Michael Grant has written over 150 books, most notably the Animorphs and Everworld series (which he co-authored with his wife, Katherine Applegate). The Gone books, his first solo novels, feature a distinctive hook: everyone over the age of 14 in the small California town of Perdido Beach has gone missing. To make matters worse for the children, there’s an impenetrable forcefield around the town and some of the kids are starting to develop strange powers. The second book in the series is Hunger (HarperTeen).
Gone’s initial premise seems like a much more extreme version of Lord of the Flies. Was Golding’s book a major influence on you?
You know what’s weird? I didn’t realize at first that I was writing something influenced by Lord of the Flies. I was about halfway through the book, and I turned to my wife and said, "Hell, I’m writing Lord of the Flies." The original influences on the book were the TV show Lost and Stephen King, who’s my literary hero, and was even before he blurbed Gone. He’s a great writer and one of the hardest-working authors I know of.
If you look at the maps in the book, I’ve got shout-outs to all my influences. Stefano Rey ("Stephen King" in Spanish) National Park is a shout-out to King, the town of Perdido Beach is a Lost reference ("perdido" is spanish for "lost"), and there’s a Golding Street.
Before Gone, most of your published work was written with your wife. How difficult has it been to adjust to writing solo novels?
(Laughing) Oh, not at all. Writing solo is much easier. For one thing, I don’t fight with my wife when I write these books!
I should pause to say that last week we celebrated our 30th wedding anniversary. We’re a fairly operatic couple, and when we write, there’s shouting and drama. Now that we have kids, we try to save the shouting and drama for them.
After we finished Animorphs and Everworld, we realized we’d written 150 books together, so we decided to take some time off from writing to focus on parenting. When we decided to get back to writing, Katherine decided to focus on books for younger readers, and I decided I wanted to frighten teenagers.
You have a lot of social and political themes in these books: bigotry, ethics, economics, etc. How easy has it been to interweave the thought-provoking stuff and the action sequences?
My rule of thumb is to write a good scene. I approach each scene asking, "How am I going to write a cool scene?" I try to follow the rule that the writers on Seinfeld did: "No hugs, no lessons." I approach it from that point of view. I want to start by entertaining. But the premise of the book is that society has broken down in a completely novel way. There are no authority figures and there is no political system. I try to treat the issues as fairly as I can, and I treat them within the context of story.
None of the characters is written to represent a political point of view. It won’t work unless it’s organic. Once the premise is established, I can have them react based on how real kids would respond. I’ve got this completely over-the-top premise, which is not in any way plausible in itself. But I try to make all of the reactions as believable and plausible as I can.
Some of the kids in Gone and Hunger meet gruesome fates. Have you written anything that’s made you step back and say, "Wow, that’s just too much?"
Oh yeah! I have editors who occasionally say, "Dude (or words to that effect), back up." Sometimes I listen to what they say and sometimes I don’t. Adults tend to be the ones who get more freaked out. Kids aren’t freaked out—usually they’re fine. Adults have more context and are aware of so much more. If I write a scene that evokes lynching, kids don’t get as disturbed as adults because they don’t have that context.
There’s a scene in Gone where they discover that a baby has starved in its crib. I’ve yet to have a kid write me a letter about that scene. But I’ve had a lot of parents write, especially mothers who couldn’t sleep for three nights. Kids have a different world view, almost phenomenological, seeing things more as they are without the history adults see.
One scene they asked me to cut was in Hunger. There’s a character named Orc who’s mostly not human anymore, but he has a patch of normal skin on his cheek. He gets attacked by carnivorous worms and a worm eats a hole through his cheek. Orc drinks a beer, and the beer runs out through the hole. My editor said, "Don’t you think that’s a little bit much?" I thought about it, but I left the scene in.
In fact, the earlier worm attack in Hunger—in which a colony of worms devours a boy—is the scene I had in mind when I asked that question.
My approach is that if it’s horror, I think it’ll cause a couple of nightmares. If I fail, I haven’t done my job very well.
You’ve got a lot of plot arcs, from romantic crushes and entanglements to the fight against evil. Do you have the entire series planned out, or are you adjusting the story as you write it?
There’s the recent example of a famous British writer who claimed she had her entire series completely planned out. I thought that was baloney. It’s like claiming to play chess 20 moves ahead. I take the opposite approach: I claim to have nothing planned. My editors blanch when I say that.
I’m getting ready to start book 4. I’m sitting down to think about it. I’ve got the title (Plague) and I know that I planted the seeds for it in book 3. Obviously, in Plague, disease will play a role, and the seeds I’ve planted in the third book will come to fruition.
I know where the series ends. I know the answers and where it goes. Between this point and that point, though, I don’t know the details. I don’t want my job to be typing; I want my job to be to find out what happens. The more I know ahead of time, the more the rules of genre come in, and the more kids can analyze what’s happening. If I’m surprised each day, then kids will be surprised, too.
When you started the series, did you envision it as a trilogy, or did you already know it would be longer?
I did expect it to be six books. When I talked to my eventual acquiring editor, Elise Howard at HarperCollins, I said, it “feels like about six.” At this point, I’ve written eight or nine different series. This isn’t the first time I’ve sat down to create a series, and there’s a certain kind of experience. The series just feels like I’ve got six books. It could end up at five, but I still think six. It’s all experience and instinct. We’ll see if I’m right, or if I run out halfway through the last book. Having mentioned Elise, I'd also like to give a shout-out to Stephen Sheppard, my mentor; to Michael Stearns, my former editor on the series; and to Katherine Tegen, my current editor.
As you mentioned before, you’ve recently finished writing the third book, Lies. Can you give any hints about what you’ve got in store for Sam, Astrid, Albert, and the rest of the town?
Well, I had a fan write that he was worried that Sam and Astrid are becoming a plain vanilla couple. So I’ve got some major stressors in the relationship between Sam and Astrid.
The major theme of the third book is that of the false prophet, offering an easy way to solve problems. He’s a person who appears to be telling the truth, and might actually be; we’re not sure even at the end of the book. We’re also getting a vision of the FAYZ ["Fallout Alley Youth Zone," the area in which the Gone novels take place] and where it might be going. We also have some scenes dealing with reality. There are big problems in town, including a major fire that burns down half of the town. And it’s not accidental.
Oh, and Brangelina are in the book.
Well, they don’t actually name them, but they’re there.
The powers that Sam and some of the other kids get are the sort that often pop up on teams like the X-Men or the Legion of Super-Heroes. Were you—or are you—a big fan of comics?
Oh yeah. I read comics when I was growing up, although I didn’t stick with them as I got older. I was a Marvel reader, and I mainly read books like Spider-Man and Thor, but I remember seeing the X-Men, and I thought that was kind of cool. There’s a lot in common between Gone and the X-Men. There’s a constant struggle between those with powers and those without, and in both books, many of the most influential characters don’t have powers; they’ve got talents and moral character. Take a character like Albert. He just works hard and sees opportunities, but he’s every bit as important as Sam or any of the other kids with powers. You know what? He knows how to feed people, which is very useful to know in this situation.
Your author’s bio mentions your two children. Do they read your books before you send them to your publisher? And has the Gone series cured them of ever wishing that their parents would just leave them alone?
Actually, Jake, our son, is 12, and he’s read all three books now. He read them before they went to the publisher, which means he must have been seven when he read the first one. What was fascinating to me was that he read all of Hunger on the iPhone. That was a wake-up moment. He read a 600-page book onscreen!
Our daughter, Julia, is younger. We started to read her Gone, read half a chapter, and she said, "No." I figured it’d be okay because Daddy wrote it, so how scary could it be? Sometimes I’m off my game as a parent.
The concept for Gone seems like it would be a natural for Hollywood or for TV. Have you had any offers for the rights?
We’ve had a lot of conversations. What often happens is that people buy the rights, then stick them in a drawer. I’m taking a different approach. If you can’t do something with it, we’ll keep the rights. We’re talking to a number of people, and we’re fielding all offers. Every once in a while, my lawyer/agent calls and says that some big name has expressed interest. I’ll say, "Great! Just let me know what it’s more than just interest," and then I go back to writing. I see it more as a TV show, as it’s hard to do a series movie with only kids in it. I’m very respectful of what the TV people do in adapting material, so I’d be very hands-off. I’d want them to be free to do their job.
You write from the points of view of a huge number of characters. How easy or hard is it to juggle so many unique voices, and do you have a favorite character to write?
The truth is, it’s hard. The longest books I’d written before were the Everworld books and a few of the Animorphs that hit about 250 pages. The Gone books are big, and the problem is I don’t have enough memory. My head cannot hold that much data. I’m always wondering, what the hell did I say, and when? And trying to keep track is a struggle. I’ll sometimes write something, then later say, "Oh my God, I did that in chapter six!" Then I have to go back and fix it. And if I get sick or we go on vacation, it’s like my brain turns into a bowl of spaghetti.
The length of the books is complicated in terms of holding memory. In terms of character and plot, though, it’s an advantage. It allows me to cherry-pick. I don’t have to stick with Sam’s point of view and watch every action he’s doing, even if it’s not interesting. I can switch to another character while Sam’s boring, and come back to him when he’s doing something interesting again. The danger is that you can end up in the same situation as a lot of science-fiction and fantasy writers, and allow the mythology to eat the book. If I spend time servicing 15 characters, and introduce five more in each book, I’ll eventually spend 5000 pages simply reminding readers who’s who and what they’ve been doing.
In Lies, I deliberately take some steps to prevent this. I take the POV off of some characters who had previously had it, and I have a major character die (thanks to a betrayal by another character). By refusing to play that game, Lies is actually shorter than Hunger. It brings it back under control. I look at George R.R. Martin [Songs of Ice and Fire], who completely lost control of his mythology, and it became vast. I can’t let that happen, so I try to be disciplined.
As for my favorite characters: Diana. Diana and Astrid are very much the two sides of my wife. Astrid’s the good smart girl, and Diana’s the evil manipulative one! She’s so ambiguous as a character. We don’t know what she’s up to or what her game is. She’s snarky and mean, but she’s also maybe decent. I also like writing Brianna. She’s so forward, fearless, aggressive.
I like them all. Sam is the hero, so he’s barely three-dimensional if he’s lucky. Albert is more interesting to me. He’s unusual, and takes things in a different direction. He can’t shoot fire, so he has to organize things and gets the job done. Of course, ask me after the next book, and I’ll have completely different answers!
Are you currently working on any other projects?
Yeah. I have another series at HarperCollins called the Magnificent 12. It’s aimed at a younger audience and is more of a comic adventure with action elements. It’s a funny, light-hearted series, and each book is much shorter, about 200 pages. I’ve finished the first one already, and it’s due out in fall of 2010.
With the Gone books, there’s not a lot of opportunity for humor. I mean, we’ve got titles like Lies, Plague—there’s just not much funny there. Magnificent 12 is the opposite. I can be playful, which is my more natural voice. Gone is grown-up writing, and the Magnificent 12 is me being an idiot.
Gone by Michael Grant. HarperTeen, paper $9.99 ISBN 978-0-06-144878-2
Hunger by Michael Grant. HarperTeen, $17.99 ISBN 978-0-06-144906-2