Interview with Michael Grant

Posted by Goodreads on August 31, 2016
Michael Grant has written 150 books. More, actually, but it's at least 150. First there was the Animorphs series, cowritten with his wife, Katherine Applegate, which became a popular television show on Nickelodeon. Young Adult fans probably know him from the dystopian Gone series, which has been optioned for TV by Sony. And this month Michael returns with a very different kind of story. Front Lines plunges us into a reimagined world in which the troops on the battlefield in World War II include young women. The Bay Area-based author answers your questions about writing alternate histories, killing characters, and the best advice for writers. Read on!

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Anna: What is it about the idea of young people in war zones they're unprepared for that fascinates you so much?

What an interesting question. I was about to lay out some plausible nonsense in response, but you've really kind of put your finger on the underlying theme of my body of work. Huh. It's pretty much throwing kids into one horrible situation after another, isn't it? I think basically I'm good at crisis. If something bad was happening, I would keep my head and cope. But regular life, la vie quotidienne, if I may drop some French on you, I'm not as good at.

I've had a guy put a gun right in my face, and it didn't especially bother me, but the prospect of staying in one place is disturbing. I'm depressed that I have to stay where I am until my daughter graduates—and I live in a really beautiful place. I just can't stand normal. But if an asteroid smacks into the earth tomorrow, I'll have a plan. And I'll feel vaguely relieved that at least I don't have to drive my daughter to school again.

Felicia: [In Gone] did you have any other ideas about powers that a character could have that didn't make the cut?

I investigated the subject of superpowers at great length with a friend of mine in Amsterdam one evening. He knew quite a lot, and his idea was that the only cool superpower no one had ever made work was detachable limbs. As in, your fist would be able to fly away and punch someone in the neck. So I gave that some thought, and I had to admit that I couldn't make it work, either, because it would be ridiculous. I mean, Sam would be hopping around on one leg while his foot was off kicking Caine's butt? No. No, that was not going to work.

Yasmin: How do you feel when you kill off a character? Like, do you laugh maniacally after writing it down or do you cry along with us? (I've always wanted to know.)

It depends. For example, I was sorry about Mary, but I was running out of story for her. I was sorry about many others as well. But if the scene worked, then, yeah, I giggled a bit. Even though I was sorry to basically "fire" a character, it made me happy thinking of readers' heads exploding. I like to entertain, and if I think you're entertained, then, yeah, I do laugh maniacally.

Clare: Which idea came first: the idea of women serving in the Second World War or the idea of an honest portrayal of American troops in the Second World War? How did you research the WWII battles?

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Actually it all came together. I was reading (listening to, actually) Rick Atkinson's Liberation Trilogy, and I was only reading it because my wife's dad liked it. I thought I knew it all, had read it all, but as I was going through Atkinson's book, I started thinking that this was like the mother lode of story. The stakes couldn't be higher; this was Save the World in real life. With all the moral ambiguity, with all the hypocrisy, all the mythologizing, it's still true that the Allies saved the world. Literally saved the world from the greatest evil the human race has ever produced. From there I had to figure out how to make it feel relevant, how to make it not seem all sepia-toned and musty.

Chiqi: How did you research an alternate history, and why did you want to write one?

One of my semi-useful pieces of advice to writers is to develop backstory, to know more about your character's past than you think you need to know. History is the backstory of the human race. If Homo sapiens was a character, we'd understand her by understanding her backstory, where she came from, what she believes, why she believes it. Each of us as we live our lives is creating some future person's history; it's all one big, long story, from some hairy guy painting wildebeests on the wall of his cave, to us with our technology, to some future version of Homo sapiens with lives we can't even imagine. As for research: books and Google. Thank God for Google. OK, thank Sergey Brin and Larry Page for Google.

Karlie: I am so excited to read Front Lines. Did your idea for the story come from the recent talks about women being allowed to fight on the front lines in the military? Do you feel that women who can make it through boot camp should be given the same opportunities as men in the military today?

It was just pure chance that the U.S. Defense Department, in its wisdom, opened all military specialties to women just months before Front Lines is coming out. My feeling is that anyone, regardless of sex, race, religion, etc.…who wants to put on a uniform and train their asses off and go to whatever miserable sh-thole we send them to, and endure all that we ask them to endure in service to this country, is doing me a hell of a favor, and putting more on the line for this country than I ever have, and that my response to that should be gratitude.

Tobi: How do you think the experiences of the characters in your YA books like Gone would shape them in the future (e.g. 10 or 20 years after the events)? They have already matured and been scarred at such a young age. In essence, how do you see your characters growing up after their experiences?

I don't know what would happen. I suspect you'd see pretty high rates of substance abuse, probably a higher rate of suicide than normal, a larger-than-average number of burnouts. But I think in general people are amazingly resilient, and young people in particular, so I'd expect most of them to do reasonably well. I'm pretty sure Albert would be running General Electric or CitiBank.

Lindsay: What was your favorite children's book as a child? Looking back, which book do you cherish the most?

When I was a kid, I read kid's books and adult books interchangeably, so I would read Hardy Boys and Charles Dickens, or Tom Swift and Victor Hugo. The things that stuck with me, that really turned my head around, were books like Brave New World and 1984 and the Foundation Trilogy by Isaac Asimov. I love idea books. I'll even put up with some pretty lousy writing if you give me an interesting insight. I read a lot of science fiction, all the old guys—Robert Heinlein and Arthur C. Clarke and Isaac Asimov and Robert Silverberg—some of whom were not great with character, shall we say, but had ideas.

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Karen: Your books were some of the creepiest I've read, and some scenes scared the bejesus out of me. What scares you?

Thanks, I try hard to scare the bejesus out of people. You know what scares me most? I hate to even say it because it's so weak, but I am scared of poverty. I grew up poor, and I stayed poor until my midthirties, and I did not like it one bit. That doesn't mean I handle my money rationally; far from it. I am terrible with money, and yet I'm scared of being poor again. Go figure. Also, I have a bit of a phobia around needles. For example, if you were to tie me down and drive needles into the bottoms of my feet, my ears, my eyes…yeah, that would suck.

Steve: Do you have any rituals, procedures, habits, or zones to get you to write for extended periods of time and keep you focused on what you're writing?

Oh, dude, I am so dependent on so many things now. #1: Caffeine. I drink strong black coffee, no sugar, just pure, hot black bitterness. #2: I have developed a definite preference for being outside while I write. Fortunately I have a big deck facing the San Francisco Bay where I can write unless it's raining or freezing, and since I live in the Bay Area, that's not often the case. #3: Cigars. OK, so I'm pretty sure I'm required to say: Don't smoke cigars. First of all, if they're worth smoking, they're expensive, and second of all, unless you're an old man, you're going to look like an idiot. #4: I am definitely ADD, and I recently got a prescription for Adderall, which helps. But, yeah, if your idea of a writer is of us sitting surrounded by books and gazing upon a bust of Shakespeare for inspiration, well that's not me. I use every trick in the book to get myself to write, even though I really enjoy writing.

Vivian: If writing novels didn't work out, what alternative career would you have pursued?

Well, I was a pretty good waiter for about ten years. Seriously, I can carry any station, in any restaurant, anywhere, and pick up extra tables besides. I'm fast and organized, and I'm quite good at bullying busboys into watching my tables and equally good at wheedling free drinks out of the bartender. Can I upsell wine? Of course I can. Can I push apps and dessert and still turn tables? Oh yeah. I have all the necessary skills. Granted, I'm a bit old for it now, but I could still run four to six tables, given enough Advil for my feet. That aside, my secret retirement plan is to open a food truck that sells nothing hut boeuf bourguignon, crusty hot baguette, and red wine. You want vegetarian? Too bad. Dessert? There's a Dunkin' Donuts across the street. I would set up amidst publishers in New York and become this cautionary tale: the writer who went nuts and now yells at people while ladling out boeuf bourgignon.

Dear Michael Grant, You're awesome. No lie. My question isn't so much a question as much as it is advice. You probably won't ever read this, but I'll remain optimistic and hope that you do. For a while I've sort of thought about doing something, but I keep dismissing the idea as just plain crazy. I love reading and writing, as a matter of fact. I love letting my imagination spill onto the plain pages of a book and letting them create their own story. So now I've thought about writing my own novels. It sounds so crazy to me every time I think of it—so much so that I just don't know what to think anymore. In your valuable and experienced advice, what do you think? I can't believe it, but I think I have a dream. Should I pursue it or should I ignore it? I guess I just don't have the guts to do either.

Yours so very sincerely,
Zainab :)

OK, kid, listen up: You either have talent or you don't, and if you don't, you do something else. Right? But if you have talent, if you can actually write, why the hell would you do anything else? Are you kidding me? This is the best job in the world. I work three to four hours a day, I have no boss, I have no office I have to be in, I have no schedule imposed on me, I wear sweatpants and a T-shirt, and I earn more than a partner in a law firm despite being a high school dropout. The hardest thing I do is go out on book tour three or four weeks a year, during which, more often than not, I'm flown business class to, say, Scotland, and eat and drink on the publisher's expense account while staying in four-star hotels. And that's the bad part. If you can do this, you definitely want to do this.

Comments Showing 1-7 of 7 (7 new)

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message 1: by Zachary (last edited Jan 12, 2016 09:35PM) (new)

Zachary Love That was a really cool read! I gave up on my hobby of writing a few years back due to reasons I'd rather not disclose (life can get messy after your high school days), but this article, especially that reply to a fan, really inspired me. I think I'll brush off the ol' laptop and write again.

The fact that you're a high school dropout and are still doing what you love says enough on its own. I'll do it! My nose hits the grindstone and I'll finish my novel in 2016.

Thanks again for the read,

message 2: by Rey (new)

Rey This is a great interview and post for any novice writer starting to hinder about this ultimate life sacrifice we call writing. Mr. Grant has great experience and knowledge to adhere to if going through that grind, as he has gone through it himself. I especially liked his intimate confession of being poor as his greatest fear, that speaks volumes to how much he brings out of himself. Great post, Anna!

message 3: by Natasha (new)

Natasha den Dekker This is such a great interview and I really like how refreshingly honest he is. I loved the Animorphs series and I loved the Gone series. :D

message 4: by Tina (new)

Tina I have really been looking forward to this interview and wasn't disappointed! Not only is his books entertaining, but so is he (also it wouldn't make sense if a boring person could write such entertaining books). Anyway, I can't wait to read more from him!

message 5: by Rob (new)

Rob This is easily the best of the author interviews I have read on this site thus far. :)

message 6: by Jordan (new)

Jordan Robinson love your books

message 7: by Allie (new)

Allie Holub I'm from SLO county and I'm reading Gone right now. Perdido Beach really feels like a twist on Pismo Beach; is this true? I'm not sure if you'll even reply to this but I'm very curious. If it is based on Pismo, what gave you that inspiration? Are you from around here? I really hope you see this and can give me some answers, thanks so much!

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