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Alan Gratz Talks with Roger

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Alan Gratz’s Refugee parallels the journeys of three refugees: Josef from Nazi Germany, Isabel from 1994 Cuba, Mahmoud from 2015 Syria. We talked about the challenges of containing reality within fiction and keeping three stories going at once.

Roger Sutton: How much do you do before you share a book with an editor?

AG: I do a fair bit. These days, I start by sending a two- or three-page pitch to Aimee Friedman, my excellent editor at Scholastic. I’ll have done a little bit of preliminary research and created a story that has a first, second, and third act. Then Aimee will run it by the powers that be — David Levithan, the publisher, and the sales and marketing folks. They in turn will also run it by the Scholastic Book Fair people, to make sure that they’re on board to begin with. There may be a couple of tweaks that come back from that. I’ll sign a contract, and then I’m alone with the book for nine months to a year. I’m doing research and building a much more detailed outline. I want to know everything that happens in every chapter before I write the first sentence.

RS: You say three acts, but you really have, what, nine acts in Refugee?

AG: Yes, I do. It’s three separate stories, and I had to create each of them with a first, second, and third act. I started with Josef’s story and built it working down and across on my bulletin board. Then once I was finished with his story, I started Isabel’s story, putting hers next to Josef’s and building off the parallels along the way. And when she was done, I came back for Mahmoud’s story and did the exact same thing, now using both of the previous stories as parallels.

RS: When you got to Mahmoud’s story, did you find yourself saying, oh, wait a minute, I’ve got to change what Josef does here, for example?

AG: No, I didn’t go back and change the other two characters’ stories. I went in with the idea that this part of Josef’s story would parallel this part of Isabel’s and this part of Mahmoud’s, so I knew that those were the pieces I had to play with. The one thing I sometimes did was to tweak the order of events, so we didn’t have too much tragedy happening back-to-back-to-back. I did want the water scenes, in particular, to come close to each other so that those parallels for young readers would be really obvious. There are many parallels in the book, but there are some I really wanted to emphasize. But I didn’t want too many people being killed by sharks or drowning all at one time. That would be a lot to deal with.

RS: And you also sometimes do a sort of thematic equivalent to a TV show where a door closes in one scene and then a different door opens in the next — where you will have an image at the end of one section of one child’s story that will resonate with an image beginning the next section of another child’s story.

AG: I try to do that in all my books, but in this one in particular, because I had three different stories in three different eras in three different places. I wanted to make sure that you felt like this was a novel, not three novellas or short stories put into one volume.

RS: Did Scholastic come back with anything big they wanted changed in response to your initial proposal?

AG: No, not in the initial proposal. Aimee did say, “Wow, this is a really ambitious novel. Do you think you can do it?” I said sure, of course — and then I got into it, and I’m like, what the hell was I thinking? But I’m very proud of the book. Aimee is a fantastic editor and helped me shepherd it along the way. We have a great give-and-take relationship. That’s her job, to say to me, “I think the book would be stronger if we did X.” My job is to come back and say, “No, I think it would be stronger if we did Y.” We talked a lot about whether there was too much death in the book — she thought maybe there was at points. But I told her that three out of every five people who left Cuba aboard a raft in 1994 died at sea. Three out of five. If nobody dies on this fictional journey, then I’m not doing a service to the real people who suffered through it and survived or to the people who died.

RS: Right, how much tragedy do you want in a book for fifth graders? Equally, you don’t want to seem to be reveling in the drama.

AG: Absolutely. People will ask me, “How do you approach writing books for young readers differently than you would for adults?” My answer is always: I don’t change anything about the story itself. I’m going to tell kids the way things really were. What I don’t do — and this is the only thing I do differently in writing for kids — is that I don’t revel in the gory details, as you pointed out. There’s a certain line where I’ll say, “This person died, and this is how they died,” but I’m not going to go into too much detail about the gory death. This was particularly an issue with writing about the Holocaust. So many awful things happened in those concentration camps, and I put it all in my book Prisoner B-3087. What I didn’t do was show the details of, say, medical experimentation. But it happened, and so I tell the readers that it happened. And we meet somebody it happened to. I allow readers to fill in the details as necessary. By not putting all those details on the page, I don’t force a young reader to have to digest something they’re not mature enough or ready for yet. If they are, they can probably fill in the details even better than I could, just with their imaginations.

RS: I don’t want to give anything about the book away in this interview, but there is one conclusion in the story that really does go the distance, if you’ll forgive the metaphor. But as you say, you do that without lingering over it.

AG: I think kids are incredibly savvy readers. I think we should give them all the credit in the world. They want to know the truth. I said to my editor, “Let me do this. Let me go this far with the story. We need to go this far. We need to understand that all these stories are tragic, and sometimes very, very personally tragic.” She had faith in me to be able to pull that off. It took a lot of rewriting to get the tone right and to get that moment and those scenes right. But I think we got it.

RS: There are tragic elements to all three of the stories here. At the same time, there are also elements of the adventure tale. “Gee, it would be fun to run away with my father under the dark of night across Syria to Turkey” — how do you stop that from sounding like a lot of fun because of the tragic circumstances, but at the same time recognize the appeal of that kind of story?

AG: Yeah, it’s difficult. I heard Jordan Peele, the writer and director of the film Get Out, call that movie a “social thriller.” I love the idea of the social thriller. What I mean by it is a book that is thrilling to read, one that you don’t want to put down. But there is a fine line, as you say, between writing a book that is action-packed and in a way fun to read, but is at the same time fueled with harsh reality. I think that’s the key to the social part of it — making sure that I never lose sight of the fact that this is a life-or-death situation. I play up the adventure when there is adventure to play up — surviving a tanker about to strike your raft. But in the same moment, one of the characters falls overboard and is half-drowned. There’s real fear and danger in that. I want to have the adventurous thriller stuff, but also show you that it’s not all fun and games.

RS: And also, in each of the stories you emphasize “tomorrow.” The characters are constantly having to wait along their journeys.

AG: Waiting is a huge part of being a refugee. You’re waiting at borders to get across. You’re waiting for transportation. The waiting that people do in Turkey to get aboard one of these boats is incredible. And then when they finally do get aboard, it’s the last place they want to be. It’s harrowing. That is the horrible irony of a refugee’s life. You wait and wait for the next step, and when you get to the next step, it’s awful. You don’t want to be doing it. But you have to. You have to keep moving forward. I wanted that idea of mañana, tomorrow, to be pervasive in each of the stories. Not only is there “tomorrow we have to keep moving; tomorrow we hope to be in a new place,” but there’s also that hope for tomorrow, that maybe tomorrow will be a better day than today. For most of these refugees, while they’re on their journeys, each day is a fresh hell. But there is that hope that a tomorrow eventually will come when they are free and their families are safe.

RS: Do you know anything about your own family’s immigration story?

AG: On the Gratz side I do. My great-great-great-grandfather, Louis Alexander Gratz, came to America in the 1860s from Prussia. He was an orphan. He had no money in his pocket. He didn’t speak any English. He had no connections over here. He just came here looking for a new and better life, as so many people do. He came to Philadelphia. He worked as a shoe salesman, door-to-door. That didn’t work out, so he did what a lot of other people do when they need a job: he joined the army. The United States happened to be at war at that time, with itself. It was the American Civil War. He joined the Union army and fought his way south. He burned up half of Georgia with Sherman’s troops. (That’s where my mom’s side of my family comes from, but not until much later.) On his way back north, he stops in this little town called Knoxville and looks around and says, “Why am I going back north? I don’t have a job; I don’t have any family or friends up there.” He decides he’ll settle in Knoxville and start a family and start a business. That’s why, a hundred years later, I was born in Knoxville, Tennessee. Because that guy left his homeland, left Europe, got on board a ship, and came to America with no idea what was coming next. I’m always stunned when I think about that. He was Jewish, and when he moved to the South, nobody else was Jewish, so he hid that fact and became Christian. My family didn’t know that until we started doing research into where he came from and who he was. I like to think it’s what finally killed my anti-Semitic old grandfather.

RS: You had no idea that your father’s family was Jewish?

AG: Not at all. My grandfather was a real dirty old bastard. He hated Jews. He hated black people. And then he started doing research into his own family history and found out we were Jewish. He had a heart attack when I was in fourth grade, so I’m inclined to think that’s what did him in.

RS: You sound so cheerful about it, Alan.

AG: Listen, the best thing that could happen for the South is for more people like my grandfather to die off, as far as I’m concerned. My dad is of the same opinion, so he’ll laugh about this.

I don’t know that I would have the courage to come over to a new country where the religion is different, the language is different, where I don’t have any money. The thought of starting over like that in the way that many refugee families have to start all over again, wherever they end up — that’s an incredible thing to think about. One of the things I tell kids when I do school visits about Refugee is that unless you’re Native American or a descendant of slaves, your family immigrated to this country — whether they came over on the Mayflower or whether they came over on a raft last year. We call ourselves Americans now, and we are. For some reason, when people get to this country, many of them say, “This far and no farther. Now that I’m here, nobody else can come in.” We have two sitting senators who are the children of immigrants, first-generation Americans, who are saying that we shouldn’t let new people into this country. Why you and nobody else? Why us? The other thing I remind kids is that in every era in American history, we have wanted to keep somebody else out of this country. At first it was Germans, when it was mostly Western Europeans who had settled America. Then it was no Irish Catholics. Then no Chinese immigrants on the West Coast, and no European Jews later on. Where would we be without the contributions of German Americans and Chinese Americans and Irish Americans? Where will we be fifty years from now without the contributions of Middle Eastern Americans? We are less for it if we draw a line and say you can’t come in. If we stop letting people into this country, we stop growing and evolving and becoming greater. It’s not a message that I hammer home in the book, but it’s something I’m using the book to talk about when I visit schools.

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Roger Sutton About Roger Sutton

Roger Sutton has been the editor in chief of The Horn Book, Inc, since 1996. He was previously editor of The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books and a children's and young adult librarian. He received his M.A. in library science from the University of Chicago in 1982 and a B.A. from Pitzer College in 1978. Follow him on Twitter: @RogerReads.

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