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Kids' Q&A

Alan Gratz

Describe your latest project.
Something Rotten is Shakespeare's Hamlet rewritten as a contemporary young adult murder mystery set in Denmark, Tennessee, with the minor character of Horatio recast as a seventeen-year-old detective in the mold of Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe. I like to call it "Pulp Shakespeare," or perhaps "Hardboiled Hamlet." Something Rotten is the first in a series of YA mysteries starring Horatio Wilkes that riff on Shakespearean plays. Next up are Something Wicked (Macbeth) in 2008 and Something Foolish (A Midsummer Night's Dream) in 2009.

What is your favorite family story?
As a clan, the Gratzes are almost uniformly mad for American football. My grandfather was a referee. My grandmother never missed a University of Tennessee football game in forty-plus years. My aunt was a cheerleader. My uncle was a letterman at UT and captain his senior year. My father played for the Air Force and Carson-Newman College, and coached high school football for fourteen years. My younger brother and I were expected by many to inherit this passion and talent for football, but neither of us ever did. To his enduring credit, my father never tried to mold us into football players. When I was in sixth grade we attended a Gratz family reunion where we were approached by a distant relative who assumed, like so many others, that my brother and I were going to be football prodigies. "So, what do we have here?" he asked. "The little quarterback and the little running back?" "Well, actually," my dad said, "this one plays soccer, and this one plays the violin." The man backed away slowly. My brother and I were aliens in the football country of my father's family, but it never mattered to my dad.

Describe your most memorable teacher.
My favorite writing professor, Jon Manchip White, was an ascot-wearing Welshman transplanted to Tennessee. He would regale us with stories about driving Rommel's field car backward over the Alps as a member of the British Foreign Service, doctoring the film script for El Cid, and writing episodes of The Avengers for the BBC. He gave great, practical, and often amusing advice about writing, like "Always begin with who, what, where, when, and what the weather was like," and "Never kill the dog." I loved his attitude toward writing. He used to say, "A genius only comes along every two hundred years or so. The rest of us have to really work at it." The best commentary he ever gave my work was that I was a good writer but needed discipline to be great. It took me almost fifteen years to hear what he was saying.

Offer a favorite sentence or passage from another writer.
"A baseball game is nothing but a great slow contraption for getting you to pay attention to the cadence of a summer day." — Summerland by Michal Chabon.

When you were a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up?
First I wanted to be a train engineer. Then, sometime around, oh, say, 1977, I decided I was going to be a Jedi Master. To prepare myself, I laid in my bed and tried to use the Force to make the model airplanes that hung from my ceiling twist in the opposite direction. When that failed, I turned to my grandfather's old Underwood typewriter in the garage and started banging out a weekly newspaper for my street. I was pretty much going to be a writer of some kind from that point on.

Share an interesting experience you've had with one of your readers.
On a school visit to rural Arkansas, a middle school girl gave me a letter telling me how much she identified with Fuji, one of the minor characters in Samurai Shortstop. It seemed improbable to me that a teenage farm girl from Arkansas would connect with a sumo-wrestling Japanese boy from 1890s Japan, but she explained that she, like Fuji, would be the first of her family to ever go to college. This girl was already feeling the weight of those expectations in eighth grade, but knowing her situation wasn't unique gave her confidence that she could overcome the pressure. It was an incredible letter, and by far the best fan mail I've ever gotten.

If you could be someone else, who would that be, and why?
The Flash, the superhero with super speed. I have a million things I want to do, and I never have the time to do them. I also like that among super heroes, The Flash is pretty simple. The only way he can solve things is by moving quickly. A hero like Superman has almost too many powers. Someone's robbing the bank — let's see, should I use my super strength? My laser vision? My super breath? If I were Superman I'd be perpetually second-guessing myself. With the Flash, there's no thinking. You just run. Very fast.

I've thought about this a lot.

If you could pick anyone to illustrate one of your books, who would it be and why?
I love the work of D.B. Johnson, the author/illustrator of Henry Hikes to Fitchburg, Henry Builds a Cabin, Henry Climbs a Mountain, and Henry Works, but I'm not sure his style would fit anything I've written. Instead I'll choose my favorite comics illustrator, Darwyn Cooke, artist behind DC: The New Frontier and the relaunch of Will Eisner's The Spirit. To see a Darwyn Cooke version of a Horatio Wilkes story would just about be the end-all, be-all of my existence.

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Alan Gratz Alan is the author of one of the ALA's 2007 Top Ten Best Books for Young Adults, Samurai Shortstop, and Something Rotten, a contemporary young adult murder mystery based on Hamlet. He is currently at work on a sequel.

Alan lives with his wife Wendi and his daughter Jo in the high country of Western North Carolina.


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