Andrew Smith is the author of a number of YA novels, including the Printz Honor-winning Grasshopper Jungle. The Size of the Truth, Smith’s first middle grade novel, is a spin-off focused on Sam Abernathy, a character who first appeared in the teen novel Stand-Off. When he was four years old, Sam was trapped in a well for several days, an experience that has defined his life and the way people in his town view him. Now, entering eighth grade as an 11-year-old, Sam is trying to change his trajectory, if he can survive classes with James Jenkins, the terrifying older boy he still blames for his ordeal in the well. PW spoke with Smith about writing for a middle grade audience, the connections between his novels, and where his characters come from.
This is your first middle grade book, coming after a slew of YA books, many of which might blow the mind of an unprepared middle grade reader. What made you decide to branch out to younger readers?
A couple of things. I was on tour back in 2015 and my publicist had set up some visits to middle schools and junior high schools. At first, I was kind of a little bit angry. I said, “Why are you sending me to middle schools? I don’t really write for that audience.” She said, “Oh no, no, no. They have been asking for you for a long time.” The first middle school I got sent to on that tour was in Boise, Idaho. The kids at this middle school were just devouring my young adult books, and I really keyed on their energy and thought, wow, I really would like to write something specifically for that age group and that audience.
Then during that tour I was in New York and talking to my editor David Gale, and David asked if I would be interested in writing a middle grade book. It was kind of a coincidence and I said, yeah, I would love to write a middle grade book, and started working on it, and that’s where The Size of the Truth came from.
The Size of the Truth centers on Sam Abernathy, and concerns his life before the events of Stand-Off. I understand this is the first prequel you have written, is that right?
Yes, that’s correct, although most of my books have bits in them that kind of connect them to other books that I’ve written. There are always hints that go back and forth where I mention a character in a book who was an important character in another book, and kind of make all of my novels connect in some Tinker Toy kind of way.
For example, there is a video game mentioned in Stand-Off and that same video game is also mentioned in other books that I’ve written. I have a copy of The Size of the Truth sitting here in front of me, and I think [the game] might be mentioned in this book as well.
Was it limiting to already have it out in print where Sam Abernathy would eventually end up, or did it change your process at all, especially since you were also moving between the conventions of YA and middle grade at the same time?
Yeah, probably the biggest challenge was that I had already written Sam’s future, and now I was trying to fill in the holes in his past. I think that was the most challenging twist in the puzzle—not so much the conventions of middle grade, although it was simultaneously refreshing and also kind of challenging to not use any swear words.
I was going to ask about that. In the book, Sam frequently uses “(excuse me)” to substitute for cursing. Is that a character quirk of Sam’s or more of a way to restructure your writing style, which often includes a lot of swearing, for middle graders so that you could sort of have your cake and eat it too?
I mean, middle grade kids swear an awful lot, but you do encounter every so often that unique young person who is really uptight about the use of harsh language. So I thought that would be a charming facet of Sam’s personality, but I certainly wasn’t like that when I was a kid.
The Size of the Truth goes back and forth between the present and the time that Sam spent trapped in a well as a child. The two sections are stylistically very different. Why did you decide to include two such different views of reality from the same character?
I think when I was four years old the world was a lot more fantastic or surreal than it was when I was 11–12 years old. I tried to capture that because the reader kind of has to go along for the ride and, I hope, not try to figure out whether everything Sam sees as a four-year-old is actually real, but rather just realize that it’s framed within the context of a four-years-old’s ability to process things, especially something as horrific as being trapped inside a well for a few days.
In many ways, this book seems to be about beginnings—either trying to find the starting point of a chain of events, or trying to make a new beginning. Every chapter starts with a sentence that includes some variation on “it starts.” Can you talk about the importance of beginnings?
I think that what I wanted to do in the book was to make people consider the starting point, the jumping-off point where something happens that is the beginning of something new, and to present characters, in this case Sam or James, with a new set of challenges that they have to contend with. That’s kind of how I looked at the book and I had to go back and tell how Sam’s story started, because that was a character I really liked who David Gale also really liked, and who he wanted to know more about. So I had to go back and just say, OK, well, it starts with this and that’s kind of how the book begins. Then I just used that as a recurring thing: every chapter is some kind of new beginning, a new set of circumstances that Sam and James have to navigate, however awkwardly.
There is a lot going on in this book and every character seems to have a unique backstory, with interests such as survival camping, a deep love of cooking, recreational kilt-wearing, etc. Do you keep a running list of characters or traits that you want to include in a book someday and then you see which ones will fit the story you’re writing, or do all the details spring from the story you are working on at the moment?
Both. Every day is an opportunity to encounter somebody who is new and some new story, and that is one of the beautiful things about working with kids as much as I do. I get a couple hundred stories every day. Back when I wrote Stand-Off, the character of Sam came from a couple of places. A lot of things I write about come to me in dreams, and I had a dream about this kid named Sam Abernathy. Also right around that time my son had left home and started school at U.C. Berkeley. As a freshman, my son’s roommate was addicted to watching this television program that he would stream constantly. It was Regis and Kathie Lee. I would think that an undergrad at Berkeley would probably be attracted to something little bit edgier, but every time I went to visit my son this kid would be streaming Regis and Kathie Lee on his laptop, and I thought that’s a really funny character element. So I made Sam be a cooking show addict and then the rest of the blanks just kind of filled themselves in as I was writing Stand-Off, which presented me this pretty well-rounded character to begin with when I went to construct The Size of the Truth.
You mentioned your work with kids—does your work as a high school teacher affect the kinds of stories you tell and the characters you write? Do you think your writing career has an impact on how your students approach you or your classes?
Both. There are a lot of characters that have popped up in my books that have also popped up in my classroom over the 26 years I have been a teacher. I don’t have any of my books in my classroom and very rarely talk to my kids about my writing or my books unless they stay after class or come in at some off time to talk to me about that, which a lot of kids do. The YA books that I’ve written are here at the school and they’re taught in a bunch of classes. I just try to keep Andrew Smith the author and Andrew Smith the teacher separate entities.
You publish fairly regularly, averaging a book a year, so I am assuming that you are probably working simultaneously on several manuscripts. Do ideas cross-pollinate while you are writing, or do characters ever start in one story and end up finding a better home in another?
Sometimes there is a little bit of overlap in that regard. I like to try to pace my work so that I am not actually creating two things at the same time. Sometimes that happens. My ideal spot to be in is doing the editorial process on one manuscript while also trying to write something new. That keeps both the process and the content segregated in a way that works better for me.
What are you working on now?
I’m finishing up the next middle grade novel about Sam Abernathy. I should be finished with it very soon, I’m pretty near the end. I’m also working on a graphic novel that I’ve been working on for years with the artist Matt Faulkner. It’s something that we’ve put a lot of time and energy into and I think that it’s really beautiful. Who knows what’s next after that. I have some ideas percolating in my head that I’d like to sit down and start working on, but I’m kind of caught in a time freeze trying to finish this next middle grade book and get this graphic novel finished up as well.
Are you doing any art for the graphic novel or just writing? I know you have done some drawing in the past.
I wrote this as a novel, and actually at various times it has been picked up for publication and then I pulled it back. A few years ago, I showed it to Matt Faulkner who is a good friend of mine, and we always talked about how maybe someday we would collaborate. So I showed him this novel and he loved it and started drawing it right away. I didn’t really know much about writing scripts for graphic novels, so I got a lot help from Laurie Halse Anderson because it just so happened that was when she was doing the graphic novel script for Speak. She showed me her method for reworking the novel into a script and I thought it was amazing, it really helped me a lot. So I gave my son this list of instructions of what Laurie was doing and gave him the novel. My son is a brilliant writer and I said turn this into a script for me because I’ve already written it and I don’t want to tear it apart or tinker with it. My son turned it into a script and he gave that to Matt, and Matt has been feverishly working on it.
Is there a title?
The title is Once There Were Birds.
How many books do you envision writing for Sam Abernathy?
I think just two, because the next one will bring him right up to when he meets Ryan Dean in Stand-Off. People have been hounding me for another book about Ryan Dean and I do want to write another one about him when he goes off to college, so that’s somewhere in my future as well.
The Size of the Truth by Andrew Smith. Simon & Schuster, $17.99 Mar. 26 ISBN 978-1-5344-1955-1