Gordon Korman Talks with Roger

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Gordon Korman published his first book (This Can’t Be Happening at Macdonald Hall!, Scholastic, 1978) when he was still a freshman in high school. Today we talk on the occasion of the publication of his hundredth book, The Fort.

Roger Sutton: Where are you living, Gordon?

Gordon Korman: Great Neck, Long Island, so not too far from Boston.

RS: That’s where our ad manager lives. That’s where my husband comes from. I know it well. This is your hundredth book — did you intend it to be?

GK: No. I didn’t think of one hundred as that big a milestone. There are so many ghostwriters and series book writers — they hit one hundred early on. But author friends kept asking me, “What are you doing for Book One Hundred?” During presentations in schools and on Zoom, kids were really, really into “What’s Book One Hundred going to be? What are you planning for that?” To me, it was almost an afterthought that my hundredth book was in some way special.

Photo: Owen Kassimir.

RS: And does it feel that way now? Now that we can say this is your hundredth book, how does that change the way you look at it?

GK: Even though I didn’t plan it to be, The Fort is an appropriate Book One Hundred for me, because it’s so much about the dynamic between kids and the dynamic between friends. That’s what I’ve been writing about for all these years. I’ve written in different genres — a lot of humor, adventure — but all my books have been about the nature of kid friendships.

RS: All of the characters in The Fort have something in their home life that the other kids don’t know about, or don’t know about until the book takes off. It made me think back to my childhood buddies. What don’t we know about our friends? I think it’s a lot.

GK: I think that’s true. We all have the selves we allow the public to see and know about, and we’ve got what’s deep inside. One of the things that’s so fascinating about those middle-grade years is your sense of what you should and shouldn’t allow others to know about can be so personal. Kids that age can have such a sense of feeling like the entire world is staring at them and taking note of things about their lives to use against them. I felt like that particular topic could be super-effective in a book like this.

RS: Things that, if they were to happen to you or me now, we could brush off or even forget in a day. But that same thing, when we were tweens, would wreck us.

GK: Part of it is the fact that you don’t have much perspective at that age. Something embarrassing happens to you, and you can’t see past that moment. This is the stain you’re going to carry for the rest of your life. In reality, you’ll get ribbed about it for a day or two and then people will move on. That, I think, is one of the big differences between tweens — the middle-grade audience — and adults. Even teenagers are starting to get some perspective. But when you’re twelve or thirteen, which is the transition point between being a younger kid and being a teenager, a particular moment can really freak you out.

RS: I think that you handle that age really well here, and you write for that age, or maybe even slightly younger than that age. When Jason’s girlfriend is introduced, I thought, oh, no, it’s going to turn into a young adult novel. Sex down the road. But it’s not. It’s very much a middle-grade perspective on the boyfriend-girlfriend thing. Sex doesn’t even seem to be a part of it, at least that you deal with.

GK: That’s the difference between a middle-grade novel and a middle-school novel. Middle grade is enjoying a bit of a moment currently. If you read widely in middle grade, there are certainly subgroups of it that are aimed at middle school, where you’re on the cusp of being a teenager, and younger middle grade — the classic stuff I grew up with (old Judy Blume, old Beverly Cleary). Certainly, The Fort is on the upper edge of middle grade, but the fact that we never get too much with Jason and his girlfriend is one of the things that keeps you firmly on that middle-grade side.

RS: You still have kids who can unselfconsciously enjoy having a secret club. In a young adult novel, there would be a lot more irony about it, I think.

GK: If these kids were even two years older, tenth grade instead of seventh and eighth, there would be a lot more discussion about whether the fort is a goofy thing or a childish thing to be excited about. I think the idea of having a place that is a hundred percent yours, no matter what, does have some older appeal.

RS: You and I have been in this field for roughly the same period of time, although you were in high school when your first book was published. What year was that?

GK: 1978.

RS: I was finishing college, going to library school, and becoming a librarian. The definitions of middle grade, middle school, young adult, have all changed since then. Do you pay attention to that as it goes, or do you just keep writing the book you want to write?

GK: I think it’s a little of both. What made me love this job — for me, it started as a school project that became a high school hobby and a summer job in college, and eventually my real job — I love telling stories. I did when I was little, and I did when I was in high school and college, and I still do today. I have more of an appreciation today of just how fluky and lucky it is that I’ve been able to do it for all this time.

RS: How long have you been living solely on your writing and ancillary activities?

GK: I’ve never had a day job. A lot of that was because my first book came out when I was fourteen. By the time I graduated from college, I was self-supporting.

RS: Wow. Where did you get the discipline?

GK: I would love to talk about the great habits I developed, but I feel like I’ve struggled the whole time. I have very clear memories of that first year after I graduated from college: I didn’t have any classes to go to and I didn’t have any homework to do, it was just writing and that’s it, but I feel like I wasted eighty percent of my time. I’m not completely putting myself down, but I was lucky. Maybe there were a few times when I could have run into real financial pressure to do something different, but I never did. A book did well, or something came out on a Scholastic Book Club order and sold really well, or somebody bought film rights to something at the right time. It always kept me going forward. I certainly don’t mean to imply that I was a giant success from the very beginning. I certainly wasn’t. But I never ran into trouble and had to get a day job.

RS: Very lucky.

GK: That’s one of the things I don’t think I appreciated until later. I complained about how some other guy got this, or some other book got an award, all the good stuff happened to other people. It’s not until I was pretty old and definitely should have known better that I started to appreciate how all the tumblers fell into place for me.

RS: It seems to me you have a very strong connection to your memories of what it was like to be thirteen years old. How do you stop your books from becoming nostalgic?

GK: Part of it is to set the books firmly in today, rather than in the seventies. If you’re making the movie Stand by Me, it’s a choice you have to make. I set the story in today’s world, but I believe that there are things that are universal about being a kid. Obviously, kids today grow up differently than you or I did. They have phones from a pretty young age. If they need to find something out, they Google it in seconds. They have access to all kinds of information that we didn’t when we were kids. But I think there are also some things that are timeless, and one of those things is having a place that’s just yours. Having a clubhouse. Another thing that I think is central to being a kid is the notion of what’s unfair. By the time you reach adulthood, a number of things have happened to you that just aren’t fair, and you’re used to that fact. Kids, however, really believe that things should be fair. My wife is a teacher, and she talks about how quick kids are to jump on “that’s not fair.” Even something as simple as not getting a Jolly Rancher as a prize, when you’re just as deserving as someone who did get one. Stuff like that is incredibly raw and important to kids. These things are really, really core. They wouldn’t change if you went back to my childhood in the 1970s, and I bet that they wouldn’t change if you went back to the fifties as well.

RS: That’s an essential ingredient through all those decades. The trick is, if you are writing a contemporary story, to make sure that the markers for that story tell today’s readers that this book is for and about them.

GK: Phones go a long way, the idea that your connection to the world is your phone, and that people can be reached at any minute.

RS: What did you have to watch for in alternating narrative responsibilities among the five boys?

GK: You need to be very tuned in to the various characters’ voices. That’s pretty straightforward to do in the case of Mitchell, for example, because his OCD makes his voice distinctive. With the others, it takes a pretty deliberate commitment to inhabit those kids’ heads while they’re narrating. In C.J.’s case, it’s the rising panic as the situation with his stepfather deteriorates. In Jason’s, it’s the dynamic of constantly being torn in two — between his friends and his girlfriend and between his warring parents. For Ricky, it’s the feeling of being on the outside looking in. And while Evan isn’t exactly the leader, I wrote him as weighed down by a greater sense of responsibility to the others.

The fear, I suppose, is that, with a young audience, readers might lose track of who’s narrating. But my observation is that, as this style has become more popular in middle-grade books, kids have rewired themselves to keep up with who’s “speaking” in any given chapter. I used to hear these comments a lot about the first couple of books I wrote in this style (The Chicken Doesn’t Skate in 1996 and No More Dead Dogs in 2000). These days, I don’t hear it at all.

RS: Which of those kids do you think is closest to you? Evan, C.J., Ricky, Jason, or Mitchell?

GK: Probably Ricky. He’s the one who doesn’t have a huge problem going on, or a huge trauma in his home situation. He’s also the one who’s on the outside looking in. He was the last to come along as I was thinking about who to populate this story with. I certainly did not base him on me in any way. I have based characters on family members and friends; the one person I’ve never based a character on is myself. I think it’s because we don’t see ourselves as clearly as we see other people. Or maybe it’s just me. Jack Gantos has no problem basing characters on himself all the time. He has a better view of himself. But I just don’t. I don’t know if it’s a bug or a feature, but it seems to be me.

RS: It does make sense that it would be Ricky, because Ricky is the last to arrive. It’s interesting to me — you say he was the last character to arrive in your imagination, and he’s the new character. He’s the stranger come to town among this group of boys who have been good friends for a while.

GK: And he feels like he always has to earn his ticket, because he honestly always does have to earn his ticket. If he were not the person who actually found the fort, he would probably be locked out of it.

RS: How much do you think of this book, or if you want to speak more generally about your books, as the childhood you wish you could have had? I would have killed for that many friends.

GK: I’m an only child, so I tended to be a one-best-friend guy. I don’t know whether that was like the brother I never had. I used to complain to my parents that I didn’t have a brother, but I bet you I would have hated it. I loved being the sole focus of everybody’s attention. There’s always been that aspirational element, “wouldn’t it be cool if...” I didn’t have a group of friends that size until I was in college. It was always one or two really, really good friends for me.

RS: And now we have you on the couch.

GK: I think I chose Ricky because he was the best choice, but I don’t think there’s a character there who is thirteen-year-old Gordon.

 

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Roger Sutton
Roger Sutton

Editor Emeritus Roger Sutton was editor in chief of The Horn Book, Inc., from 1996-2021. 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 MA in library science from the University of Chicago in 1982 and a BA from Pitzer College in 1978. Follow him on Twitter: @RogerReads.

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