BRIDGEWATER, NJ - When Neal Shusterman, award-winning author of 53 young adult novels, began his writing career, he was not much older than the eighth graders he addressed in a conversational style assembly at Bridgewater-Raritan Middle School Feb. 24.
It was the encouragement of his ninth grade English teacher that made all the difference, he explained to the audience containing the entire eighth grade class.
The author’s interest in creative writing began at an early age. He received a boost of confidence as a high school freshman when his teacher and principal entered his short story into a writing competition, making him the youngest author to represent his school in the contest.
The experience, Shusterman said, did not have the predictable ending that one might expect.
He did not receive first, second or third prize, or even honorable mention. At the time, Shusterman felt defeated, and told his teacher he was done with writing.
But of course, the story did not end there.
Shusterman’s ninth grade English teacher taught him that rejection is something he would have to get used to if he really wanted to be an author.
She offered him a challenge - write one story a month for extra credit for the remainder of the year.
“By the end of ninth grade, I identified as a writer,” said Shusterman. “I haven’t stopped writing ever since. She encouraged me and she got me to believe in myself, and that’s how I got started writing.”
Today, his prolific body of work includes novels, screenplays and television. His books address socially relevant contemporary issues in a wide range of contexts, such as teen dystopia, science fiction, mythology, fairy tales and speculative fiction.
An unconventional approach that does not fit neatly into just one category may be what best defines Shusterman’s work.
“I’m a genre buster,” he said. “If anybody tries to classify me, the next thing I write will break that classification.”
Leading up to the author’s visit, several eighth grade language arts and literature classes included Shusterman’s novels in reading assignments. All students had the opportunity to have books autographed, and the talk was recorded to be shared with the seventh graders.
Bridgewater-Raritan Middle School was chosen to be part of Shusterman’s special tour for “The Toll,” the third book in his popular “Arc of the Scythe” trilogy. It was a special deal for schools and libraries for the book tour.
Shusterman had originally been scheduled to visit in November, but a family emergency required the appearance to be moved back.
The assembly followed a question-and-answer format, with Shusterman responding to inquiries ranging from his favorite animal to details about his novels, characters and the writing process. Careful not to reveal spoilers, the author discussed some of his specific works.
His “Arc of a Scythe” trilogy is set in a utopian world in which humanity has overcome societal problems and attained indefinite life expectancy, leaving the Jedi-inspired Scythe responsible for preventing overpopulation by selectively deciding who lives and dies.
In the novel “Dry,” teen protagonist Alyssa and her family struggle to survive a catastrophic drought set in California.
The novel “Challenger Deep” explores the depths of mental illness metaphorically through the bottom of the Marianas Trench, the deepest part of the earth. The book was inspired by his son Brendan’s teenage diagnosis of schizophrenia, and artwork that Brendan created while he was hospitalized.
“Challenger Deep” also received the National Book Award, a great honor to Shusterman who describes it as the most personal and meaningful novel he has ever written.
Shusterman said he invests an average of six months to a year into authoring each book, writing six drafts before it is shared with the publisher, and at least two more after.
“The most important part of the writing process is revision,” he said. “Whether you’re a student or a professional writer, nothing is ever done the first time you write it. You should never expect it to be.”
An open creative process is another essential element of Shusterman’s art. He begins each book with an outline, but inevitably finds that the characters develop toward choices that deviate from the plot he has laid out.
It is an apt autobiographical metaphor for the author who began college in pre-med and finished with a double major in psychology and theater, more pursuant to his writing aspirations.
“What happens is the story changes as I’m writing it,” he said.
While one option is to proceed with the original plot anyway, Shusterman said he always opts instead to restructure the story to more authentically suit the characters.
“That’s what makes compelling stories,” he said. “When you believe the characters and their choices, when you believe everything they do and all the thoughts they think, then you’ll go along with them and follow them on any journey.”