Book Nerd Interview
Author Isak Dinesen said that "to be a person is to have a story to tell." Stories are how we impress some semblance of order on the chaos of life. It's the structure we impose upon our events and experiences so that we can make (or pretend to make) meaning of them. Stories offer the promise of resolution and redemption; they provide the foundation for memory and history and morality. Stories teach us about the connection between the beginning and the end, that long stretch of middle that we call life.
But not my stories. I just want people to have a good time. Which is cool too.
What’s one thing that readers would be surprised to find out about you?
That I don't have a comic book collection, but I do have a killer collection of Star Wars Lego.
When did you write your first book and how old were you?
The first book I remember writing was The Adventures of Super Dave. I was eight. It was sixteen pages of pure carnage, fully illustrated, severed limbs and all. I'm not sure there was much of a plot, but I do think there were aliens. And probably a fart joke. The body count was high. It was like Shakespeare, except without the blank verse. Or the literary merit. Did I mention it had a fart joke?
The first novel-sized book I wrote was in high school. It was 140 pages long. I don't fully recall what it was about, something science-fictiony, but I remember how many pages it was. What mattered wasn't the words—it was just that I had managed to write so many of them.
What was the greatest thing you learned at school?
To raise my hand and answer the one question I knew so that I wouldn't be called on to answer all of things I didn't. I also learned to take away something from everything, to find the value in experiences, papers, exercises, subjects, whether I enjoyed them or not. Except for pull ups. I see no redeeming value in pull ups.
How would you describe yourself in three words?
Seldom Serious Scribe
In your new book; Sidekicked, can you tell my Book Nerd Kids Community a little about it and why they should read your novel?
Sidekicked is a middle-school, coming-of-age novel set against a superhero backdrop. Or it's a superhero action novel set against a middle-school backdrop. Either way it's a novel. Set against a backdrop. With superheroes. And sidekicks. And villains. And fight scenes. And scenes with awkward conversations about the nature of good and evil and whether or not Kermit the Frog is a terrorist. And minimal, non-gratuitous kissing. If you like books that blend action and humor with light-hearted reflections on consequentialist philosophy and the exact contents of Jello-fruit-salad-surprise this is the book for you. If you like books about superheroes or about growing up, you should read it as well.
For those who are unfamiliar with Andrew Bean, how would you introduce him?
Everyone is familiar with Andrew Bean. That's what's cool about him. You've got pimples? He's got pimples. You try to hide things from your parents? He tries to hide things from his parents. You've got a growing crush on a girl who can punch through steel and bench press an elephant? What a coincidence! The thing about Drew (the book's narrator and protagonist) is that he is always on the cusp—an outsider with insider privileges. He knows how the world works, but he doesn't get why. He has super powers, but they pretty much suck. He's training to be a sidekick, but he doesn't have a hero. He is equally nervous facing a rampaging lunatic as he is taking a math test. He doesn't know whom he can trust, whom he can count on, and that often times includes himself. And he hates sloppy joes.
Oh, and he's kind of a smart-aleck.
If you could introduce one of your characters to any character from another book, who would it be and why?
I think I might introduce Drew to Batman. Now there's a hero who knows how to take care of his sidekick. You never see Batman leave Robin in a lurch.
If you had to choose, which writer would you consider a mentor?
Kurt Vonnegut has probably had the biggest influence on me as a writer. Like Twain and Heller and so many other satirists, I was instantly drawn by his ability to simultaneously thumb his nose at humanity and, in doing so, reveal what makes us human. Life is absurd, so you have no choice but to laugh. You laugh so hard you cry. Then you weep. And what you're left with is a kernel of truth. Once I fell in love with Vonnegut I realized I couldn't write anything that took itself so seriously I couldn't find the humor in it, and I couldn't write anything that wasn't at least a little bit serious.
You have the chance to give one piece of advice to your readers. What would it be?
Invent something. I don't care what. A novel. A character. An i-Phone ap. Your own line of edible tennis shoes. A new way to toast waffles. A way to keep icecaps from melting. It may seem like everything's been thought of (we have sixteen different kinds of toothpaste after all), but the world needs innovators now more than ever. To take all of the knowledge we've accumulated and push it one step further with the hopes of fixing the things we've managed to screw up.
What's the most memorable summer job you've ever had?
Memorable summer job? Is there such a thing? I thought the definition of summer job was "tedious temporary minimum-wage employment designed to convince you to stay in school with the hopes of one day finding meaningful work." I will say that I worked one summer in furniture delivery. Heavy lifting. Made me as buff as a werewolf in a vampire movie. End of that summer I got in a near fatal car accident and my excellent physical health saved my life. That and the team of surgeons who cut out half my liver.
What decade during the last century would you have chosen to be a kid?
When were braces invented? Subtract ten years from that.
Seriously, though, I think I grew up at the right time. The eighties was a great time to be a kid. Parents hadn't turned into helicopters yet—they still kicked you out of the house at nine in the morning on a summer's day and told you to come back for dinner. Movies were still only a couple of bucks for a matinee. There were still twelve different kinds of bubblegum, all loaded with real sugar. And though we did have video games (God bless you Commodore 64), we weren't tractor-beamed to screens the way we are now. There was no cyber-bullying--you got bullied the old-fashioned wedgie-way. You didn't have to start applying for internships at the age of twelve, no one felt compelled to play soccer, and your school days weren't all geared towards passing the next standardized test (just some of them). Sure there were problems. Nobody really knew what to do with their hair and synthesizers were way too popular, but we had good cartoons all Saturday morning long.
What scares you the most and why?
Ignorance. Not just temporary moments of stupidity. We all have a brain fart every now and then. I'm talking about any kind of close-minded, unilateral, unsupported thinking that refuses to acknowledge the complexity of the world and our place in it. I'm a firm believer that 70% of the world's problems can be traced to ignorance. The rest is a mixture of chemistry, instinct, and sheer dumb luck.
Oh, and earwigs. Those bugs with the pincers on their backside that look like the lovechild of a roach and a scorpion? Those things creep me out.
What is your greatest adventure?
Fatherhood. Probably cliché, but being a father for eight years has taught me more about myself than my first three decades of life. It's like running a marathon up the side of a volcano erupting in laughter, tears, and poop. Exhausting and exhilarating, challenging and comfortable, messy and perfect. I get to see everything with fresh eyes. Plus I still get to play with action figures.
When was the last time you told someone you loved them?
I love you all.
Two seconds ago.
Who is the first person you call when you have a bad day?
I don't have many of them. I try my best to laugh them off, put everything in perspective. I've been alive 13,800 days, give or take a few, and most of them were pretty darned decent. If things really go south one day I will wait till my wife gets home and give her "the look" and she will volunteer to do the dinner dishes and all will be right with the world again.
When was the last time you cried?
I grew up with the real-men-don't cry model of masculine behavior, so for the longest time I was virtually tear-free. But once I had kids something inside of me got jiggled somehow, and now I find myself sniffling at just about anything. For example, in the past few years I know I've cried at Monsters Inc., Toy Story 3, and Free Willy. The last one was particularly impressive given that I wasn't actually in the room watching it. My daughter was watching the movie with a friend and I was in another room folding laundry. But I heard the music swell, heard the boy say, "Don't forget me. I won't forget you." and wiped my eyes with a clean sock. I'm a sucker for weepy violins.
Where can readers stalk you?
I hang out at the grocery store a lot (look for the guy wearing sandals regardless of the weather). You can probably spot me at a nearby playground (I'm the thirty-something with love handles pretending he's still eight). If you don't want to drive all the way to Indianapolis, you can visit my website at www.johndavidanderson.org, or catch me on Facebook (www.facebook.com/johndavidandersonauthor). As my favorite poet, Walt Whitman once wrote:
Failing to fetch me at first keep encouraged,
Missing me one place search another,
I stop somewhere waiting for you.
Andrew Bean might be a part of H.E.R.O., a secret organization for the training of superhero sidekicks, but that doesn’t mean that life is all leaping tall buildings in single bounds. First, there’s Drew’s power: Possessed of super senses – his hearing, sight, taste, touch, and smell are the most powerful on the planet – he’s literally the most sensitive kid in school. There’s his superhero mentor, a former legend who now spends more time straddling barstools than he does fighting crime. And then there’s his best friend, Jenna – their friendship would be complicated enough if she weren’t able to throw a Volkswagen the length of a city block. Add in trying to keep his sidekick life a secret from everyone, including his parents, and the truth is clear: Middle school is a drag even with superpowers.
But this was all before a supervillain long thought dead returned to Justicia, superheroes began disappearing at an alarming rate, and Drew’s two identities threatened to crash head-on into each other. Drew has always found it pretty easy to separate right from wrong, good from evil. It’s what a superhero does. But what happens when that line starts to break down?
Super hero books are popular by nature as it stretches the imagination of readers. Andrew is the type of character that many readers can relate to. Although he has powers and is part of an elite group, his powers are far less than anyone’s but it doesn’t stop him from making bold moves and heroic choices. Each character, no matter how colorful or complicated they were, Anderson surely knew how to fully present them and provide them with life and attitude.
Super hero stories at the middle grade level tend to be cartoonish with silly plots to entertain an audience who may not necessarily care much for back stories. However, the deeper I got into this book, I realize the depth Anderson has provided in writing such an incredible super hero story. I enjoyed the two worlds that Andrew was seeing. One being a kid in middle school and experiencing all of the antics and realities of this period of a thirteen-year-old’s life. The other was just as interesting as he was living a double life with his gifted abilities.
Andrew and the other sidekicks to the Supers form an outstanding display of interaction. The author allows them to create their own real voice and real personalities that they did not seem like cartoonish characters. This approach provided a level of drama and seriousness that would otherwise be missing if gone a different route. Sidekicked is a wonderfully written story that will appeal to many fantasy and sci-fiction fans. However, I see it being enjoyed by a broader audience that would normally pass on this genre.