Father-and-son authors Neal and Jarrod Shusterman didn’t have to search far to find inspiration for their first collaboration, Dry, out this month from Simon & Schuster with a 200,000-copy first printing. The California residents are all too familiar with the harrowing and tragic consequences of severe drought and uncontrollable wildfires, and their home state’s recent, and ongoing, struggles with both fueled the premise of their YA thriller, in which a teen is forced to make life-and-death decisions for her family when a drought escalates to catastrophic proportions.
Neal and Jarrod began talking about collaborating on a novel a few years ago, after co-writing a piece for 2015’s Unbound, a story collection set in the world of Neal’s Unwind Dystology. “I think that our story was one of the best in the book, and we wanted to work on something else together,” Neal explained. “Jarrod came up with the concept of a society in which critical services are about to be shut off, and the pieces of Dry began coming together. In California, we are constantly dealing with drought, and the possibility of the state running out of water has become frighteningly close. So that got us thinking about what could happen if so many millions of people were struggling to survive without water.”
Eerily, their fictional storyline continued to reflect real-life natural disasters. “When we were about halfway through the book, we started hearing about the critical water shortage in Cape Town, and that the city was approaching the point where water would be shut off to residents and redirected to critical service,” Jarrod recalled. “In Cape Town, it’s called ‘Day Zero,’ and in Dry we call it the ‘Tap-Out,’ but the parallels are creepy.”
And the parallels persisted. The authors found additional, unexpected inspiration for the novel while visiting family in Savannah as Hurricane Irma struck the area in September 2017. “When we couldn’t find any water to buy, we had to get into an evacuation mindset,” said Jarrod. “We were actually living through a similar experience as our characters, which helped us understand and convey their actions and emotions.”
The authors agreed that the plot became increasingly pertinent as the book’s pub date approached. “Unfortunately, Dry is becoming more and more relevant every day,” Jarrod observed. “It seems there’s always a freak typhoon, earthquake, or drought. And when it comes to drought, Cape Town isn’t alone. São Paulo, Beijing, Moscow, and even Mexico City might tap-out next. It’s terrifying when fiction becomes reality.”
Neal’s reflections were no less foreboding. “When we wrote Dry, we knew it was timely, but we didn’t realize how timely it would be,” he said. “It’s a cautionary tale, but I fear it’s too late to stop the cascade of events the book warns against. Even so, we need to be vigilant and be aware of what could happen. I think denial is the enemy of a sensible response.”
An Apt Early Arrival—and a Peek Ahead
The novel’s uncanny replication of real-life crippling drought affected its publication date—more than once—reported David Gale, v-p and editorial director of Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers and Neal’s longtime editor. “Dry was originally scheduled to come out in summer of 2019,” he explained. “When the water shortage in Cape Town occurred, we moved the pub date up to spring 2019. And with that crisis in the news, and the ongoing problems in California, we finally decided to bring the book out this month. It’s fascinating to me that Neal and Jarrod wrote so much of Dry before many of these natural disasters even occurred.”
The Shustermans have recently finished writing the screenplay for the film adaptation of Dry, which was optioned by Paramount in a six-studio bidding war; a release date has yet to be announced. That collaboration was, in Jarrod’s words, “surprisingly smooth and easy. It did take some time to get it right, because things needed to be condensed, all the while maintaining the essence and flow of each sequence. It’s a joy to adapt something that’s your own, and to reimagine the story.” A seasoned screenplay writer, Neal was also pleased with this joint effort, adding, “This is one of those rare instances where the script just about wrote itself. Adaptation can be very difficult, but this one was a dream!”
Clearly happiest when running full throttle, the Shustermans will write another YA together for S&S—but they aren’t quite ready to tackle that project. “I’m very excited to work on a new novel,” said Neal, “but right now, I’ve got to finish the third Arc of a Scythe book, The Toll, and I can’t get to work on our next book together until that one is done.” And, Jarrod added, “At this point, all of our attention is still on Dry. We do have the general direction we want to go in our second novel—a hint is that we’ll be focusing on another meaningful global issue.”
Indeed, father and son are very much focused on spreading word of Dry, which they are promoting on a 12-city tour that kicks off today and includes appearances at New York Comic-Con, the Texas Teen Book Festival in Austin, Anderson’s Young Adult Conference in Naperville, Ill., and YALLFest in Charleston, S.C.
“The response we’ve gotten from people who’ve read Dry pre-publication has been phenomenal,” Neal said. “We can’t wait to tour for it!” Jarrod echoed his father’s enthusiasm, noting, “I’m excited to meet readers personally, and finally start signing copies of Dry. This is my first full novel, so I’ve been awaiting this day for a long time!
Dry by Neal Shusterman and Jarrod Shusterman. S&S, $18.99 Oct. ISBN 978-1-4814-8196-0