Journey with John David Anderson‘s new space-bound characters Leo, Baz, Kat, and company in the fresh middle-grade sci-fi adventure Stowaway. Dave’s writing is ever-satisfying, and the new book lets us ponder what might happen if a young person joined the Guardians of the Galaxy crew.
In addition to Stowaway, I’ve smiled throughout Dave’s Standard Hero Behavior, Sidekicked, Minion, The Dungeoneers, Ms. Bixby’s Last Day, Posted, Finding Orion, and One Last Shot. Dave’s writing has cruised reliably high quality for fifteen years, and its a joy to witness him reflect on the ways his relationship with his writing has evolved.
Todd Wellman: Why are writing and reading such big parts of your life? How has your relationship with writing changed over the course of your books?
John David Anderson: I think the search for meaning — or the desire to ascribe meaning to things — is a big part of it. Storytelling — whether I’m the teller or the recipient — has always been my number one way of engaging with and trying to decipher the world. Some things only make sense to me when I cast them in terms of quests and conflicts, themes and archetypes, and I often imagine myself as a character in my own life — usually the protagonist, but not always. The much-less philosophical answer: It’s just fun. Writing gets my imagination cooking. Reading sets my hair on fire. I derive a great joy from both and couldn’t imagine my life without them.
That said, I definitely have a different relationship with writing than when I started. At first we were best friends, so naïve, full of hope, oblivious to the hard road ahead. Now that I’ve been at it for fifteen years, the relationship has lost a little of its luster. We are still tight, writing and I — closer than we’ve ever been — but we squabble more. I’ve come to realize just how much work is required. I pay more attention to craft now than when I started. I rely more on the revision process than I did before — when I was young and foolish and thought three drafts was plenty. At the same time, I’ve come to realize that no piece of writing is ever perfect, only finished. And while I’m still plagued by self-doubt with every new release, I’ve learned to accept that some books will be better than others, and the key is to keep growing, practicing, and trying new things.
…one of the beautiful things about science fiction is its capacity for reflection and distortion of our own world, how you can use the future and space travel and robots and aliens to comment directly on our present course.– John David Anderson
TW: In your new novel Stowaway, you introduce us to two brothers — Leo and Gareth — and then, very soon, we follow younger brother Leo for most of the book, setting aside Gareth. What led you to this structural decision? Did you see it as a risk at all?
JDA: I think it helps to know what you’ve left behind. There’s no sense in Dorothy wishing to go back to Kansas if we don’t know what’s waiting for her there — otherwise you’d just stay in Oz. I mean, they have an entire guild just for LOLLIPOPS! Likewise, much of the conflict of Stowaway centers on Leo’s quest to reunite with his family, so why not give readers a glimpse of what he’s lost so that they better sympathize with that desire? Leo is suffering from fish-out-of-water syndrome already when we meet him. His family is the only thing in his life that grounds him, so why not forcibly tear that away too and make him miserable, desperate, and alone? Make a giant hole in his life and then fill it with…space pirates! Of course Gareth has his own trials to overcome, but those happen off-screen. My focus was on Leo coming-of-age under the direst of circumstances, questioning everything he’s been taught and trying to get back to the only thing that matters: the people he loves.
TW: I love that you have written sci-fi. You have super-hero, fantasy, and contemporary coming-of-age novels out in the world. What did sci-fi let you do in a fresh manner?
JDA: I love that I’ve written sci-fi too! It was always on my writer’s bucket list. While traditional fantasy was my genre of choice growing up, sci-fi was a close second. My love of Star Wars is unabashed. Its influence, and the influence of a dozen other space operas, courses through Stowaway — and growing up in the eighties was an ideal time to fall in love with aliens, spaceships, and intergalactic turmoil. Writing this book was both a daily joy and a pain in the rear-thrusters because I got to play with conventions and of a genre I adore, but I also felt the pressure to contribute something uniquely my own to it. Thankfully, I don’t feel like there’s enough sci-fi in the middle-grade market, so I felt there was value in adapting the kinds of coming-of-age stories that I enjoy writing to a sci-fi universe. In essence, I’m still playing the same game; Stowaway just gave me a whole new playground to romp around.
Of course one of the beautiful things about science fiction is its capacity for reflection and distortion of our own world, how you can use the future and space travel and robots and aliens to comment directly on our present course. The overarching conflict of Stowaway concerns the fate of thousands of planets, Earth included, and the dire environmental consequences of so-called “progress.” The book is not an allegory, necessarily, but I think it definitely reflects some of its author’s current fears and anxieties about the state of our planet.
Writing gets my imagination cooking. Reading sets my hair on fire. I derive a great joy from both and couldn’t imagine my life without them.– John David Anderson
TW: What are your hopes for the world of writing and your writing?
JDA: I have high hopes for the world of writing. I think we are starting to do a much better job of finding, publishing, and highlighting new voices with diverse backgrounds and fresh perspectives, though I realize it’s only a start. I think it’s probably easier now to find your audience, no matter how big or small, and to make that important connection with them. Of course, I also think writers — especially those who write for young readers — have a responsibility to open minds and challenge preconceptions. Today’s writers need to help raise a generation of critical thinkers who can sift through all the noise — so much noise — to discover what’s meaningful and valuable, what’s worth believing in and fighting for. I know much of what I value and believe in has been heavily influenced by the stories I fell in love with. Writing, like any art, can open eyes, break hearts, nourish minds, and lift spirits. It will never lose that power — at least for those of us who love it.
My hopes for my own writing are a little more modest. I hope my books do well enough that I can keep writing them. I hope to keep paying the mortgage. I hope to get better from book to book, or at least to learn something new each time. I hope to be half as good someday as the authors I worship. I pray that I never run out of ideas.
Mostly, though, I hope there is one young reader out there who picks up Stowaway and gets totally sucked in, falling in love with Baz and Kat and Leo the way I fell in love with Luke, Leia, and Han. I hope they finish the book and immediately break out a pencil and a piece of paper, suddenly psyched to create their own universe full of starships, laser guns, and extraterrestrials. I hope they keep at it, writing page after page, telling their story the way only they can. And then I hope they share it with the world. Because despite what my to-be-read pile says, the world and I could always use another good story.
This interview has been edited for clarity. Read more about my nonfiction writing here.