Monday, August 31, 2015

Science, Sciency-Fiction, and the Young Reader

Way back in the dark ages when we hid under our desks to drill for a possible nuclear attack, when a nine volt transistor radio was cutting edge audio technology, and when we were certain we would all have flying cars by the time we were old enough to drive, I discovered a tattered, well-read book in my father’s bookshelf: Tom Swift and His Electric Rifle.

The brownish, two-color cover was hopelessly dated. The book had been written fifty years earlier, and that edition—according to the inscription, a Christmas present given to my father in 1931—was identical to the 1910 edition. I almost put it back, but the crude cover art depicted a car, a boat, an airplane, and a motorcycle, and it held the promise of an “electric rifle,” so I opened it and began to read.

Tom Swift was a teenager, an inventor, and an adventurer. With his own hands he had built all the amazing machines promised by the book cover, and more. To a nine-year-old boy circa 1961, the mish-mash of unlikely technology and insane risk-taking was irresistible. I had learned to read some three years earlier, but for the first time I sank deeply and irretrievably into the world of printed fiction.

Naturally, I became a science-fiction fan. Around that same time I read Danny Dunn and the Anti-Gravity Paint, The Enormous Egg, A Wrinkle in Time, and Journey to the Center of the Earth. The “science” in those books is impossible to defend—they are “sciency” at best—but they all open doors to scientific possibilities. Even The Enormous Egg, in which a chicken lays an exceptionally large chicken egg that hatches a triceratops, leads us to the semi-plausible Jurassic Park, and ongoing efforts to clone a wooly mammoth. And consider this: Tom Swift’s electric rifle could be adjusted for range, intensity and lethality. It could penetrate walls without leaving a hole. It could stop a rampaging elephant. In 1910, this was pure fantasy. Even today we have no such weapon. We do, however, have the TASER which, fittingly, is an acronym for Thomas A. Swift’s Electric Rifle.

I love sciency fiction, and I never loved it more than when I was a child. Finally, after something like thirty published books, I am returning to my roots by writing some “sciency fiction” novels for younger readers, beginning with The Flinkwater Factor (to be followed next year by Flinkwater 2: The Forgetting Machine.)

Dedication for The Flinkwater Factor

I will be launching TheFlinkwater Factor on Tuesday, September 1, at 6:30 p.m., at the Red BalloonBookshop in St. Paul. This is the only scheduled public event for Flinkwater. I’ll probably read a short chapter. There will be snacks. I will sign books. Please come if you can, and bring kids if you have them. The Flinkwater Factor is intended for readers ages 9-12, but there is plenty there for the inner child in all of us.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

The Reinvention of Pete Hautman

It's been a while. Sorry, I've been writing other stuff. Meanwhile, there has been a big change here at Hautman H.Q., and I feel you should know about it.

Don’t worry, nobody here died or lost a limb or got divorced—nothing like that. The dogs are fine, no writer’s block, no noticeable psychosis, no religious awakening, no medical crises, no changes to my sexual identity.

No, the big change has to do with my Muse—either Melpomene or Thalia, depending on the weather—and she is telling me that I’ve said enough to Young Adult readers for now, and that younger readers, known as “middle-graders,” want to hear from me.

An aside: When I began writing YA books back in 1996, a “young adult” was usually defined as a person twelve to sixteen years old. In other words, mostly middle schoolers, with a smattering of high schoolers. The novels I was writing—Mr. Was, Godless, Invisible, and so forth—were mostly read by grades seven through nine, with a few outliers on either end.

Things have changed, as things will. Today, thanks to writers such as John Green and Rainbow Rowell, YA lit has become an upper school staple, and is more likely to bear the label “Ages 14-up,” while middle-grade remains wedded to the age 8-12 demographic. Twelve-up books are still slotted into the YA category, but awkwardly so.

There is a big difference between an eight-year-old reader and a fourteen-year-old reader, but marketing and reality are not always in synch. I’m sure that soon we will be saddled with a new category for ages 12-14. Probably it will be called something like “Emerging Adolescent,” or “Early Chrysalis.”

Anyway, that’s got nothing to do with what Melpomene or Thalia are telling me. They want me to write for younger readers because they say I haven’t matured sufficiently to write for teens. I’m sure they’re right. I’m still puzzled and hurt by my failed efforts to become a successful sixteen-year-old, but I think I handled age eleven pretty well.

Beginning with The Flinkwater Factor, my next four (and possibly five) novels will be middle-grade books. Two of them, The Flinkwater Factor (September 1) and The Forgetting Machine (Fall, 2016) are funny near future SF, or “sciency fiction” as I like to call it. The next two books will be completely different. One has to do with birth order and pizza, the other is a sort of ghost story.

I have not turned my back on YA. I have a couple of those in the works as well, but it’s gonna be a while. For now, writing middle-grade is just too much fun.

The Flinkwater Factor will be available September 1. The book launch will be at The Red Balloon Bookshop in St. Paul, Minnesota. Please stop by if you are in the area!