meet people and bump into things. Then you’ll find yourself, as I did so many times, saying to yourself that one day I’m going to put this into a book.
Winger, due out from Simon and Schuster next year, will be your first book not published by Feiwel and Friends. How did that come about?
I wrote Winger a long time ago and I totally love this book. It’s illustrated and it breaks into graphic novel [form] in the middle of chapters and things like that. I wrote it that way and I did the illustrations myself, but Simon and Schuster has gotten someone who actually knows how to draw to redo the illustrations for me, which is a good thing. The problem is that I write too much. I write quickly. I easily finish two or three books per year and Winger was different enough from what I had been putting out with Feiwel and Friends that I decided it was time to see if there was some other house that might be interested in it. We did that and it received multiple offers, and we realized that David Gale was the right person for the project. I have an ARC sitting here as I say this, and Simon and Schuster did a beautiful job. I love the artwork [by Sam Bosma], all the stuff they did for the cover. It’s not the only book I’ve done for another publisher, though; Julie Strauss-Gabel at Dutton is doing one called Grasshopper Jungle. It should be out around January 2014, or possibly fall 2013. It’s far and away the most bizarre thing I’ve ever written. My agent says that it’s darker than The Marbury Lens, but at the same time it’s hilarious.
When I originally wrote The Marbury Lens and then Grasshopper Jungle I wanted them to be graphic novels. I’d imagined the whole thing on the train in The Marbury Lens as a graphic novel and I even started working with an illustrator when I was writing Grasshopper Jungle to have at least a chapter of graphic novel here and there, but then I realized that whenever you illustrate a book or put in sections of comic panels, you have to give up some words in order to do it. There’s no reason to have the art and then have the words that are exactly what the art is depicting, but I’d gotten so attached to the words that I was using in The Marbury Lens and Grasshopper Jungle that I just couldn't give them up. Winger, though, since I originally drew it myself (and I never ever want to draw again) was very organic. It wasn’t a problem for me to write it that way.
Will there be a third volume in the Marbury series? If so, what can you tell us about it?
I’ve already published a short story called “The King of Marbury.” It’s up on Tor.com. I am going to write another book about Marbury and I’m glad you asked this question, because when I wrote The Marbury Lens I was not thinking at all that there would ever be more to it, but then so many people were asking questions about what really happened and what was really going on: “You can’t leave me here; you have to tell me what’s going to happen next.” So I thought that, well, if I do tell you something about what happens next – which became my monstrously long new novel, Passenger – I was going to tell you something that you would never have expected. I hope that this is the experience that readers of Passenger get, that it was something that was totally different, that everything had changed, that everything had turned upside down. I do know what I’m going to write the third book about, and it’s not going to be anything that people will expect.
Passenger by Andrew Smith. Feiwel and Friends, $17.99 Oct. ISBN 978-1-250-00487-1