Alan Gratz is the #1 New York Times bestselling author of seventeen novels for young readers, including Two Degrees, Ground Zero, Refugee, Allies, Prisoner B-3087, Projekt 1065, and Ban This Book. You can visit him on his website, Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook.
1. If you could travel back in time, (assuming there’d be no risk to yourself or changing the course of history) where and when and why would you go?
I’ve thought about this question a lot! I think I would most like to visit the United States in the 1920s, after World War I and before the Great Depression and World War II. There’s so much about the culture and innovation of this era that intrigues me, from sports (particularly baseball), to the early days of film, to inventions and progress in transportation (cars and street cars and airplanes). I’d mostly like to visit cities, particularly New York City, but I’m also fascinated by what smaller towns like my own city of Asheville, North Carolina were like back then. I’m also really interested in 1930s, both in America and all around the world. But I think I would most like to start with the Roaring 20s!
2. You’ve written many historical fiction books for young people. Is there a particular time period you’ve written about that really captured your imagination?
In The Brooklyn Nine, I wrote about nine different kids in nine different time periods, beginning in the 1840s and working my way up to what was then the present–2009. Of all those time periods, one that really intrigues me is the 1890s. That pre-turn-of-the-century is wild, with early automobiles and vaudeville and the beginnings of what we think of as American pop culture. I wrote a story about King Kelly, a baseball player who was sold from one team to another for a whopping $10,000 (a fortune in 1894, and a record at the time!) King Kelly was, as far as we know, the first athlete to sign his autograph for fans, the first one to license his image for advertisements and entertainment, and the first to retire from baseball to become a performer–here not TV or movies, but the vaudeville stage! It’s an era where so much of what we think of as set rules in baseball were being tested and codified too. King Kelly popularized the hit and run and the hook slide, was one of the first catchers to wear a glove and chest protector, and pulled stunts like substituting himself in for the catcher off the bench DURING PLAY because he was closer to catching a foul ball than the active catcher. He was a real showman! But King Kelly was a tragic figure too–he spent money as quickly as he earned it, drank a lot, and ultimately died from pneumonia at the age of 36. I’m totally fascinated by the early days of baseball in America, and early popular figures like King Kelly. I wrote a story about him in The Brooklyn Nine, but I’d like to write a whole book or TV show about him!
3. What do you think young people King Kelly’s time could teach us/show us today?
Oh boy. From that time period? Resilience. Perseverance. Struggle. This was a time when child labor laws didn’t exist, and you had many kids working in horrible conditions in factories and mines and fields from very young ages. It was a tough time for workers of all ages, as the industrial revolution was in full swing and laborers worked strenuous jobs for long hours and little pay. Things would get better soon with the rise of unions and voting rights and child labor laws, but the 1890s were a tough time to be a kid if your family didn’t have money.
4. Which comes first for you…character, story, or research?
Story first. I have an idea of the story I want to tell when I go into a project. Then I look for research to support that story. If the research doesn’t fit, I have to change the story, obviously. But I try to come up with an exciting idea right off the bat, and then find research that will support that as much as possible. If I can’t see an exciting story angle to begin with, I won’t write about it! Character comes last for me, alas. Partially because that’s one of the things that doesn’t come naturally, and is the hardest for me. I have to do a lot of work on the back end to make sure my characters aren’t just ciphers who run around making the story happen, but are instead people that you believe are living, breathing people who have lives off the page as well as on.
5. You recently wrote a book about 9/11. What’s it like writing historical fiction…for history you remember?
Yes, discovering that something you lived through now counts as “historical fiction” is both humorous and crushing. 🙂 But it’s a fact. I remember reading about the Civil Rights Era when I was a kid, which to me was historical fiction, but to my parents and all the other adults in the United States was living memory. And today’s kids are living through COVID, and will be telling their own kids about “the old days” in just twenty or thirty years’ time. The challenge when you’re writing about something you remember is to make sure you treat it the same way you would something that happened before you were born. That is, remembering that your readers won’t have touchstones for the events of your book the way you do, and that everything has to be explained the same way you would explain a battle in World War II or baseball at the turn of the century. Just to use one example: in 2001, I didn’t own a cell phone. Many people didn’t. They existed: they were those old Nokia brick phones, with a small digital screen and physical buttons and a small antenna at the top. So archaic now! But while I have particular memories of those early phones–I got my first cell phone in 2002, when my wife was pregnant and we wanted to make sure we were always in touch–I have to explain early cell phones to kids in my fiction the same way I’d have to explain rotary phones, or telegraph lines. You just have to question everything when writing about “history” from your own life, the same way you would for a time before you were born. Because any year you write about before a kid is born might as well be 2000 BCE to them!
6. What’s your favorite historical fiction (any age!)
My book crush is the Aubrey/Maturin novels by Patrick O’Brian. These are tales of British Naval Captain Jack Aubrey and his particular friend and ship’s surgeon, Stephen Maturin, set during the Napoleonic War. If I could only read one book series for the rest of my life, this would be it. O’Brian wrote twenty complete novels in the series before he died, and over the last fifteen or so years I’ve read them all, stretching them out as much as I can to savor them. I read the last of them this year, and now I will return to the beginning and reread my way through again–and I am usually NOT a rereader! But in this case I will definitely make an exception. 🙂 Another series that isn’t so much “historical” as “written from the 30s through the 60s and always set in the era in which it was written” is Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe mysteries. If those count as “historical fiction,” I love those almost as much! But O’Brian was writing about the 1800s in the 1960s to the 1990s, so his are officially historical fiction–and my all-time favorites.
7. What are you working on right now?
I have a graphic novel coming out in January 2023 with illustrator Brent Schoonover called Captain America: The Ghost Army, which is about Cap and his sidekick Bucky Barnes fighting Nazis in World War II! I’m pretty excited about that. Meanwhile I’m researching and outlining a novel about the attack on Pearl Harbor, which I hope will become my next prose novel, due out in spring of 2024!