Interview: Trying to keep up with prolific children's book author Gordon Korman | Arts

Interview: Trying to keep up with prolific children's book author Gordon Korman

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Gordon Korman - COURTESY OF BALZER + BRAY
  • courtesy of Balzer + Bray
  • Gordon Korman
Gordon Korman
Quail Ridge Books & Music
Monday, Feb. 9, 7 p.m.


Gordon Korman penned his first children’s book, This Can’t Be Happening at Macdonald Hall!, as a writing assignment in middle school—and has been publishing continuously ever since.

The Canadian author earned a devoted cult following in the 1980s for his ability to capture the quirkiness of young adulthood in comic novels where offbeat protagonists—from the rebellious private-school students of the Macdonald Hall series and the hyperactive teen drummer Bugs Potter to the luckless Raymond Jardine of A Semester in the Life of a Garbage Bag and the “Attack Jelly”-selling entrepreneur of No Coins, Please—caused chaos all around them, resulting in exploding limousines, flooded summer camps, FBI raids and an army of Manchurian Bush Hamsters emerging from beneath a school’s football bleachers during the big game.

Korman has continued his comic tales with series such as Swindle and more straightforward adventure stories—he was part of the group of authors behind bestselling series The 39 Clues. His latest children’s series, the SF-tinged thriller Masterminds, recently premiered its first book, which Korman will be promoting at Quail Ridge Books & Music tonight.

We spoke with Korman while he was on the road about the past, present and future of one of the most prolific children’s authors around.

INDY: How many books have you written at this point? I was reminded on the Quail Ridge website that your backlog is so large that only two older books can be signed per customer.

GORDON KORMAN:
It’s probably like 85 books now.

Good grief.

Well, don’t forget—it dates back to my seventh-grade English assignment, so it goes back a while.

Some of the stories I read about the origins of your career keep making you younger and younger, until it’s like you were writing in the crib.

I was 12 when I wrote the first book. I actually sent it into Scholastic the following summer, so I was 13 when I signed the contract. That’s where the “13” number comes from [in some press releases]. And it came out when I was 14, when I was a freshman in high school.

Did that make you more popular with girls? Because it should have.

[Laughs] Nah, it didn’t. I wasn’t that kind of kid anyway. But I appreciate the thought.

Re-reading some of your books, and I can definitely see a middle-school perspective versus a high-school perspective in A Semester in the Life of a Garbage Bag and Son of Interflux.

Well, I was probably writing one age range below—so when I was in college, I wrote about high school, when I was in high school, I wrote about middle school. Until I became an adult, and started writing all over the place.

Do you have any kids yourself now?

Yes, I have three kids.

How does your perspective change, writing about children when you have kids? Bruno and Boots is a great perspective on being a kid and rebelling against authority, but I imagine when you get older, you’re going to be thinking more like The Fish, Bruno and Boots’ headmaster and friendly nemesis.

You know, there’s like a lot of great stories in children’s books—the Judy Blumes, the Norma Kleins—people who started writing when they were parents. I still try to think from the kids’ perspective. I still think of the characters as younger versions of myself more than I do as, say, my little kids.

And your kid characters were always very adult even when you were a kid—there’s always the straight man, then the one who’s kind of off in their own, absurd world.

Very true.

I admit, as a kid with ADD, I related to this a little too much. But it meant a lot to me, having kids who kind of seemed like me be the heroes.

[Laughs] I get that a lot, and it means a lot every time! There’s a whole generation that reached.

Any chance that your earlier work could come back into print in the U.S.? I feel like a new generation needs No Coins, Please.

Well, the industry here is into the new—very much “feed me more.” They’re always looking for what the new thing is. But we have Macdonald Hall back, and I’m hoping to get the whole series in print. And some of the old teen books, such as Don’t Care High and Semester and Son of Interflux are available as eBooks in Canada and the U.S. [eBooks are] going to be very good for backlists, I think.

Let’s talk about the new book, Masterminds.

masterminds_c.jpg
Basically, looking at my own kids from my perspective, and wondering why they do the crazy things they do, and the crazy things I do. I started thinking of something very high-concept, the whole “Nature vs. Nurture” thing—are people born the way they are, or does it come from how they’re raised?

So I thought of these kids who are growing up in this very perfect town, or so they think, and they realize that they are actually part of an experiment to determine Nature vs. Nurture called “Project Osiris,” where master criminals in the prison system were cloned to create evil babies—or at least, babies with the DNA and potential to be evil. But they were raised in this “perfect” environment, with no reference to fighting or war or evil, just to see how they would turn out.

The problem is, the older these kids get, the more they are able to realize there is something very messed up about their so-called perfect town. And once they realize their whole lives are an experiment, they escape. It’s the first book of a trilogy.

That’s a pretty terrifying premise.

It’s certainly way, way heavier than Macdonald Hall or I Want to Go Home!. But that’s definitely part of kids’ books right now. Things tend to be a little bit heavier; the implications tend to be a bit larger; the stakes are definitely higher than when I first started writing.

You’ve still done some humorous books—No More Dead Dogs, for example—but you’ve also worked more in the adventure genre recently.

You mean Island, Everest, those adventure trilogies? Yeah, I’ve sort of been bouncing around a bit. Obviously, I started out very much a comedy guy, and then kind of went to these more adventure/survival type of stories.

But then I’ve had this series called Swindle, which is very popular, and that’s more of a throwback to Macdonald Hall—the kids aren’t private school kids, but it’s about capers and plotting. And I’ve been experimenting. There’s this series I do, The Hypnotist, which is very paranormal adventure-based.

What’s it been like working on collaborative series such as The 39 Clues, which has been very popular?

That’s been a lot of fun, because the job of writing is obviously very isolating. So having co-workers is a real treat, and a real thrill. What happens is, someone does an outline. It’s very much a Scholastic gig—Rick Riordan plotted out the first arc, Jude Watson plotted the second and third, and so on. I got to read the first couple books and I knew what was happening in upcoming books, so I worked the plot around those elements, but had plenty of freedom to do my own thing.

The interesting thing is, you’d think it’d limit your creativity to be given this much structure to write within. But I actually find that it helps—I’m more creative, and it gets me places that my imagination would not get on my own, and I find that’s really special for a writer. 

How many different projects do you have coming up over the next year?

It’s certainly a great time for me, because I’m striking while the iron is hot. Masterminds is a trilogy; there’s The Hypnotist, where the third book is still coming out this summer; and Swindle is still going on. So I’ve got three series going on at once.

But if you really wanted to cash in, you could have the Masterminds and the Swindle kids meet the Hypnotist, and they could all converge at Macdonald Hall.

It’s funny—kids say that all the time! Even back in the beginning, kids would ask me—“What if Bruno and Boots met Rudy and Mike from I Want to Go Home! or Artie Geller from No Coins, Please?” I almost had a resistance to that “worlds collide” kind of story, but fans love them. They always ask about that.


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