In September, National Book Award winner Pete Hautman celebrated the release of his most recent novel, Slider ($16.99, Candlewick Press, 288 pages), with a hamburger eating contest at the Wild Rumpus bookstore in Minneapolis. The festivities were a fitting tribute to Hautman’s middle-grade story about David, a high-school competitive eater with a special-needs younger brother and a genius older brother. Stuck in the middle, David tries to balance family responsibilities with the general ups and downs that come with being a teenager.
Hautman’s crisp and nuanced prose offers great insight on doing what’s right while dealing with life’s slings and arrows. Whether he’s writing for young adults or middle-graders, Hautman has a knack for figuring out what his readers crave. When he’s not writing, he and his wife, the poet Mary Logue, hunt mushrooms with their dogs Gaston and Baudelaire near their home in Wisconsin. Earlier this month Hautman graciously fielded questions from Abigail and I about his research process, confronting uncomfortable truths, the judicious use of humor, and the challenges and pleasures of crafting great literature for readers of all ages.
Photo courtesy of Candlewick Press.
Abigail’s questions for Mr. Hautman:
What was your inspiration for writing Slider?
My family! I grew up in a family with seven kids, and it was crazy. I was the oldest, so in many ways it was easy for me to feel special. My younger siblings had to work harder—especially the middle kids. I wanted to write about the challenges of being a middle child.
Also, I think eating contests are bizarre, grotesque, and utterly fascinating. Eating 141 hardboiled eggs in eight minutes? Gross! But kind of amazing, right?
Before becoming an author, did you ever participate in a food competition? (Do you still complete if you do?)
I did not, although I did put myself to the test by eating ten White Castle sliders as quickly as I could, for “research.” It took me about two minutes, which sounds fast, but the top eaters can down about thirteen sliders in one minute.
What are you working on now?
A book called OTHERWOOD. It’s sort of a ghost story. Or maybe not! Mostly it’s about what happens when friends—and the universe—are torn apart. It will be published next fall.
Barbara’s questions for Mr. Hautman:
What did you read growing up? Did those choices influence your desire to become an author?
The usual suspects for the time: Robert Louis Stevenson, Jules Verne, Mark Twain, Jack London (my favorite!), The Hardy Boys, Jim Kjelgaard…there weren’t as many choices for young readers back then, and I was desperately afraid that I would run out of books to read. When I ran out of Hardy Boys books I moved on to Nancy Drew, and my dad’s “antique” Tom Swift books from the twenties, and then his westerns and detective novels. By age thirteen I was into James Bond and The Lord of the Rings (that sounds like a 1960s “B” movie!) and whatever adult bestsellers I could get my hands on (Peyton Place, Hawaii, Tai-Pan, I, the Jury, etc.) I don’t remember there being much distinction between kid books and grownup books—but then, I had very permissive parents.
Slider, Eden West, and Godless all deal in one way or another with confronting uncomfortable truths. Is there a tendency to avoid difficult topics in literature and in life? Why is it so important to write “uncomfortable” stories?
Yes, no, sometimes, maybe. Contemporary novels that deal directly with religion usually do not sell well, but books about other “uncomfortable” areas such as sex, drugs, abuse, racism, and so forth are gobbled up by young readers. They want to know! They need to know. Life forces us to face uncomfortable truths again and again, and literature can provide a relatively safe space for such encounters.
As adults we often avoid, ignore, gloss over, or blind ourselves to things that make us uncomfortable. Or we can face them head on. Children need tools to help them face the things they will encounter, and to understand things they have already encountered. Books can help.
Do you think David is a sympathetic character?
Yes! I think all my characters are sympathetic, even the bad guys. But David is, I hope, especially appealing to most readers, because in one way or another we are all David. We are all “stuck” in a situation, i.e., the circumstances of our lives. We all make bad decisions, we all live with those decisions, we all get confused, we all try, we all fail, and we all grope our way to small triumphs.
How important is humor when writing a middle-grade novel? How do you know you’ve struck the right balance between funny and over-the-top?
I don’t think humor is essential. Some excellent middle-grade novels are earnest and humorless. I don’t write those kinds of books. I need to laugh sometimes when I write, even if the book is not intended as a “funny book.” Eden West, for example, is a serious and earnest book with big themes and a surfeit of darkness. The funny scenes it contains kept me going, and I hope the same is true for my readers. The same was true of Invisible, a very dark novel with many funny scenes.
Finding an appropriate balance between funny and not-funny is, I think, one of the more intuitive parts of the writing process. It would be a hard thing to teach.
Why did you decide to become an author?
The short answer is that I love books, and I thought writing books would be something I would be proud to do.
The longer answer has to do with my childhood. I grew up in a family where making things was highly respected, whether it be drawing pictures, building a birdhouse, making music, or baking cookies. We were always making. I thought when I was younger that making paintings and drawing comics would be a good thing to do. Eventually I focused on comic books, and I discovered that my favorite part of making comics was not the penciling or inking, it was the layout and the writing. In other words, the storytelling. So got rid of all my art materials and bought a typewriter. Now I make novels.
What goes into making books for a 9-12 year old audience that may or may not be as important for older or younger readers? What’s the secret to making your work chime with your readers?
Wow, good question! Kind of a scary question because I’m catching myself wanting to give self-serving answers such as “honesty,” “integrity,” “respecting the reader,” “being real,” and so forth. Not that those things are untrue, despite being rather trite.
I guess what works for me is doing the memory work—going back in time to when I was swept away by, say, Charlotte’s Web, or A Wrinkle in Time, or Jack London’s White Fang, and remembering what it felt like to step into those stories, to see through the eyes of a character who discovers in his or her self that it is possible to matter, to make a difference, to be a significant part of the world.
You might say that the underlying theme in most, if not all middle-grade literature is simply, “I matter.”
I understand you come from a large family–did your childhood in any way influence some of the themes you explore in your books?
Yes! Every book, in every way, is drenched in my childhood. Godless and Otherwood (fall, 2018) most of all. But all my books, in one way or another, spring from my childhood. Specific events in a book might be invented from scratch, but the emotional arc is utterly authentic.
As a young adult I tried hard to put all that “kid stuff” behind me. I was focused on reinventing myself a an adult. But when I started writing books for young readers I discovered that it never went away. As the author Alison McGhee says (I’m paraphrasing here), “I am ten, I am twelve, I am sixteen, I am every age I have ever been.”
Is there anything else you’d like our readers to know about you?
I love what I do.