Today, author Andrew Smith sat down to chat with our own Olivia about his latest novel, the darkly humorous GRASSHOPPER JUNGLE!
Olivia with YA-Mag: Andrew, welcome to the Young Adult Magazine! We really enjoyed your most recent novel, WINGER, and are overjoyed to chat with you today about GRASSHOPPER JUNGLE!
YA: So let’s talk about your latest protagonist: Austin Szerba. How did you meet? And how is Austin the perfect character to tell this story?
Andrew Smith: Well, the origins of the character of Austin go back to the summer of 2011. I had just been named in a notorious Op-Ed piece in the Wall Street Journal as being a harm to young readers because of the dark elements in one of my novels, The Marbury Lens. I took that accusation very personally–to the extent that it became a tipping point in my decision to stop writing for publication. I lost sleep, worrying about whether or not literature could actually damage kids who were growing up in the dark realities of the here and now: the economic recession, kids’ families losing their homes, the ridiculous war in Afghanistan, seeing their parents lose their jobs, and so on. I started drawing a comic strip called “Dystopia, U.S.A.” and Austin, Robby, and Shann were characters in it–all in this recession-wracked town in Iowa called Ealing. I made up Austin’s last name, and then I started to research whether or not anyone had a last name of “Szerba,” which I came to find out was not a very common name at all, and that it probably would have been an Anglicized version of the Polish surname “Szczerba,” which pulled me deeper and deeper into Austin’s family history.
The other ingredient in his character came from the fact that I wanted to address the pressure teenage boys feel from all the expectations society places on them to play the perfect role of “being a man.” I think it’s a quietly intense internal struggle that an awful lot of boys have a terrible time going through, and it’s completely unnecessary, too. So I wanted kids (and especially parents of teenage boys) to be able to get inside Austin’s divided head and heart to catch a glimpse of how difficult this time can be, and maybe come away from it knowing that kids like Austin are okay. I have to say that my editor, Julie Strauss-Gabel, really helped me make this kid what he is on the page, and, also, my agent, Michael Bourret, soothed me out of the whole I-am-going-to-quit-writing black hole I was in. Michael is, after all, the “Author Whisperer.” Just ask anyone.
YA: What sets Austin’s story apart from other YA science fiction comedies, like ALIEN INVASION AND OTHER INCONVENIENCES? What will readers find that isn’t anywhere else in YA books?
AS: I don’t ever compare my work to any other novels that are out there–I’m hard enough on myself as it is. So I don’t know what sets Grasshopper Jungle apart from other spines on the shelf. I can say that when I wrote it I wanted to build something that, as Shann says to Austin, “I love how you tell stories. I love how, whenever you tell me a story, you go backwards and forwards and tell me everything else that could possibly be happening in every direction, like an explosion. Like a flower blooming.” So I experimented (I know, that’s a funny word) with the structure of every chapter, and the novel as a whole, so I could attempt to get everything–from urinal factories to cavemen to President Nixon and a poor Iowa town–all inside that book. It’s about everything, after all. I don’t think there are other spines on the shelf that contain all that stuff.
YA: What non-book influences helped spark Austin’s story? Any specific songs or shows?
AS: Well, I have an extensive playlist that goes with the book. I am a huge fan of music, although when I write it must be in COMPLETE SILENCE. My playlist draws heavily from the Rolling Stones albums “Exile on Main Street” and “Let it Bleed,” and then all those more contemporary bands I name in the story: Titus Andronicus, The Orwells, Modest Mouse, The Shins, LCD Soundsystem, and so on. Shows? I never watch television at all. I couldn’t tell you the first thing about TV shows.
YA: From the synopsis, it sounds like Austin might be attracted to girls *and* guys. This is great to see! What are your own thoughts on the current state of LGBT protagonists in the YA category?
AS: I don’t really care about LGBTQ labels on protagonists (or any fictional characters) at all, because sexual identity (if I had to, I would say Austin is questioning, and Robby is gay) is not the defining characteristic that shapes these kids. Austin is smart, introspective, curious, painfully honest, loving, funnier than hell, and a terrific son and friend. Robby is brave, selfless, incredibly loyal, vulnerable, and forgiving. That’s who they are.
Now, the thing about Austin’s simultaneous sexual attraction to Shann AND Robby is something I wanted to put in the book because I think it’s an entirely normal–and okay–thing that most guys go through during their formative years, and there hasn’t been very much put out there for those kids telling them that there’s nothing wrong with them, a lot of people experience this, and the most important attraction between these three characters has nothing to do with sex, and everything to do with love.
YA: What is the story behind the title GRASSHOPPER JUNGLE?
AS: I have never changed any of my novel titles–and all of them had been my idea. I have been called an outlier in this regard, but most of my writing experience has been way outside the Venn Diagrams of literature. So, here’s the story of the title, it’s a long one, so bear with me: I live in a very remote, rural area of California (yes, we have those here). I also run, every day, in the hills around my house. The quiet and solitude of running helps me think about things. I name particular stretches of trails, based on environmental objects and so on.
There’s one section of the trail I run where, every late-summer, it becomes infested with grasshoppers. So when I run through it, I get pelted with these jumping, flying grasshoppers, which, by the way, really grosses me out. I named that stretch “Grasshopper Jungle,” and I thought, hey, this would be a cool title for a book. So the title came right at the beginning–while I was drawing those comic strips–and then I figured, since I was calling the book Grasshopper Jungle, it should have some crazy bug stuff in it.
YA: If you could cast the Dream Film of GRASSHOPPER JUNGLE, who would be perfect for Austin? Robby? Shann?
AS: First off, can I just say this: I would LOVE to be the black-and-white, eye-twitching, psychotic, sex-obsessed and anemic Dr. Grady McKeon. Please? Second, I’ll be honest: I was going to cheat on this answer. All my friends know that this is THE ONE QUESTION NEVER TO ASK DREW. Why? Because I don’t know anything about actors and actresses and shows and stuff like that. So I was going to have my friend Carrie Mesrobian (Sex & Violence) shill for me and give me some great answers, but then my other friend Christa Desir (Fault Line) played my conscience and scolded me about telling the truth.
So here’s what I would say: the actors who play Austin, Robby, and Shann would have to be great talents who also love the book and love to read. Kids who read are always the coolest, as I point out again and again in Grasshopper Jungle. And, continuing with my honesty, I do know one actor who would be a perfect Austin or Robby. He’s a kid named Nathan who lives in Boston, and he’s fifteen and one hell of a great actor. He happens to be a big fan of my writing, and his mom is a published author, too. I only ever owned 3 extra advance copies of Grasshopper Jungle. One of them, I gave to Stephen Chbosky (The Perks of Being a Wallflower) and the other two I gave to kids who’ve read everything I have ever written–my friend Ian in Miami, and this actor dude Nathan from Boston. That was a really long way to confess my absolute ignorance of all things pop-cultureish.
YA: What’s coming up next for you in the land of YA storytelling? Any planned returns for Austin, or for WINGER’s Ryan Dean
AS: Since you ask specifically, yes, there is a sequel planned for WINGER, called STAND-OFF. And I am currently working on a second novel for Julie Strauss-Gabel at Dutton.
YA: Do you have any pet projects you’re working on? What can you tease about them to the YA Magazine audience?
AS: I don’t think I am allowed to mention the title of the novel I am writing for Julie right now, but I can offer a teaser: it’s big, like Grasshopper Jungle, but instead of going out from the center, it’s a bunch of crazy things from all over the place that collapse into the middle. Also, there is a Sasquatch in it. Kind of.
YA: Last one! If you could spend one day with Austin, Robby and Shann, what would you do together? What would you want to tell Austin about his past and his future while you visited?
AS: Oh! That would be so fun! I always get this kind of postpartum depression when a book gets published because I have to let these characters go out into the world and be completely independent of me. So if I could actually spend a day with them, I would love to spend it down in Eden listening to “Exile on Main Street.” I would even smoke cigarettes. I don’t smoke, but I would do it for Robby and Austin. And I would wear a jumpsuit and dance with Shann, and we would draw crazy pictures on the library wall, and I wouldn’t tell Austin anything about his past or future–that’s all for him to tell me.
YA: Thank you very much, Andrew! And once more from all of us at YA Mag, congratulations on GRASSHOPPER JUNGLE!
AS: Thank you right back!
Readers, be sure to check out Andrew Smith at his website www.AuthorAndrewSmith.com. Or follow him on Twitter @MarburyJack.
GRASSHOPPER JUNGLE, published by Dutton Juvenile, is now available at your favorite retailers and local independent bookstores!
Olivia Hennis is a transplanted New England girl dropped by a tornado into the magical Land of Jersey. For more info, follow her on Twitter