Michael Grant is the best-selling author of the Gone series, Messenger of Fear and the BZRK trilogy and co-author of Eve & Adam and the Animorphs series with his wife, Katherine Applegate.
Follow Michael on Twitter: @MichaelGrantBks
The interviewFor those that haven’t read it, can you sum up the FAYZ series in a tweet?
Every adult, every rule, every limit: Gone. 332 trapped kids struggle to survive in a mad, violent world. By the end many of them will also be: Gone.
Not sure if that’s under 140 or not. But it’s close, right?
Sure! The FAYZ is an incredibly brutal and violent world. How would you respond to parents that say that your books are too graphic; that children should not be subjected to that kind of brutality? Has this ever been an issue?
Well, we aren’t subjecting kids to any sort of brutality. I only rarely beat actual children with a baseball bat or use my telekinetic powers to toss them off of cliffs.
The Gone series are six books. Books do not cause injuries. Books do not cause psychological trauma. The number of people killed by speculative fiction remains: zero. Relax, people, relax. Your children are on the internet, you’ve already lost control of what they see and hear and read, stop kidding yourself. Drawing the line at a book - any book - is silly and counterproductive assuming you’d actually like your children to read.
The words “don’t read that,” should never cross the lips of any adult who wants kids to read. Don’t erect barriers, it’s hard enough to hold onto any audience that has an iPhone, an iPad, a laptop, cable television and a movie theater.
Where did the premise for the FAYZ series come from and how did it evolve?
It started not with Lord of the Flies, which people sometimes assume, but with the TV show Lost. I didn’t even spot the rather obvious LOTF connection until I was halfway through writing Gone.
The Gone series is most basically a Robinson Crusoe story. Civilized humans suddenly deprived of all the tools and institutions of civilization. There is no authority in the FAYZ universe, no one in charge, no one to turn to. The teens and younger children isolated inside the FAYZ dome are presented with chaos - some kids are developing bizarre powers, animals are mutating - and must manage that chaos as best they can.
My favourite thing about the FAYZ is the characters. Most of your characters cannot be boxed into binary categories like “good” and “evil”. There are layers and qualities that you develop across the series and the characters change all the time and surprise the reader. Which character did you most enjoy writing?
First, thanks. My characters are defined obviously by my own world view, my own observations and experiences. I have never met a saint. I’ve met some hypocrites pretending to be saints, but never the real thing, the human with virtues unbalanced by vice. I’ve also met some sons of bitches, but even they generally had one or two pleasant character traits - wit, perhaps, or limited degrees of kindness.
The humans I’ve known - including myself - exist on a moral spectrum, some closer to saint, some closer to devil. To me motivations are always plural never singular. Actions taken may be admirable, even altruistic, but it’s a very rare person who would take even an altruistic action without considering the costs and benefits to himself.
My standard of sainthood are those we call the Righteous Among The Nations. These were the people who despite terrible risks sheltered Jews from the Nazis during the Holocaust. I am certain that many of those men and women had mixed motives, and some may have seen advantage for themselves or at least rationalized in that way. It doesn’t matter. I don’t need a person to be pure all the way down to the bone, I only need for them to do the right thing in the end. Doing the right thing at a time when doing so meant risking your life and the lives of your family is a level of moral courage that leaves me amazed and abashed.
Did you know when you started the series that it would be a six-book series? Did you know from the beginning the trajectory that each of your characters would take?
Yep, I pitched it and sold it as a six book deal. My explanation to the acquiring editor was that “it feels like six books.” Not exactly science at work there, just instinct and experience.
No idea of the character arcs or indeed of the story. I’m an improviser not a planner. I make it up every day when I sit down and grab my laptop. This makes it a bit scary for me, but also unpredictable for readers. I like being unpredictable.
The FAYZ series has been a phenomenal success. Do you feel a certain level of pressure when you approach a new series or project?
The pressure is always the same: to produce a good read. I’m here to amuse and frighten and engage readers. If I accomplish that then I’ve done my job.
Work has a special place in my life. I found my upbringing and my education absurd and irrelevant. I didn’t find meaning in my life until I dropped out of high school and took my first job at age 16. Toys R Us, during the run-up to Christmas. I liked that it was hard, I liked that I was able to outperform adults, and most of all I liked the rationality of it: I give them an hour’s work, they give me an hour’s pay.
The idea of work, the idea of a job came to be quasi-sacred to me. It became the organizing principle of my life, I suppose. I work hard, I try always to do my best. That’s the only pressure I really care about. Well, that and money. Let’s not forget the eternal need for money.
How did you find the manuscript to book publication process the first time around with Gone?
Painless. I wrote Book #1 on spec - without a contract. When was done I submitted it to half a dozen publishers and got offers from 5 of 6. I took the best offers.
BZRK was an incredible transmedia project. How did you find it? And do you feel this is something that may help build a stronger community around teenage readers in the future?
The transmedia elements turned out to be a distraction, really. What excited me about BZRK as a story, as a concept, was that I knew I had never read or seen anything like it. I felt complete freedom, complete indifference to the usual tropes. BZRK actually changed my world view, I saw all of reality in a subtly different way. I’ve never before had that happen, that one of my own books would change my understanding of reality. BZRK is scary in a whole different way than GONE and in a whole different way than people expect and it honestly scares me still. That just occurred to me in writing this answer: BZRK is the first time I scared me.
Tell us a little bit about Messenger of Fear. Where did the ideas and mythology come from
Messenger of Fear is a bit personal in that it deals so much with flawed characters and their redemption — personal in that I’ve required some redemption myself. It’s basically a grim reaper story, tangentially inspired by the movie, The Seventh Seal.
Just a moment ago I received a very nice review from Kirkus of book #2, The Tattooed Heart, which is very nice to get.
My favourite book of yours is actually Eve and Adam. The narration, the plot, the characters – I loved it everything about it. The book itself feels very uniform, like it was written by one author. What was it like to co-write a book with your wife? Was it a harmonious process?
I had worked with my wife on various series including ghostwriting, creating our own teen romance series, then Animorphs, so we sort of knew how to do that, to work together. In the case of Eve and Adam I built the bones and put some muscle on it, Katherine added the flesh.
Which of your books are you most proud of and why?
As a sort of technical challenge, the Gone series was the most complex, the one requiring the most creativity and nerve on a daily basis. I felt I pulled it off as a series, in other words as one long narrative. Readers liked each book a little more than the one before until by the time we reached LIght it was almost unanimous support. That’s not always the case with series, so I was pleased that I had pulled it off.
In terms of commercial success, and in terms of long-term impact on kids, the Animorphs series stands head and shoulders above anything else I’ve written or co-authored.
But like most authors my most recent book is my favorite. It’s called Front Lines and will be out next spring. That was a hard write, well outside my usual comfort zone, but I felt I did a good job, and of course that’s my goal.
You’re on Mars and you have meagre food reserves. You have no communication with Earth, no battery life for your Kindle and you’re down to your last two canisters of oxygen. You have just enough time to read five books. What five would you choose?
I doubt very much I’d be reading, I’d be looking for a way to survive. Like that great philosopher, James T. Kirk, I don’t believe in no-win scenarios. But if I did read it would probably be a Flashman book for the laughs, or one of Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin series. Or maybe Lee Childs because surely Jack Reacher (Childs’ best-known character) would know how to survive an airless planet.
Thank you so much for taking the time to chat with us, Michael. Michael's new book, Front Lines will be published on 28 January 2016 by Egmont Books so mark it in your calenders now!