Interview with Pete Hautman

Fearless. Simple. Eloquent. Lasting. These are a few of the many glowing adjectives that have been used to describe Pete Hautman’s writing.  He is the author of more than a dozen novels including, “Sweetblood,” National Book Award winner “Godless,” “Rash,” and “How to Steal a Car.”  He has influenced countless contemporary YA authors, like Barry Lyga and Swati Avashti, and continues to advance the genre in leaps and bounds with his daring plots, unforgettable characters, and dry humor.

His upcoming novels “Blank Confession,” due November 16 (!!!), and “The Big Crunch,” due 2011, deal with murder and universe-ending love. How quaint! But we all must wait until 2012 for his much anticipated sci-fi trilogy “The Klaatu Diskos” to hit bookshelves. In the meantime, decrease your 20/20 vision by reading his delightful blog and perusing his YARN interview below.

On your books:

YARN: Any juicy tid-bits you can reveal about “Blank Confession,” coming out in November?  Or about “The Big Crunch,” coming out in January?

PH: First, these two books are about as different from each other as any two books I’ve written.

“Blank Confession” is a crime novel about a kid named Shayne who walks into a police station and confesses to a murder.  It is also about Shayne’s undersized, over-dressed, big-mouthed Haitian-American friend.

“The Big Crunch” is a hyper-realistic contemporary love story with no vampires.

YARN: You tend to write about  Big Themes in many of your novels–starting a new religion (“Godless”), murder (“Blank Confession”), “a theory concerning the end of the universe” (“The Big Crunch”), the future of the USSA in 2076 (“Rash”)….we could go on….  Would you say these themes generate your novels, or do you start with characters (or stories) that find these themes on their own?  Also, regardless of where you start, where do the themes come from–books you read, articles in newspapers, things you see that piss you off?

PH: All of the above.  This might be kind of boring, but I’m mostly interested in genre and the way it intersects with story structure, literary style, and technique.  One of the reasons I love YA is that it allows me to cross genre boundaries, and play around with different structures and techniques.

Every book has a different genesis.  In “Mr. Was,” I started with some dream images that became scenes; the characters and plot came much later.  “Hole in the Sky” evolved from a recurring childhood fantasy, and was largely inspired by the physical landscape of the Grand Canyon.  “Godless” sprang from an attempt to write an archetypical coming-of-age story; the religion element was incidental to the story.  “Invisible” is purely character-driven.  “Rash” began as a series of sociological observations, so in that case theme was the predominant driver.  In “Blank Confession,” I wanted to write a Western novel in a contemporary urban setting—it’s an homage to both Jack Schaefer, who wrote “Shane,” and Elmore Leonard.

YARN: What’s it like to transition between writing adult and YA novels?  Do you ever want to put a warning on your adult books for your teen readers or their parents?

PH: Yeah, I sometimes worry about younger readers who read my adult work.  Not because I think it will “hurt” them, but because I think it will disappoint them.  I’m afraid they’ll find my adult books boring, and the style of humor won’t work for them.  The writing itself is not that different for me.

YARN: After so long writing (mostly) realistic contemporary fiction for teens, what inspired your forthcoming “The Klaatu Diskos,” a sci-fi trilogy?

PH: My first YA novel, “Mr. Was” (1996), is a time travel story, and in fact can be regarded as the prequel to “The Klaatu Diskos.”  My third YA novel, “Hole in the Sky” (2001), is near-future apocalyptic sci-fi.  In 2006 I published “Rash,” a dystopian sci-fi novel.  “The Klaatu Diskos” feels to me like a natural progression.  I’m now working on a book about magic.

YARN: Without Cliff Noting your own novel, can you give us any insights into why you chose to have Kelleigh read “Moby-Dick” in “How to Steal a Car”?

PH: “Moby-Dick” just felt right to me.  It’s funny and complicated and conflicted and more than a little self-destructive—just like Kelleigh.  “Moby-Dick” was not well-received upon its publication.  It was perceived as little more than an instruction manual and travelogue at first, but readers kept going back to it.  Which is my hope for “How to Steal a Car.” 

YARN:Sweetblood” is just as much about diabetes as it is about vampires. How did you achieve this balance?  Where did the connection come from?

PH: There’s a long answer to that, which I wrote about here.  Here’s the short answer: I began writing “Sweetblood” in 1978, and came up with the diabetes-vampirism theory.  I set the book aside for several years.  In 1984, I was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes, and became interested in the book again.  But it wasn’t working, so I set it aside again.  In the late 1990s, when I began writing novels with teen protagonists, I saw how the book might take shape as a YA novel, so I wrote it.

YARN: There seems to be a theme of mental instability in many of your novels. Shin in “Godless” becomes obsessed with the tenets he helped create for Jason’s religion and Doug in “Invisible” tries and fails to suppress a horrid memory. Why do you think you’re attracted to this theme?

PH: Shin and Doug are essentially the same character with different histories.  As to your larger question, I’m interested in how people overcome problems, and problems of perception, information processing, and self-control (which we all experience to some degree) are among the most fascinating of the challenges we face as humans.  I just like to write about people who are messed up.

On your writing process:

YARN: What is your favorite part of the writing process? Least favorite?  Why?

PH: It depends on how you define “the writing process.”  I love the writing itself.  I enjoy meeting readers.  The business part of it is a pain.  All those things are part of the creative process, as I see it.

YARN: Let us clarify—Of course all the things you mention are part of the creative process, but we meant something a bit more nuts and bolts.  For instance, do you prefer drafting or revising?  Outlining?  Daydreaming?  (You’re probably getting the picture…)

PH: It all kind of squooshes together for me, so it’s hard for me to say one part or another is my favorite.  Let me give you an example.  This morning I was working on a new scene for “Klaatu Diskos.”  I wrote a few paragraphs, then revised them, then stared out the window for maybe twenty minutes, reread what I’d written, deleted one of the paragraphs, laid down on my office sofa and thought about how the scene worked to move the plot forward, fell asleep, woke up and opened document that serves as my outline (It’s a mess!), made a minor structural change, then heavily revised the opening of an earlier chapter that was connected (plotwise) to the scene I’d started this morning.  I then did about an hour of online research, went back and added about ten lines to that scene, reread what I’d written, and made a few more changes.  It would be unusual for me to write more than a page or two without rereading and revising, and because I am incapable of following a real outline, my “outline” consists mostly of what I’ve already written, and ideas about directions a story might take.

Some novelists dream/think about a book for weeks or months (or years), do a bunch of research, create an outline, write a draft of their novel, then revise and polish.  I’ve never worked that way, although I sometimes wish I did.  My looser, back-and-forth approach can be maddeningly inefficient at times—as on those days when I end up deleting hours of work after writing myself into a blind alley.  Still, it took me many years to find a “system” that worked for me, so I’m sticking with it.

I guess you could say that my favorite part of writing is all of it.

YARN: We think your tips for writers are just great.  But we also wonder:  Since so many of YARN’s readers are teens who struggle with writing assignments in school–any tips for those suffering from writer’s block?  What do you do when you have a deadline and you’re “stuck”?

PH: I never sit and stare at a blank page.  I tried that for, like, twenty years.  It doesn’t work.  When I get stuck, I work on something else for a while, even if it’s something I know will never see print.  Keep the fingers moving.  It will come.

YARN: You are especially good at avoiding clichés in your writing.  Do you have any advice for aspiring writers on how to avoid such pitfalls?

PH: The first thing is to learn to recognize clichés when they sneak up on you.  It’s harder than it sounds.  But once you learn to see them, it’s a simple matter to eliminate or modify them.  Really, you just have to make the effort—on every page.

On Other Things YA:

YARN: Censorship has long plagued the world of YA literature—and continues, even today! For just one recent example: Ellen Hopkins was uninvited from the 2011 Teen Lit Festival in Texas because of the graphic nature of her writing.  The event was ultimately cancelled, but before it was, you and many other invited authors withdrew from the festival (Go you, we say!).  Also, you commented on this unfortunate event in your blog.  Any further thoughts on why does censorship still exists in today’s YA world?

PH: People are afraid of things that might harm their children.  Books are powerful.  Books are dangerous.  You will never convince a “book banner” that books are harmless, because he knows that’s not true.  The best strategy, I think, is to try to convince parents that the benefits of reading widely and courageously far outweigh the perils of doing so.

YARN: In your blog, you mention two instances where something similar happened to you, and you did nothing.  What would you do now, and why?

PH: Communicate.  Make noise.  Write.  Because it’s what I know how to do.

YARN: Who are you reading these days?  Any YA authors you think are underappreciated, and we ought to know about?

PH: There is a lot of good stuff out there right now.  It’s a great time to be reading YA.  The selection is enormous.  Don’t be picky—dive in!

YARN: Why do you believe YA is now more popular than ever before?

PH: J.R.R. Tolkien.  Phillip Pullman.  J.K. Rowling.

YARN: Thank you, Pete!

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