William Sleator was one of the very few "YA" authors I loved when I was young. Sleator's novels (mostly sci-fi or surrealist high-concept) are slim enough to be devoured in an afternoon, although I customarily started reading them around midnight and stayed up until early morning to finish. They seemed to have something that other YA didn't have; they were stranger, more durable, more intelligent and, sometimes, disturbing. Earlier this year I went back and read a bunch of them out of curiosity, and I realized that they're really ingenious, elegantly constructed novellas. I enjoyed them more as an adult, if anything. Among the best:
Singularity: Twin brothers visit the house of a dead uncle, knowing only that strange things have been happening to the neighbors' cattle for years. It has something to do with a playhouse in the back yard--in which time runs differently. One brother thinks of an ingenious way to use the playhouse against the other. Oh, and things from another world are coming through the sink. This is my favorite Sleator book, and in fact one of my favorite novellas.
Fingers: The brother of a celebrated (but spoiled and infantile) pianist who was once a child prodigy helps his mother orchestrate a scheme to revive his brother's career: They will pretend the brother's channeling a dead composer, producing "new work" by that composer. The narrator composes the work himself and passes it off as his brother's. Then the narrator begins to fear that he is actually channeling the dead composer when forging the compositions.
House of Stairs: A group of troubled children wake up in a house which contains nothing but staircases. Gradually they realize they're being conditioned. Acts of cruelty earn more food pellets. Sleator's creepiest novel.
Interstellar Pig: His most famous book. Light on subtext, but extremely fun and memorable. A kid realizes that the three charismatic neighbors at his parents' beach cottage--who keep playing a strange board game--are actually aliens hunting for a trinket that looks like a cyclopic pig.
I got in touch with Sleator the other day before he left for Thailand, where he spends half the year. It was a pleasure: He gave me wonderfully candid, comprehensive answers, talked about his life in Thailand--he's never talked about his personal life before, as far as I know--and gave me the fascinating story behind Fingers, among other things.
What is your life like? Do you write every day? What do you do when you're not writing?
Sleator: I can't write every day. I have to skip a day in between. If I try to do it every day, nothing comes. What I do when I'm not writing depends on where I am. In Boston I do errands, or read. I'm actually in the USA less than half the time, so a lot of my time in the US is taken up by taking care of the condo I own, going to doctors, dealing with money. Fun things like that. In Thailand, on the other hand, when I'm not writing we are driving around the countryside, looking at the incredible scenery, or exploring small villages and commenting on the houses. Everyone there builds and designs their own houses. You can look at a house and read the personality of the owner. Sometimes we laugh, sometimes we gag, other times we admire. The most disgusting houses are the ones rich people build to show off, which in tropical Asia have fake ancient Greek statues on them! I also play the piano a lot, in both countries, just for the fun of it.
You're considered a "Young Adult" author, a label that suggests a certain literalness and "non-literary" quality. But when I re-read some of your novels that I'd particularly loved as a kid--Singularity, House of Stairs, and Fingers, to name a few--they seemed to me more like complex and elegantly structured novellas that also functioned as gripping entertainment. How much are you thinking about your audience when you write? Do you make a conscious effort to write books that can be appreciated on multiple levels?
Sleator: I think about my audience when I write to some extent. Thinking of writing for young adults, I try to keep the stories moving, never a dull moment, to hold their interest. Starting off at an exciting moment, not a lot of endless description. But I also do not hold my own imagination back. If I want to write something that most people would consider weird, I do it. I'm not saying it's all self-expression, you MUST be entertaining. But I try not to fit into a mold, I do what I happen to like myself. I think this is why my books don't make a lot of money. People like books that are reminiscent of other books, and I try not to be.
You spend half the year living in a remote village in Thailand on the Cambodian border. What's it like there? How did you end up having a house there?
Sleator: Hmm. Do I dare answer this question about why I live in this particular village? Well, the way things are today, I think I do dare. In Thailand, I had a male partner for 17 years--he died suddenly and unexpectedly in December of 2008. We lived in Bangkok for six years, then he decided he wanted to build a house--and make an extensive garden--near the village where he grew up, on the Cambodian border. So we built our first house, which is a long story in itself. I wrote a non-fiction book about building a house in rural Thailand called Garlic for Breakfast which has been rejected by 13 New York publishers. (Which is an example of what I've already said about people not liking books that are unique--editors were afraid of it because it was unlike anything they had ever seen before.) When the house was finished and there was no more mud and sawdust everywhere (that first house is wooden) Lep, my boyfriend (his nickname means "Fingernail"), began his garden. He was pretty casual about it, wandering over the property and tossing seeds around, planting banana and coconut trees wherever he felt like it. The result is absolutely gorgeous. His sister and various nieces and nephews moved into the house--Thai people are used to living in groups. (In fact, many families in the countryside live in one room houses. I was often asking people how the parents manage to have offspring in that situation. Nobody ever knew the answer.) So we eventually built another house on the same piece of property, for just the two of us, for privacy. Lep designed this one too. It's amazing, with replicas of Angkor Wat Buddha faces on either side of the front door, and a purple study with grotesque masks on the walls for me to write in. Finally, we built a third house in the actual village where Lep grew up--he had built the first two houses in a slightly larger village because it had a post office and a market--in those days you needed a post office. All our best friends live in the smaller, more remote village where we built our third house. Lep used to tell me what the village was like when he was growing up--he was born in 1961. There were far more trees then, before people chopped them down to make more rice fields, and therefore more rivers and more water everywhere. The one richest family in the village had a radio--period--the only connection the village had to the rest of the world. Everyone would gather at their house in the evening to listen to the news. The village where our other two houses are, and the market there, did not exist. So when he was a kid in order to go to the market you had to ride for two days in a wooden cart pulled by a water buffalo. It is different now, but the atmosphere still remains--lots of rice fields, reservoirs, farm carts going five miles an hour which have no lights on them, so driving at night can be hazardous. I love it there and never spend any time at all in crowded, polluted, impossible-traffic Bangkok any more.
Now that Lep is gone, my best friend is a fisherman. Sometimes I go fishing with him at 4 AM in a deserted lake in the middle of the jungle. No one else there, no motors, absolute silence as he pulls up his nets. I consider it to be heaven.
How did you become a writer? I've read that you were also a serious musician/composer. When did you begin writing, and how long did it take to get published?
Sleator: I've always been interested in both writing and music. When I first started getting published, I also worked as rehearsal pianist for the Boston Ballet, touring with them all over the USA and Europe--I wasn't making enough money from writing to support myself. I also composed three ballets (for no money) that the company performed. When book sales picked up and I started speaking at schools--which was very lucrative--I quit the ballet job and have been writing full time ever since.
Fingers, in addition to being an unsettling ghost story, seems like a novel about the (mysterious) sources of creative inspiration. How do you develop stories? When/how does a premise come to you? (For example, the house full of endless stairs--where did that come from?)
Sleator: Stories develop from things I read and also from my own experiences, and experiences of people I know. When I wrote Fingers--which is full of resentment and jealousy--I was still working for the ballet company. I had been there for five years. My boyfriend at the time had been working there for six months as wardrobe supervisor. The company went on its first European tour. They brought my friend because they needed somebody to take care of the costumes. They did not bring me--they used rehearsal and class tapes I made for $25 apiece. During that summer I wrote Fingers, about a kid who resents his younger brother, a child prodigy pianist. It unleashed all my resentment--I knew it was fair for him to go and me not to go, but there were still emotions involved, and that book helped me deal with them.
I got the idea for House of Stairs when I was a fellow at the Bread Loaf Writers Conference. All these writers and people who want to be writers are isolated at the top of a mountain in Vermont for two weeks. People behave differently in that situation than in ordinary life--barriers and inhibitions break down because you know you will never see most of these people again. So I got the idea of writing about five teenagers in a similar situation. I got the setting and the title from an etching by M.C. Escher. The characters are all based on friends of mine from high school.
House of Stairs, with the children being gradually conditioned into committing acts of cruelty, is a fairly bleak book (although two of the children ultimately refuse to participate). The plots of many of your other novels involve the unexpected destructive consequences of self-interested action. (The Duplicate is one that particularly comes to mind.) What's your view of human nature? Do you believe in good and evil or would you consider yourself more inclined to relativism?
Sleator: Although I have plenty of nasty characters in my books, because they are more interesting (Who do we gossip about? Nice people or obnoxious people?) at the same time I try to stay away from good vs. evil. People adore that plot concept. I find it banal. Still, there are plenty of people in the world who you wouldn't exactly call evil, but who still do destructive things. For instance, the villain in House of Stairs does something that most people never do, which is to tell people nasty things that someone else said about them, who said it and exactly what they said, with some elaboration. I knew someone in high school who did this, and who destroyed relationships this way. It sure juiced up the plot!
Are you working on something now? If so, what?
Sleator: My next book will be called The Phantom Limb. It took my editor three months to read the revised manuscript, and we haven't talked about it yet, so I don't know when it's going to be published. It's about a teenager who finds a mirror box, which is a device created by a neurologist to help amputees deal with phantom limb pain--about 70% of amputees feel excruciating pain in the limb that has been cut off. The main character in the story is not an amputee, but the mirror box he found belonged to a kid, now dead, who was missing an arm and hand. Many people missing an arm and hand feel that their missing hand is clenched in an extremely painful way, and nothing makes that feeling go away--not medication, not hypnosis. But with a mirror box (you can google it and click the Wikipedia entry to see a good picture) you see a reflection of your whole hand, and being a reflection it is reversed, so it looks to your brain as if the missing arm and hand have returned. You can then unclench your whole hand, and watch your missing hand unclench itself in the mirror. The pain goes away, In my story--well, I better not tell any more! Read it when it comes out!