Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Feature Interview with Neal Shusterman!

This is an awesome story with a satisfying, tight plot, developed and complex characters, and a gripping premise. Marked for Unwinding, a medical process which donates all of a person’s organs while they remain “technically” alive, Connor, Risa and Lev are on the run to evade the government who would round them up and put them in harvesting camps. But Unwind pushes far beyond a simple dystopian action tale. All through Unwind characters deal with questions of morality, the nature of consciousness and the existence of the soul. A remarkable book, one of that best that I’ve read in a while. Recommended for those 13 and up, or for anyone looking for great Science Fiction!
Recently, I had the extreme good fortune to interview Neal Shusterman and ask him some questions about Unwind.

(Mandy) In a big way Unwind explores the, for many, troubled time between the age of 13 and 18. A period when the struggle to grow up and know yourself is expressed with defiance or laziness or even violence. It’s a tough time for parents as their kids pull away emotionally and are unreachable and therefore their actions are judged more harshly. You explore the darkness of this time with the state sanctioned law of unwinding, a procedure that disassembles a person completely for organ donation. Parents are allowed to choose if and when they unwind their child, and you explore the various reasons that parents might choose this. How did the idea of unwinding come to you?

(Neal) It was a combination of two things that got me motivated to write unwind. First was the way issues like abortion, stem cell research, etc. have become so polarized, that people are actually using these issues as the main criteria for which candidate they vote for. As a society we’ve lost sight of these issues, and it has become an “us vs. them” mentality, that hurts the situation rather than helps it. I wanted to tell a story of what could happen if we continue on our current path. The idea was to not to take a side — to be as neutral as possible, and attack both sides equally. I wanted to point out that the fact there are two sides at all, is a big part of the problem. These issues are not black-and-white — they all fall into areas of gray, and as soon as we accept that as a society, we’ll be able to deal with them a whole lot better. I had roughly conceived of the idea, but it really gelled when I read an article about transplant technology. One scientist said that he predicted that within our lifetimes, they will be able to use 100% of an organ donor’s body. That got me thinking — if 100% of you is alive, are you alive or not? I thought this book was a great way to ask that question, and through that question, address all these issues of medical and social ethics.

Why did you choose the ages between 13 and 18?

Quite often the same people who see children as sweet and innocent, will see teenagers as scary and threatening. I wanted to point out that particular hypocrisy of society. Plus, kids tend to feel alienated from their families as teenagers. They feel like the natural targets of a society-gone-wrong.

I loved the big questions asked in Unwind. Characters run up against questions of morality, the nature of consciousness and the existence of the soul. I’m not sure if there is a question in this, but how important are these concerns for teens to grapple with, and generally for humans to answer for themselves?

I think asking these types of questions are at the core of being human — not just for teens, but adults as well. I like to ask the “big questions” in my books, in different and unique ways that will provoke thought, and help readers look at things from fresh perspectives. I don’t give answers though. There are no simple answers to life’s tough questions — that’s one of the points I’m always trying to make. It’s my job to pose the questions. I don’t want to tell you what to think, but rather I want to suggest what you might be thinking about. With Lev’s character you traverse the shadowy moral issue of political violence, when and if it is ever justified. Without giving too much away I had the sense that you, and finally Lev, stand strongly against violence even for seemingly heroic reasons. How important was this stance for you to get across in Unwind, especially for Lev’s character?Terrorism is on everyone’s mind — mine as well, and I wanted to address the psychology that can lead to people who will commit such acts of violence. I wanted to put a face on it, and show the process of how someone gets to that dark place — and show that society itself can create a breeding ground for violence and hatred in unlikely places.

Another aspect I loved in the book was that your “villains” were so grey-area. Roland is a dangerous alpha-dog but the reader gets a glimpse into his story and how his personality was, in a sense, created for him beyond his consent. What is the importance for teens to see the true nature of “evil”, either via Roland or “evil” unwinding parents, not as something static and definable but as more ambiguous?

They key phrase here is “gray-area”. All too often we try to see things, and people as good, or evil. A lot of my writing is about that gray area. Villains are just as human as heroes — they have their flaws, their beliefs, their hopes. You don’t have to like a villain, but I want my readers to understand why they are who they are. When all the characters feel real, even the villains, that’s what makes a story compelling.

I want to stress that Unwind ends with a great amount of hope and trust in the human spirit. How did the story find this place after passing through darker places? Was it your initial intention?

Always. It is always my intention to bring the readers to a place of greater light, even if they have to go through dark places to get there — otherwise, I would have no desire to write the book. I consider it the responsibility of literature to put something into the world that will enlighten people, and bring something positive to the world.

Also, what are you reading? What have you read that you’ve loved? What would you recommend?

Too many things to list! I recently finished “The Hunger Games.” My favorite book over the past year was “The Thirteenth Tale.” I also loved “The Book Thief.” I’m just starting on a massive biography of Einstein, but I have so many things to write, I don’t know when I’ll finish it! An irony of being a professional writer is that I don’t have enough time to read as much as I’d like!

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