Goodreads YA Interview—Neal Shusterman

Posted by Goodreads on April 14, 2015
In his hit Unwind Dystology, prolific YA writer Neal Shusterman creates a frightening dystopia that explores what it truly means to be human and alive. The four books in the series—Unwind, UnWholly, UnSouled, and UnDivided—connected with readers in a huge way, and Neal's new book, Challenger Deep, is poised to do the same. The story of Caden Bosch, a high schooler living in two worlds (one real and one imagined), the novel was inspired and illustrated by Neal's son, Brendan, who went through several difficult years dealing with mental illness. Brendan's line drawings stand in for Caden's art, and he consulted on the book. Now Neal answers your questions about working with his son, a potential addition to the Unwind series, and how to deal with your anger at society.

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Jess Argarate: The Unwind Dystology sent me on a roller coaster of emotions, from fear to hope and everything in between, so you can clearly send your readers into amazing adventures (as you do with your characters). Challenger Deep, such a personal work, must have been quite a journey of discovery for you, too. What can you tell us about this journey, and what did you discover in the process?
Writing Challenger Deep took about four years, working slowly and doing a lot of soul-searching in the process. I based the fantasy element of the story on the artwork that Brendan did as a teenager while he was going through an episode—some of those pieces are in the book. Before committing to writing the book, I asked him if it would be OK to do it and to weave his artwork and some of his experiences into the story—it was very important that he be involved and OK with the book from the very beginning. Now that he's completely "back from the deep," we as a family can look at it with a little bit of distance. The hope is that through this book we will help people understand mental illness from the inside out, help people empathize with those who suffer, and offer some hope for those who are suffering. What did we discover in the process? That even the darkest moments of one's life can be turned around and shed light for others.

Nicole: During the Unwind series, I would constantly feel a deep anger toward the dystopian societal values in the world, which got me even more invested in the books. I was wondering if you ever felt angry when writing the Unwind series, as if you were mad at your own work for creating such an in-depth, all-around disturbing society?
My anger was more about OUR society, not the society in Unwind—because that society is just an allegory and an exaggeration of our own. And not just western society, because human nature is the same in all societies. Writing these books made me think about the nonproductive way we polarize complex issues. The way we as a society ignore real problems and focus on insignificant ones because the tough issues are too hard to face. The way the entire structure of a society is geared to maintain the status quo, even when the status quo is wrong. The way people are willing to abdicate their minds and accept law and public policy as a definition of right and wrong because it's more convenient to do so. The way people in groups will try to impose personal beliefs on others, and the larger the group, the more dangerous it can be. The way people can be manipulated by advertising and the media into doing or believing or accepting anything. The list goes on and on. Writing these books forced me to analyze the problems that can beset any culture—and what happens when we sit back and allow unconscionable things to happen.

Casey: Are you an organ donor? Why or why not? What is your view on someone else having your living organ?
Yes, I am an organ donor. I have a good friend who died waiting for a liver. I think everyone should sign up to be a donor—even though it's not a pleasant thing to think about, people are dying every day because people don't feel comfortable thinking about the simple act of signing up to donate organs. There's a big difference between someone voluntarily giving up an organ and one being forced to do so. While I think unwinding is awful, I have no problem with my body being used to save others once I'm gone.

Chris: Personally Unwind has changed my views on abortion in a drastic way. How many people tell you that it has made such an impact on their own beliefs? Does it bother you that some schools don't allow the book to be sold at their book fairs due to the content?
I hope it changed your views! Not from one side to another, but in a way that takes it away from an us vs. them mentality. Believe it or not, there have been very few situations where the Unwind books have been banned. The book is accepted on all sides of the social and political spectrum, which is part of the point. It's nonpolitical. It dismisses the idea of taking sides on complex issues and tries to approach the very idea of complex issues in a more productive way. Usually the biggest issues come from people who haven't actually read the book and are making assumptions. (Most censorship is like that.) There are times when elementary schools will not have Unwind in a book fair, and that's fine. The book is for middle school and high school. With Challenger Deep, I'm trying to do the same thing I did with Unwind—I want to challenge readers' preconceived notions of mental illness and leave readers with an entirely new, and more understanding, perspective of it.

Victoria: Undivided was left a bit, shall we say, open-ended. What influenced your decision to end the series this way? And do you foresee any more works to completely resolve the Unwind Dystology?
Personally I dislike stories that end with everything wrapped up. I mean, you try to tell a complex story about real issues and emotions and human quandaries—and then wrap it up with a neat little bow? That negates the entire story! Real life isn't like that. My goal is always to leave the reader emotionally satisfied but feeling like there's more to the story, more to the world. Life goes on, but the characters—and the world—have turned a crucial corner. The book or series encapsulates the pivotal and exciting time in the characters' lives, after which their lives become far less interesting. Who wants to read about Connor from Unwind watching TV and taking out the trash? Who wants to read about Caden from Challenger Deep, when his only challenges are studying for exams? Who really wants to read about Brewster in Bruiser after he wakes up, having come to terms with his power and is no longer tormented by it? Or Allie, when she can no longer see or communicate with anyone in the world of Everlost? In general I like to end my stories right at the moment when the characters' lives are about to become ordinary.

That said—yes, there is going to be another Unwind book. UnBound will be a collection of short stories and novellas in the Unwind world. But it won't wrap things up! Some stories will be prequels, some will take place in the midst of the series' time span, and some will take place after the end of UnDivided. Look for it in December!

Charlotte: How do you write the perfect plot? Is there some sort of plot design structure you stick to when writing your books?
The plot is always directed by the characters. I have an idea of where the plot is going and a rough outline, but it never stays the same. The characters always decide what they do, and then I have to replot based on the characters' actions. As far as structure, a lot of plotting becomes intuitive after a while. If the story is starting to feel slow and bogging down, then I know I need to back up and do some replotting to keep it moving forward.

Khristian: How did you get discovered? Like, when did you finally get a book published, and how did that change things for you?
My first book was never published. Neither was my second. It was the third one that sold—The Shadow Club—about a year after graduating from college. Those first two were not failures, though—they were stepping-stones. I had to write them to become a good enough writer to write The Shadow Club and everything that came after.

Michelle: Who exactly is Ralphy Sherman, and why has he been featured in so many of your books?
Ralphy's like my little Easter Egg. He was a character I came up with for The Shadow Club—a pathological liar who could always be counted on to never tell the truth. When I was working on my second book, Dissidents, I thought wouldn't it be fun if I had Ralphy show up just for the heck of it. Then it became a challenge. How do I get Ralphy into every book? He's in almost all of them. I forgot to put him in Full Tilt. I also don't have him in Challenger Deep because I just didn't feel it would be appropriate.

Felipe: After having read the first three books in the Unwind Dystology (I'm still waiting for the fourth one to be released in paperback so it matches my other books), I started thinking about what Unwinding meant to transgender people who'd like to transition. Do transgender people in the future you created in the books still follow the nowadays' transition process (with that I refer specifically to the sex reassignment surgery) or do they get real Unwound sex organs (external as well as internal)? Does transitioning in the future portrayed in the series mean transsexual people can actually fulfill feats such as bearing a child or get someone pregnant?
Those are excellent questions! I did think about that when writing the Unwind books and chose not to address it because it would be too big to take on in the course of these books. Whether or not transgender people get Unwound parts is an entire book in and of itself! There are tons of ideas and social and medical questions the book brings up, and if I tried to take them all on, the book would be all over the place.

Haley: If Cam is made up of 99 or so different unwinds in his internal community, why is it that he identifies so easily as a straight, cisgender male? I mean, he struggled with things as simple as liking or disliking food, but gender, sexual, and romantic identity are a lot more complex than that. Statistically he must have many LGBTQA kids in his community, of all different identities and orientations, so it seems a little ridiculous that he would immediately connect with a cisgender, heterosexual, heteroromantic identity. Do you have any thoughts about this? Did you consider this as you were writing?
As with Felipe's question, yes, I considered it. In fact, I had written several chapters in which Cam was grappling with his sexuality, and started to feel the book spiraling out of control. He has so many things to deal with already, adding that into the mix made it impossible to focus the story. The story started to become about that, and I didn't feel that these books were a forum to focus on gender issues. CyFi has two very cool Dads. For these books I felt that was enough. I do have a character coming to terms with his sexuality in Ship Out of Luck, and in my next book with HarperCollins, Hit!, I really address it.

Katelyn: If you were writing a book about your life, what would be the title?
I'd probably title it after my favorite question ever asked during a school visit. It was the first question of the day, and the question was asked with a heavy southern drawl, which somehow made it even better: "Mr. Shusterman, what planet are you from?"

Comments Showing 1-6 of 6 (6 new)

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message 1: by Isa (last edited Apr 16, 2015 08:06AM) (new)

Isa Obando Jajaja I totally loved The last question "Mr. Shusterman, what planet are you from?" Awesome
Aunque son muy pocas preguntas. Éstas son todas?
Neal Shusterman mereceas que eso

message 2: by Melissa (new)

Melissa Stacy Great interview! Thanks for sharing! :)

message 3: by Cassidy (new)

Cassidy Villegas All of this, questions and answers alike, is excellent. Well done to the askers and a huge thank you to Neal Shusterman for participating! :)

message 4: by Syd (new)

Syd I was kind of shocked when Allie the outcast was mentioned. I brought back memories because that was the first book I ever read by Neal shusterman. I was in fourth grade then and now I'm almost in seventh.

message 5: by Teresa (new)

Teresa Thanks Neal. So excited to read Challenger Deep and the new Unwind book!

message 6: by Nurni (new)

Nurni (Leave What's Heavy Behind) I absolutely love this interview. The only book of his I've actually read so far is Unwind (I haven't even got around to reading the sequels yet) but it's one of the books that affected me the most out of every book I've ever read. I especially loved the part about being angry at society- I often feel that way and it's why I love dystopian. I think it's also why Unwind is one of my favourite dystopians because where Shusterman was coming from when he wrote it seems to for me encapsulate the essence of what dystopian fiction is all about. I feel like we need to meet each other!
I found the part about believing everyone should be an organ donor quite ironic though, because on this site there is a review of Unwind in which the reviewer refers to the book as "why I'm not an organ donor." I doubt this is the effect Shusterman wanted the book to have...

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