Monday, February 19, 2018

An Evening With Neal Shusterman

I promised I'd get into more details about how the Shusterman event went, so here we go!

I arrived at Powell's around 6:30 for the 7:00 event, and who should be walking in just ahead of me but Mr. Shusterman and his--whoever it is that accompanies authors to these things. So he ended up holding the door for me, and yes, I grinned at him like a maniac.

They had their larger audience area set up, and four rows were already filled, so I got me a spot in the fifth row and figure out what books were available for my fellow Cybils judges. Sadly, there were no copies of Scythe to be had, but in addition to plenty of copies of Thunderhead, Powell's had a cart full of his other works, both new and used. I love that they do that, and I thought hard about getting Unwind and/or Challenger Deep, but since I already have both, I restrained myself. 

I got these beauties for my co-judges.

As a warm-up Sarah from Novel Novice came out and gave free posters to everyone who was in costume. There were about a half dozen young women in robes of various colors, which was pretty cool. I had actually considered wearing a shirt I have with a giant cowl neck, and had decided it might look like I was trying to be Scythe-y. I guess I should have just embraced it. Or maybe it's not cool for adult readers of YA to get into cosplay? Hm.

Then she ran a trivia contest. I could have answered every question, but was mindful of not being greedy or obnoxious. Still, when she asked how Rowan referred to himself in regards to his family, my hand shot up so I could say "lettuce" before she'd even given us the multiple choice options. The poster was a two sided one featuring the covers of each book on one side, so when there seemed to be widespread hesitation over the question about how many times of year the Scythes hold an enclave, I held up three fingers and explained that I would like to be able to show BOTH covers in my classroom. She let me take another poster with my answer.


Then it was time for the author to speak, and Sara's first question was a winner. She asked about his inspiration for the Arc of the Scythe series, and he told her that he has the official answer, which he believed until quite recently to be the truth, and that he has the real answer. So of course we were all agog to hear more.

He explained that he had written Unwind before Hunger Games came out--they were fairly simultaneous in publication. So he'd written this dystopia right as dystopia became a huge Thing in YA publishing, and he wondered what it would be like to create a Utopia. What would it look like, to have a world in which the problems really have been solved? What would the implications be? He realized that a world without illness or even death would need people to end lives intentionally, and that anyone who wanted such a job would have to be disqualified from ever having it. He was talking about how he thought of Scythes as people who would end lives with dignity and care, with respect and support, and I thought of the beautiful dance of the nurses disconnecting my mom's life support and preparing her for death. 

So, he went on, it was from this interesting thought experiment, borne from looking at what was going on in publishing, that he got the idea and started writing, and so he told people each time he was asked. Then sometime recently, instead of asking where he got the idea for Scythe, someone asked him what was going on in his life when he started writing Scythe.

He said he had to pass the question on down the panel he was sitting on, because it hit him hard to realize what the answer was. His mom had gotten ill, and then died. Peacefully, with her son and her husband holding her hand, after receiving tender palliative care from hospice until she was ready to go. And for all the pain of losing someone, he knew that this was perhaps the best way to go. And that is where Scythe REALLY came from.

Yes, I was crying by this point.  Unobtrusively, at least.

Utopia--or is it?


Later--I think during audience Q&A--someone asked about the origin story of the Skinjacker series. Everlost is the first Shusterman I ever read, and I liked it, but didn't go on from there. I've had several students get really into it though. He said he was watching some cheesy TV re-enactment of a supposed near-death experience, and the actor was dashing down a tunnel towards the light, and he turned to whomever was in the room with him and said, "What if she trips over her own feet? You know SOMEBODY does from time to time." He played around with that joke for awhile, and came up with the first chapter of Everlost, in which a head-on collision causes two kids to die at the same time, which in turn causes them to crash into each other inside the tunnel towards the light, which in turn bumps them into some sort of limbo instead. Then he put the chapter away for years, because he didn't know what he had to say about purgatory. Later, it came to him that his ghosts would only be able to connect to the real world through places that had been well loved, but no longer existed. Once he decided his ghosts would go to the Twin Towers, he was re-energized for the writing of the series.


A few smaller details stand out in my memory. When asked about his writing process, Shusterman said that he concentrates on his work best when he is not at home, so he spends a lot of time on writing retreats. Speaking as someone who can stay a lot more focused when I work on this blog at the library than when I work on it on my couch, I could totally empathize with this. He talked about the experience of co-writing with his sons, and his plan to co-write with his daughters as well. He gave us a bad news/good news tidbit: the movie version of Unwind fell through, but it's being picked up as a TV show, which given the scope of that series sounds much better to me anyway. Also, the movie deal for Scythe involves him as the screenwriter. There was more (why he almost didn't write the unwinding scene in Unwind, the science developments behind several of his plots, etc.), but I'll stop now. 

He was an excellent speaker, thoughtful and interesting. I've been thinking a lot in the past week about our idolization of authors, but I am very comfortable recommending you go see him if he speaks anywhere near you.

At the end, I waited patiently for my turn, brought up my huge stack of books, explained why I wanted him to sign for other people, and got to shake his hand. He'd just heard about the Cybils award and knew what I was talking about, which was helpful, since I wasn't super articulate in the moment. Since I'd forgotten my camera, I didn't take a picture, but here is how he signed our books. You can see that Instagram is not my thing. 


  1. It sounds like a great event. I’m going to start reading Scythe tonight!

    Aj @ Read All The Things!

  2. Oh. My. Goodness. My love for Neal Shusterman knows no bounds. I seriously clapped (while sitting at Starbucks) when I read that Unwind is being turned into a series. I've been sad about the apparent demise of the movie for YEARS. Thanks for sharing all of this---I missed Shusterman when he was in my area for the tour because I was sick and I've been depressed about it ever since.

    Nicole @ Feed Your Fiction Addiction

  3. A SHOW! A show, you say! This is exciting- and I agree, I think it would do much better as a show, as opposed to movies. I teared up at the Scythe story, too. I loved the Skinjacker series- I was unsure at first, but I got REALLY into it by the end. I want desperately to meet him some day. If I had to name only ONE favorite author, it'd be him. I'd planned to meet him at ALA last year, but there was a schedule change and I was already gone by the time he was to be signing. SOBS. Hopefully one of these days- thanks for letting us live vicariously!!

  4. He sounds lovely! I've never read any of his books- which would you recommend I start with?

    1. Beth, I'd have to say Unwind. Scythe is really good too, but the Unwind series is complete, so that's let frustrating if you do get into it.


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