Monday, October 6, 2014


Today, we're joined by Scott Bly, author of SMASHERS.   

1.       1. Your bio indicates that you went through nine drafts before you finished.  What made you decide number nine was the final?

I actually have trouble even counting with numbers higher than eight, so I was already pushing it.  I figured I was better safe than sorry. 
At a certain point, my editor and I both read it and knew it was right.  Of course, you could continue tinkering forever, but when it feels right, the pacing is right, etc, then it’s there.

2.       In recent years, the concept of “bullying” has received a lot of attention.  Do you feel it is more prevalent today?

Not that I’m an expert on the subject or have any kind of sociological studies to back up my opinion, but I think it’s receiving more attention now than it used to.  Bullying stories go back as far as the big guy kicking sand in the wimpy guy’s face.  Just think of the comics from the olden days.  So, to me, bullying is nothing new.  What is new is the twenty-four hour news cycle, social media and constant connectivity.  Forty years ago if a kid was bullied, the only people who knew about it were the family and the local school officials.  A terrible story might get some kind of local news coverage.  These days the story can spread like wildfire across the Internet, bloggers can pick it up.  National news organizations can as well.  And of course, that turns up the magnifying glass effect for the bullying victim so that it feels like everyone in the world knows they’re a victim.
Is the actual act of bullying more prevalent?  It’s certainly possible.  There is so much mean spiritedness on television now, and it is so popular, that the hero worship that was once reserved for James Dean or Sally Field or whomever, now happens with Snookie or the Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, just as an example.  And I think that the behavior of these people is just train wreck TV.  Adults that are self-aware enough to realize what’s happening watch out of shock and morbid fascination.  But kids pick up on those behaviors and model them.  And that mean spiritedness feeds into mob mentality and popularity battles and everything else.
I don’t know if that equates an increase in the prevalence of bullying, but it certainly seems like fertile ground.

3.       The concept that the young people of today are the key to the future of mankind is one at the center of education.  Was this your intended message?

I think that message is at the center of every story that involves kids and moral or ethical choices.  Some stories deal with it explicitly and others deal with it implicitly as part of the backdrop.  If kids make bad choices they grow up bad and become part of the problem.  The opposite choices hopefully result in a positive outcome.  If you run the decisions characters make in any kids story out far enough, the themes play out in such a way that social problems of the “future of mankind” sort become exacerbated in a vicious cycle.  Or if the good guys win we would hope we get to see a virtuous cycle play out.

4.       How did the fact that you teach young people play into the idea of keeping language contemporary?  Help with vocabulary?

I’ve personally never been a big fan of stories wherein the author spends a great deal of time trying to force characters into a particular dialect.  If it’s not critical to the story, then it simply gets in the way.  In the case of SMASHER, Charlie would have been speaking approximately late Middle English, right?  I read some Chaucer in high school, and we spent multiple class sessions simply practicing what was essentially a foreign language.  The educational goals I had with this book didn’t really involve teaching middle school students Chaucer.
I wanted a story that teaches kids about technology, even if it wasn’t direct.  My hope is that kids who enjoy this story find themselves intrigued by a lot of the technical details, 99% of which are completely real, and they want to dig deeper on all of that.  To have focused on some semblance of Charlie’s language having a middle-english flair just wasn’t part of my objective.
Additionally, while I don’t want to give away anything, there’s a little more to the language story than just what is indicated on the book jacket.  This is a time travel book, and it involves multiple questions of identity and belonging.  Hopefully I will have the opportunity to reveal more of the story one day.  But time travel introduces a great many complications to what might otherwise appear to be a straightforward narrative.  Right in chapter one, Felton Thadwick, who does speak in a stylized fashion, mentions Charlie’s “stupid accent”.  Hmm.  Curious, no?

5.       Given the money crunch in education—and the rate technology moves forward—do you feel we’re doing an adequate job of making sure our high school graduates are technologically savvy?

I think we have a huge problem in technology education.  It’s masked by kids’ general literacy in the use of technology that exceeds the adults.  But being able to post to Instagram is a far cry from rocket science.  I think that high school graduates are not in any way being prepared for the kind of technology-centered economy that we have, and will continue to have in the future.  Just keeping the conversation focused on high school graduates, not even discussing dropouts, we have a tremendous gap between the kinds of technical skills that are needed by even vocational-technical job candidates and the skills that kids leave high school with.
Right here in Santa Monica, a very solid school districtwith plenty of money available in the community, we have a profound lack of computer education at the high school level.  I’ve consulted with the school district about some of what is happening, and they’re aware, but it’s a long process.  And other school districts that are truly cash strapped are in even worse shape.  Sadly, just throwing a computer lab onto a campus doesn’t solve the problem, either.  It’s about teaching fundamental logic skills and building from there.  When I was teaching elementary school kids, I had students who would go home and teach their technology-literate parents how to fix their computers.  I think that’s the kind of technology literacy and logical troubleshooting skills that everyone should have.
And college-bound kids aren’t necessarily in much better shape.  Their technology skills are focused toward research and word document type stuff.  Maybe they get some additional time on the computer working with art programs or media.  This is good, and helps encourage the use of technology as tool for creativity.  But it doesn’t get at the real root of the problem we have nationally, which is a lack of math, science, engineering and computer majors at the college level.  Programming is arguably the most valuable and creatively relevant skill that any young person could possibly learn in today’s world.  Most kids aren’t exposed to computer programming at all.  And those who are probably don’t see programming as anything other than a tedious exercise.  It’s a very similar problem to what I see in math education.  Calculus was the first time I found anything exciting about math – it can be applied to the real world.  But I was a senior in high school before I even got to calculus.  There are really exciting possibilities in the world of STEM based education, and I hope that things move in a positive direction.

6.       Charlie isn’t a hero.  Most kids aren’t.  A lot of kids can lay claim to the fact that they don’t have “school” friends.  Is this driving them toward their computers—and away from physical social interaction?

I disagree, actually.  I do think Charlie is a hero.  And I think most kids are, or at least have the opportunity to be.
Charlie is not a sword swinging, save the princess type of hero.  He’s faced with difficult choices and makes the brave one, the difficult one.  Kids are faced with difficult choices every day.  Do I cheat on a test to get the grade?  Do I make fun of the awkward kid who wears bad clothes?  Making the strong choice, the right choice, that’s daily heroism.  And it’s real heroism to the kid who would otherwise have been picked on, in the bad clothes example.  Not becoming the villain is just as heroic as defeating one.
I think that loneliness is driving a lot of the online interaction that we see with kids.  And I think that’s just another example of lost opportunities for daily heroism.  The chance for a kid to reach out to another in person, to be brave enough to take the chance on friendship – I think that is a step on the road to heroism that is equal to a sword fighter learning a new parry.

7.       Were your computer games a driving force in the development of Smasher?

I actually did spend a lot of time playing games to make sure I knew what was out there today.  I played almost obsessively as a kid, but as an adult I had stopped playing video games.  Returning to them, in preparation for some of the interactive development that we’re working on, was a lot of fun.

8.       Were you a puzzle freak as a kid?

I enjoyed brainteasers and tests and what not.  I don’t think I was a freak about them though.  That said I’m sure anyone who didn’t like them would have a different idea about my freakiness.

9.       How interested are you in time travel?

Interested enough to write a novel about it!  In college I wrote a paper on the difference in time travel philosophy between the Back to the Future movies and the Terminator movies.  And while I didn’t get to play around much in SMASHER with some of the finer points of time travel, I do look forward to getting deeper into the time travel stuff soon.

10.   Charlie wonders at one point if technology really is a change for the better.  What are your thoughts?  Did the character of Geneva, a robot, help you express your feelings regarding technology?  How so?

I think technology is absolutely a change for the better.  That said, much like the industrial revolution in which machines started making work more efficient, we have the same thing happening now in the technology industry.  Information workers are given the opportunity to be more efficient as computers take over more and more of the repetitive and computational workload.  This results in bigger profits for companies, but fewer jobs.
This circles back to your previous question about high school graduates.  Without proper tech skills, kids are going to be left further and further behind.
The other side of this is that as the technology has spread from the workplace to everyday communications and leisure time, we have a disconnect as people interact with their tech toys more than each other, which was your other previous question, and is a complicated issue in and of itself.
Barring some kind of cataclysmic event that puts us back in the dark ages due to the failure of electricity on a planetary scale, the technology we use today is here to stay and will likely only continue to accelerate in advancement and change.  So I believe the important thing to keep in mind as we become a more and more techno-centric society, leading the way for developing nations in some regard, is for the social constructs around these technology issues to keep pace.  Kids need proper tech education for this technical world.  Social skills need to be developed to supplement what was once completely natural.  And of course there’s the sustainability side of it all.  Server farms that run all of the cloud technologies we use consume an unbelievable amount of electricity, which factors into global warming, etc. So there are very, very big picture issues that need to be addressed on that side of things as well.
And as for Geneva’s role in expressing my views on technology – I really enjoyed using Geneva’s voice as my own for computer education.  There are whole chapters that were cut out, which will make their way to the web or e-publishing in which Geneva teaches Charlie whole tech lessons.  Those were very much the way I like to teach classes of kids!

11.   Charlie takes Pandora’s Box home with him—which I find intriguing.  If technology no longer has to fight the evils of the world, how would it be different?

I’m glad you like that part.  I think the role of technology is to make the world a better place, to accentuate the good that is out there being done by people every day.

12.   Charlie takes Callaya, the rescued puppy, home with him.  It seems like the absolute perfect ending for a middle grade reader: save the future and the puppy!  Your book hits the “sweet spot” in MG fiction—you just seem so tuned in to readers of this age.  What’s next in the book department?

Thanks so much!  It helped to never mature beyond the 8th grade.  I’m very nearly done with a draft of a sequel to SMASHER, which goes in directions I don’t think anyone will guess.  As I mentioned earlier, I’m prepping a number of short stories that go along with SMASHER as a kind of episodic prequel, as well as some additional story from the time frame of the book.  I’m very excited about two other novels that I’m about to dive into as well.  As for what will see the light of day first, we’ll just have to wait and see!

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