The Schwa Was Here: Neal Shusterman's 2005 BGHB Fiction Award Speech

shusterman_schwa was hereI’m thrilled and honored to be the recipient of this year’s Boston Globe–Horn Book Fiction Award for The Schwa Was Here. It’s fitting to me that this ceremony takes place in Boston, because Boston is where my career started — with Little, Brown, when their offices were on Beacon Hill. I took a walk down there this afternoon. I could still see the stain on the weatherworn stone where it once said “Little, Brown and Company.”

I had submitted my manuscript for The Shadow Club to a junior editor named Stephanie Owens Lurie. It was 1985. I had just graduated from college and was working as an assistant at a talent agency in Los  Angeles. I usually stayed in the office until midnight — not because I had work to do, but because they had technology that I didn’t. See, I had an old manual typewriter in my one-room apartment that didn’t type es. I had to fill in every e by hand. But in the office they had an IBM Selectric typewriter. Remember those? The ones with the little ball that would spin faster than a martial arts expert? I think they have  one in the Smithsonian.

I wrote The Shadow Club on that typewriter, Stephanie bought it, and I worked with her on four more novels for Little, Brown, then followed her when she became a vice president at Simon & Schuster and again when she moved to Penguin to become president and publisher of Dutton Children’s Books. There’s a reason why I wanted to keep working with her. First, because she’s become a good friend, but also because she’s a great editor. I was on a panel of authors last year at a conference, and we got into a schoolyard squabble about who had the best editor. It went something like this:

“My editor is better than your editor,” said the first author. “His editorial letters are only three pages long.”

“My editor is better than your editor,” said the second author. “She only corrects my punctuation!”

“Sorry,” I said, “but my editor is better than your editor...because my manuscript comes back from her with a thousand Post-It notes stuck all over it. You can’t even see the white space. It looks like Big Bird. And her editorial letters? They’re twenty-three pages long! Single spaced! In a small font! And you know what? Everything she has to say is brilliant. I take one look at what she has to say and say to myself, Why didn’t I think of that?” Now that’s an editor. (I actually used the Post-It-notes-looking-like-Big-Bird bit in The Schwa Was Here — because, you know, fiction is inspired by real life. Little did Stephanie know when she was editing it that the simile was inspired by her. She doesn’t use Post-It notes anymore. I miss them.)

By the way, the twenty-three-page editorial letter I mentioned? That was for The Schwa Was Here. If it hadn’t been for her molding the concept and pulling me in when I was going off into orbit, I wouldn’t be here accepting this award.

* * *

The idea for The Schwa Was Here came at an unlikely time. I was doing a presentation at a middle school, answering questions, when a teacher waved to get my attention, pointed to a chair, and said, “This boy has had his hand up for twenty minutes, and you haven’t called on him.”

I looked to where she was pointing, and for a split second I didn’t see anyone sitting there. I blinked, and it was like a kid suddenly appeared in the chair. He was wearing a shirt that blended in with the background, and my mind played a trick on me so that I didn’t see him at first. The boy had this sad, resigned expression on his face that said, “He’s not going to call on one ever calls on me.”

We were in the school’s library, and he was sitting right in front of that huge dictionary that every library has out on its own special table. I looked at the kid, looked at the dictionary, and made this weird connection. This kid was kind of like a schwa, the symbol for the sound uh — the most unnoticeable, and yet the most common, sound in the English language. Suddenly, right in the middle of this presentation, my mind started racing, because I knew I was onto something. A story about a kid who was a human schwa — so unnoticeable that his teachers mark him absent in class. So unnoticeable that he’s functionally invisible.

...And this boy finally asks his question, and it’s “Mr. Shusterman, where do you get your ideas?”

* * *

AS I BEGAN working on the story, I started to realize that “the schwa effect” is universal. Everyone has felt like a schwa at some point in their life. It’s what my grandmother would call a “what am I, chopped liver?” moment.

I’ve had lots of schwa moments. Like the time I was at Book-Expo, signing copies of The Dark Side of Nowhere. I got stuck sitting at a table next to Richard Simmons. His line’s going out the back of the convention center. My line’s got tumbleweeds. He’s standing on the table, doing aerobics with the people in line. I’m sitting there with three boxes of free books — I can’t give them away. I’ve got this Costco-sized box of pens — I’m using them to play Jenga.

And then I start getting mercy signings. You know — those Good Samaritans who can’t stand to see another human being in such pain. They come out from the Richard Simmons line, kick away the tumbleweeds, and come to get a signed copy of my book.

They say things like, “Oh, well, look at that! Is this your first book?”

“No...actually it’s my twentieth.”

“Well, good for you! You keep working hard, and you can be just like Richard Simmons.”

* * *

I had another schwa moment just last week. I had flown cross-country to Florida. I didn’t get my upgrade, so I was already in a foul mood — and on top of it they ran out of those little prison lunches they sell you for five bucks. By the time we land, the airport restaurants are all closed, and so is the restaurant at my hotel, because it’s eleven at night. But there’s a Wendy’s next door that stays open till one!

Starved, I race to Wendy’s, and as I reach for the door, one of the employees — this girl who’s like a hundred pounds of attitude held together by a polyester uniform — pretends she doesn’t see me, and locks the door. Why? Because counter service stops at eleven. After that, you have to go to the drive-thru.

So I go to the drive-up window. The cashier ignores me. “Hi, I’d like a crispy chicken with no mayo.” Still nothing. “Hello? I’ve got cash — you can even keep the change.”

“I’m sorry, sir, but you have to be in a car.”

She turns away and takes the order of a car waiting by the menu.

I stumble down the drive-thru lane toward the car, and plead with the driver. “For the love of God, help me! I haven’t had anything to eat since yesterday. All I want is a crispy chicken with no mayo.”

Now, you gotta understand, this is Florida, so I’m dripping with perspiration, I’ve got a bad case of plane-hair, and I wasn’t dressed as stylishly as I am tonight. The guy in the car rolls up his window and acts like I don’t exist. In the end, I had to call a taxi, so I could go up to the drive-up window and get my crispy chicken with no mayo.

We’ve all been there. We’ve all been the schwa. We all know kids who are the schwa.

I was at a school a few months ago, and this kid came up to me clutching the book in his hands, and he said, “Mr. Shusterman, this book is about me. I’m the invisible kid. I’m the one no one ever notices.”

And I said, “Next?”

He thought it was pretty funny. Eventually.

* * *

One of the best things about getting an honor like this is that you get the chance to properly thank the people who got you here. I’d like to thank the award committee for choosing this quirky little book; Stephanie Owens Lurie for believing in me from the beginning; all my editors and publishers — from John Keller at Little, Brown, to Ginee Seo and David Gale at Simon & Schuster, to Kathleen Doherty at Tor Books.

I’d like to thank Alan Boyko, Ed Masessa, and everyone at Scholastic Book Fairs who have taken my books to heart and have gotten them out to hundreds of thousands of kids. Then there’s Jack Artenstein, Irvin Arthur, and Lloyd Segan, who were my spiritual shamans in the publishing and entertainment industries, who always said they got such nachas when they saw me succeed at something. I’d like to thank my agent, Andrea Brown, and also Danny Greenberg at William Morris and Trevor Engelson, Nick Osborne, and Will Lowery at Underground Films, who are working to convince the entertainment industry that The Schwa Was Here should be a movie.

I’d like to thank my parents for always believing in me...and for going into every Barnes & Noble they come across and turning my books face-out. And a special thank you to my children, Brendan, Jarrod, Joelle, and Erin, who are always the first audience for new ideas and first drafts and who remind me why I do all the things I do.

Last but not least, I’d like to thank all the librarians and teachers who have been bringing my books to students and through their passion for literature are inspiring a nation of young readers.

* * *

I'd like to end with an excerpt from The Schwa Was Here. It seems in so many of my books I’m grappling with the elusive nature of truth. Truth is like the moon: even when it’s full, you’re really only seeing one side. You can never see all sides of the truth at once, and perhaps it’s best that truth is revealed slowly, bit by bit. Antsy has his own take on the nature of truth:

The way I see it, truth only looks good when you’re looking at it from far away. It’s kind of like that beautiful girl you see on the street when you’re riding past in the bus, because beautiful people never ride the bus — at least not when I’m on it....So you’re sitting on the bus and you look out...and there she is, this amazing girl walking by on the street, and you think if you could only get off this stupid bus and introduce yourself to her, your life would change.

The thing is, she’s not as perfect as you think, and if you ever got off the bus to introduce yourself, you’d find out she’s got a fake tooth that’s turning a little bit green, breath like a racehorse, and a zit on her forehead that keeps drawing your eyes toward it like a black hole. This girl is truth. She’s not so pretty, not so nice. But then, once you get to know her, all that stuff doesn’t seem to matter. Except maybe for the breath, but that’s why there’s Altoids.

From the January/February 2006 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

Neal Shusterman
Neal Shusterman
Neal Shusterman is the winner of the 2005 Boston Globe-Horn Book Fiction Award for The Schwa Was Here (Dutton) and a 2015 Boston Globe-Horn Book Fiction Honor for Challenger Deep (HarperTeen).

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