Neal Shusterman on Judaism, the Pandemic, and his Latest Book

“My rabbi once said that my stories always seem to have a lot of Talmudic thought in them.”
February 25, 2021

Neal Shusterman is a Jewish literary powerhouse. During a career spanning over two decades, the award-winning author has produced multiple best-selling YA novels, including the bone-chilling “Unwind” series, the enthralling “Scythe” trilogy and the spectacular “Challenger Deep.” His latest novel, “Game Changer” (HarperCollins, 2021), is a creative tour de force that follows a teenage linebacker bounding through different alternate realities. In one dimension, segregation still exists in the United States. In another, the male protagonist was born a woman.

Shusterman never imagined his work would be read by millions around the world. Named after his grandmother, Nechemya (meaning “comforted by G-d”), Shusterman grew up an only child in Brooklyn. He regularly visited his Aunt Millie and her vast collection of books. Following her death in May 2020, Shusterman shared a social media post about her indelible impact on his work. The Journal spoke to him about her influence and about his latest novel.

JJ: I’m very sorry for the loss of your aunt, Mildred Altman.

NS: Yes, from the time when I was young, she was the one in the family with a huge book collection, and whenever I’d visit her, I’d look at her books. A lot of them were Judaica. I learned about the Holocaust from the books in her collection. When I started publishing, she read every single one of my books and would always write me this long, handwritten letter telling me about what she thought of it in detail. You can tell she really went into it. “Game Changer” is going to be the first book I’m not going to get that letter for. Those letters are treasures, and I miss her.

JJ: Let’s talk about “Game Changer.Some people are calling it your most controversial work yet, and that’s really saying something!

NS: I’m not surprised. We knew from the beginning that this was going to be a story that polarized people.… It’s interesting — what I’m finding is people who are on the extreme right are angry by it because it’s too left. Someone called it an “SJW [Social Justice Warrior] screed.” And on the left, they’re thinking that it’s not left enough, that [it focuses too much on the white protagonist]. But most of the people who are not that extreme are really able to appreciate it…

JJ: Do you deliberately leave Jewish “Easter eggs” in your books? For example, in “Game Changer,” there’s a reference to Yom Kippur. In “Unwind,” a character named Lev dances the hora. In “Dry,” a character does a mitzvah at her temple because she thinks the rabbi’s son is hot.

NS: It’s hard to say that they’re deliberate. If there’s an opportunity and the story lends itself, I’ll put it in there. The “tithing” party in “Unwind,” it was kind of actually the opposite. I didn’t want people to think that that was a bar mitzvah. It was a celebration of when he turned thirteen. And because this was in the future and this was supposed to be sort of this nondescript religion, I didn’t want people to think that it was a bar mitzvah, so I put something in there to make it show that he wanted to be put up on a chair like he saw at his friend’s bar mitzvah. So, that was sort of a subtle way of showing this wasn’t that…

My rabbi once said that my stories always seem to have a lot of Talmudic thought in them. I think that’s how [my faith] influenced [my writing]. There’s always a lot of deep thinking, and I think that is inherent in Judaism, that there is a lot of depth of thought in things. I think that is just part of how I was raised and part of the way I see the world. My grandparents were Orthodox. My parents weren’t — they were Conservative; I’m Reform, but I was raised with a huge amount of respect for the religion and for our culture.

“My rabbi once said that my stories always seem to have a lot of Talmudic thought in them.”

JJ: How has the pandemic affected your writing?

NS: It has greatly affected my writing in that it has been very difficult. I tend to get most of my work done when I’m away from home. Some people love their home office and their space. For me, I’m most creative when I’m out in the world. I travel a lot and always find interesting places to write. I find I get my writing energy from the world around me and from being in unique and new places. So, sitting at home [and] trying to get writing done has been very difficult.

But I’ve done it. I finished “Game Changer.” I finished another story that I was co-writing with my son, Jarrod, called “Roxy,” which is coming out later this year. But it has been a challenge. My writer friends and I call it “COVID Brain” because your head is not in a place to be creative during this pandemic and during everything else that has been brought on [by] this year. So, it’s been difficult to find those moments of creativity [when] I can really get the things done.

JJ: Speaking of the pandemic, it’s uncanny how certain scenes from “Dry” [a sci-fi novel about Californians losing access to water] ended up happening in real life — families rushing out of town, mobs flooding Costco and people hoarding water. Was it surreal to see life imitating art?

NS: Whenever that happens, it’s always surreal. When I wrote “Unwind,” people kept sending me articles about things going on with body parts and sales and all of the types of stuff I was writing about. It’s very odd to see life starting to imitate art. With “Dry,” we [Jarrod Shusterman and I] did a lot of research as to what might happen if water ran out. But also, a lot of it was our own extrapolation. The first thing that you do when there’s a crisis is you go to Costco to stock up on things that you need. So, that’s what I had the characters do… truth can be stranger than fiction.

JJ: Do you feel that your books have gradually grown darker over the years?

NS: I think that my books have grown deeper. I think that there is more to mine in them than when I first started. I think it’s because that’s what I’m reaching for. I don’t like to just sit on my laurels and just write the same thing over and over again. When I approach a story, I want to write something that is new and that goes somehow deeper than what I’ve written before. Sometimes the stories are dark. For me, the only reason for darkness is so that it can highlight the light. Characters can move through dark places in order to get to a place of greater light.

My stories are always optimistic. They always end on a sense of hope, and I feel that that’s important. I don’t like writing stories that are futile. Futility is not helpful, I don’t think, for our world. We need to find hope. We need to find solutions, and so that’s the types of stories that I try to write. And I don’t write solutions. What I try to do is I try to illuminate the problem because the questions that are worth asking don’t have easy answers. People will tell us from all sides of every spectrum that “here is an easy answer to the problem.” It’s never an easy answer. I don’t want to pretend to know the answer. What I want to do is … find interesting ways of framing questions so that it can give us perspective on finding the answers.

I’d like to let you know that there’s actually a Jewish-themed book that’s coming out. There’s a graphic novel called “Courage to Dream,” and it [has] five stories that are Holocaust-related. But, as is always the case, I’ve tried to do it from a different perspective. The idea was to write five fantasy stories that are Holocaust-themed and have them be heartfelt and really poignant but at the same time have these fantastical elements. The book is pretty much done. Andrés Vera Martinez is the artist and he’s done an amazing, amazing job with the artwork. It’s going to be coming out, I believe, in early ‘22. They haven’t set the actual [publication] date, yet, but this is a project I’ve been working on for, oh, eight or nine years, and I’m very excited about it.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Eve Rotman is a writer on the West Coast.

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