Author Interview: Stefan Petrucha on The Rule of Won

Read a brief biography of Stefan Petrucha from his website.

What were you like as a YA reader? Who were your favorite authors? What were your favorite titles?

Actually, I never read YA as a young adult, not anything labeled that anyway. I was 13 in 1972 and don’t remember there even being a YA section in the bookstore.

It was around that age, though, that I went from being an avid comic book reader to including things like science fiction, fantasy, horror, and paranormal books, like Erich von Daniken‘s Chariots of the Gods (G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1969)

Over the next few years, I found I loved Harlan Ellison, Ray Bradbury, Robert Heinlein, Lovecraft and even a few more literary types like Vonnegut, Steinbeck and Herman Hesse – they were probably my first official “favorite” authors, with books like Steppenwolf (Modern Library, 1963) and Of Mice and Men (Covici Friede, 1937).

What first inspired you to write for teens?

I wanted to be a writer since I was ten, and actually managed to start selling comic books scripts in the late eighties, so part of my audience was always teen, I just never thought of them as a separate group. I still don’t, really, other than the fact that my YA books generally feature a teen main character, and they usually have to go to school instead of a job.

By the 2000s, I’d already written a few licensed novels for White Wolf books, based on their vampire role-playing games, and I was always on the lookout for more work.

At the NorthEastern Writer’s Conference, more a big party than a conference, actually, I met Liesa Abrams, an editor at Penguin/Razorbill. She was looking for new YA material, and I arranged to pitch her some ideas.

Honestly, I had no idea what YA meant, so I headed on over to the Teen section at my local bookstore, started picking up books and reading the first sentence. When something grabbed me, I kept reading, and eventually picked up a few titles, like Feed by M.T. Anderson (Candlewick, 2004), Tithe: A Modern Faerie Tale by Holly Black (SimonPulse, 2004) and So Yesterday by Scott Westerfeld (Razorbill/Penguin, 2005).

I was bowled over at the level of the writing and the vibrant ideas. There seemed more variation and experimentation here than in the so-called “adult” section, which left me suddenly very excited by the possibility of contributing.

Could you tell us about your path to publication–any sprints or stumbles along the way?

In specifically the YA realm, the pitches to Liesa led to my first teen book series, Timetripper (Razorbill/Penguin, 2006), which is about Harry Keller, a high school student who develops an altered perception of time. This was actually based on my first comic book series, Squalor (First Publishing, 1989). Liesa liked the concept and asked me to do some sample chapters. They went over well enough for Razorbill to offer a contract for a four-book series.

After that one thing led to another. Fellow writer Thomas Pendleton (author interview) and I made a six book deal for our Wicked Dead series (HarperCollins, 2007), about four dead girls telling ghost stories in an abandoned orphanage, and shortly thereafter, I had a two-book hardcover deal with Walker Books.

The first of those, Teen, Inc. (Walker, 2007) has probably been my most successful to date. It’s about the first child ever raised by a corporation. I sold that based on several sample chapters (it’s currently being developed as a TV series for Nick, by the way!).

The Rule of Won (Walker, 2008), on the other hand, started out as a page-long idea and a lunch conversation between myself, my editor at that time, Mary Gruetzke and Walker’s publisher, Emily Easton. I’m currently finishing my third book for them, Split with editor Stacy Cantor, which will be out Fall 2009, along with the Teen, Inc. paperback.

Congratulations on The Rule of Won (Walker Books, 2008)! Could you tell us about the book?

Thanks! I was particularly pleased with it, since it deals with many issues, like why people believe what they believe, and what is reality, anyway, that I’ve been fascinated with for years.

Basically, it’s a very wry look at help-yourself books.

In Rule, a group of high school students devoted to one such book’s “you-can-and-should-have-it-all” principles slowly turns violent. The only thing in their way is hapless slacker, Caleb Dunne, who isn’t sure what he believes, or doesn’t. There’s humor, adventure and message boards aplenty!

What was your initial inspiration for the story?

My interest in New Age ideas and the paranormal (in the old sense of the word, ghost hunting, UFOs, Big Foot, Reincarnation, Fringe Belief Systems, not the newer “Vampire Romance” sense…) went back to the seventies and Chariots of the Gods.

I’d written about similar things for years, with my comic series Squalor, Meta-4 (First Publishing, 1991), the first New Age Superheroes, later The X-Files comic (Topps, 1995), based on the TV series, and even my first self-published novel, Making God (Between the Lines, 1997), which is also about a fringe belief gone wild, but more on a national scale.

The notion that we make our own reality is very old, going back at least to the 19th Century, and made popular in books like The Science of Getting Rich (1910, Elizabeth Towne)–which The Secret references.

Sounds nice and spiritually evolved, but there’s a dark side. Wish I had the reference, but I remember some proponents of similar ideas sitting on a panel a ways back. The skeptical moderator held up a picture of a child with a terrible birth defect and said, “Are you telling me that this child actually wanted to be born this way?” And they said, “Sad as it seems, yes.” Talk about blaming the victim!

Please understand, I have nothing against positive thinking – It’s incredibly valuable to believe in your heart of hearts that you can accomplish whatever you want, but I hardly think that translates into an incontrovertible Law of the Cosmos.

Aside from the billions of broken dreams that stand as evidence to the contrary, there’s that whole, well, “the baby wanted to be born that way” thing.

With wish-fulfillment and peer pressure being such important, continual teen issues (explored by other great books, such as The Wave by Morton Rhue [AKA Todd Strasser] (Puffin Books, 1980)), it seemed a natural milieu for me to explore.

What was the timeline between spark and publication, and what were the major events along the way?

After Teen, Inc., Emily and my new, equally terrific editor at Walker, Stacy Cantor, asked me for some rough ideas for a second book, so I came up with about four one-pagers. The original title was actually Wishful Thinking, though the name of the book-in-the-book was always The Rule of Won.

As for the writing, it was one of those rare instances in my career where I actually had a nice chunk of time to do the book. Usually, as a working writer, I’m under some deadline pressure, but this time I had about six months, so I actually had the leisure to write a few chapters, trash them, then start over until I felt like I got it right.

And there were lots of changes along the way. Originally, there were three narratives, one being our hero Caleb, who stands up against the cult, the other being from Ethan’s, the cult leader’s, point of view, the third being the message boards from the club members hat follow the book’s dictums.

Caleb was originally a bully, trying to work his way back into school after being kicked out. Early on, I found that made him a bit too unsympathetic and came up with the notion of making him a slacker instead, so he had his own, if somewhat quirky, belief system that seemed a nice counterpoint to the desires or craves of the club members.

The next thing I wound up ditching was Ethan’s half of the narrative. It seemed to slow things down, confuse the perspective a little. Plus, it was really depressing! Once I settled on Caleb and the “message board” as the sole narrators, things hummed along quite nicely. Caleb tells two chapters, and then we get a look at the postings on the message board.

I’m particularly pleased to think that through the message board I was able to make the group itself a character that evolves. Some of the individual messages may be a little cliché and simple, but I find that’s true of real message boards, too, while, overall, it creates a strong sense of the group mind.

What were the challenges (literary, research, psychological, and logistical) in bringing it to life?

One challenge was to try to get across the idea that I, as an author, really don’t know how the universe ultimately works or doesn’t (neither does anyone else, by the way) and give all the points of view a fair shake.

Another was to try to keep the characters as human as possible, not to make it about heroes and villains, but real people, their beliefs and what they’re willing to do for them.

What, if anything, do you wish you could change about publishing (as a business) and why?

Gear it more toward selling whatever books I feel like writing! [Joke!]

Seriously, though, publishing is what it is. Like any industry in a capitalist economy, it’s a machine for making money.

Now, in that context of course, art and meaning and great life-changing stuff are always possible, and many, many people working in publishing aim for just that.

If you could go back in time and talk to your beginning-writer self, what would you tell him?

Buy stock in that new-fangled company called Microsoft! Trust me!

Past that, not to be afraid of losing my voice by exposing my writing to others or trying new ways of writing. To follow the rules more carefully before setting out to break them. To be a more fearless self-promoter, and, despite whatever happens, to continue to have faith in my personal muse, even if the necessities of earning a living don’t always allow it full reign.

What do you do outside the world of youth literature?

I raise two wonderful daughters, Maia (13) and Margo (10) with my wife and fellow writer Sarah Kinney, in our home in Western Massachusetts.

I exercise on an elliptical five times a week while watching fun, mindless action adventure like “24”.

I do family stuff when I can, struggle to pay the bills, look for more work, read to the kids, talk to my best pal Sarah and wonder why I don’t have more time to read or practice playing piano!

What can your readers look forward to next?

I’m just finishing up my third book for Walker, Split which will be out late in 2009. It’s the story of a young man, who, after facing a rough time and a difficult decision, winds up leading two lives, one in which he’s carefree but careless, the other in which he’s caring but totally anxious. When he’s awake in one life, he dreams in the other, as if he’s in two worlds. His problems come to a head when parts of one life seem to magically slip into the other!

Past that, Sarah and I are still co-writing the Nancy Drew graphic novel series (Papercutz, 2005 – present), and I have two new adult projects I’m working on, neither of which I can talk about yet, but both of which involve the paranormal, in the old ghost-hunting sense and the new vampire sense! Make sense?