Allen Zadoff is an award-winning American author of YA books, whose novels include Since You Left Me and My Life, The Theater and Other Tragedies. He recently signed a big publishing deal for a new teen assassin thriller called Boy Nobody which will be out next summer. I grabbed him for a quick chat about writing for boys and tackling unusual YA issues.
Where do you tend to start from when writing a new novel?
The beginning is almost always a character speaking to me. He’s angry because things in his life are messed up. He wants something he can’t have. His family is pissing him off. He’s hurt by someone or something. My job at that point is to listen, give him space to rant and rave. From there, images and situations begin to emerge. A novel has begun.
Boys notoriously “don’t read”. What’s your take on that and how to do you approach it as a writer?
Boys read. I read when I was a boy. Maybe boys are not as patient as girls when it comes to reading. Luckily, I write short chapters. But I’m not doing this to please boys or girls or anyone else. I’m just doing what comes naturally. My approach is to create the most dramatic, honest, entertaining, funny, and dynamic story I am able. Then I hope the audience will like it as much as I do.
Your books seem to be more rom-com than action thriller (at least so far!). Was that a conscious choice?
Not conscious at all. My first three YA novels were very organic, and they came out “funny and heartbreaking” (as my editor likes to say). A nervous boy meets and tries to win a girl while navigating his crazy family situation and struggling to earn the respect of his peers. That’s the journey of many of my characters because it was my journey. I always wanted to be tougher, smarter, and more attractive than I was. I thought I had to win love, and I could only do it by changing myself. It took a long time for me to learn to appreciate my unique gifts, talents, and abilities exactly as they are. My characters learn the same thing, but because they’re in a novel, they learn it much faster than I did. Lucky for them.
Do you wish there were more books like that with male protagonists? There are so many about zombies, vampires, etc.?
This is a tough question for me because I love a good zombie adventure. I love thrillers, too. But generally, I’m not into creatures, fantasy, or science fiction. I have nothing against it, but it’s not what I read or what comes out of me when I write. At least not yet.??I think there are a lot of good realistic books with male protagonists these days, but they fly under the radar a bit. When I was a teenager, I read Hemingway, Salinger and S.E. Hinton. Male teens have a lot more to choose from now. They can read about boys who actually go through things and have feelings about them.
What YA authors with male protags do you read?
There are some great ones. Matthew Quick, Barry Lyga, Greg Neri, Andrew Smith, Blake Nelson, John Green to name just a few. Right now I’m reading a delightful book for younger readers by Lemony Snicket, but I hear Daniel Handler is very talented as well.
I’m interested in the fact you’ve written about YA male weight issues. How did that come about and what’s been the most surprising response to it?
It came about because I was overweight as a teen, and I struggled with an eating disorder well into my twenties that eventually got me into recovery. I wrote about it in my memoir Hungry. Being a guy with food issues gave me some unusual perspectives, and I try to share these in my work, particularly in my book Food, Girls and Other Things I Can’t Have. While I’m thrilled to hear from young adults of both sexes who have food, weight, and body issues, I’m most surprised by the responses from teens without those particular issues. Evidently a lot of people struggle with the feeling that they don’t fit in, and they identify with Andrew Zansky, the 306.4 pound narrator of that novel, even if they’ve never been fat.
Absolutely. SYLM is about a boy trapped in religious school in Los Angeles who doesn’t believe. I live in Los Angeles, the place where spirituality meets Hollywood superficiality. L.A. is a confusing tangle of new ideas, old beliefs, and vegan restaurants. I wanted to explore the question of how you find what you believe in a world where everyone is telling you what they think you should believe. My protagonist’s conflict is summarized in his name: Sanskrit Aaron Zuckerman. A Jewish kid with a yoga teacher for a mom.
Boy Nobody just made a big publishing splash (congrats, by the way). Quite a big departure from your previous work. Why it and why now?
Thanks, it’s an exciting time for me. Boy Nobody is a YA thriller series about a teen assassin working for a secret organization whose mission is to befriend kids in order to assassinate their parents. He’s an expert chameleon, able to fit into any situation, yet belonging to none of them. He is literally a boy with no home. It’s a huge departure stylistically, but not so much thematically. It’s still a story of a boy trying to find where he fits in the world, struggling with what he’s supposed to be (a soldier and assassin) and what he is (a boy with feelings and desires). It’s coming June 2013 from Orchard Books in the UK and Little Brown Books for Young Readers in the U.S.
Since You Left Me is out now.
Find out more about Allen at: www.allenzadoff.com