RAWing with Todd Strasser
- Tell me how you got started writing, in particular writing for teens. You’re written all sorts of books, but I’m really interested in realistic fiction such as If I Grow Up. —-
I have a funny story about that, because I didn’t really know that the genre of YA existed when I first started writing. My first novel (written in the early 1970s) was a roman à clef about a teenager who falls in love with a “nice” young woman from another town, then gets arrested for selling drugs, and tries to hide it from her. Not aware at the time of the YA genre, I was worried that my story lacked the adult appeal necessary to catapult it onto the best seller lists.Seeking to correct this deficiency, I purchased a copy of Writer’s Digest for advice on how to turn my book into something with sales that would rival those of Stephen King’s, and as a result learned that at that particular moment on the literary timeline, the two ingredients every book needed to insure vast commercial success were Nazism and cocaine.
I immediately got busy creating a new character, a Nazi, who had escaped from Germany in a submarine at the end of World War II and sailed it to Colombia, South America, from where he regularly smuggled cocaine, in his submarine, all the way to the north shore of Long Island, New York. To tie this into my story, I made this Nazi the uncle of my protagonist’s best friend.
After nearly a year and a dozen dismaying rejections, an editor named Ferdinand Monjo from a publisher called Coward, McCann & Geoghegan notified my agent that he wished to have lunch with me. I met him Monjo in the restaurant of a small, elegant East Side hotel. He was a refined man dressed in a sport jacket and tie. His wavy silver gray hair combed back, his wire-rim glasses sparkling, he smoked cigarettes in a long gold cigarette holder. After graciously thanking me for coming to lunch (shouldn’t it have been the other way around?), Mr. Monjo gestured for me to join him at a table set with linens, crystal, and silver. The conversation that followed had nothing to do with my book, and everything to do with who I was, where I’d come from, and what my literary goals were. In the meantime the editor consumed three vodka gimlets and a red caviar omelet (I’d never seen one before, and have not seen one since).
Finally, over coffee and dessert, Mr. Monjo got down to business. Would I possibly consider rewriting my book? He asked so apologetically that you would have thought he’d forgotten his wallet and needed me to pay for lunch. Due to all those daunting rejections, I was eager for advice, and said I would be glad to rewrite it. Did Mr. Monjo have any suggestions as to how it could be improved?
Indeed he did. “It is obvious that you know a great deal about being a teenager in the suburbs, Todd.” He paused to clear his throat and take a sip of coffee. “However, I hope you will not be offended if I add that it is equally obvious that you know very little about Nazi submarines and cocaine smuggling.” After waiting a moment for this to settle in, he added, “The important thing, is to write about what you know. Forget the Nazi, focus on the teenagers, and make it a story about them.”
So that was my start for writing for teens 😉
- Your books are popular for lots of reasons, but in particular often with kids who can’t or won’t read other books. In your opinion, what are the elements of a successful book for resistant teen readers?
—- Part of the reason, I suspect, is that I myself would have been labeled a reluctant reader. In June of 1958, when I reached the end of third grade, my parents were told by the school principal that due to my poor my reading ability I was not ready for fourth grade. Instead I would have to repeat third grade the following year. Back then, labels like “reluctant reader” and “learning disability” didn’t exist. Dyslexia probably did, but I don’t recall hearing it applied to me. Instead, I was labeled an underachiever, which basically meant I was lazy.To this day I don’t know why I struggled with reading, or why I still read slowly, or why I still have difficulty spelling. I do know that I was fortunate to have parents who cared enough to send me to a reading tutor that summer, a tutor who got me to read by doing two pretty simple things: finding the subject matter I enjoyed and giving me candy if I read.
So it’s not that I really try to write for reluctant readers. I just think that’s the way my writing works.
- I doubt you’ll remember this, but years ago I booked you to do a school visit in Springfield MA, soon after A Very Touchy Subject was published. I see on your website that you are still doing school visits, so what do you get out of it? What do the kids get out of it? Why is this such a win win? —-
Well, I get out of my house, which is always good 😉 And I get to see and hear what kids are up to. And I think that when kids can connect a book to its author, it’s a big impetous to read. Plus, I like to talk about books by other authors that I think they’ll enjoy so they have lots to choose from. Finally, I focus on the writing process and strangely, kids are always surprised when I tell them I use the same steps in writing that their teachers have been telling them to use. So it reinforces what their teachers have been telling them.
- Okay, the big question: so I reluctantly read a blog review of Outburst in my The Alternative This book tells the story of an African American teenage girl coming out of detention and going into a foster home. The review began with “Jones, who is white …” and I wished I would have stopped reading there. Have you faced this being a white male writing stories for and about kids of color? Most everybody seems to be onboard with we need diverse books, but not if those books are not written by people of color. What are our thoughts on this issue? –
I’ve heard this before, and I suspect part of the problem is that it’s difficult for non-writers to understand how a writer thinks. Just as I can’t imagine how an artist figures out how to paint or a song writer comes up with music, non-writers sometimes don’t understand that it’s our job as writers to imagine what someone else’s life is like. We’re just like actors in a play, but instead of one part, we have multiple parts.
- What are you working on now?