Your books tend to be quite dark. Was that always the tack you intended to take in your writing?
To be honest, early on I just kind of stumbled into writing for kids. My wife, Katherine Applegate,had started ghostwriting for Sweet Valley Twins and was getting additional work. So she basically said, "Here, write this book." That was phase one of my career. Then came ANIMORPHS. We went quite dark with ANIMORPHS which we co-authored and EVERWORLD and REMNANTS as well. That what was basically phase two. Phase three came after a 5 or 6 year hiatus. I came back with GONE which is definitely edgy. But then I did the MAGNIFICENT 12 series, which is kind of goofy action. Now with BZRK I'm back to the dark side. But the book Katherine and I just co-authored - EVE and ADAM - skews back toward a slightly lighter take. Which is a really long answer, isn't it? I guess the point is that I write a story and don't think too much about whether it fits a genre.
I described your book Bzrk in a review on the Mostly Reading YA blog as nihilistic. Was that fair?
It wasn't unfair. BZRK gets right at the issues of freedom and responsibility and what is and what isn't real. The morality tends to get a bit tangled. The bad guys are definitely bad, but their professed motives are good. The good guys aren't exactly good, let's just say they're slightly better than the bad guys.
Nano is an incredible and terrifying-sounding technology. Did you do a lot of
research into it?
I don't know that I'm capable of doing a lot of research. I did some, though, which is pretty good for me.
Your teenage years sound more exciting than most. How do you feel it affected you?
By the time I had finished my sixteenth year I had dropped out of school, hitchhiked cross-country, arranged fake ID by signing up for the draft, gotten a full time job and saved enough to take myself and a cashier to Europe for three months where we hitchhiked around. We broke up, I got ripped off, ended up sleeping under a bridge in Frankfurt for a couple weeks and came back to the US carrying nothing but my fatigue jacket and a copy of Childhood's End by Arthur C. Clarke. Also, by that point in life because I was an Army brat I'd attended more schools than I'd attended years of school, including schools in France where I became bilingual. My mother was 16 when I was born, my birth father disappeared before I arrived on the scene. So yeah, not the usual childhood. I'd had a lot more freedom and responsibility than most teenagers. So I know what kids are capable of.
In GONE I have a kid, Albert, who takes over running the McDonalds. I have zero doubt about the realism of that. I don't see teens as fragile little objects easily overwhelmed or terrified. I'm not sentimental about them. It's funny to me that 100% of complaints I've had about some of the darker and more dangerous teen characters have come from adults. Kids never doubt that their fellow teens can be awful. But adults like to idealize the teen years, they forget the bad and focus on the good. I think I pay teenagers the compliment of seeing them as actual human beings, capable of good and evil, capable of heroism and
I'm not going to be as trite as asking where you get your ideas from. But do you have the whole series in your head when you start, or does it just all pour from the crumb of an idea?
I never know where a story is going. I start it and just keep asking, "Okay, then what?" I don't plan, and that's deliberate: if I plan everything out I'll be obeying the meta-laws of fiction. I'll be predictable, because the readers know the same rules I know. I don't want them figuring it out in advance. I want them surprised and the best way to accomplish that is for me to be surprised myself every day.
I was interested in the kind of fans your books might attract. Obviously they are plentiful, but what kind of people do you find them to be?
Oh, the usual psychopaths and weirdos. Kidding. They seem like a fairly normal bunch. A bit smarter than average, obviously if they're reading hundreds of pages into densely-plotted books.
Getting boys reading is a consistent bugbear for publishers, schools and parents. What's your take on that?
I think adults often don't approve of the kinds of books that boys (and girls, too) like. Adults like "good for you" books. They often think books are medicine that will cure little Johnny or young Alice of the affliction of being an adolescent. Then adults will read crap like Dan Brown for entertainment and stress relief but the kids are supposed to be reading the Bible and Silas Marner. It's ridiculous. Your fifteen year-old needs at least as much stress relief as you do, and they don't get to down a martini at the end of the day, so let them read what they want.
Drake in the GONE series is an incredible creation - for me a mix of Roger from Lord Of The Flies, that snake from the Bible, the alien from Alien and the baddie from Time Bandits. Is that the most random, or indeed the stupidest description of him you've heard?
I like that, actually. I've always written nuanced villains, so I wanted for once to write someone who was purely, unambiguously evil. Just pure, Grade A rottenness. Drake's last name is Merwin, a shout-out to Trashcan Man from The Stand by Stephen King. Drake's not nice. Just not nice at all that boy.
What is the status of the film versions of your work?
You tell me and we'll both know. I have no useful news on that front. There is movement, perhaps, but my Magic 8-ball says 'reply hazy.'
Go on, give us some insight into Bzrk 2, you know you want to...
Okay, how about this: the President of the United States, under the influence of nanobots. commits a gruesome crime and she's caught by the hacker collective Anonymous?
BZRK is out now...