‘Scythe’ author tells his story to students in Saranac Lake

New York Times best-selling young adult author Neal Shusterman emphatically describes how he researches before writing a book Friday in the Harrietstown Town Hall in Saranac Lake during an event hosted by the Adirondack Center for Writing. Hundreds of middle and high school students packed the auditorium for the meet-the-author opportunity. (News photo — Eli Stack)

SARANAC LAKE — What happens when the world goes right? New York Times best-selling author Neal Shusterman explored this question and discussed his work with hundreds of middle and high school students Friday, Sept. 22 at an event in the Harrietstown Town Hall hosted by the Adirondack Center for Writing.

Specializing in young adult fiction, Shusterman has written more than 30 novels for children, teens and adults, including books such as “Unwind” in the four-part Unwind Dystology, “Challenger Deep” and two books in the Arc of a Scythe Series, “Scythe” (book one) and “Thunderhead” (book two).

Shusterman entered center stage in the town hall’s auditorium, holding a giant scythe. It was actually a stick he found next to a sign that said, “Do Not Touch.” With the stick, the he did easily what hundreds of teachers revere him for. He silenced an auditorium full of teenagers.

He started his talk by explaining his first story, and the consequences of it. In third grade, he had written a story full of blood and guts for (and about) his teacher for Halloween. He got a D minus. This, along with other behaviors, got him sent to the library often. As he spent more time around books, he begrudgingly became a reader and went from the bottom to the top of his English class.

Years later, Shusterman saw the 1975 blockbuster movie “Jaws” as it came out on the big screen. He decided then that he would emulate director Steven Spielberg and become someone who could tell a story that captivated audiences. He went home and wrote a story, which his school turned into a competition. As the only ninth grader who entered the competition, Shusterman was anticipatorily excited. So his disappointment was immense when the results came back. He didn’t get first place. Or second place. Not even third, fourth, fifth or any of the 30 honorable mentions. This was his first, but not last, experience with rejection.

Shusterman hit a turning point in his storytelling career when he went to summer camp in the Catskills. As a first-year counselor, he gained a reputation as the only one who could silence the rowdy campers. His secret? Stories. He realized that words had power, and his stories held weight. Here, he also discovered a teenage audience that enjoyed his stories as much, or possibly more, than the young ones.

“What happens when the world goes right?” Shusterman asked.

He was involved in the up-and-coming dystopia scene, discussed alongside books such as “The Hunger Games” and “The Maze Runner.” Yet, after a decade in that scene, it started to get dry.

So what happens when society is perfect? How do we achieve that? What has to be sacrificed? Those are some questions that his books face, and part of why they’re so popular. Shusterman uses fantasy to exaggerate the reality he sees.

“Even when you’re writing stories that are fantastical and futuristic, there’s always a core that is true,” Shusterman said.

Shusterman came to this realization during an interview, where he was asked what was going on in his life while writing “Scythe.” He quickly remembered that his mom died, holding his hand, right before he started the book. Though it may seem obvious, he hadn’t connected the dots before being asked.

Another example of this is his personal favorite book, “Challenger Deep.” He wrote this frantically after hearing his son describe his experience with schizophrenia. Schusterman likes to mix science fiction with real-world problems — and weave in a realistic element of diversity in his books.

Shusterman ended his meet-the-author event by answering questions, which were asked by all ages and different kinds of people, which shows the reach of his books.

His word to those who oppose, want to ban or protest his books?

“Read them,” he said.

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