Always an Original: SLJ Talks to ‘Fallout’ Author Todd Strasser
By Rocco Staino on September 19, 2013
Todd Strasser has been on the children’s and YA literature scene for more than 30 years. His latest YA book Fallout (Candlewick, 2013) has received rave reviews from many outlets, including The Wall Street Journal. School Library Journal calls it “a well-written, compelling story with an interesting twist on how history might have turned out.” Publisher Candlewick has even developed a discussion guide for the book that has direct correlations to the Common Core. We caught up with Strasser to chat about the book, his distinguished career, and his latest project.
Can you tell us more about your latest book, Fallout?
The book is part memoir and part speculative fiction, rooted in my experience as a twelve-year-old boy living through the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, when our family was the only one in town with a bomb shelter. Thus, I not only worried along with everyone else in our country about the very real possibility of a nuclear World War III, but I worried about trying to survive in our shelter as well.
Many of my anxieties concerned the possibility that a war might start while my father was off at work in New York City, and therefore too far away to get home. In that case: Would there be time for me to run home from school before the bombs fell? And since everyone in town knew we had a bomb shelter, would others get there first and demand to be allowed in? What if my mother, brother, and I got inside and our neighbors came and wanted us to let them in?
How does it feel writing a book that has a historical setting in which you actual lived?
It certainly stirs up long dormant memories and emotions—and it’s a bit of a reality check. When I revisited the bomb shelter 50 years later, it was a lot smaller than I remembered.
What are your memories of 1962?
It was a transformational year in terms of my awareness of the world. Before then, my world view was mostly school and my small neighborhood and friends. Not only was 1962 the year I became aware of the Cold War and the idea that a country thousands of miles away wanted (allegedly) to destroy us, but also that here in the US some people were willing to resort to violence to stop a black man, James Meredith, from enrolling at the University of Mississippi.
You have been writing for a long time. Have you seen many changes in what kids want to read and how books are published?
Fallout is actually my 100th book-length work of original fiction. My first novel, Angel Dust Blues, was published in 1979. It’s about a young man growing up on Long Island who’s arrested for selling marijuana and, like Fallout, is considerably more autobiographical than most of my books.
I came along in the valley between two mountains of series. You might call the first [mountain] “Mt. Stratemeyer,” after Edward Stratemeyer, the creator of Nancy Drew, the Hardy Boys, Tom Swift, and the Bobbsey Twins. The second [mountain] is more like a mountain range; some of the peaks might be called “Mt. Pascal,” “Mt. Martin,” and “Mt. Stine” [and] the tallest, certainly, being “Mt. Rowling.” But I was schooled in the valley of the one-off problem novel. There were hardly any series coming out at that time. And as far as how books are being published? The e-book, of course, which is a blessing for those of us with long lists of out-of-print books.
You have been nominated several times for the Edgar Award. Are there a certain techniques to writing a good mystery?
Here are some that I’ve gleaned over the years: 1) Be stingy with information. 2) Create as many viable red herrings as possible. 3) At some point, dismiss suspicion of the main culprit.
One of your pastimes is surfing, and you came to it in your fifties. Can you tell us more about how that happened?
I’ve always been a water rat, and had always wanted to surf. My daughter and I went to Hawaii the summer after she graduated from high school and saw lots of “Learn to Surf” signs, so we tried it and loved it.
What book would we find on your nightstand?
The Son, by Philip Meyer. An extraordinary story extraordinarily researched.
As an author, how are you using social media?
I’m trying. I’m really trying! I am on Facebook, and have recently been posting photos and stories from the 1960s. On Twitter (@ToddStrasser) I have changed my photo to one that includes the Fallout cover, and I also have been tweeting about topics from the 1960s.
On what are you currently working?
A sci-fi adventure about life after the destruction of Earth’s environment. Working title: Moby Dick in Space.