Friday, November 22, 2013

The Author of "The Last Akaway," Gary Karton, Stops by for an Interview!

After the week of excellent reviews from the TAB kids of Kenmore, we hope that you have already put a hold on the adventure, The Last Akaway! Now we are very happy to bring you our interview with the author, Mr. Gary Karton!

Can you give us a quick synopsis of The Last Akaway?

Sure. I was once advised to write what you like to read so The Last Akaway combines three things I think are pretty cool: animals, special powers and the relationship between brothers. It’s a fantasy adventure story about two brothers who are very different but who have to come together to save the last Akaway, which is a magical creature that connects kids to their spirit animals. In the story (and I believe, in real life), all kids have special powers. But those powers are in serious jeopardy when a character named Uncle Skeeta tricks Brody Boondoggle into helping him steal the Akaway’s spirit – not an easy task. So now, aided by his skeptical big brother, Jake (While Brody believes in magic and special powers and endless possibilities in the universe, Jake is far more practical and only believes what he can see) and guided by his quirky Grammy (she can barely hear a word you’re saying), Brody must lead the way on an adventure into the spirit animal world of Sarraka so he can defeat Uncle Skeeta, save the last Akaway and protect the special powers of kids everywhere.

Brody inherits some special powers from the Akaway, are there any powers you’d particularly like to inherit yourself?

When I was a kid, I used to try to get spiders to bite me because I wanted to have powers like Spiderman – not something I would recommend by the way. It never worked and I spent a lot of time in the bath with some kind of oatmeal-based product that was supposed to stop the itching. Now, my kids and I talk all the time about the best special power. We’ve been wondering if super intelligence might be the best option because then you can figure out how to do anything, but the classics like super strength and super speed are tough to beat. Talking with animals is pretty solid, too, which is why I gave Brody that power in the book.

Brody’s grandma has great sayings (ie: ‘Oh my monkey’s uncle on Saturn with a green onion Philly cheese steak and sweet potato fries”) are these based on the turns of phrases of anybody you know?

The Grammy character is based on my mother-in-law. She’s quirky and unique and loves to laugh, which is a pretty great quality. She also has a serious passion for food – she always has chocolate covered potato chips waiting for my kids – even if we arrive to her house at 3 o’clock in the morning. (She lives in Buffalo so we drive there a few times a year to visit). I figured the food thing could be a unique way for the Grammy character to express herself if she were ever excited or scared or just felt like being dramatic – another one of my mother-in-law’s qualities (and I mean that in a nice way). The real Grammy has talked about writing a cook book with all the recipes from the story. It would be amazing but not sure if it’s ever going to happen.

The kids in this book have a lot of power, they’re the ones who solve puzzles and decide where
their next steps of the adventure will be, was it important to you to write such a kid-driven adventure?

These are great questions. Yes, it was extremely important, thank you for noticing. Don’t get me wrong, parents are heroes but I personally believe that kids are capable of a lot more than we give them credit for. Sometimes parents and other adults might get in the way a little too much. I know it comes from a place of love or protection but I think if we give kids the freedom to succeed and more importantly, to fail, on their own, they’re better off for the experience. That’s what I love most about the Grammy character. She gives the kids so much freedom but also holds them accountable for those decisions. It’s not in a judgmental way. It’s, “OK, you made a decision, it didn’t work out but that doesn’t have to be a bad thing. Where should we go from here?” Of course, I have been criticized for listening to kids too much but I hate to see when there are limits put on what they can do.

Who was your favorite character to write?

Most people would think it was Punching Crab or Grammy because they say funny things and when I read out loud to kids, it’s pretty fun to hear the laughs. But I’m a big fan of “complicated” so if I had to pick one, I’d say it’s Uncle Skeeta. This goes back to giving kids credit for being smart and deep and thoughtful. When I started writing this book, some of the advice I received was to make the characters very distinct – either good or bad – so kids could easily understand what they were all about. The problem is people are complicated – so much more than just good or bad. We all have some parts of us that make us heroes and some parts that we’re probably not proud of. And that’s the cool part of the journey. So I tried extremely hard to make the so-called “bad guy” a little deeper. Sure, he’s trying to hurt the Akaway but it doesn’t have to be so simple. If you understand that there are things that happened in Uncle Skeeta’s life that shaped the person he turned out to be then maybe you can see things from his point of view. That doesn’t mean you have to agree but it’s certainly a different perspective. Anyway, I don’t know how successful I was, but I tried. 

When you write, do you show drafts to teens?

I had a core group of about 8-10 kids that were pretty interested in the book, which was great. Even though the adults are the ones who were ultimately going to decide if the book was published or not, I wanted to make sure the kids liked it. I think kids are incredible – smart and honest, and very creative. My older son is as honest as it gets. If something is good, he’ll tell you. If something stinks, he’ll tell you. So I knew I was on to something when he read an early draft and said, “I hoped I would like it but I didn’t expect to like it this much.”

I’ve read that The Last Akaway will actually be the first book in a series about Brody Boondoggle, is it too early to ask about the next book?

It’s not too early at all. Actually, I’m just starting to write the second book now. It’s called the Rock of Sarraka. It’s going to start with one of the key characters stuck in a Mexican prison. I’m not sure what got him there yet, but I think it will be fun to try to break him out.

You used to be a writer for the Washington Post, how different is being a writer of books for kids and teens? What are your favorite things about the switch?

I was extremely fortunate to get a job with The Washington Post right out of college. There were so many amazingly talented writers and reporters. I felt like I was way out of my league – I always say I stood out because of my ability to fix the copy machine under deadline pressure. I tried to soak up as much as I could. I had a great mentor who taught me to be thorough, stick to the facts, and not to use clich├ęs. I also wrote a non-fiction book, another project where it was important to stick to the facts. Now that I switched to fiction, I have to admit, it’s a different kind of fun. I can go anywhere my imagination takes me. I can create characters that do or say anything at all. But I still remember one of the most important things I learned at the Post: everyone has a good story. It could be a real person like Arthur Ashe or a high school softball coach, or a made up character like Punching Crab. But either way, my job is to find that story and tell it.

Do you read YA yourself? Do you have any favorite authors to recommend to our readers?

I’m a little different than most authors. I grew up with a learning disability that made it really difficult to read. So I didn’t read much for most of my life. When I had kids, I wanted to make sure that they loved reading so I read to them as much as I could and that was really the first time I embraced reading. I still haven’t read enough to really know specific authors but The Series of Unfortunate Events and Peter and the Starcatchers were a few of my favorite series. We do take tons of road trips so I listen to a bunch of books on tape. I just listened to the first three books of The Ranger's Apprentice. I highly recommend them. There are seven in the series, which really makes me feel lame since I’m just starting my second book.

Do you have a favorite place to write?

I love the library – and I’m not just saying that because you asked me to do this interview. I think libraries are one of the coolest places. I’m always amazed that they just let you borrow books, CDs, movies – all these resources – for free. Then if you return them a little late (not that it ever happens to me), you simply pay a small, reasonable fee. Anyway, when my kids are home and everyone’s having fun, it’s tough for me to write because I want to join the action. That’s when I head to the library and find a quiet place in the corner. I also love to write through the night. Everyone’s asleep. It’s peaceful, no distractions, no excuses. I can totally escape into the story and the next thing I know the sun is coming up. Those are my favorite nights.

Do you have any advice for teens who want to pursue writing as a career?

My advice would be get as much advice as you feel like you need and then ignore everything that doesn’t make sense to you. People always told me, “read as much as you can.” Well, that didn’t work for me since I was a terrible reader, and it’s hard to get kids to truly embrace things they don’t like. I thought it was interesting to talk to people; ask deep questions (I’m not a big fan of small talk). It helped me understand what people think, how they’re motivated and that people are complicated. I don’t think there’s too much cooler than having a dream and I can’t imagine that there are only one or two (or 20) ways to reach that dream, especially in a creative field like writing. This is a really long way of saying that I’m sure anyone reading this is smarter than me, so trust me, if I can do it, anyone can. That goes for any dream. If you really want it, you can make it happen – no matter what anyone else tells you.

Thanks so much to Mr. Karton for stopping by, you can learn more about the author and his series at his website

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