Code of Honor, the new book by Horatio Wilkes Mysteries author Alan Gratz, hit bookstores on August 25th. Code of Honor is the story of young Persian-American Kamran and his treacherous trek to prove that his brother is not the terrorist he’s been accused of being. YE was lucky enough to catch a few moments of this busy bee’s time to chat about heavy but heart-pounding Code of Honor, its controversial themes, and what’s next for the author (hint: a lot).
The plot of Code of Honor takes a fictional look at an issue that is very real, and very controversial and emotional for many Americans–terrorism and the war on terror. That’s a pretty heavy, complicated, and nuanced topic, especially for a YA novel, and we at YE were curious what brought Mr. Gratz to such an intense and loaded subject.
On his inspiration for Code of Honor, he sites a not-so-unlikely source, the hit Showtime drama Homeland about a distressed CIA agent and her efforts to thwart terrorism at all costs. “The idea for Code of Honor came from a very basic challenge: could I write something like Showtime’s Homeland for young adults?” Gratz asks.
Gratz continues with, “One of the reasons Homeland is so great is because it touches a nerve that’s so exposed in America right now. How do we fight a war against terrorism when there’s no single leader, no single cause? When the motivation for the war is so foreign to us? When it’s not even a proper ‘war’? There are no easy answers to these questions, and Homeland is not an easy show—but that’s what makes it so compelling. The war on terror is heavy. And controversial. And emotional. All of which of course makes it perfect for a young adult novel. Teen readers don’t need or want to be coddled. What young adult readers want most is truth. They want to read realistic stories about real people and real issues. They want to hear both sides of a story and make their own decisions about what’s right and wrong, not have answers handed to them or foisted on them. Yes, Code of Honor is a challenging novel—but it’s a challenge teen readers can more than handle. Am I worried about negative reactions to Code of Honor? Sure. I want everybody to love everything I write. But that’s not going to stop me from writing something with a clear point of view with something to say that may put some people off. There are people out there who have already made up their minds that all people of Middle Eastern descent are Arabs, that all Arabs are Muslims, that all Muslims are crazy extremists, and therefore that all people of Middle Eastern descent are terrorists. I’m not going to win those readers, but I was never going to win those readers. I’m much more interested in readers who have open minds and are looking for a great story.”
Well said, Mr. Gratz. And to create that great story, Mr. Gratz had to create a compelling hero, 17 year old Kamran. But what makes Kamran tick? Gratz describes Kamran thusly: “Kamran was born in America and thinks of himself as American, not Middle Eastern, but that’s how a lot of people look at him, judging him solely on his appearance. But while he’s always felt the suspicious eyes following him, Kamran has never known anything like the prejudice he experiences when his brother goes on TV claiming responsibility for a terrorist attack. Suddenly everything everybody secretly thought about him but didn’t say comes out. Making Kamran Persian-American let me really talk about the way we pre-judge people of Middle Eastern descent in this country post-9/11, a perspective I hadn’t seen in a lot of young adult fiction. It also gives Kamran a bit of a chip on his shoulder that makes him able to hold his own with the adults in the story—both friends and enemies.”
With that chip on his shoulder, and desperate to prove that his brother Darius isn’t the evil entity he’s been branded, Kamran enters the fray as the only person who can decode Darius’s cryptic messages, a code based on a game the two played as children. “So now Kamran’s indispensible. Even when the adults in the story know things are too dangerous to bring a teenager along, they can’t help but involve Kamran. They need him.”
Wow. Well, what does the man who crafts such intriguing and suspenseful stories like to read? “I’m an omnivore when it comes to reading…mystery and detective fiction, spy thrillers, graphic novels, and science fiction and fantasy. I’m currently reading the Brad Meltzer thriller The Zero Game and enjoying it.”
As you might suspect from very varied topics and themes of Mr. Gratz’s literary works, he’s seen a thing or two. In other words, the phrase “This ain’t my first rodeo” could apply to nearly any situation for Mr. Gratz. He’s lead an eclectic professional life–one could consider him somewhat a jack all trades. “I have done a lot of different jobs, but most of them have been about writing or words or books in some way. I’ve worked in a library shelving other people’s books, I’ve worked in a bookstore selling other people’s books, and I’ve been an eighth grade English teacher teaching other people’s books.” But what’s his favorite job of them all? “It’s one I don’t get paid for—pub trivia host. My wife and I write all the questions for our local pub trivia game, and I’m the man on the mic. I always tell people that my dream job is to be a game show host, and hosting my local trivia night is about as close as I get.”
What are some other favorites of Mr. Gratz? Favorite literary character: “That’s such a tough question! I’ll go with Archie Goodwin, Nero Wolfe’s right hand man in the mystery novels by Rex Stout.” Favorite Album: “They Might Be Giants’ Flood came out in the middle of my senior year in high school and was highly influential on me, and continues to be a favorite to this day.”
What lies ahead for this master of mystery and jack of all trades? Turns out 2016 is going to be a huge year for Gratz. “I’ve potentially got three books coming out next year! The first is The Monster War, the third book in my steampunk League of Seven trilogy. That will definitely debut in the spring. Another is called Ban This Book, and it’s the story of a fourth grade girl who starts a secret banned-book library out of her locker when a parent starts getting books banned from the school library. The last one is another thriller from Scholastic. Another historical thriller, this time about an Irish kid working as a spy in the Hitler Youth in Berlin in World War II. We’re still working on a title for that one.”
Jeez. I only have one more question for Mr. Gratz: When do you sleep?
If you enjoyed getting to know Mr. Gratz here, check out Kamran’s story in Code of Honor out now, and be on the lookout for all of his 2016 projects!!!