Award-winning author Harry Mazer has been writing for teens for decades. His titles include Snowbound (Laurel Leaf, 1974), The Last Mission (Laurel Leaf, 1981), and the trilogy beginning with A Boy at War: A Novel of Pearl Harbor (Simon & Schuster, 2001)(excerpt).
What were you like as a child? Were you a voracious reader? A budding writer? If so, what sorts of stories attracted you? If not, what put you on this path?
I was born in NYC and grew up in the Bronx. We were four in our family and lived in two rooms on the fourth floor of a walk-up apartment building. Both my parents worked, and my kid brother was farmed out to an aunt.
I was often alone.
I read. I played in the streets, on the roofs and in the cellars. My friends and I went everywhere, sneaking on the train, or the movies, grabbing rides on the back of trucks, playing in the streets. Street games: stick ball, handball, stoop ball, reluctantly moving aside for cars. We ran a lot, were cursed by storekeepers and cops.
At night we built fires in empty lots and roasted mickeys and apples we’d swiped from the stores. And always I read. I remember standing in the children’s room at Fordham Library planning to begin at the beginning and read every book in the library. Guess how far I got.
Could you tell us about your apprenticeship as a writer? How did you go about building skills? What was your timeline from commitment to publication? What advice do you have for beginning writers starting out today?
I always wanted to write. I dreamt that someday I would write, but aside from some sporadic starts, I didn’t write. I read, and everything I read told me I was a fool to think I could ever write anything that resembled what I read. I had no belief, no hope or promise, no teacher to guide me, no method, no way. There was an impossibly high wall between where I stood and where true writers stood. I didn’t know there was a ladder.
Norma Fox (author interview), the woman with whom I share my life, provided the ladder. She wanted to write, too. “We’ll get notebooks,” she said, and write in them every day. And that, in a nutshell, is how you start to become a writer.
Over the course of your career, is there anything you wish you hadn’t done or handled differently? If so, would you like to share the lessons learned from the experience?
A writing career demands focus. You have to sit in a chair, stay put, and write. I want to move, go places, do things. The world is full of distractions, and I’m distractible. I should have been more focused, produced more books, gotten more done. Any time I want to beat up on myself I think of what my lack of focus may have cost me. But in the end you do what you do, and the way I worked, maybe, was the only way I could have gone.
We’re both writers with a writing spouse, so I’m curious as to your answers to the related questions I’m frequently asked. Do you read each others’ works in progress? Do you ever feel competitive with one another? What do you think the relationship has meant to the writing and the writing to the relationship? How do the two of you approach collaborations?
Norma and I were not writers when we met. Norma, I believe, would have been a writer whether we’d met or not. I’m not so sure about myself. There were other things I wanted to do: sing, or do history, build a house, or change the world. But I do stick to things.
We didn’t know if we could become writers or not, but once we agreed I was hooked. Writing every day was a challenge. A bigger challenge was resisting that destructive inner voice that called me a fool for even trying. But Norma was always there for me and I was there for her.
We encouraged one another, read each others’ writing, made suggestions. celebrated every success, comforted one another through the inevitable disappointments. After our kids, the writing became the most important thing in our lives
Was there competition, envy? Maybe, but it never lasted. Any success by either of us was cause for celebration. Our relationship made the writing possible, and the writing deepened our relationship.
Would you describe any of your work as autobiographical or quasi-autobiographical? If so, could you offers some insights into the stories behind those stories?
My stories grow out of my life, are rooted in places that I know. Bits and pieces of my life are embedded in every book.
Like King Arthur, the dog Tony brings home in the opening scene of Snowbound (Laurel Leaf, 1974). I thought I had totally made it up till years later, when I would talk about the book, that I remembered that as a boy I had once tried unsuccessfully to bring home a dog.
Only The Last Mission (Laurel Leaf, 1981), based on my experiences during WW2, is there a long sustained episode of my life. I wrote the book as fiction because it freed my imagination and allowed me more room to invent.
Could you tell us about the writing of A Boy at War (Simon & Schuster, 2001), A Boy No More (Simon & Schuster, 2004), and Heroes Don’t Run (Simon & Schuster, 2005)? What was your initial inspiration for writing the trilogy?
The idea of A Boy at War began with David Gale, my editor at Simon and Schuster. He saw a notice of an big upcoming movie about Pearl Harbor and saw that there was a need of a book on the subject for young readers. He asked if I’d be interested in doing that book.
Every book I’d written before had grown out of my own imaginings, but the subject of a boy at Pearl Harbor intrigued me. I was already wondering where he was that Sunday morning of the Japanese attack. Sure, I said, I’ll do it. A Boy At War was popular, and David asked me to do two more books about Adam Pelko encompassing WW2 from Pearl Harbor to the Japanese surrender.
What were the challenges in bringing these stories to life?
The trilogy was a logistical challenge. I’d written A Boy At War not knowing that there might be a follow-up. Fortunately, I’d already written his friend, Davi into A Boy At War and in A Boy No More. I was able to involve Adam in the Japanese internments that took place in the year following Pearl Harbor. Okinawa, and the last great battles of the Pacific war, was going to be more of a challenge. The battle began in May 1945. Would Adam to be old enough to be a marine in that battle? Yes, if he volunteered when he was seventeen. He just made it!
When I started writing the Pearl Harbor book about Adam Pelko, a couplet had popped into my head: A boy at war, A boy no more. It gave me the broad outline of the book and as a bonus the title as well. A Boy At War.
When I was asked to do two more volumes, I had the title of the second book: A Boy No More. But what was the title going to be for the Okinawa book? Well, that battle marked the end of the war and I thought, A boy at war, A boy no more, war no more. Perfect!
“War No More,” I said to David. I thought I’d aced it, but the sales force at S&S didn’t agree. “War No More” was not a boy title. They asked me to come up with another title.
It didn’t come easily. I had to think. Here again things that I had written with no thought of title came to my rescue. Writing the book I had excerpted something Adam’s Sgt. “Rosie” says and used it as an epigram for the beginning of the book.
“Every man who’s here on this line in these hell holes,” Rosie says, “is a hero in my book.”
That was the truth, I thought. Heroes are not a breed apart. In Okinawa, in any war, they are the soldiers who day after day and battle after battle confront the enemy and do what they must. Heroes Don’t Run.
“Real Characters–Real Life: An Interview with Harry Mazer” from Writer’s Block.
See Military and War in Children’s Literature; Relocation and Internment in Children’s Books.