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Author Interview: Neal Shusterman and The Herren Project

Happy Tuesday Everyone! Today I’m thrilled to have author Neal Shusterman here to share advice on the craft of writing and his support of The Herren Project, a nonprofit organization providing resources, support, and treatment for individuals suffering from substance abuse disorder. Neal is a New York Times bestselling author of 30 books for children, teens, and adults and won the National Book Award for Challenger Deep in 2015. His next book is a graphic novel, Courage to Dream: Tales of Hope in the Holocaust, which will be released on October 31st. I’m a huge fan of Neal’s and am so excited to host him today.

Here's a blurb of Courage to Dream from Goodreads:

National Book Award winner Neal Shusterman presents a graphic novel exploring the Holocaust through surreal visions and a textured canvas of heroism and hope.

Courage to Dream plunges readers into the darkest time of human history—the Holocaust. This graphic novel explores one of the greatest atrocities in modern memory, delving into the core of what it means to face the extinction of everything and everyone you hold dear. This gripping, multifaceted tapestry is woven from Jewish folklore and cultural history. Five interlocking narratives explore one common story – the tradition of resistance and uplift. Internationally renowned author Neal Shusterman and illustrator Andrés Vera Martínez have created a masterwork that encourages the compassionate, bold reaching for a dream.


Hi Neal! Thanks so much for joining us.

1. Tell us about how you became a writer and then became a published author.

I've been writing for as long as I can remember. It was during college that I spent my summers as a counselor at summer camp. I would make up stories for the kids--and they all said they'd love to see them as books--so during the school year I would write them as books and bring them the manuscripts the next summer. I knew at that point that I wanted to be a writer, and I was trying all kinds of writing: articles, novels for an adult audience, those kids’ books that I was working on, stage plays, and screenplays. It just so happened that, a few months out of college, I got my first book deal the same month that I got my first screenwriting deal. That first book wasn't one of my novels. (My first two novels were never published--and for good reason--they're terrible.) But a publisher liked them enough to hire me to write a hygiene book for adolescent boys and that's what got my career started. It was my third novel, The Shadow Club, that sold and became my first published novel. Those first two will never see the light of day, but they weren't failures; they were steppingstones that I needed to take on my way to being published

About the Herren Project

2. You’re currently supporting the Herren Project’s charity event, which is on September 23rd. Share about this organization and how you are helping them. How can my followers participate in your fundraising efforts?

For people who would like to attend the event in person, you can buy a $75 ticket. You'll get to meet me, Jonas Raider (the artist), and Chris Herron (the founder of the Heron project) as well as get to bid on some of Jonas 's amazing works of art. The art includes copies of Roxy that he painted, and I’ll sign for those who can't attend in person. There are plenty of opportunities--$25 will get you a raffle ticket to win a lunch with me. I will actually fly to your location and have lunch with you. Also, you can purchase a raffle ticket to get your work as a writer critiqued by me. There's also an educator sponsorship, but you don't need to be an educator to do it. For $200, you'll get a painted copy of Roxy and a mystery box of stuff handpicked by me which will include autographed books, swag, like bookmarks and T-shirts, and even handwritten pages of original drafts of my books. Here’s the link: https://theherrenproject.networkforgood.com/events/61978-help-neal-shusterman-make-a-difference

About Your Writing Process

3. You’re the author of over 30 books. Where do you get your ideas and how do you decide which one to work on?

Ideas come from everywhere—usually something going on in the world or my life that I can't stop thinking about—and I have to figure out a way to put it into a story. Many times, a metaphor or allegory really excites me. Sometimes it’s stories that I've never seen told before—or at least never told the away that I'm thinking of telling them

4. Are you a plotter or a pantser? Share about your process of developing your story ideas and why this process works for you.

Like so many things in life, it's never just one or the other but a mixture of both. I plot out my stories and details so I can see them playing like a movie in my mind, and, when I think I'm ready to go, I basically throw out the outline and see where it takes me. I see the outline as basically just a scaffold to help me structure and build the story that may or may not follow the outline I started with.

5. For those of us who are still aspiring writers, the thought of writing a book on contract can be scary. How did you make the leap to being able to write on a deadline? How long does it take you to write a first draft and revise it?

Deadlines! Deadlines are the bane of my existence, but I think it’s the bane of every writer's existence. Very rarely do I actually make a deadline, but, if I miss a deadline, I better be pretty damn sure that what I'm turning in is so good that it makes my editor not care how late it is. So that's a lot of pressure. I don't write continually from beginning to end of a book because I’ll burn out. Instead, I'll usually work for about a month on a project before switching to another one, and then another one, and then switch back. But, if you take all that time and put it together, it's usually about 6 to 8 months to get to a first draft.

6. Many of us dream of being able to quit a day job and become an author full-time. How have you made writing a career and what advice do you have for the rest of us?

I’ve really only had one “real job” and that was working as a receptionist at a talent agency for my first six months out of college. They say you have to be in the right place at the right time. I had no control over the right time, but I figured by being in a talent agency—even if I'm just answering phones—I'm in the right place. It turned out I was right because one of those agents saw my writing and asked if they could represent me, so that's what got me started. So, my best advice would be to put yourself in the right place. Go to conferences. Go to events where you can meet people in the publishing industry. In terms of writing—originality counts for quite a lot. You might look at the trends of what's out there but understand that editors are seeing hundreds upon hundreds of nearly identical manuscripts that are following the trends. Your manuscript has to stand out of that somehow. Personally, I never try to follow the trends. In fact, I intentionally try to do the opposite because I'm sort of contrary that way.

7. Do you ever go through periods of writer’s block? What are your tips for getting through these rough times?

Writer’s block is a misnomer because what most people call “writer’s block” is just writing. When writing is going smoothly, you feel as if that's where the writing is, but then you get stuck. That feeling of being stuck? THAT is what writing is. You have to be willing to work through the difficult part of writing as well as the times that it's going smoothly. If you call it a block, that's an excuse not to work your way through the hard part. My tips for getting through the hard part of writing? I change gears. I work on a different project, take long walks, and create playlists to help me get inspired. I also complain at my friends, and I try to put myself in new and interesting environments. I find it very difficult to sit in an office and write. I feel most creative when I am out in the world in someplace new and interesting.

8. Your next book is a graphic novel. What made you decide to branch out into writing a graphic novel? Share a bit about your writing process in creating Courage to Dream: Tales of Hope in the Holocaust.

Courage to Dream was a labor of love from the beginning. I was initially inspired by the artwork of artist Jeffrey Schrier and the way he approached Jewish art.  For the longest time, I wanted to write a Jewish-themed book, and, when Andrea Pinkney approached me with the idea of doing a graphic novel, I jumped at it.  The question was, what could I write that would be additive? As one of my favorite movies is Pan’s Labyrinth, I thought using fantasy and surrealism could be a powerful and poignant way to approach a subject as difficult as the Holocaust.  I saw it as a challenge, and I love challenges. Having done a lot of screenwriting, my initial manuscript was formatted similarly to a screenplay but with suggestions of how the frames might be organized.  After the first draft of the text was done, it took a while for Scholastic to find the right artist—but when I saw Andrés Vera Martinez's work, I knew he was the one!  He has the ability to capture both wonder and darkness, hope and heartbreak in his work.  Every time I look at his illustrations, I still get chills.  From beginning to end, Courage to Dream took over 10 years to create, and it was worth every minute spent on it!


Thanks so much for all your advice, Neal. You can find Neal at

Herren Project Link: https://theherrenproject.networkforgood.com/events/61978-help-neal-shusterman-make-a-difference

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 Upcoming Interviews, Guest Posts, and Blog Hops

Monday, September 25 I have an agent spotlight interview with Jen Newens and a query critique giveaway

Wednesday, October 4 I have an interview with debut author Kellie Parker and a giveaway of her YA thriller Thin Air

Thursday, October 5 I’m participating in the Howl-O-Ween Giveaway Hop

Monday, October 9 I have an interview with debut author Sean O’Brien and a giveaway of his MG historical White House Clubhouse

Wednesday, October 11 I have an agent spotlight interview with Lane Clarke and a query critique giveaway

Monday, October 16 I have an agent spotlight interview with Jane Chun and a query critique giveaway

Monday, October 23 I have an interview with debut author Elisa Stone Leahy and a giveaway of her MG contemporary Tethered to Other Stars

Hope to see you on Monday!




Elizabeth Seckman said...

I'm intrigued by the personal hygiene book...

Best of luck, though it sounds like you're doing pretty well without it :)

Liz A. said...

I agree about having several projects going at once. You're not hemmed in. When something isn't quite working, move on to another, and then come back to the first when the brain is ready to tackle it again.

Sandra Cox said...

Fascinating interview. I love that you turned your summer camp stories into manuscripts and gave them to the kids. And it's wonderful that you support The Herrin Project. Your new book sounds like a tale that needs to be told. Wishing you much success.
'Lo, Natalie.

Carol Baldwin said...

I enjoyed this interview and look forward to reading Courage to Dream.

Kasey @ The Story Sanctuary said...

How funny! I'm also intrigued by the personal hygiene book. Both the event and the graphic novel sound really cool. I'm really interested to read the book. Thanks for sharing this interview!

Donna K. Weaver said...

I hope it does well. A labor of love should be rewarded.

Tyrean Martinson said...

Congratulations to Neal! I appreciated reading about his journey and his work with graphic novels. :)

Claire said...

Can't wait for Courage to Dream to come out! I think it's going to be big in schools! :) Thank you so much, Natalie!

Fundy Blue said...

Such an interesting interview, Natalie and Neal. I've never read a graphic novel. they seem intimidating to me. When I'm in the bookstore next weekend, I'm going to pick one out and browse through it. I know I must be missing great experiences. Good luck with your next novel when it comes out, Neal!