Neal Shusterman Discusses Writing Process and What Inspired 'Unwind'

The 2011 Nutmeg Book Award winner paid a visit to Avon Middle School on Thursday.

When you see clouds in the sky, do you try to identify shapes?

Writing isn’t much different, author Neal Shusterman told Avon Middle School students in a workshop Friday during a day-long visit funded by the PTO.

“Writing is about finding patterns in the world around us that might not be that obvious,” he said, adding that it does not happen on paper, but rather in the mind.

There was long line of students in the library around lunchtime as they waited for him to sign their books between writers workshops.

“It’s good having an award-winning author,” said seventh-grader Adam Theriault, who is eager to read Unwind and has already read Everlost, about a place between life and death. “He’s a great guy.”

Shusterman’s message about the tie between experiences and fiction left an impression on a lot of the students when he addressed them at assemblies in the morning.

“I think it sparks their own creativity and encourages them to explore their own talents and get them interested in writing,” said Cynthia Armstrong, the middle school’s librarian, who was got in touch with Shusterman through his website and arranged for him to come.

Real-life social topics were the foundation for Unwind, the science fiction book that won Shusterman the 2011 Nutmeg Book Award, preceding The Hunger Games, this year’s winner. Three things in particular drove his idea — an article predicting that 100 percent of the human body will be useable for transplants in the future, the increasingly controversial subject of abortion that can polarize people, and political parties and reports of teenagers going out of control in the United Kingdom.

Just like Newtown author Suzanne Collins’ book, The Hunger Games, Unwind fits into the apocalyptic dystopian genre, set in a futuristic society where teens may be in danger.

Except instead of pitting 12- to 18-year-olds against each other in a fight to the death, parents have the option to “unwind” them between 13 and 18 if they don’t like the way they turned out, salvaging their organs for transplants.

“It’s not really aborting them, or killing them, because their parts would live on in other bodies,” said seventh-grade English teacher Jan Brennan, who added that Shusterman is one of the most popular teen authors right now.

For seventh grade student Grace Meador, Unwind is a survival story of three kids trying to live until 18 so they can’t be unwound. Her classmate, Mark Ocasio said that human life is untouchable in the story until people turn 13.

Like The Hunger Games, the world in Unwind is a product of Civil War.

“There was this war called the Heartland War where one side thought that kids should die for their wrongdoings and the other side said they shouldn’t,” Ocasio said.

Meador said the Civil War wasn’t fully described in the book. She interpreted the cause of the war as overpopulation. While she said the world in Unwind is “creepy,” it did not scare her.

“I didn’t believe that people could really do it,” she said, in reference to the concept of "unwinding."

While pro-life versus pro-choice questions are underlying themes, Shusterman said that it’s mostly back-story and not the focus.

“You don’t really talk about [abortion],” Brennan said. “They’re more intrigued about the concept of the bodies being unwound.”

In fact, when a few students were asked what the message of the book was, abortion was not even mentioned.

“The message that I got out of that book was not to be very bad because you can have major consequences,” Ocasio said.

Rewriting is an important component of creating a story, Shusterman told eighth graders in a writing workshop.

“Don’t always go with the first thing that comes to mind,” Shusterman told a writing workshop class before noon. “Take the time to think through it and come up with the perfect choice.”

After writing down students’ ideas for story titles on the board, he and the students combined words from different titles to make new ones. The final title he chose was “Skittle Moon.” Students shouted out adjectives that made them think about each word.

Together they wrote the opening of “Skittle Moon”:

“I never cared for the end of the world. Which is why I didn’t mind waiting in line at the concession stand. The movie projected on the giant screen behind me was full of death and destruction. Not my thing.”

When Shusterman writes — as someone with a background in screenwriting — he said is very visual, thinking in scenes. In fact, Shusterman has written a script for Unwind and already is working with producers. They will start shopping the script to investors soon, purposely timed with the recent release of The Hunger Games movie. If all goes well, the earliest it could be released is two years from now.

He’s written the sequel to Unwind, called Unwholly and is working on a third book in the series. His novel, Bruiser, about an outcast who can absorb the pain of others has been nominated for the 2013 Nutmeg Book Awards, which readers will vote on this year.

The most unique question students asked him was what world, out of all his novels, he’d want to live in. 

He said it was a hard question because “I kind of put my characters through the ringer,” so he chose his two most light-hearted books — The Schwa Was Here and Antsy Does Time.

Just as his characters struggle to make it through difficult situations, Schusterman said that perseverance is important in writing, particularly because even he still faces rejection from publishers sometimes.

He got into writing as a teenager because of his ninth grade English teacher.

“She challenged me to write a story a month for extra credit for the entire school year,” Shusterman said. “By the end of ninth grade, I felt like a writer and I haven’t stopped writing ever since.”

More information about Neal Shusterman is available on his website: www.storyman.com.


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