March Madness: Grasshopper Jungle Author Andrew Smith
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I first connected with highly acclaimed and accomplished author Andrew Smith on Facebook. Anxious to read some of his work, I reached out to him to see which of his books I should read first. He responded with a recommendation to read Grasshopper Jungle.
I’m SO glad I did!
As an almost 47-year-old mother of two teenaged sons, you might be surprised to learn that I absolutely loved Grasshopper Jungle (Dutton Books for Young Readers, February 11, 2014). Even though the book was not a typical read for me and included giant bugs who eat people and a lot of references to smoking (something I despise)—not to mention conversations between boys that often spiraled into grossness (e.g. naming balls and such)—I was fully captivated by the book. The voice was brilliant, the story unique, and the writing was simply great.
I am THRILLED that Smith agreed to an email interview about the book and his work. Below are the highlights:
EZ: In the acknowledgments for Grasshopper Jungle, you say that you’ve been a writer all your life and that you never considered the idea of publishing your work. What initially drew you to writing and what did/do you personally get out of it that makes you want to do it?
AS: Ever since I started reading, I knew I wanted to write stories. I honestly can’t say why, or even what the attraction was at that time. I suppose I fell in love with the power of story and word, and the way they connected me to something that was not in my immediate here-and-now, although I’m certain I could not have articulated that as a child. It just became something I always did—writing—and, yes, I never considered for a moment doing it professionally, mostly because I never wanted anyone to read the things I’d written. If I could zero in on why I didn’t want people to read my stories (I had no problem with journalistic newswriting, which was something I did but didn’t really enjoy), it probably had a lot to do with a very negative experience I had when I was about 11 years old. My teacher had my English class write short stories. I was really excited about doing the assignment, but when I turned my story in, she called me up to her desk and explained she was giving me an F on my story because she told me there was no way an eleven-year-old boy could write such a good story, and she was convinced that I had to have plagiarized it from somewhere. What a nice thing to do to a kid!
EZ: Also in the acknowledgments, it sounds like you were on the brink of getting out of the “business of writing.” (I’m so glad you didn’t!) Are you happy to have made the decision to stay in the business and to subsequently have Grasshopper Jungle, Stand Off, and The Alex Crow published?
AS: I’ve always said that I never wanted to BE a writer; I only wanted to write. I do love seeing my work in published form, in bookstores; and I especially love the process of working with my editors. They’ve made me so much better as a writer. It’s the kind of education no amount of money can buy, and it’s probably been the most rewarding aspect of working professionally. If there was one thing more enriching than that growth I’ve experienced through working with such talented editors as Julie Strauss-Gabel, David Gale, Liz Szabla, and Andrew Karre, it would have to be hearing from readers from all over the world about how my work has impacted their lives in positive ways. Nothing can possibly be better than that.
EZ: What is a typical day in the life of Andrew Smith? (You are a high school teacher, correct?)
AS: I do teach high school. I love working with kids. Just about every year I tell myself I’m going to quit teaching, but every year the kids pull me back into the classroom. A typical day for me begins at 3:00 in the morning. I wake up, answer email, do some writing. Then I go for a four-mile run (at 4:00 in the morning) and get ready for school. That’s a regular workweek kind of day, but it’s hard to define typical in my case, because I travel so much and have so many other writing-related things constantly going on. But one thing I do, no matter what, every single day is the running thing.
EZ: When working on Grasshopper Jungle, what was your writing process? And when, where and how do you typically write?
AS: I wrote Grasshopper Jungle during summer break from school. I think it took me about 2 months to complete. I was also drawing a lot at the time—pictures that went with the story. I’ve always wanted to illustrate my own books, but I’ve never actually stuck to that goal. One day, maybe. In fact, the book I’m writing at the moment has drawings of mine in it. Who knows if I’ll actually keep that going throughout. Most of my writing is done in my home office. I live in the mountains, in a very rural, remote, quiet place. I need peace and quiet when I write, so I don’t listen to music when I write, and I need to be alone when I’m doing it, too.
EZ: Grasshopper Jungle killed me (in the best possible way) on so many levels—and it was so tight and beautifully edited. (I especially loved the repetition throughout and how it helped explain/build the story.) What was it like to work with (*swoon*) noted YA book editor (and so much more), Julie Strauss-Gabel?
AS: Julie is so intelligent and talented that I’m kind of intimidated by her. She’s so sweet and funny, too. But she’s a brilliant editor, and really extracts the best from me. As I said before, I do love the editorial process, but I’m not ashamed to say that sometimes the work is so difficult that I feel like crying. It’s kind of like hitting the wall when running a marathon, when you find yourself wondering if you will ever survive to the finish line. But getting to the finish line, especially with an editor like Julie, is better than anything.
EZ: In Grasshopper Jungle, there’s a lot—and I mean A LOT—about sexuality. As a 46-year-old mother of two, I am sure I blushed quite a bit while reading it but thought you handled it brilliantly, authentically, and beautifully. While writing/editing it, did you ever worry/consider that it would be too much for teen readers or book sellers/librarians to handle, or did you just write what you wanted and subsequently get amazing support from your “team” to produce work that stayed true to your vision?
AS: I never thought anyone would ever see Grasshopper Jungle. I was only writing it for myself. So there was never a moment that I ever thought about teens, librarians, teachers, parents, booksellers, or anyone else. I almost can’t believe that I let my friend (who became my agent) Michael Bourret read it, and then I truly could not believe that every editor he submitted it to wanted to publish it. I thought, are they out of their minds? Oh well. Shows what I know.
EZ: How are you similar to, or different from, the hilarious protagonist, Austin, and his supportive best friend, Robby?
AS: Well, first of all, I wish I were more like Robby, who is so unselfish, kind, and brave. I try to be like him, I suppose. Sometimes I fail, as we all do, but I always want to be like that. As far as Austin is concerned—and this is why he is my narrator—I sometimes question if I waste too much time wondering how every little thing in the universe has something to do with me—some connection, some booby trap, some kind of plan. Maybe we all wonder about such things. Certainly I think it’s the case with a child (and Austin has an awful lot of growing up to do in the book, which he ultimately succeeds in doing, despite all the bumps and bruises). And I think Austin kind of looks at the world with the same cynical, less-than-serious eye that I do.
EZ: Which novels have moved you the most personally and professionally?
AS: My favorite novels are Breakfast of Champions by Kurt Vonnegut, and The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie. Nobody does crazy like Vonnegut and Rushdie. I wish I could get there one day.
EZ: What books have you recently read and enjoyed?
AS: I think the best novel that came out in 2015 was I Crawl Through It, by A.S. King. So far, I’ve read a lot of 2016 novels that aren’t out yet. My favorite two at this point are The Memory of Things by Gae Polisner, and The Great American Whatever, by Tim Federle. There is no element in writing more important than voice (aside from self-discipline), and King, Polisner, and Federle have pitch-perfect writer voices, which, like self-discipline, is pretty much something that can’t be taught.
EZ: What is the best advice you have received or would like to give about a) writing, and b) the business of writing that you’d like to share with anyone who likes to write for themselves or aspires to have their work published?
AS: Almost any advice about writing I’ve ever heard, to me, is wrong the majority of times. So if I gave advice to writers, it would be this: If you find the exception to this and make it work, you’re probably on to something great.
EZ: How do you like to #moveitorloseit? (You mentioned earlier that you run…)
AS: I run every day (usually 4 miles every morning at 4:00 AM before I teach, and 5 or 6 miles when I don’t teach). I haven’t taken a day off of running since 1999–sixteen years now.
Image of Andrew Smith book cover art via Kat Smith; image of Andrew Smith via Taggert Lee; and image of Grasshopper Jungle via me.
To learn more about Andrew Smith, Grasshopper Jungle and his other work, visit his website.
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