PW talks with National Book Award winner Pete Hautman about his new YA novel, Rash (S&S), a black comedy set 70 years in the future.
Your books are dark and satirical; in fact, they’ve challenged the image I had of Minnesotans as earnest and polite. Is it just you?
Let me mention two people I went to school with: Joel Coen and Al Franken. Does that explain it? I think the sense of humor I have in common with Franken and the Coen brothers is about understatement. It’s a wry, fatalist sort of humor. There must be something in the water.
You could certainly use those words—wry, fatalistic—to describe Bo’s sense of humor, the main character in Rash.
Rash came from looking at how much emphasis there is on safety, especially child safety in modern society. If I’d worn a bicycle helmet when I was a kid, I’d have been laughed off the street. Kids ran all the way home from school and did whatever they wanted until it was time for dinner. A lot of that’s changed, most of it for good reasons. But where’s it going? How much safer can we get before there are negative consequences? So I created a society where people are very, very safe but there are a tremendous number of restrictions on behavior.
And lots of people in jail.
The trend in the U.S. is to throw more people in jail every year. A lot of things are against the law that didn’t used to be against the law. So, what if we got to the point where 25% of the population was in prison? We’d have to give them something to do, so all the grunge work would be done by prisoners. Just the other day I heard some congressman from California suggest we stop immigration and use prisoners to pick fruit. I was going for outrageous but maybe I didn’t go far enough.
You’re not suggesting I let my kid ride his bike without a helmet, are you?
The hardest thing for a parent to do is to let a kid go out and hurt himself. When they start walking, they fall down and bonk their nose, but they don’t learn to walk unless you let them do that. But this whole wanting to be safe trend is tied in with fear. Safety is a whole industry now and it’s not going away.
You sound like Gramps (Bo’s grandfather).
I’m a little bit of both Gramps and Bo. I’m not quite as crotchety as Gramps and I don’t drink as much beer. Actually, there’s a little bit of my father in him. Whenever he got frustrated by something new and different he’d say, “Oh, this is just a bunch of crap.” He would have liked the novel.
Do you really believe, as Bo does, that the novel is a badly antiquated format? He couldn’t even get through Huckleberry Finn.
I think that I’ll be long gone before the novel disappears, but I did wonder when I was younger why they didn’t at least use different colors to indicate emotional content; I don’t feel that way anymore, but the novel has remained incredibly unchanged for hundreds of years. I think it’s going to change, I just don’t know what direction it’s going. Younger people are getting their information in different formats, specifically the Internet, and the attention given to the novel is going elsewhere.
I reread Huckleberry Finn myself recently. There’s an awful lot of description and the pace is leisurely. Those old novels require a different kind of settling in. A lot of modern novels can be read in little bits and I think that’s kind of an indicator of where we’re going. Maybe the serial novel will come back into fashion.
The fact that you came up with a plot that combined all these futuristic elements and football was a little bit of brilliance. That hooked my sixth grader.
The hardest parts of the book to write were the football scenes because I have no interest in football. I’ve been to one game. I had to do a lot of reading and watching of games in order to do it. I’m just not a team sports guy. Team sports involve collisions and I don’t collide well.