Friday, September 16, 2011
Author Interview: Allen Zadoff Takes us Backstage
Can you tell us a little about My Life, the Theater and Other Tragedies?
Life/Theater is the story of Adam Ziegler, a lighting guy on the tech crew of his high school’s theater, who falls in love with an actress on the other side of the spot light. Big problem: The actors and techies are at war in his school, and this is a forbidden.
Were you involved in theater in high school? Were you on the technical side of things or did you act?
The book is inspired by my experience in the theater. It was my passion from high school through graduate school. I was mostly an actor in high school, but later I became a director. On the way, I took tech and design classes and stage managed several shows, so I got to see the world from many different angles--front of house, on stage, and behind the scenes. That’s great practice for a future writer, to see things from different perspectives and realize that what you think you know is based more on perception than reality.
Did you have a favorite production that you were part of?
We did a production of Guys and Dolls my senior year, and being a heavy kid, I played Nicely-Nicely Johnson. This was particularly exciting because I had a show-stopping number with full chorus behind me, and we performed for the entire high school in two assemblies to promote the production. As I said, I was a shy, heavy kid, and suddenly the whole school knew who I was. If you read my other novel (Food Girls, and Other Things I Can’t Have), you’ll see that this is a common experience for my characters—sudden renown and the problems that come with it.
I like that My Life.. looks deeper into the world of student theater and the cliques that develop there. A lot of books for teens don’t go deeper than just jocks vs. nerds or cheerleaders vs. everyone else. Why did you decide to focus on the techie/actor divide?
It was something real that I saw in the theater. While the goal of a good theater program to have everyone feel part of the same team, there is often a tension between the people who wear black and the actors who wear costumes. There’s a natural distrust and inequality that fascinates me. They need each other, but one group is “unsung” heroes, while the other is publically applauded and treated like stars. Nobody applauds for a good lighting cue, but it is an amazing thing.
Adam’s friends and theater cohorts are really fleshed out and detailed. Reach and Grace are both people we’d like to hang out with and the insufferable Derek (the student production designer) is so pitch perfect, did you have a favorite character to write?
I love Grace, the way she’s tough and sensitive at the same time, sort of a sexy tomboy who is an amazing stage carpenter. I love Reach, too. He’s the hero’s best friend, and he wants the best for him but can’t help but try to control his life. I relate to seeing a friend in trouble and wanting to fix it for them, but not being able to do anything.
Your first book, Food, Girls and Other Things I Can’t Have is all about an overweight teen who joins the football team and this one is all about the high stakes world of backstage theater- were your processes for researching and writing these two very different?
A very similar process because I don’t really do research. My books are inspired by life experiences. For example, Food/Girls was based on a time in high school when the phys ed teacher (who was also the football coach) approached me to ask if I would try out for the team. I was a big kid, and he thought I’d be effective on the line. I told him no way, but it was one of those moments I never forgot. I always wondered what would have happened if I had said yes. In Food/Girls, the hero says yes instead of no, and the story goes from there.
You and your narrators share the same initials; do you guys share more than that? Are there other characters that are based on people you’ve met?
I plead The Fifth on that question.
Do you have a favorite place to write?
I love to write in coffee shops. People joke that I smell good because my clothes have the odor of coffee beans. It’s the reality of the writer’s life. You have to spend hours and hours sitting in front of the keyboard. Stories are built from hard work, a little at a time. If you do the work around coffee, there are natural consequences.
Do you have a favorite YA author?
There are so many amazing male YA authors, you’ll forgive me if I only mention them. Some of my favorites these days are John Green, Andrew Smith, Barry Lyga, Blake Nelson .
What has been the best part about being a YA author, so far?
The YA community is passionate and dedicated!. It’s a fun group to write for, from readers to librarians to educators to bloggers. I feel lucky to have been embraced by the community.
Can we get you to tell us what’s coming out next from you?
I’ve got a new novel in final edits that I’m really excited about finishing. It’s my first novel set in Los Angeles, and it’s about a kid with a yoga teacher Mom who is stuck in private Jewish school because his grandfather died and left money only for a Jewish education. It’s like a funny, L.A. teen version of Eat, Pray, Love. I think it’s my best work yet. Look for it next year.
Do you have any advice for teens who want to pursue writing as a career?
You get better by writing, so put your focus there. And please let yourself be terrible at it. There’s so much focus in our culture on being a success that it’s hard to grow as an artist. You grow by writing, by getting fascinated by your stories, by seeing what works and what doesn’t. If you don’t let yourself write badly, you’ll never learn to write well.
Thanks so much for stopping by Allen! If you want to learn more about his work and what's coming up next from him, you can find his website here.