Author Andrew Smith keeps YA weird with ‘Grasshopper Jungle’ and ‘The Alex Crow’
Venture just beyond the mountains northwest of Los Angeles, and you’ll find Elizabeth Lake nestled in the crook of the San Andreas Fault, ringed by trees rendered into black pencil sketches by a recent wildfire. In the 1700’s, Spanish missionaries called this place La Laguna de Diablo because locals feared a demon lived within its occasionally rumbling waters.
Today, it is the natural habitat of another strange creature: novelist Andrew Smith, a mild-mannered high school teacher turned wildman of YA literature. His motto: “Keep YA Weird.”
His 2014 novel Grasshopper Jungle, recently given the Printz Honor by the American Library Association, is the comedic story of a teenage boy who grapples with bisexuality, feeling attraction for both his male best friend and his girlfriend … in the midst of an invasion of gigantic praying mantises who devour his fellow townsfolk. Smith’s fusion of outrageous and emotional storytelling in books such as Winger, 100 Sideways Miles, The Marbury Lens and its sequel, Passenger, is as broad and difficult to define as his readers: Young, old, gay, straight, male, female, lovers of fantasy and fans of realism. In Smith’s books, there’s room for all.
His new book, The Alex Crow (out March 10), is his ninth novel since he started publishing in 2008, and stands as another vibrantly discursive tale about 1.) a 15-year-old war refugee 2.) a bio-engineering program to “de-extinct” lost animals, like a particular black-feathered bird 3.) a revenge-seeking bomber known as “the melting man” and 4.) the passengers aboard a steamer ship trapped in arctic ice in 1880. Like a constellation of distant stars, Smith aligns your perspective to see how these disparate stories actually make one shape – in this case, a crow who should not exist, and a boy who is lucky he remains among the living, too.
“I’ve always given a hell of a time to people who are trying to figure out what my brand is, going from one thing to the next, because I always don’t like doing the same thing twice. I like to make everything I do absolutely a new, fresh experience and a new challenge for me, and I can’t keep doing the same thing,” Smith says, sitting in his living room during a day off from his teaching job. That rebellious philosophy seems surprising for a man so prone to habit. For 17 years, he’s lived at this Elizabeth Lake home with his wife, Jocelyn, who works as a bookkeeper, and two children (a daughter now finishing high school and a son who just entered college at UC Berkley). He’s been teaching for 23 years, and wakes every morning at 3 a.m. to write in a loft office that’s crammed with a collection of knick-knacks, totems, and stalagmite towers of books.
Nobody goes up there. Not his wife, not his kids. They know it’s off-limits, but Smith seems just a little bit proud of his secret lair, too. In seven years of writing, he says only one other outsider from the book world has come to his home, fellow YA novelist A.S. King, a fellow Printz Honor recipient for 2011’s Please Ignore Vera Dietz. “I’ll tell you what, this whole thing put my wife in grizzly bear mode. She made the little Andrew Smith shrine …,” he says, gesturing to a little arrangement of books on a living room shelf below. “I have a group of online friends, of writer friends, and we have an email circle. And I said, ‘Should I clean up my office, or not?’ An overwhelming majority of writers said: ‘Don’t clean up your office.’”
It’s as much a nest as a workspace. He spends a lot of time here. The keys on his white keyboard are covered with the kind of smudges you see on a light switch that a big family flicks constantly.
After writing for several hours in the pre-dawn hours, Smith goes for a run, then drives 30 miles through the forest to Canyon High School in Santa Clarita, Calif. – which is not just his day job but also where he creatively refuels. “I love working with kids, and they give me so much in terms of their stories, and how they build relationships, and how they see themselves fitting into the world, and how the world is kind of unjust to them so often,” Smith says. “The one thing that really keeps me there is working with my kids.”
WELCOME TO AMERICA, KID
It was a class full of immigrant students that inspired Ariel, the brave, tragic, and perplexed hero of The Alex Crow — a boy who finds himself dressed in a clown suit on the day rebels break into his school to commit a massacre, which is told with heartbreaking realism as he hides inside a refrigerator. Ariel, later finds himself in the care of an American family with ties to a mysterious bio-engineering company, and when he is sent for tech detox at a camp for kids addicted to video games and cell phones, the story takes a characteristic turn for the strange. Smith says he intended Ariel to be an amalgam of many kids he has taught in his class for students who are non-native speakers of English. Ariel’s home country is never specified, but Smith has come to know many students who escaped horrors from the civil war in Syria and come to live with foster or adoptive families in the United States.
“This first boy that I met, coming from Syria—about two-and-a-half years ago, three years ago—he was just 15 years old, and he had just gotten out of Syria. This is when the civil war there was really bad. This was when there were poison gas attacks on villages,” Smith says. “The liberation army that was fighting against the regime, they were thugs and conscripting kids into joining their movement.
“I could tell so much about him by looking at his eyes. The day he started school, sitting in my class, just happened to be a day when—I would always read aloud on certain days—I was reading to the class from Breakfast of Champions by Kurt Vonnegut. In the beginning of Breakfast of Champions, Vonnegut goes into one of these little sidetrack commentaries about the lyrics to our national anthem, ‘The Star Spangled Banner,’ and how they make absolutely no sense. I’m thinking, ‘Gosh, this really is just the most nonsensical thing anybody could ever say as a national song,’” Smith says. “This boy, I could just tell, he had the most confused and awestruck look on his face. When I was done reading that passage, I just looked at him, and I said, ‘Welcome to America, kid. This is what it’s like.’ I use that quote near the end of The Alex Crow, when Ariel is on a plane, a soldier grabs him and won’t let him go, and the soldier says to him, ‘Welcome to America, kid.’”
Sarah Skilton, author of the martial-arts psychological drama Bruised and the YA mystery-noir High & Dry, also lives in the Santa Clarita area and says every local writer loves doing readings with Smith because his students flock to the events. “I’ve found him to be fairly low-key and soft-spoken,” she says, but his fans are anything but. “I especially remember roving bands of high school students showing up to cheer him on,” Skilton adds. “It made me really happy to witness how excited his students were to come out and see their rockstar teacher surrounded by his books. They told me how fun it was to hear about his projects.”
There’s no conscription necessary for this army. “I don’t really [teach] my stuff, have my books in my classroom or anything,” Smith says. “I don’t have them on display, but they’re definitely in the library, and they’re in every other English class on campus. So definitely the kids know who I am.”
Although he thinks about retiring from teaching and focusing on writing full time, he can’t bring himself to quit. “The kids keep me there,” he says. “I have this motto: ‘I love teaching, but I hate school.’ I don’t really like the educational institution. I don’t like where it’s going, and I don’t like what it’s doing to kids right now—and I tell my kids that all the time. Hopefully they’ll be able to rise above.”
It’s all about control. And a big part of control is being able to let go. The heart of The Alex Crow and its menagerie of characters, and creatures is a yearning for manipulate things outside our power. The plot involving a company that makes “biodrones” out of living things shows how easily we can destroy something good by trying to make it just a little better.
“It’s not only that idea of control, but the control that it’s so masked behind this façade of compassion, but ‘the real reason that we’re doing this is because we’re really nice,’ and really that’s not it at all,” Smith says. “The book is really about the failure of male-dominated societies. Every single one of these male-dominated societies is really misguided, a failure—the survivors on the boat, too. They just think that they’re doing something that’s good and really, they’re not. They’re just steering themselves off the edge of a cliff somewhere.”
At this point in the interview, a giant crow lands on the deck railing outside the window. Smith doesn’t notice it right away. Just another minion.
LIKE AN EXPLOSION, LIKE A FLOWER BLOOMING
“I love how you tell stories. I love how, whenever you tell me a story, you go backwards and forwards and tell me everything else that could possibly be happening in every direction, like an explosion. Like a flower blooming.”
This is the character Shann Collins from Grasshopper Jungle, talking to her boyfriend Austin Szerba, the narrator of the book. Really, she’s describing Smith’s signature style, one that many critics have compared to his hero, Kurt Vonnegut Jr., for not only its structure but its shared absurdist optimism.
If Grasshopper Jungle was his Cat’s Cradle, The Alex Crow may be his own Breakfast of Champions. “I think one of the big differences is that what I did between these two is that Grasshopper Jungle starts in a real small, tight confined place—it’s just two kids skateboarding in an alley—and then it blows up in all of these different directions,” Smith says. “The Alex Crow does the opposite thing, ’cause it starts in all these different places that are really far apart, and then it all comes together in a really tiny place in West Virginia in this one boy’s experience.”
He has been writing all his life, but never even tried to get published. Then he finally decided to give it a shot with Ghost Medicine, a coming-of-age western about teenage friends and a summer spent doing ranch work. He didn’t tell anyone. “I think that everything that I write is really introspective and also exposes a lot of stuff about me, and I am, really, at the heart, a very private person,” Smith says. “I even have a very close friend of mine, and when she got Ghost Medicine when it first came out, she started reading it and then said, ‘You know, I had to stop reading this, because it was too much about you.’”
That’s because his own past wasn’t the happiest one.
YOU THINK YOUR CONDITION IS NORMAL
“I was an awful lot like Ryan Dean [in Winger],” he says of his 2014 boarding school saga, about a self-described “loser” and wiseass who’s horny as hell but better at getting into trouble than getting the attention of girls. “I was skipped ahead in school. When you’re 14 years old and in 11th grade, it’s just an impossible scenario, because you have no chance with girls, and the boys who are in your classes with you, they’re 16, they’re 2 years older, and they’re going to pick on you a lot, and they’re gonna let you know what your place is.”
His home life wasn’t much easier. “There were four boys in my family. My parents weren’t supportive at all of me wanting to become a writer,” he says. “I was the third born and my younger brother was born almost exactly 12 months after me. I was exceedingly ignored — except the times I was beaten.” He pauses. “I was beaten pretty badly growing up, by my parents.”
His father died when he was young, and his mother passed away about a decade ago. But the legacy of his turbulent childhood lives on in his books. “One of the things that I think is elemental in my writing is this idea—I think it’s one of the essential adolescent experiences—that until you actually get out and start to experience the world, kids think that everyone else is raised exactly the same way they are, and so you think your condition is normal,” he says. “When I got out, I started to go, ‘Wow, that was really f—ed up how I spent the first 16 or 17 years of my life.’”
That’s why he’s so guarded about the things that are important to him. That’s why he never showed his lifetime of writing to anyone until 2008.
Smith even kept those publishing plans secret from his wife and kids for as long as possible. “When I was working really hard on Ghost Medicine to get it in shape to submit to an agent, up there in that office, my wife didn’t know what I was doing,” he says. “We were going for a run, going up in the mountains over there, and I stopped her and said, ‘Joss, there’s something I need to tell you.’ So we stopped, and she looks at me. I go, ‘Okay, I’ve been writing this book, and I got an agent, and my agent submitted it, and it sold.’ My wife looks at me and goes, ‘Oh my God. I thought you were having an online affair!’”
DID THAT SOUND DOUCHEY?
Now, Smith is … unstoppable. (That word means something special to those who’ve already read his work.) He has published eight books since then with more on the way, including a sequel to Winger, Stand-Off, coming in September. He also reveals to EW that he’s writing a graphic novel, although the plot is under wraps. Meanwhile, Smith keeps racking up awards for Grasshopper Jungle, which could soon turn up on the big screen. Shaun of the Dead and The World’s End director Edgar Wright is planning a film adaptation of that story about “big f—king bugs” and three very confused teenagers.
Smith is writing them as fast as publishers can print them.
“I’m in awe of his work ethic and speed,” Skilton says. “Most YA authors I know max out at about a book a year, drafting wise, which means releasing a book once a year or every other year. However, Andrew publishes new books twice a year, which is amazing.”
Although he feels his books expose who he is, those who know him say the crazier elements in his fiction aren’t the parts that are real. It’s the quieter, more introspective elements beneath the madness that expose Andrew Smith. “Personality-wise, I feel like his readers would be surprised by how deeply sensitive and compassionate he is,” says Bleed Like Me and Fault Line author Christa Desir, a member of Smith’s online circuit of writer friends. “I’ve sat next to him in panels, where he’s said something gruff and absolute, in a way that only Drew can, and then he looked at me and said, ‘Oh crap, did that sound douchey?’ The thing about Drew is that he has a really big heart and is fiercely loyal. He would lay down in traffic for his friends and his family and it is hard not to love someone like that.”
Desir says her friend has changed over the years – not in who he is, but how he tells stories. The more success he has had, the more risks he has taken. “It’s been incredible seeing the evolution from something like Marbury Lens and Stick to Grasshopper Jungle and Winger,” she says. “The same Andrew Smith is in all these books, but for me, I feel like you can see the point in his writing where he decided he no longer had anything to lose. That, to me, is when he reached the top of his game.”
The moment he decided he had nothing to lose was when one of his worst fears came true: His writing was attacked, not for being bad – but being harmful.
The headline was: “Darkness Too Visible: Contemporary fiction for teens is rife with explicit abuse, violence and depravity. Why is this considered a good idea?” In 2011, Wall Street Journal columnist Meghan Cox Gurdon caused an uproar in the YA world by publishing this scorching essay that singled out one of Smith’s fantasy novels as particularly dangerous. “In Andrew Smith’s 2010 novel, The Marbury Lens, for example, young Jack is drugged, abducted and nearly raped by a male captor. After escaping, he encounters a curious pair of glasses that transport him into an alternate world of almost unimaginable gore and cruelty,” she wrote, adding: “No happy ending to this one, either.”
Smith wasn’t alone among YA authors criticized in that piece. But he felt alone.
The Wall Street Journal article sparked myriad blog posts, became a topic for conversation at places like NPR and Salon, and was overwhelmingly rejected as pearl-grasping alarmism by many librarians and readers, young and old alike. But Smith, who had spent his life trying to be a good parent – at least, a better one than the ones he had – and trying to improve the lives of the young people in his classes was crushed by the accusation that he may actually be hurting his readers. He didn’t believe it, but that didn’t matter. It still hurt.
“That was a thing I definitely lost a lot of sleep over, and I got really depressed about it,” Smith says. “I was ‘damaging young people.’” Some of his supporters didn’t help his state of mind. “The thing that bothered me just as much was the reaction on social media from other people, from writers and stuff, that was just mean,” he says. “They were using obscenities, they were calling her terrible, terrible names, and, again: We need to elevate our discourse sometimes, especially if we want to have an actual academic discussion about something that probably is deserving a good, open discussion.”
His publishing career had lasted three years. That’s when he decided it should stop. “I was so fed up, that I was going to quit at that point,” he says. Winger was not yet released, but had already sold. Smith decided he wouldn’t quit writing, but he would quit publishing. “I left the agency that was representing me,” he says. “I just came back home, went up into my office that summer … and that’s when I wrote Grasshopper Jungle.”
So, for a change, here was a happy ending, after all.
I CAN DIE HAPPY
The crow outside keeps lighting on his back porch, but soon another being that would be at home in Smith’s imagination makes an appearance: a “big f—cking bug.” Not a praying mantis, but a spider creeping down one wall. One that looks like it might be the size of a child’s knit glove. (Although, okay, not really.)
“You want me to smash it?” Smith asks, amused. We let it live, and luckily it did the same for us. Sometimes being a little uncertain is okay. It adds energy to the conversation – or the story. That’s how Smith felt when it came to the book that would be his biggest breakthrough. Grasshopper Jungle was a book he wrote when he was unsure anyone would read it. His son, who had just moved away for college, asked him to send something he’d written, and Smith, reluctantly, passed along his crazy book about 6-foot-tall, human-devouring insects.
“I said, ‘I’ll send it to you if you want, but it’s really super crazy, and after you read it, you have to tell me if you think I need to go see a therapist,’” Smith says. “He read it in a day, and the next day he called me and he said, ‘Dad, this isn’t only the best thing you’ve written. I think it’s the best thing I’ve ever read.’”
That made him a little less uncertain. When a new agent, Michael Bourret, told him, “I must represent this,” Smith agreed to move forward. Everyone needs someone to believe in them, to fight for them, to tell them, no, that doubting voice in your head is wrong. Now, he had that. At another time, those voices may have become overpowering.
Decades ago, when he had told his parents he wanted to be a writer, they had tried to smash it – like a bug. And at that age, that’s what his talent was – small, vulnerable. Not the invulnerable “big f—cking bugs” of his book, or the kind scuttling down the wall of his home. He had been … stoppable. “I was raised in a time when, ‘You must grow up and be an engineer like your dad,’” Smith says. “My dad was an engineer. They said something like, ‘Okay, yeah, what are you going to do for your real job?’”
When he published Ghost Medicine, even though he wasn’t wildly successful right away, Smith’s own son announced to the family that he also wanted to be a writer – like his old man. “He was probably 10 or 11 years old, and what he said—and this is true, and it makes me feel emotional every time I say it—was, ‘Thank you, Dad, for being a role model.’ It’s kind of like, ‘Well, okay, good. I can die happy.’ What Dad wouldn’t say that’s culminating achievement of my life, when my son told me I was a role model to him when I’m still alive?”
Smith is no longer afraid of being weird. Now, he’s kind of a movement leader for other misfits, rallying other young-adult authors under that banner of: “Keep YA weird.”
Even in the midst of that harshest criticism, that his stories were too dark and possibly harmful for the readers who were discovering them, Smith says the thing that bothered him was not the personal attack, but how few of his critics looked at these stories through the lens of the real problems kids are facing. “I was thinking, take a look around you right now at America,” he says. “We were in the depths of this terrible recession. People were losing their jobs; I knew kids whose families were being evicted from their homes. I knew kids who had fathers or brothers or uncles who were fighting over in Iraq or Afghanistan. What could possible be darker than this?”
In the world according to Smith, there are much scarier things than demons in lakes, giant bugs, and reincarnated crows.