AND it mostly takes place in Maumee, OH.
Bring yo' friends!!
Andrew Smith's 100 Sideways Miles is the story of seventeen-year old Finn Easton, an epileptic who believes he's a character in his father's science fiction novel, The Lazarus Door. He has an eccentric best friend, he falls in love with the new girl at school, and he becomes a hero.
I started reading Andrew Smith's books since The Marbury Lens. I really enjoyed his writing style, the way he wrote teenagers, but found the scenes where the main character “flipped” into an alternate universe to be confusing at times. I'd give it three point five out of five stars. Then I read Winger, a heart-wrenching account of one rugby player's sophomore year at a prep school. Excellent characterization, and it's only fault for me personally was that I had little interest in rugby as a topic. Four out of five stars. When I heard the synopsis for Grasshopper Jungle—a sexually confused teen releases a swarm of man-eating grasshoppers—I knew I had to read it. Smith's experience of writing both sci fi (Marbury) and contemporary (Winger) were on full display in Grasshopper, an almost flawlessly executed piece of speculative fiction. Five out of five stars, with my only nit being that I found his stylistic repetition at times went past the point of being rhythmic. But just seeing how much Smith had evolved as an author, I had to pick up 100 Sideways Miles the day it came out, like a true fanboy, even though the premise just seemed so... random.
It's his best novel to date.
When Finn Easton was just a boy, a dead horse fell from a bridge and killed his mother and left him with scars on his back. They look like: “colon vertical slash colon. Like this:
:|:” (p. 13)
Like: “What flounders look like when they fuck.” (p. 25)
Like: “A double pierced vagina.” (p. 188)
They look like the scars that the man-eating aliens got when they surgically removed their angel wings to better blend in with the human population in The Lazarus Door. The aliens also have heterochromatic eyes. Finn Easton has heterochromatic eyes. Finn sometimes questions whether or not he is a man-eating alien. But Finn has never eaten anyone. Apart from his scars, his different eye colors, his epilepsy, and the fact that sometimes he sees the ghosts of two girls who died in a dam rupture, Finn Easton is a rather typical, hormonal, and insecure teenage boy growing up in Southern California. He's a virgin. He's got a dog that likes to roll around in dead things. He's got a best friend that goads him into doing things he'd never do on his own. And like any perfectly-written fictitious character, I see a lot of myself in him at that age... apart from the disgusting dog.
Finn's best friend Cade serves nicely as his counterpoint. Cade gets daily handjobs from an exchange student, and she pays him five bucks each time. Cade tortures their history teacher to the point of giving him an aneurysm. When Finn goes to the 7-Eleven to buy condoms for his potential first time, Cade unabashedly talks to everyone there—even the local sheriff waiting in line—about how condoms come available in all different types, embarrassing Finn until he's red in the face. But later on, in a moment of humility, where Cade himself becomes a fully believable and fleshed-out character, he mentions how despite how boisterous he is, he has only one true friend. Finn is the only one who can put up with him.
Rarely have I read a story that depicts teenagers so believably and balanced. Because sometimes teenagers aren't just disgusting wads of hormones that only make crude sex jokes. Sometimes they put on displays of love so simple, yet so perfect. I won't give them away, but there are two moments in this book that make the scene in Say Anything where John Cusack holds up a boombox to play “In Your Eyes” for the girl he loves pale in comparison.
For me to describe what the actual plot is would be incredibly difficult, but there is one I swear. Here are my attempts:
A boy falls for a girl, and endures all the ecstasy and misery that come with first love.
A boy comes of age, and comes to terms with himself.
A boy realizes that you can write your own story.
Authors frequently try to tug and manipulate the reader's emotions until they can't help but cry, and this usually happens near the end of the book when everything comes together. I always try to look out for this moment, to build up my defenses and not cry. But this book did me in.
I was so pissed.
So yes, 100 Sideways Miles so far is Andrew Smith's masterpiece (I'm greatly looking forward to him proving me wrong with future works—no pressure, Andrew!), but I can't finish this review without my one complaint. And I'm going to address this one to Mr. Smith directly: at some point you need to write The Lazarus Door because holy hell, I can't recall a more compelling premise for a story. I felt short changed that I only got to see it in snippets.
When and how did you start writing?
My fifth grade teacher Mrs. Virost introduced creative writing into the regular English curriculum, and I thought it was just the greatest thing, being able to make up whatever I wanted. Way more up my alley than structured essays. This desire for a creative outlet was renewed as I was finishing my master's in Spanish, spending countless hours prepping for structured comprehensive exams. I got so burnt out from the rules and rigidity of academia, so I was all, I'mma write about people who live on the moon!
Can you remember the first book that made an impact on you?
Jurassic Park, by Michael Crichton. I read it in fifth grade and it sealed the deal that I wanted to become an author. The fact that he was able to make the most absurd concept—a theme park with actual dinosaurs—sound like the most realistic and plausible thing, it just blew me away. And I was convinced that some day, maybe I could do that too.
Who were your childhood storytelling heroes?
When I was a little middle grader myself, I wasn’t reading much in the way of MG novels—I’d gone straight from Go Dog Go to Stephen King and Michael Crichton. Okay yeah, so there was more of a transition period, but I dramatize for effect. And to this day, they're still my favorite authors.
Like Crichton, I want to create absurd scenarios with convincing amounts of detail... but maybe with a little more characterization. I love the guy and his books, but his characters were pretty generic and stilted, and basically just served as a method to get his ingenious scientific ideas moving on the page.
And Stephen King. Man, can that guy write. He could write a horror story about indigestion and I'd read it from cover to cover. He understands suspense as well as a surgeon understands human anatomy. And he does it with such ease and grace you can tell he's enjoying what he's doing. You know he wouldn't want to be doing anything else.
If I could have as much fun with writing as King does, then I know I've made it. Currently, it's still a struggle as I learn the essentials of good storytelling. And the essentials of life, I can't leave that out...
Can you talk us through the writing of your first book? What were the key moments?
I think this quote from The Simpsons (season 7, episode 4) best sums up how I wrote THERE WILL BE BEARS: “Lisa: But you know Bart, some philosophers believe that nobody is born with a soul. That you have to earn one through suffering and thought and prayer...”
I wrote the rough draft for BEARS in three weeks, then spent the next three years revising it. I knew from page one that I wanted to tell a simple, yet funny story of a kid and his grandfather going on a hunting trip. The story had cute moments and interesting anecdotes, but no real point or meaning or tension. It was only through a grueling three-year trial of revision that I discovered my story's themes, my characters' wants, needs, and fears, and now I really feel that the story has a soul completely independent from me as a person.
Was it hard to get an agent?
Can you talk us through the process?
BEARS was the fifth novel I queried, so by that point, I already knew the importance of a simple, yet solid query, gripping opening pages, and a unique voice. So when I first queried BEARS way back in the long, long ago (January 2010), I got a pretty respectable request-to-query ratio. And that first offer of representation, man, that was an amazing feeling, but I had no idea how much work still needed to be done before my manuscript was worthy of publication. My first agent and I went out on submission to editors with a story that wasn't fully formed, and all fourteen editors rejected it. In hindsight, understandably so. Soon thereafter, my agent and I parted ways.
So yeah, an offer of representation is a great accomplishment, something to be truly proud of, but it's no guarantee of a book deal. It took another round of intense revisions until my book was discovered by not just one amazing agent, but two: John M. Cusick and Scott Treimel. And they went to town on my book, really bringing to the surface questions I hoped no one would ask, because that would have required too much work on my part. I'm so thankful for their scrutiny, and for their resistance to submit the book until it was in true fighting form, despite the fact that I was itching to get back out there.
Oh yeah, and that book is now getting published by award-winning Candlewick Press. Goes to show what good, patient agents can do to a book.
Describe your writing day. Where do you write? How do you organize your time?
My writing process is wholly inefficient and I wouldn't recommend it to anyone. I'll confess: I don't write every day. Sometimes the thought of writing—and the inevitable anxieties that come with it—is so unappealing that I'll go several months without opening my WIP. For me, writing can be an unhealthy endeavor. Often I find myself so lost in my head that I neglect basic human necessities—socialization, sleep... erhm... bathing. To this day, I'm still learning how to be a well-rounded writer and artist as well as human being.
Where do you look for inspiration?
When it comes to a novel-sized project, I believe it's good to bring in many different elements that, at first glance, might not seem to play well together. For BEARS, I combined my experiences and emotions from working at a hunting ranch with and old idea I had about a boy busting his grandfather out of a nursing home. The way these two ideas played off each other yielded some surprising, unexpected, and rewarding results.
I also threw in a dash of Taylor Swift for good measure.
Can you tell us about your next book?
Going along with my last response, about bringing together two or more contrasting ideas, my WIP is about an eighteen-year-old confronting the challenges and unrealistic expectations of first love, all while the world is coming to terms with the discovery that we're not alone in the universe. Not gonna lie, this has been a tough one for me to write, because now I'm fully aware of everything required of a publication-worthy book. I'm getting there, slowly, and I really hope once it's finished that this one will surprise readers.
Are there any tips you could give aspiring writers who are looking to get published?
if you have patience (in my case, years of patience), a good idea, and the ability to take criticism well and to revise, then the odds of traditional publication are ever in your favor. But don't be arrogant about your genius, and... well, even if you are arrogant it doesn't matter, because the publication business rarely has time for that. Be courteous and respectful with any professionals you may come in contact with. And not just so you can get an agent and editor, but come on. It's just common decency.
Also, go on real life adventures. I never would have come up with the idea for BEARS had I rejected the random offer to work a season at a hunting ranch in Wyoming. It wasn't just great source material, but also... dude, it was fun.
Can you describe three aspects of writing craft that have been most important as you’ve developed as an author?
The hardest element of the craft for me to develop is plotting. Making every page consequential to the following involves a lot of consideration and ample time in between considerations. But if you look back at the bigger picture, eventually you'll see how all the little puzzle pieces fall into their proper place, and you'll almost feel stupid that you didn't see it earlier.
Since I prefer to write my stories in first person, setting needs to be shown in a way that's relevant to the POV character. You don't want to over explain, but you also don't want to leave the reader in a white, description-less room. It's a balancing act that requires spot-on observations and finesse. Also revision. Everything requires revision.
I think, for me, the easiest element to convincingly pull off is voice. I never try to follow trends, or to write anything unappealing to me, and that's half the battle to creating great voice right there. I'm pretty sure that if I were to write a historical fiction, or a Harlequin-type romance, or the next The Hunger Games, the voice would be embarrassing because my heart just wouldn't be in it. I write about awkward characters, characters with random anxieties and likes. I'm random, anxious, and awkward, so the voice just comes natural. Find what comes effortless to you, and your writing voice is good to go.
Which favorite authors would you invite to a dinner party?
Stephen King, Andrew Smith, Patrick Ness, and Allie Brosh.
What fictional characters do you wish you’d invented?
Annie Wilkes, Hans Moleman, and Butters.
Currently in MG/YA literature, everyone's talking about The Hunger Games. Before that Twilight. Then Harry Potter. Before Harry Potter? Uhmmm... Goosebumps? I should know the answer, but I'm not the most well-read MG writer, so take this post and the opinions expressed within with a grain of iodized salt (I'm pledging a cliche-free post, in case you were wondering).
So what's next? Publishers and agents and writers and insiders are putting together their formulas to try and see what concoction is going to take off next, and placing their bets accordingly. It probably won't be sloths, unfortunately. It SHOULD be sloths—I mean come on, just look at this guy!
And I'm probably shooting myself in the
foot knee when I say this, but it probably won't be bears either. As much as I love my little book and as much as I think YOU will love it, it's a standalone and it's very difficult for standalones from debut authors to really become trendsetting. So here's what I think... and yes, I'm just another pseudo-blogger in a sea Great Lake of far more prolific and informed writers/bloggers. You ready? Okay, here's the next big thang:
Bears. Zombies. Caterpillars. Sloths. Vampires. Leprechaun pirates. Medieval stuff. Maybe my dog Tayla? She's a trendsetter. Sasquatches. Wars on other planets. Future diseases. Ancient robots. A modern retelling of The Blob. Volcano cats (btw, that's a WIP idea, so if anyone steals volcano cats, I would be sad). Love triangles involving gnomes and/or gerbils and/or Nutella. I've never gotten into Nutella, but I've seen what it can do to people.
I don't know about you, but I'm incredibly excited about what's coming next. I truly feel we're entering, or on the verge of entering a Renaissance period in YA/MG literature where anything goes. In a post Hunger Games/Twilight world, everyone's scrambling trying to come up with some new trend that they're pairing the most absurd and unlikely ideas. And instead of rehashing the same old creature, like vamps or angels, writers are coming up with new creatures or completely reinventing old ones.
Maybe this really isn't the case and I'm just being idealistic and hopeful that people are just as crazy as I am. But I think we should have fun with our ideas, you know?
Check out some of these new/upcoming releases to see just how amazingly eccentric these concepts are: Above World by Jenn Reese, Cinder by Marissa Meyer, Struck by Jennifer Bosworth. Teeth by Hannah Moskowitz. I mean, Robo-Cinderella? Lightning addicts? Magic gay fish? Who comes up with this stuff?
I love it.
Anyway, as much as anyone speculates, it's insanely hard, nee impossible to consistently predict trends. Sure, someone probably read Harry Potter back in 1996 and thought, “ho schnap, boy wizards are going to be HUGE.” But if that same person had read Twilight circa 2004 before its release, do you think he/she would have called that one too? Would that same person have also predicted the success of The Hunger Games?
Yes, maybe you're absolutely positive that The False Prince by Jennifer A. Nielsen has all the right ingredients to be a blockbuster—think YA Game of Thrones—and maybe it DOES. But that doesn't mean that kids are going to be engaged by the story or fall in love with the characters. Now, I'm not offering any opinions on this particular book because I haven't read it yet (on my to-read list, however), but I've heard it could be big. And I'm fascinated why people think some books could be big, while others not so much, and to see if their predictions pop or fizzle.
So anyway, I think here's the point I'm trying to make that's been made in one hundred other writer's blogs: don't write to trends. You can't predict this stuff. Write what inspires you and have fun and maybe all the elements of your story will hit the publishing equivalent of Mega Millions. But if it doesn't, who cares? Even if only one person loves your story, isn't it still freaking awesome that you're a hit with that one reader? That you've connected and really spoken to someone else on a meta level?
Yeah, you're right. It's all about the bling bling.