LSU Lab students ask Shusterman about inspiration, process of writing
Hundreds of middle and high school students at LSU Lab School on Monday had a chance to pick the fertile brain of Neal Shusterman, author of young adult literature, including the popular “Unwind” series.
The visit developed from the Baton Rouge school’s decision in 2012 to make “Unwind,” the first book in Shusterman’s series, one of the books on the school’s summer reading list for incoming sophomores.
Emily Tarver’s English 2 class last year followed up by studying the second book, “UnWholly.”
“When I read the book, I thought, ‘How in the world did he think of this?’ ” recalled Jake Wharton, 16, who is now a junior.
The class interviewed Shusterman via Skype. On Monday, they saw him in person along with classmates in grades seven through 12.
Wharton said he preferred the in-the-flesh rather than the long-distance Shusterman.
“It was a lot easier to pay attention,” Wharton said.
Shusterman spoke during four sessions with LSU Lab students, and gave a talk to parents and community members Monday night where he read from his forthcoming book, “UnDivided,” the fourth book in the series slated for release in October.
Shusterman, who has written dozens of books, said he likes young adult literature because he finds it more socially relevant and thought-provoking than much of the adult literature popular today.
“It has a lot more substance to it,” he said. “You feel like you’ve eaten a full meal.”
Shusterman told the students that, in his view, teenage years are the most consequential.
“You are making life decisions that will affect the rest of your life,” he said. “You are figuring out who you are.”
He said his own decision to become a writer came when he was a teenager. In the summer after eighth grade, inspired by the novel and the movie “Jaws,” he wrote a very similar horror story, except it avoided killer sharks. With encouragement from his school, he submitted it to a writing contest, but it failed to even rate a mention from the judges.
Deflated, he almost gave up, but his ninth-grade English teacher told him that rejection is common for writers and assigned Shusterman to write a story every month for extra credit.
“By the end of ninth grade I already felt like I was a writer, and I haven’t stopped ever since,” Shusterman.
Asked how he comes up with his stories, Shusterman said some inspiration is immediate — 2004’s “The Schwa Was Here” was sparked by a student he saw at a presentation at a school — but most ideas germinate for years before turning into books.
“Unwind” is an example of the latter. The series is set in the near future after a second American civil war provoked by divisions over the issue of abortion. The compromise to end the war, which Shusterman said was inspired by the biblical story of King Solomon ordering the splitting of the baby, involves eliminating abortion. Instead, between the ages of 13 and 18, parents can reconfigure or “unwind” their children, which involves sending the teenagers to “harvest camps” to have their body parts removed for later use.
Shusterman said his macabre, dystopian future had several sources of inspiration.
They range from a study of the polarized reactions that Americans have to the question of abortion to a car buying trip where he learned about the phenomenon of an “unwind,” a new car repossessed by a bank and harvested for its parts rather than sold as a used car.
Shusterman said the books explore the dangers of people’s inability to reach consensus.
“Unwind tries to say that as long as we take very simplistic stances to very complex problems, we are going to end up splitting the baby,” Shusterman said.
“I don’t think he was trying to take sides,” said Hudson Eglin, 17, a junior.
Eglin said that he prefers contemporary books like “Unwind” to more classic literature typically assigned to teenagers.
“It makes it real and relevant to me,” he said.