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Interview: Gordon Korman, Children’s Author

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OK, I confess. I have been a Gordon Korman fan almost as long as he has been an author. Since his first novel, This Can’t Be Happening At MacDonald Hall was written as a seventh grade English project (for which he received a B+), this fandom is older than I care to contemplate. The opportunity, then, to review his latest young adult offering POP and to follow that review with an interview delighted the young reader that still lurks in my brain.

For any lover of children’s books, Gordon Korman’s work stands out. Here is someone who has literally devoted the bulk of his life to writing for kids. Or, perhaps writing with kids? While other children’s authors write about children, for children, Korman gives young readers the feeling that he is on their side, that in some place, he is still one of them. His writing makes it clear that even in adulthood, he remembers, and perhaps still feels, the complexities and fun of childhood.

With its more serious topic of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy – brain damage resulting from trauma that yields an Alzheimer’s-like dementia, POP deviates a bit from the lighter adventures “romps” that characterize much of Korman’s previous work. In the following interview he discusses the circumstances that prompted the writing of Pop and his writing life.

Q: The press release for Pop states that you are a football fan, and I also noticed that you dedicate the book to the memory of your grandmother, referencing remembering what she couldn't. Were there specific triggers that influenced your exploration of the topics of brain injury and memory loss?

A: My grandmother suffered from Alzheimer’s in the nineties, and while she – obviously – never played in the NFL, she was the specific trigger for Pop. She didn’t quite recognize me, yet she knew that I was a close relative somehow. She often referred to me as her brother. The fact that she was 61 years older than I was no longer registered with her. That’s where I got the initial spark – a buddy story between a kid and someone much older, who, due to Alzheimer’s, believed that he or she was the same age. The other piece – the football connection – came later.

Q: I received my review copy of Pop during the same week that the study involving chronic traumatic encephalopathy in football players made the news. Given the long-term nature of both book publishing and scientific research, this would appear to be coincidence. However, had you been tracking this research before and during your writing of Pop?

A: It’s true that the media frenzy over CTE in NFL vets is quite recent, but this story has been brewing for a few years now. Pop actually began a couple of years ago when Ted Johnson, the former New England Patriot, began to speak out about his condition. This was around the time of the suicide of Andre Waters, the former Philadelphia Eagle. An autopsy on Waters revealed what doctors described as “the brain of a man in his nineties with Alzheimer’s Disease.” The NFL was still skeptical, but the medical community was connecting the dots between frequent head trauma and early dementia. And since I’d had my cross-generational buddy story in mind for several years by then, I began to realize that this might be a way to make it really compelling – by adding the dimension of a former NFL hero.

Q: Along the lines of the previous question, what background research did you do while writing Pop?

A: In addition to following the revelations about football and CTE – which were fast and furious during the writing process – I did a lot of research into the behavior of dementia victims in general. Alzheimer’s is not amnesia; the memory loss is random and unpredictable. To a casual observer – or a reader – the Alzheimer’s patient acts inconsistently, moving from lucidity to disorientation without warning, and knowing today things that yesterday were forgotten. Because this could be interpreted as a flaw in the writing, I had to make sure that I was 100% true to the medical realities of Alzheimer’s Disease. We even had the manuscript vetted by a geriatric nurse prior to publication.

Q: Pop explores both the passions surrounding football and the risks.
Despite the serious messages, the ending seems to avoid drawing any type of moralistic conclusion. Did writing the book lead you to any personal conclusions regarding the sport?

A: I guess my ambivalence is obvious. I was exploring the dark side of football, yet part of me was rooting for the sport to be “found innocent.” The research is so recent that no one is completely sure. Most experts believe that the head injuries can be “managed,” that the real problem is the macho NFL culture of playing hurt. Yet a school of thought seems to be emerging that all collisions – not just concussions – do a certain amount of damage, and that the cumulative effect of that trauma is the real culprit. Personally, I hope not, but that’s just a fan’s selfishness talking. I think we can all agree that our entertainment – and, yes, big business – is not worth a single athlete’s life.

In Pop, though, my ambivalence could become part of the story. To Marcus, the most fitting tribute to Charlie is the continued pursuit of football and the “pop.” Troy, on the other hand, who is much closer to the tragedy, has to give up the sport forever.

Q: As a parent, I've noticed a general lack of quality children's books targeted toward boys, and this gap seems to increase in the late middle-grade and young adult categories. Your books have always held an appeal for boys, and seem increasingly to target pre-teen and teenage boys. Do you consciously write with this need in mind?

A: I’m certainly conscious of it, but that’s the way I’ve always written, long before I knew anything about the book business. My first novel was my 7th grade English project, and while I’ve grown and changed a lot, I try never to lose touch with the twelve-year-old boy who wrote This Can’t Be Happening At Macdonald Hall. He is certainly closer to most of my audience than I am now at age 46.

Q: It's well known that you began your writing career at a very young age. Do you have any advice for other young writers? And do you have any thoughts on encouraging a love of reading and writing in kids, especially in grade school boys for whom reading may not be considered "cool?"

A: Okay, writing still isn’t as cool as being a star quarterback, but it’s a lot cooler than it was twenty years ago. I visit a lot of middle schools and give a lot of writer’s workshops. The participants come from all parts of the middle school spectrum, including A-listers and athletes. And, surprisingly, they aren’t just the highest academic achievers. I think kids writing is on the rise.

As for reading, boys have always been a tougher audience. But the good news is that, once they find what they like, they become voracious – and amazingly loyal. I’m amazed at how much of the traffic on my website comes from the “old” fans – men and women in their thirties and even early forties who found my books as kids and still like to check in every now and then.

Q: The tone of Pop differs significantly from your early books. Characters face the consequences of their actions; escapades do not magically resolve. However, there do seem to be hints of the early Gordon Korman in the characters and dialog. How have the years influenced your writing and choice of subjects?

A: Pop is – by necessity – much more serious than most of my books, and I agree that it’s a topic I never would have been able to handle earlier in my career. But you’re right that there are moments when Charlie and Marcus become the two troublemaking buddies that used to be my trademark when I was a teenager writing for kids as a summer job. One of the things that really fascinated me was that Alzheimer’s Disease – as terrible as it is – could also function as a time machine. That’s what makes the relationship between Marcus and Charlie possible in the first place.

While I do feel great about how I’ve matured as a writer over the years, I’d stop short of saying that a novel that tackles serious themes is intrinsically “better” than a just-for-fun romp. I love my romps too, and I’ll never give up writing them. The best thing about my job right now is that I can jump from Pop to Zoobreak to The 39 Clues to my current project, an adventure trilogy about the Titanic. I want to keep trying new things.

Q: What sort of writing schedule/routine do you follow?

A: I have three young kids, so I try to mold my schedule to theirs. Writing begins after I put them on the school bus. It’s tough to get much accomplished creatively after they come home, so the late afternoon is a good time to catch up on e-mails and other business. I also do a lot of school appearances – I find it’s a great way to keep in touch with my audience while promoting my books – and that’s a big part of my job as well.

Q. I couldn’t resist sending a follow-up question – new series? Titanic?  Can you share anything with us about the Titanic trilogy?

A: Actually, I'm just beginning the trilogy right now, so beyond the fact that the boat sinks, there's probably not much I can tell you. It will follow the format of my other adventure trilogies, but it will obviously have to adhere to the actual events as we know them.

I'm planning to tell the story through four young people aboard the Titanic (and possibly one aboard the Carpathia, although that would come later).

Since I have the eighth 39 Clue book and the third Swindle both coming out next year, we probably won't see Titanic until summer 2011.
Wow, the boat sinks? Really? Ok, so it’s possible that Gordon Korman and his characters share certain smart-aleck tendencies. Good for them and good for us. It looks like we’ll have to wait a bit to learn what happens on the Titanic, but in the meantime, there’s plenty of Gordon Korman reading to enjoy.

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