Neal Shusterman: A Moment to Unwind

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Neal Shusterman

Even though Unwind is well in the published past, relatively speaking, it was nonetheless the major topic of discussion during a chat we had with author Neal Shusterman, whose latest venture, Everwild, has just been released into paperback.

What was on the author's mind while penning this disturbing and thought provoking novel? Where do things go from its ending? And what else does Shusterman have planned for the near future? Read on...

Unwind tells the story of an American society where the two sides in the abortion debate come to a grisly compromise which basically makes abortion illegal but allows parents to decide to have their teenagers parceled out for parts -- or "unwound" -- if they decide the kid was no longer worth the effort. It was a bit surprising that both sides in the war that sets things off actually agreed to it, and it's akin to the biblical story of two women fighting over the same baby.

That's very intentional. And you know, when I go and speak at schools, one of the first things I talk about is the King Solomon story -- how the two women are fighting over the baby, and how Solomon proposes the idea of cutting the baby in half. What if one of those women didn't let go? What if the two sides were so entrenched in their positions that they would rather see the baby cut in half than ever compromise? Unwind is what happens when society decides to cut the baby in half -- figuratively and literally.

It's a pretty heady topic, with some controversial ideas at its very core, and some pretty chilling scenes. I could see some parents -- particularly in the midwest, where the story begins -- being uncomfortable that the story was published as Young Adult. What makes it YA, and did you experience any backlash of that sort?

I think it depends on the child -- I think for seventh graders and up, who are at a level where they can read it. For my own daughter, who is in eighth grade now, I told her she couldn't read Unwind until she was in eighth grade. I feel that the story is not gratuitous in any way. There's no gore, there's no horror -- I did that intentionally, even in the unwinding scenes, I wanted to make it as clinical and as blood free as possible. It was really all about the psychology of what's going on in the mind of that character -- which I think is more disturbing, because it really hits you in a very different way.

When I got to the unwinding scene, I was a little bit afraid to write it. My son, who was 15 at the time, had read the book up to that point, and I told him I was thinking about having the unwinding scene in there, but didn't know if I should do it. And he started to get really mad at me. He said, "You have to do it! How could you leave it out? How could you make this book about this whole thing, and then just skip over it? That would be cheating. That would be faking out the audience. They'd never forgive you." So I sat down to write it, but my goal was to really make it as psychological as possible. And also, by unwinding a character who you already didn't like, it pulled a psychological trick on the reader. If I had unwound Risa or Lev or Conner, it would be so horrifying to you because you care about those characters so much that you would put up this emotional wall against it, and sort of protect yourself against the pain of having to go through that.

So I thought, what if I unwind a character who I've set up for you to really hate? And then, suddenly you're not expecting the sympathy that you're feeling for that character -- it comes at you, and you don't have any protection from it, so it really hits you much harder.

I realized that I could not pull any punches in this book. If it was going to address all of these issues, if it was going to pose all of these questions, then it had to pose them without flinching.

The only backlash that I have received... there was one school district in Kentucky where once the new superintendent came in, he had an axe to grind against literature in general, and chose four books that were on the curriculum to ban. It was Unwind, it was Deadline by Chris Crutcher, Twisted by Laurie Halse Anderson... and I can't remember what the fourth one was. But it really had less to do with the book and more to do with the fact that this guy had it out for Young Adult literature in general.

What about Unwind makes it particularly suitable for the YA audience vs. the adult audience?

The idea of one versus the other -- that's sort of the artificial line in genre in general. I wrote the books to be able to be read by teenagers and up. It all has to do with the marketing, the publishing companies, how they're divided between their juvenile division and the adult division, and how the book stores shelve things. I would have loved to have seen this book been published simultaneously as an adult book, because I think adults get as much out of it as teenagers. I've constantly been telling the publisher, "Why don't you go to the adult division and see if they'll do an edition for adults?" The problem is, the adult division and publishers, they're very... arrogant, to put it bluntly. For instance, you'll see books that have been published for adults that the adult division decides they want to be young adults, and they can publish it as young adults. The young adult division has no power to reverse that process, to take something that's young adult and then publish it as adult.

So YA is lower than Adult on the publishing hierarchy?

Yes and no. Right now it's the YA division of all publishers that are keeping those publishers in business.

It's also keeping Hollywood in business.

Not as much as you might think.

You've done writing for television and film, so you have the contacts to shop this out as a feature film. Any headway in that area?

Well, you're catching me on a Very Bad Day. Unwind... we have some pretty powerful producers attached to it. We've worked up a pitch, and we've been taking it to the top levels of all the studios -- the VPs and Presidents of production --and pitching it and getting them very excited about it. The problem has been... You know, something like The Hunger Games, you can pitch that in one line: "A futuristic Survivor show where teenagers fight each other to the death." In one line you can pitch that entire story. Try pitching Unwind in one line.

Now, the pitch that we go in with is great. I mean, we're really getting them excited in the room. The problem is that anybody we pitch to has to pitch it again to the committees. The marketing committee, the production committee... all the people involved in making those decisions about what films they're actually going to make. And they want a sound byte. They come into the meeting, and they want 15 seconds at the most about what this story is about. And it's been very, very difficult to get it past the committees because they're not seeing the vision of the book. So it's been very frustrating.

Two word pitch: Retroactive Abortion.

(laughs) And here's the problem with that. You mention the word 'abortion,' they hurl you out the window. They don't want to touch it. The only time abortion is really mentioned is in the Bill of Life prologue, that one page. We've had to go in when we give them the book and cut that page out with an Exacto knife, because as soon as they come across the word 'abortion' they shut the book and they don't want to go near it.

So it's been a very difficult, very frustrating process. We still have a few more studios to go to, but the ones we were most hopeful for, and who really wanted to do it, couldn't get it past their marketing committee.

Regarding the character of Lev. I find it ironic that, while a lot of the anti-abortion sentiment, by and large, comes from religious corners, after the Bill of Life passage, it's a religious sect that is now voluntarily and intentionally having families produce a tenth child for the purpose of offering him or her up for unwinding.

With Unwind as a whole, I felt it extremely important that I not take a side on any of these issues, and that I be as neutral as possible. And I also felt that I needed to equally knock all sides of this issue and how it's being dealt with. And what I came to realize in the course of pondering the story, and really doing a lot of soul searching and thinking about what the story was about, was that it is the very fact that these types of issues -- abortion, stem cell research, all of these issues that divide people -- are polarized, and are set on such a stage that it is one side versus the other. It's always "us against them." And eventually it's no longer about the issue, it's about one side versus the other. And that, I think, is a kind of important part of the problem. By choosing sides, you're becoming part of the problem.

So my point was kind of to say that we need to stop choosing sides on all of these issues, and start looking at these things in a non-polarized, non-political way. That allows us to look at it from a third perspective. It doesn't divide us. And when we start to do that, we end up being able to look at these things and come up with sensible answers and sensible solutions.

One of the things that I wanted to address was religious hypocrisy, and how in some instances religions will say one thing but then do the other one, or make judgments -- it's not okay to have an abortion, but it's okay to have the death penalty. That kind of thing is what I wanted to address. But I also wanted to make it very clear that I was not making a statement against religion. And I try to make that statement very clearly at the end when Lev finally meets up with Pastor Dan, and he tells Lev, "Well, I still believe in God, I just don't believe in a God who condones human tithing." And Lev says, "Can I believe in that God too?"

So it was really to address religious hypocrisy. And once I started to address it, I started to think of all of these different situations, and how that would play in, and what happens with kids who have been raised in this very, very isolated situation where he believes that his whole purpose is to go off and be unwound, and suddenly having to face a world that he was not prepared to have to deal with. And I started thinking, that would drive someone crazy. That's what leads to terrorism and all sorts of things. And I wanted to take Lev from being this innocent kid to having this anger in him that is so powerful he is ripe for being brought into a terrorist cell.

Why select the Midwest as the initial setting for the adventure?

I wanted the story to feel like it could take place anywhere in the United States. And since there was going to be a whole cross-country trek throughout the story, and I knew that I wanted them to end up in Arizona at the airplane graveyard, I felt that I needed to start somewhere that was a little further east.

It's technically a futuristic story, but doesn't have any date set to it.

It's intentionally not given. It could be five years in the future, it could be fifty, it could be a hundred. It's just the idea that it is close enough to our society that it's uncomfortable. But as soon as I set a date on it, it automatically tweaks you with the science fiction motif. If I said this was 2070, suddenly your mind shifts into sci-fi mode, and I wanted to do everything that I could to prevent that sort of science-fiction feel. I wanted it to feel like this could be taking place tomorrow.

But our time is definitely in the past enough so that we see ourselves a bit through the antique shop where the kids eventually find a way to safety.

I think the only place where I put our time and date is when I had "antique iPods." So that was kind of ironic. But other than that, I wanted to make it feel like suburban America was still suburban America, with the exception that society has all agreed to make this choice as to how to deal with unwanted teens.

[The antique shop] was intentional in that here was someone who valued history. And the whole idea is that if we don't learn from history, we're doomed to repeat it. So those who value where we came from, those who value history, will be the ones who have the foresight to see this society is not moving in the right direction.

What was the significance of the baby that the teens find being storked -- literally being left on someone's doorstep?

There were several purposes to that. First of all, in dealing with the whole subject, I wanted to show it from as many different angles as possible. One of the things that I really wanted to address in the story is the whole idea of the unintended consequences of decisions we make as a society -- and then how we create a solution which then creates its own unintended consequences. In general, society tends to be very shortsighted; and through that shortsightedness we end up with situations that we weren't expecting, and then we have to fix them. In Unwind, because there was no more abortion, there were all of these babies that were being born that were unwanted. They had to come up with a solution for that, which was the whole idea of the Storking Initiative -- which was like the Safe Haven law which most states have today, just tweaked to a little bit of an extreme. I wanted to see from the point of view of a woman who was storking her baby -- and not taking a side or anything, just the idea that now she had something she could do with this baby and she could now make better choices in her life, but at the same time it creates this problem of all these unwanted children on doorsteps, and the whole idea of Conner's story about that baby that got passed around.

The second purpose to that was that I felt Conner was not sympathetic enough. I wanted him to be sympathetic, and I wanted him to -- at the same time that I was making him sympathetic -- do something that really puts them in a bad situation. By choosing to rescue that baby, not being willing to leave it there, it endears us to him. But at the same time it puts them in a much worse situation than they were five minutes before.

So the baby serves a lot of functions within the story, but also thematically it serves a purpose.

What happened to the letters the kids wrote to their families? Were they sent out?

I'm going to deal with that in the sequel. Yes, there will be a sequel. It's going to be called Unwholly. I haven't written it yet, but I have it all worked out. I know how it's going to happen.

The reason why I didn't address it in the first book is because I tried... I wanted to get them back to the antique shop... but it just stepped on the ending. It felt like it was adding more stuff that wasn't necessary in terms of telling the story.

Is this going to be a trilogy?

At this point it's just two books. I wrote the one, and I never intended to write a sequel. It was as I was developing the story for film that I came up with a whole lot of new ideas I got really excited about. So I decided I was going to write a sequel. Even if the film doesn't get made, it really gave me the ideas that I want to use in the sequel.

I have a little pact with myself that I'm never going to write a sequel to a book unless I feel the sequel is going to be better than the original. And it got to the point where I liked the ideas and the questions that were being posed so much that I feel Unwholly is going to top Unwind... I hope.

In your Skinjackers trilogy, you have kids living in an afterlife sort of world. In Unwind, there's the question of what happens to a soul and where it resides. Are these stories any reflection of your personal philosophies, or do they represent a search for these answers? Or should I stop reading too much into it and just enjoy the story?

It's all about a quest. It's all about the question. I don't give answers. I think that the only questions that are worth posing are the ones that don't have simple answers. If I pretend to know the answers, that would be presumptuous of me -- to pretend to know the answers of the grand questions that really can't be answered. All we can do is try to look at it from different points of view, and pose questions in different and interesting ways.

So I consider it my job to pose those questions in as many interesting and different ways as I can.

Are your children aspiring writers?

My oldest son loves to write. He's 21. My younger son, whose 19, is in film school at CalState Long Beach. And my daughters, who are 13 and 11, love writing. My older daughter doesn't want to be a writer, but she's very good at it. My younger daughter wants to write comic books -- she wants to write manga.

What's next?

Everwild is coming out in paperback this month. Everfound, the third book in the trilogy, is coming out in May, and I'm very excited about that.

[For those] familiar with my Antsy series -- The Schwa Was Here and Antsy Does Time -- I'm doing a third book with that character called Antsy Floats. Those are very, very different from Unwind. All of my books are different -- I don't like sticking to a single style or genre. I like to mix it up and try something different each time. Early in my career I decided that if I'm going to grow as a writer, I'm going to have to do all different kinds of things, and try not to repeat myself too much. So those are a very different style. They're very humorous in style. And that's the one that I'm working on right now.

In terms of film stuff, we're still pitching Unwind. Everlost was with Universal, however it's come back to the producers -- which is actually a good thing, because Universal has been sitting on it for more than three years. Finally, now that they've let it go, we're able to attach a director to it, and shop it around to other studios.