New Voice: Clete Barrett Smith on Aliens on Vacation

Clete Barrett Smith is the first-time author of Aliens on Vacation (Disney-Hyperion Books, 2011). From the promotional copy:

Scrub isn’t happy about leaving Florida and his friends to summer with his crazy grandmother in “Middle-of-Nowhere,” Washington.

Arriving at her Intergalactic Bed & Breakfast, he isn’t surprised by its the-60’s-meets-Star-Wars décor, but he is surprised by the weird-looking guests.

It turns out that each room in the inn is an off-earth portal and his grandma the gate-keeper, allowing aliens to vacation on Earth. Grandma desperately needs Scrub’s help monitoring the visitors, shopping for cartloads of aluminum-foil for dinner, and taking rambunctious alien kids, that glow-in-the-dark and look like trees, camping.

The problem is, the town sheriff, already suspicious about Granny, is a scout leader camping in the same spot.

Will Scrub blow Granny’s cover, forcing the B&B to shut down for good, or will the intergalactic police have to intervene?

What were you like as a young reader, and how did that influence the book that you’re debuting this year?

When I was born my parents were teenagers without many child-rearing resources. But they did have a library card, which turned out to be all the three of us needed.

My entertainment consisted of the thousands of stories they read to me, while their entertainment was watching me run around the house, in character, acting out scenes from the books.

Keeping characters alive through imaginative play—long after reading the last page of the book—was great training for becoming a fiction writer.

We lived in an area surrounded by a lot of forests but not very many houses, so after I got a little older (and when I wasn’t reading) you could usually find me playing out in the woods.

Actually, you probably wouldn’t have been able to find me, and that was kind of the point. Without any parents or teachers out there telling us what we could or couldn’t do, the forest seemed like a place where anything could happen. It was the perfect setting to imagine my favorite book characters continuing their adventures.

When I started to write stories for young readers, I wanted to capture that sense I had as a child that the great outdoors was a mysterious, magical place. The lives of kids are very different these days, and I don’t think enough of them get a chance to explore new places all by themselves anymore. So I wanted to give them that feeling in a story.

For the setting of my debut novel, I picked a place that I had fallen in love with as a kid: the foothills of Mt. Baker in Washington State. There are forests, rivers, waterfalls, a mountain range with snow-capped peaks; it’s breathtaking country. And my main character is a 12-year-old boy who learns about a big secret taking place out there. It turns out that anything really can happen in those woods: in my story, aliens are vacationing on Earth in disguise.

I always knew that I wanted to write stories and I’m thrilled to be able to share my first book with young readers. My dream is that somewhere out there, a kid will read this story and then go outside to play, keeping my characters alive in a brand new adventure.

As a science fiction/fantasy writer, what first attracted you to that literary tradition? Have you been a long-time sci-fi/fantasy reader? Did a particular book or books inspire you?

When I was a kid, the middle grade/YA market was not nearly as robust as it is now, and I definitely wanted to start reading adult books at an early age. Genre fiction was a great entry point into that world.

I remember approaching my fourth grade teacher’s desk for one of our one-on-one reading conferences.

I brought Peter Benchley’s Jaws (Bantam, 1974) and Stephen King’s Firestarter (Viking Press, 1980) with me.

“I really liked both of these,” I told her, “so we can talk about either one.”

(Wherever you are now, Mrs. Pooleon, thank you for keeping a straight face during our conferences.)

Okay, so these are maybe not the most appropriate examples of reading material for ten-year-olds, but I do think there are good reasons that genre fiction appeals to young readers, especially sci-fi/fantasy. These are usually tightly plotted, fast moving stories with a page-turning combination of action and interesting ideas. And perhaps most importantly—at least for me as a young reader—they were not specifically marketed to kids. There is a subversive thrill in reading something that is not meant for you.

The series that probably had the biggest influence on my debut novel was the MythAdventure series by Robert Asprin (1978-). These stories came with all of the trappings of a fantasy series—magic, sorcerer’s apprentices, demons, dragons, etc.—but were told in a pun-heavy tongue-in-cheek style that had fun with the premise. I devoured these books in middle school, and it was the first time I had seen humor woven in so effectively with a fantasy story.

I am reminded of these books when I think about the genesis of the idea for Aliens on Vacation. I have always loved stories about aliens, and the visitors always have some Big Important Purpose for coming to Earth. They want to steal our water, or take over our bodies, or demolish our planet to make way for an interstellar freeway. Even E.T., who was here peacefully, was on a botanical research trip.

One day I thought to myself, “Wait a minute . . . what if they’re just coming here to hang out?” I decided that I wanted to write a funny sci-fi book that turned some of the genre’s conventions upside-down.

I think that all of the hours I spent with Robert Asprin as a kid probably had something to do with that.

5 thoughts on “New Voice: Clete Barrett Smith on Aliens on Vacation

  1. I love how you say that a library card turned out to be all your family needed. How wonderful it would be if everyone felt that way!

    The book looks great. Best wishes to you, and thanks for sharing.

  2. Mr. Smith is the best teacher I have ever had. As one who loves writing of all kinds, he has taught me many things I am still using and encourages minds to roam unlike others who try and suppress the mind. Can't wait to get the book for my niece!

  3. Waving to Lindsey!

    Austin, I'm not surprised to hear it! He was a pretty terrific MFA student, too, though I personally didn't have the pleasure of being his advisor.I'm sure your niece will love the book.

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